On a field trip to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, my fourth-grade class watched, fascinated, as a fly disappeared down the long, sticky neck of a pitcher plant. “There’s no way out,” the tour guide said.

Fourth graders aren’t the only ones intrigued by carnivorous plants. Collectors have been gathering them from the wild for years. So have nurseries. Because carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant (Sarracenia), are slow growers, many nurseries don’t want to take the time to grow them. So until recently, almost every pitcher plant on the market was taken from the wild. Rob Gardner, curator of native plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG), explains that in the time it takes to produce a crop of pitcher plants in a nursery, several crops of something else can be grown.

Unfortunately, mass collecting and a loss of their natural habitats has seriously depleted many pitcher-plant populations. Some researchers estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the pitcher plant’s habitat has been destroyed, mostly because of development, agriculture, and tree farming.

Native to the southeastern U.S., pitcher plants grow best in savannah-type habitats with highly acidic soil, lots of sunlight, and a high water table. In North Carolina, pitcher plants are most prevalent along the coastal plain, though some can be found in isolated places throughout the piedmont and lower-altitude mountain ranges. Because acidic soil tends to be lower in nutrients than other soils, many researchers think that carnivorous plants have evolved a capacity to supplement their diet by capturing some of their food. “Insects are like vitamin pills for these plants,” Gardner says.

As curator, Gardner is interested in the conservation of native plants, which is one of the main missions of NCBG. There are state and federal laws protecting certain species of pitcher plants, but it’s not enough, Gardner says. To relieve some of the pressure on the wild pitcher-plant population, Gardner has developed a breeding program with Larry Mellichamp, director of UNC-Charlotte Botanic Gardens. Together, they’ve been working to produce their own varieties—hybrids—of pitcher plants.

Depending on whose taxonomy you use, there are seven to nine different wild species of pitcher plants. When one species crosses with another, a hybrid, with characteristics of both parents, results. “Not all species of plants can do that,” Gardner says. “Some plant species don’t want to get muddied up by genetic material, so they only perpetuate themselves.”

Pitcher plant hybrids are also fertile, which isn’t always the case with other hybrids. A lot of times hybrids are functionally infertile—for some reason they can’t cross back.

But, Gardner explains, you can take a hybrid pitcher plant and cross it back with one of the original species or with another hybrid that represents two completely different species, and the resulting hybrid will have genetic material of four different wild types. You can then take that one and cross it back with another hybrid or straight species. “The breeding potential of pitcher plants is virtually infinite,” Gardner says.

After breeding pitcher plants for more than a decade, Gardner and Mellichamp have figured out which varieties make better hybrids. All are fertile, but some varieties are better breeders.

The goal is to create plants that have compact growth; vigorous, colorful leaves; good winter foliage; and substance (they’re thick walled and erect). While pitcher plants can grow up to a dramatic three feet tall, Gardner explains that plant-breeding trends are toward more compact plants because most people tend to have small spaces to garden. A compact plant can grow on a windowsill.

All southeastern pitcher plants are dormant in the winter—most turn brown and shrivel up—but there are some, such as the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), which hold their foliage all year long. It’s these varieties that Gardner and Mellichamp like to use for breeding. “One of the neat things about our hybrids,” Gardner says, “is that they’re more likely to hold their foliage better than wild ones. Often, the colors get even more colorful in the dormant stage.”

Each spring, Gardner and Mellichamp choose the “parents,” keeping in mind that the bigger plant needs to be the female because it uses a lot of energy for seed production. Since the flowers on pitcher plants are “perfect”—each has male and female parts—the plant chosen to be the female has to be emasculated before it can be fertilized; otherwise, it might fertilize itself.

Gardner and Mellichamp fertilize the plants by taking pollen from the chosen males and placing some on each female daily for four to five days. This is to ensure that they’re fertilizing the females at the most receptive point. If the male plants bloom (produce pollen) before the female plants are receptive, the pollen can be stored in a refrigerator until the females are ready. To keep promiscuous bees from further pollinating the plants, they cover each plant with cheese cloth or nylon stockings. “You want to make sure that the only pollen going onto the plant is the pollen you put on it,” Gardner says.

When the seeds mature in the fall, Gardner and Mellichamp plant them and then wait. “It takes twelve to eighteen months before you can even begin to get an idea of what those seedlings will look like,” Gardner says. Out of thousands of seeds, they may pick only the three to five best seedlings and continue to grow and evaluate them.

Over the years, Gardner and Mellichamp have crossed dozens of different varieties. Sometimes they’re surprised; sometimes they’re disappointed. “We’ve learned a lot,” Gardner says. “And we’ve come up with some fun and beautiful hybrids.”

Gardner says many people shy away from pitcher plants because of their specialized growing conditions. “But we’re hoping to change that,” he says. By breeding pitcher plants that can grow in pots, Gardner and Mellichamp will be able to market them on a much bigger scale, even internationally.

Since pitcher plants take a long time to grow from seedlings, mass marketing requires more than just selecting a hybrid and letting nature takes its course. The solution is tissue-culture technology. Working with Carolina’s Office of Technology Development, Gardner and Mellichamp will patent and mass produce several of their hybrid varieties.

They’ve contracted several tissue culture labs to help them produce tens of thousands of each hybrid by taking cell tissue from the hybrids and placing it in tissue-cell cultures. First, technicians dissect the plant to get the tissue, known as meristematic tissue, then they put the tissue through a sterilization process (they rinse it with solutions of bleach) to get rid of any bacteria. Some plants can be reproduced using seeds, or even a piece of plant. But with these hybrids, the technicians can’t use seeds because they need to know what the resulting plant will look like. Also, it’s better to use tissue rather than a piece of leaf since pitcher plants tend to have a lot of bacteria and fungus growing on their leaves. After sterilizing the tissue, the staff place it in tubes on a rotating table. Keeping the tissue in motion “confuses” it, so it doesn’t know which end is up. Instead of growing roots and leaves, it makes lumps of undifferentiated tissue, all with the same genetic information. Next, workers cut the tissue into smaller pieces and place it in nutrient-rich test tubes under fluorescent lights, where it begins to develop leaves and roots. Finally, these “test tube babies” grow into small, genetically identical plants which can be sold to nurseries and other venders, allowing customers to buy horticulturally superior pitcher plants from a variety of reliable sources, as opposed to supporting the practice of collecting them from the wild.

One day soon,” Gardner says, “we’re hoping our hybrids will be widely available, so that people will be able to pick one up off a store shelf.”