Saturday, June 13, 2015

Butterwort: a botanical Jekyll and Hyde

Carnivorous butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris plants grow amongst the ruins of an old lead mine at Westgate in Weardale. This is a plant with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. On the one hand there's that rosette of sickly yellow leaves, covered in sticky mucilage, that trap and digest small insects (click here to see how they do it). Most of its prey is composed of ants and small flies.

On the other hand, it produces these charming flowers that need to be pollinated by flying insects, principally butterflies and bees. This is a plant that either eats insects or exploits them.

Butterwort blooms have a forest of short hairs in the throat of the flower. There has been a lot of speculation about their role but a plausible explanation is that they act as a barrier to insects that are too small to be effective pollinators; the hairs would steal nectar, but would offer no impediment to the long tongue of a bee or butterfly.

Butterwort isn't very common in Weardale but is more plentiful in Teesdale. Many years ago I visited a site on a small plateau on the edge of the moors where water constainly trickled over it, creating a mire full of interesting bog plants. As I looked over the edge of the plateau I saw a haze of these little mauve flowers just above the ground - there must have been many hundreds of plants in bloom. Must go back, to see if they are still there.

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