By Katherine Hale —
Fourth grade in North Carolina means studying everything there is to know about the state, or at least as many facts as your average nine-year-old will retain in a semester. That was the year all three verses of the official state song were forever cemented into my memory—hurrah, hurrah, the Old North State forever!–as we sang it on endless loop at school assemblies with accompanying choreography. We dutifully memorized the official state bird (the cardinal), the official state flower (the dogwood), the official state fruit (the glorious native muscadine grape), and the official state insect (the honeybee). We chanted the official state toast about the longleaf pine, with a few mumbles about those trees being the source of the tar in the “Tar Heel State”. (This was always followed by a mysterious comment about the importance of “naval stores,” which I took to be a kind of commissary around Camp Lejeune, but was actually an essential export in nineteenth-century trade.) And of course there was the inevitable assignment to construct an informative diorama about a rare or interesting plant or animal species in its native habitat.
Proving that elementary school is, in fact, destiny, I chose the federally listed mountain sweet pitcher plant, Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii, like you do when you are nine years old and a budding field naturalist. Last week while preparing for an upcoming move, I excavated the results from a pile of old papers at my parents’ house, and studied the results of this botanical precociousness with great interest.
The overall effect is charming. Set in a green-and-black shoe box, a backdrop of blue construction paper holds the three-dimensional pine trees and swirly cotton balls marking canopy and clouds. Additional photographs of a Canadian glacial lake and a waterfall indicate a) mountains and b) water as important components of the landscape. Clay islands of Q-tip cattails and pine-needle reeds hover in the foreground, along with a nest of shredded money from a variety store to signify sphagnum moss. Three small but recognizable “pitchers” are taped to the bottom, along with a life-size paper model that can be pulled out and examined more closely. My younger self lined the interior of the cone with raggedy strips of notebook paper that represent the fuzzy hairs that serve as a one-way slide to oblivion for any insects trapped within real-life Sarracenia. Nine-year-old me has never seen a mountain bog—or a pitcher plant—in her life, but is clearly doing her best with limited materials.
Like serotinous pine cones in a fire-suppressed savanna, my love of pitcher plants lay dormant for many years until I stumbled across them in a bog in Vermont, a thousand miles from the good Old North State where I thought they belonged. “What are you doing here?” I demanded to the crimson clusters of Sarracenia purpurea, living up to their Latin binomial in the chilly gray mist. Serene in their winter dormancy, they remained frustratingly silent.
My colleagues, used to my eccentricities, didn’t bat an eye at this one-side conversation with the local flora—until I vowed to grow them at home to save myself further trips into the bog, which was a long commute from Carolina. “You can do that?” they asked, eyes flickering back and forth from me to each other as they privately questioned my sanity. “Oh, yes,” I said, with all the zeal of a convert. “And I’m gonna.”
It turns out that Sarracenia and other bog species are easy to grow in containers, as long as two seemingly contradictory rules are followed. The soil must have excellent drainage, yet at the same time, always remain moist. The trick is to use a very specific mix of three parts thoroughly moistened peat to parts sand, and keep the pot in another pot with water at the bottom to ensure in never dries out. Capillary action and the incredible moisture-retaining properties of sphagnum moss does the rest. They don’t even need fertilizer, and will not thank you if offer it, preferring to fetch their own nitrogen in convenient, insect-shaped bundles over whatever you can purchase at the hardware store.
Twenty years after that fourth-grade assignment, here I am constructing another bog in a box—but this one is alive and growing instead of construction paper and glue. My canvas is limited only by my imagination and what’s available in the horticultural trade—which rules out the mountain sweet pitcher plant, but not some of its more populous cousins in cultivation. And if wild cranberries from the Appalachians thread their way around white-topped pitchers from the coastal plains in an artificial wetland along my driveway in the Carolina Piedmont—well, it all looks like home from here. I like to think my nine-year-old self would be pleased. Hurrah, hurrah, the Old North State forever!