While studying abroad in Cambodia during the fall of 2018, I had the opportunity to see a tropical pitcher plant. The tropical pitcher plant—Nepenthes bokorensis— is specifically endemic to Bokor Mountain in Kampot Province, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It was breathtaking and I was beyond excited to see my first pitcher plant. These particular pitcher plants are found in sphagnum bogs and unless you know what they look like, it can be hard to find them. Sphagnum bogs are a type of bog that forms when sphagnum moss forms over land and prevents precipitation from evaporating.
At this point you might be thinking, what exactly is a pitcher plant? Similar to the more widely known Venus fly trap, pitcher plants are carnivorous. They feed on a variety of insects and sometimes mammals accidentally. Pitcher plants can be divided into two families: Sarracenia are found in North America and Nepenthes are species found every else in the world. There are hundreds of species of pitcher plants located all over the world, each one unique to the location. All pitcher plants have evolved to be in the form of a long tube with a lid that can open and close. They trap their prey by having a sweet, sticky outer edge, and the prey falls into the tube and can’t climb out. The bottom of the tube is filled with enzyme-breaking liquid and is how pitcher plants consume their prey. While pitcher plants are deadly, they also form symbiotic relationships with mammals. In Malaysia, the tree shrew defecates in the pitcher plant and the plant consumes the nitrogen from the defecation. This is due to that fact that pitcher plants usually grow in nutrient-poor soils, so they have evolved to eat insects and gain nutrients from other sources.
Although it was amazing luck to finally see a pitcher plant in person, there was a bigger sense of impending doom while we were exploring the bog. The Cambodian Government leased Bokor Mountain to a hotel company in 2007 for 99 years. This means that much of the montane forests and pitcher plants will be killed during construction. In fact, when we were standing in the bog area, just beyond where the line of trees starts was a bulldozer and a sign describing new bungalows. While I was trying to enjoy my first glimpse of a pitcher plant, my heart was breaking. In reality, the endemic N. bokorensis will most likely be decimated from the world in the next few years.
Currently found atop the mountain are a casino, hotel, and the King’s abandoned summer palace. There is also a display of the development plans available to the public. It is a huge giant replica with house plans, a ski lift, and more hotels. It felt strange to be able to see the entire plan that will eventually destroy most of the natural beauty. What good can come from this?
While the N. bokorensis may be gone soon, the popularity and knowledge of pitcher plants is growing. One man, Stewart McPherson, has travelled extensively to document and see pitcher plants around the world. He even set up a plant sanctuary in Holland for these plants, since they face great danger from becoming extinct all over the world. An IUCN-funded 2015 study to complete the assessment of carnivorous plants found that only 20% of species have been formally documented.
Although the development atop Bokor Mountain in Cambodia is bleak, research, conservation, and awareness are increasing. NGO groups and communities are working to save the environment and lands they live on. While I may never see the pitcher plant above Bokor Mountain again, I hope that pitcher plants receive the proper recognition they deserve! I hope others learn to appreciate pitcher plants and become just as fascinated by them as I am.
Have you ever heard of pitcher plants? Do you think they’re as fascinating as the rest of the scientific community?