Drew Avery posted today's absolute jewel of a photo in our Flickr Pool late last month. We are grateful to him both for a wonderful image and for the opportunity to write a few lines about an exceedingly beautiful and interesting plant. (Original Image)
Nepenthaceae is a monotypic (i.e., single genus) family of about 120 non-woody vining species distributed throughout the tropical mainland and island regions of southeastern Asia. The genus name, which refers to an episode in Homer's Odyssey, was coined by Linnaeus in order to convey something of the plant's singular beauty and fascination: a mere sighting of the plant, the master botanist here seems to suggest, purges the viewer of all feelings grave and grim. Species and their preferred habitats vary greatly, with the latter ranging from hot and humid soils and climates through to the cool and at times frost-prone elevations of the montane tropics. Species are often referred to collectively as the "tropical pitcher plants" to differentiate them from the decidedly temperate and grounded Sarracenia, which share the fantastical vase-like modified leaves—the visual patterning, rich nectar reservoirs, and liquid-filled cavities of which attract, trap, and dissolve insects for sustenance. This carnivorous faculty is a somewhat common adaptation to living in soils deficient in nitrogen.
Nepenthes rafflesiana occurs in the wet, sandy lowlands of Borneo, Sumatra, peninsular Malaysia, and Singapore. The species, which was first discovered by Scottish botanist William Jack in 1819, in fact derives its name from one of Jack's traveling companions, the British imperialist and founder of present day Singapore, Stamford Raffles. The vines scramble up to 15 metres in height, and can grow at altitudes as high as 1200 metres. The species' unisexual flowers exhibit a wide range of colouration, and are often coated with a thin layer of indumentum (fine hairs). The plants are hardy to a variety of habitats and climate conditions, but prefer the high heat and humidity of their native tropical lowlands. With the help of a heated greenhouse, species can be grown in a cool temperate area like Vancouver, but enamored and ambitious gardeners should note that the family's carnivory does not extend to mammalian meat, which, according to experts, frequently causes unpleasant odours and lethal rot when fed to the plant.