Cephalotus is a genus of pitcher plants which contains one species, Cephalotus follicularis. The common names for this small, carnivorous plant are: Albany Pitcher Plant, the fly-catcher plant, the mocassin plant, or the Western Australian Pitcher Plant. The plant is cultivated for the unusual insect traps of its modified leaves. It is not closely related to any other species.
Cephalotus follicularis is a small, ornamental plant which traps and eats insects. Some of the leaves are modified, creating pitcher-like traps filled with digestive enzymes. These are small, green, and described as looking like moccasins, little sacks (Latin: follicules), or a pitcher. The other leaves on the plant are simple, more conventional in appearance, with an unbroken outline. The foliage is arranged at ground level and are crowded together, the pitchers are outward facing and usually sit beneath the simple leaves. These leaves give the main form of the species, the height is around 200 mm.
The 'pitcher' trap of the species are similar to other pitcher plants. The rim at the entrance of the trap has a spiked, inward facing, structure that allows the prey to enter, but hinder its escape. The lid over the entrance prevents rainwater entering the pitcher, preventing dilution of the digestive solution. The enzymes in the bottom of the pitcher digests the insects, those unable to escape are consumed by the plant. The lid is partly transparent, this confuses its prey by appearing like patches of sky. The mechanism does not close like other carnivorous plants, but escape is difficult once the prey enters the pitfall trap.
The flowers appear in small clusters on long stalks, and are creamy, or whitish. Cephalotus can be propagated from leaf or root cuttings; in the wild, plants establish small colonies from their roots.
The plant was originally found in southern coastal areas of Southwest Australia, a mediterranean climate, regions that are cool and moist. It prefers well drained peaty sands found around swamps, creeks, and streams, where it might experience seasonally dry periods. In the wild, they prefer warm day-time temperatures of up to 25 degrees Celsius during the growing season(spring, summer, and the early months of autumn), coupled with cool night-time temperatures. In the cooler months of winter (down to about 5 degrees Celsius), they have a natural dormancy period of about 3-4 months, triggered by the temperature drop and reduced light levels, where they often drastically slow or stop growth altogether.
In cultivation, this winter rest is unnecessary and the plants may be grown as any subtropical plant, although dormancy can result in somewhat larger pitchers. Should a grower allow dormancy to occur, it is extremely important that the Albany pitcher plant receive a drastically reduced amount of water, enough to keep the soil just barely damp. This will help to prevent diseases and fungi which may set in and rot the rhizome and roots. Also, it is best to not let the plant freeze over, as this will kill the above ground portion of the plant and possibly the roots, although plants have been known to recover from such harsh conditions.
Cephalotus are grown successfully around the world in cultivation. The peculiar appearance and insectivorous habits of the Cephalotus make an appealing ornamental garden plant, or an exotic specimen in the greenhouse.
As spring approaches, the plants will produce many non-carnivorous leaves, which are thought to aid in photosynthetic processes. In mid-spring, Cephalotus follicularis will start producing small, fuzzy knob-like structures, which, after a matter of weeks, will inflate and become the season's first set of pitchers. During this period, the growing season, the substrate must be kept damp to moist and never allowed to dry out completely. However, it need be extremely well-drained, to help prevent root and rhizome rot. This is often achieved by the use of the tray method of watering, in which the plant's pot is kept in a 1/4 inch of water or less. The tray may be allowed to dry completely between waterings as a prophylactic measure against root rot. Additionally, watering from the top, at least occasionally, may prevent rot by oxygenating the soil with dissolved O2 and also encourage root proliferation. One grower even recommends the use of an aquarist's airstone to increase the natural level of dissolved O2 in his water, although this is not necessary.
Cephalotus follicularis tolerates many soil types, the most commonly used is a mixture of sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and sand used for propagation/horticultural purposes. A reasonable humidity (60-80%) is also preferred. Too high a humidity will encourage many pests to set in, such as scale, and diseases which cause the plant's crowns to rot. Too low a humidity is not tolerated as often the plant will wilt and close its lid (operculum) (however, it is possible to slowly adjust your Cephalotus to lower humidity). The plants become colourful and grow vigorously when kept in direct sunlight, while plants cultivated in bright shade remain green.
Propagate Cephalotus follicularis through leaf and root cuttings, and, as a much slower method, through seed. Pinch off the leaves (both carnivorous pitchers and non-carnivorous leaves may be used) from the base of the plant, while trying to keep as much of the whitish base intact as possible. These leaves are then placed upon milled sphagnum moss or a mixture of sphagnum peat/perlite/sand; small amounts of substrate are placed over the whitish base of the leaf. The leaves must receive bright light and remain covered to ensure high humidity. In many weeks plantlets will appear at the base of the leaves. Propagation from root cuttings is similar. Roots and parts of the rhizome can be cut into pieces an inch long and then treated similarly to the leaf cuttings. Propagation through seed is a much slower way, but is possible. Seed must first be stratified, where they are placed in cold, slightly damp conditions for 2-3 months before sowing upon milled sphagnum or a peat/perlite/sand mix in warm conditions, bright light, and high humidity. The seed may take from weeks to months to germinate, and will be extremely slow growing.
Pests and diseases
- McAlpine, D.K. (1998). Review of the Australian stilt flies (Diptera: Micropezidae) with a phylogenetic analysis of the family. Invertebrate Taxonomy 12:55-134. (DOI: 10.1071/IT96018)