THE SIDE SADDLE PLANT
Far away in the marshes of Florida, Carolina, and Canada lives the handsome "side-saddle" plant, one of the strange and tricky plants, called "pitcher-plants," that regularly catch both insects that fly and insects that crawl and devour them for dinner.
The leaves of this pitcher-plant grow in clumps, and rise from the boggy ground like tall, narrow trumpets; for instead of being spread out flat to catch the sunbeams, as leaves usually are, each leaf of the curious side-saddle plant is rolled round, and the two edges join to form a long hollow tube, narrow at the bottom, but opening widely to the sky.
From the top to the bottom of this pitcher runs a flat narrow ridge, making a nice, easy pathway up which ants and little beetles can climb; and at the top of the tube is a gaily - colored lid which stands half - open so that while it does not stop inquisitive little insects from crawling into the pitcher, it prevents the rain from falling in and filling it up with water.
These trumpet - shaped leaves are often from twelve to eighteen inches long, and are pale green, or almost white, ornamented with streaks and blotches of dull red, brown or yellow; but the half open lids at the top of the pitchers are most gaily colored to attract the attention of insects flying overhead.
In the spring and early summer the inside of the gaily - colored lid of the pitcher plant is covered with little drops of sweet honey, that sparkle in the sunshine like tiny glistening beads. The honey oozes from numbers of little honey- pockets that open on the under-side of the lid, and as soon as the glistening drops reach a certain size they trickle down into the tube and fresh drops take their place on the inside of the lid, so the honey is always fresh and sweet, and does not dry up in the sun. The narrow pathway, too, which runs from the ground to the open mouth of the pitcher, is spread with honey, to tempt little crawling creatures to climb up to the top of the tube. And so the cunning pitcher-plant baits its trap to catch its dinner. Now let us see what happens to the insects that come flocking to enjoy the feast so temptingly prepared for them.
Suppose a pretty bright little fly, with delicate gauzy wings, comes flying over a clump of these curious side-saddle pitcher-plants. It sees the gaily-colored lids of the pitchers, and at once pops down on one to see if anything nice is to be found there. to its delight the fly finds an abundant feast of honey, and begins at once to lap it up, and thoroughly enjoy itself.
Now flies are very inquisitive things, and as soon as the little creature feels refreshed it is almost certain to look about to see what else there is to interest it in this delightful place, where Sweet, delicious food is given free to every insect visitor. So the fly walks over the lid, and round the edge of the pitcher, peers inside, and at last boldly descends to find out what there is at the bottom of this curious open tube.
It is easy enough to walk down the gently sloping path, for the inner surface of the pitcher is smooth and glassy, and the feet of the little fly glide gently over it. Down the sides of the pitcher,too, flow trickling streams of honey, and this attracts the attention of the foolish insect, which is so busy lapping it up that it does not notice how quickly it is sliding downhill.
About half-way down the pitcher the pathway changes. It is no longer smooth and slippery, but covered with long stiff hairs; still, as they all point downwards, the fly passes over them with out any difficulty, and then finds the itself at the bottom of the pitcher.
Here a most unpleasant shock awaits the adventurous insect. Instead of the fresh pools of honey it expects to find, it sees a mass of dead and dying insects, all heaped one on the top of another at the bottom of the tube. Very much alarmed the fly turns and tries to ascend the sloping pathway, in a great hurry to get out of the pitcher and reach the open air again. But to its dismay it finds that this is not so easy. The sloping hairs, over which it passed so easily on its downward way, now bar its passage; for the points of the hairs are now all turned towards it, and the fly cannot pass the hundreds of stiff, strong bristles that hedge it in on every side.
So the poor fly finds it is fairly caught in a cunning trap. It cannot walk up the sides of the pitcher, and there is no room to spread its wings and fly away. As it buzzes frantically round and round the bottom of the tube, wings and legs become entangled in the stiff needle-like bristles, and and it is pricked back every time it tries to rise. To make matters worse, before very long, another insect is sure to come tumbling down on top of it, pushing it down on to the heap of dead insects below; and soon the poor fly grows exhausted with its useless struggles and sinks down to rise no more.
In this way the side-saddle plant entices and captures insects of all sorts-flies, ants, beetles, moths and even such big, strong insects as wasps and blue-bottles. When once the have entered the cruel trap there is no escape for them, and the poor things soon die from exhaustion and suffocation.
After a time the dead insects decay, all the soft parts of the bodies are dissolved away by a fluid poured forth from special glands in the leaves, and the strong "insect broth" made in this way is sucked in through the pores of the leaf to nourish and strengthen the whole plant.
So many insects are caught in the trap of this wily side-saddle plant that the pitchers are often filled five or six inches deep with the bodies of the poor little victims; but the plant is not allowed to have everything its own way, for hungry little birds, with long slender bills, will sometimes perch on the rims of the pitchers and rob them of some of their contents. There are certain insects, too, that turn the tables on these plant ogres. They are able to escape the pit-falls prepared for them, and instead of being killed and devoured by the pitcher plants, these bold insects make the plants provide food for their own children. There is a little moth that has upon its legs long spurs which look just like snow-shoes. These cross the long sloping hairs on the walls of the pitchers, and prevent the legs of the insect form being entangled among them. With these "snow-shoes" on its feet the moth can walk up the sides of the pitchers quite easily, and it actually lays its eggs within the insect trap. Then when the young caterpillars hatch out they spin a fine web across the pitcher to prevent other insects tumbling in, and set to work to eat up the leafy walls of their large and comfortable nursery.
A big American blue-bottle, too, is much too wise to be caught in the trap of the side-saddle plant. It lays a few eggs over the edge of the pitcher, and the maggots that hatch from them live and fatten on the dead insects heaped up at the bottom of the tube; but these fat little maggots are preyed upon in turn by an insect-eating bird, which slits up the pitcher with its beak and gobbles up all the insects, alive or dead, that happen to be inside it. This really ends just like the story of "The House that Jack built":