Buttered Up and Pinch-Trapped

08 Feb

Yellow Butterwort

Pinguicula lutea  CLICK


John and George today visited the best botany site in town: Jonathan Dickinson State Park near Hobe Sound, Florida.  All the showy flowers were yellow: Golden-Asters, Silk-Grass, Yellow Milkworts, and buttery Butterworts.  We’ll zoom in on the last-mentioned.

Butterwort.  All plant photos today by John Bradford.

Butterwort. All plant photos today by John Bradford.

Pinguicula lutea bags bugs across the Southeastern U.S. in sunny moist habitats.  Today it was in the intimate company of two additional critter-eatin’ carnivores, Bladderworts and Sundews.   Bladderwort slurps tiny prey into a trap.  Sundew catches lunch using sticky hairs.  Butterworts are botanical flypaper, the upper surfaces of the leaves are sticky, and the edges of the leaves curl in to engulf the fresh meat.  After the meal, the leaves spread out.  Look closely, the tops of the leaves have hairs to secrete the stickum, and little droplets of digestive enzymes.  I’ve read of pollen being a protein source for Butterworts.  Makes sense, as it too would catch on the flypaper.  How much of a contribution, if anything meaningful,  comes from pollen is open to research.

The name Pinguicula  comes from Latin for fatty, as in butter, so I guess the name “Butterwort” refers to the leaf surfaces more than to the bright yellow blossoms.

Lunch,  caught in the butter.  Butterwort is botanical flypaper.

Lunch, caught in the butter. Butterwort is botanical flypaper.

Finding the plant is a seasonal treat, because Butterworts can disappear altogether later in the season, leaving not a trace of their existence.

pinguicula big flowers

The flower is as odd as the flesh-eating foliage.  The petals look like the impact of a yellow paintball.  The rear end of the flower has the nectar sequestered in a hollow tail, the spur.  Looking into the entranceway into the flower, notice a shaggy pillow (palate) greeting the bee, reminiscent of the lip ornamentation leading into some orchids.  As the bee crawls into the floral tunnel past the shag-pillow, it pushes past large complex multicelled “hairs” arranged in tufts like brushes along the sides, floor, and perhaps roof of the floral tube.  The shag-pillow palate and restrictive brushes capture the bee temporarily to position it for pollen exchange.  This has been called “pinch-trap pollination.”   My post-university mentor, the late botanist Dr. Carroll Wood, once found a bee still pinch-trapped in a museum (herbarium) specimen of Pinguicula  lutea.   The bee must feel as I do pinch-trapped between those giant brushes in the carwash.

Pinch-trapped by shag-pillows!

Pinch-trapped by shag-pillows!


Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Butterwort, Yellow Butterwort


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8 responses to “Buttered Up and Pinch-Trapped

  1. SmallHouseBigGarden

    February 8, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    love your description “impact of a yellow paintball.” Absolutely dead on!
    great post!

    • George Rogers

      February 10, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      Splat! (Those suckers hurt.)

  2. Mike Nalywajko

    February 13, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Strange how the Yellow Butterwort looks very similar to the Beach Sunflower, is this a coincidence to trick bugs by attracting them?

  3. Phil Rautenkranz

    February 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I have seen the Yellow Butterwort on many different times, and have often wondered why some leafs had dead insects on them. A clever little trick! I had no idea that they are meat eaters! If they help keep the mosquito population at bay, I say Hurray for the Yellow Butterwort!

    • George Rogers

      February 13, 2014 at 8:48 am

      We could collect all the victims from a meadow of butterworts and identify them. (Maybe you’d come upon some gnats “new to science.”) To make a 100% uninformed guess, probably not that many skeeters.

  4. George Rogers

    February 13, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Mike, Carnivory aside, for pollination, my guess is that certain “looks” draw pollinators. Bees pretty surely “like” yellow, and no doubt certain flowers sizes and shapes are effective. Some days you go to a certain habitat and a lot of the flowers out and open have similarities, such as a preponderance of yellow.

  5. Jen Foglia

    February 13, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    The Butterwort is fascinating! I have several species of pitcher plants I have to feed weekly with crickets. Where does the Butterwort grow? They need to plant fields of them out in west Jupiter and Riverbend Park! Anything to get rid of those mosquitos. Are there any indigenous pitcher plants here in South Florida?

    • George Rogers

      February 13, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      How do your pitcher plants, maybe Nepenthes?—do in cold weather? The Butterworts (yellow and blue) like low, moist, sunny places. There are quite a few in Jonathon Dickenson Park where we go on a class fieldtrip. I’ve never noticed any in Riverbend…but I miss a lot. I’m not familiar with any native pitcherplants in S Florida, but yes, there are plenty of species and hybrids in more northern counties. Here is a great place to check on nativity, and to see photos, and access additional data.


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