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Darlingtonia californica forma californica

Darlingtonia californica.jpg

Range: northern California to southern Oregon

Known as the cobra plant or cobra lily due to the uncanny appearance of a raised-up cobra, tongue flicking, D. californica is the only plant in the Sarraceniaceae family on the west coast where it thrives in coastal and mountainous seeps or creek shores with constantly moving cold water, particularly in rocky areas or ultramafic soils where other plants can’t grow. Pitchers can reach up to 90 cm in height (more often between 20-60 cm), largest during the early spring flush, and uniquely growing so that the front of the pitcher curves 180 degrees to face outward from the center. The top portion forms an overarching, bulbous hood covered in clear areoles that extend down the back of the pitcher a short ways, and underneath the front of the hood the opening curls into a collar within. A bifurcated, flaring “fishtail” or tongue extends down and outward, often curling toward the tapering tips so that they roll down and outward. Coloration varies from solid bright green or yellowish to various shades of red or purple flushed, even solid red; color is most concentrated on the upper pitcher or particularly on the tongue. In spring, tall stalks with distinct leafy bracts produce singular pendulous flowers up to 3” long, bearing 5 green to reddish tinged sepals that spread outward and 5 more light to deep red petals that hang down and press in against each other, creating a fully enclosed chamber save for small notches about 2/3 of the way toward the petal tips that produce small openings for pollinators to enter. The ovary is bell-shaped and shields the stigma underneath from falling pollen, requiring cross-pollination (though a certain pollinator has yet to be identified).

Unlike most pitchers in the family, the cobra lily regulates water in the pitcher and relies primarily on symbiotic organisms to digest its prey (including Metriocnemus edwardsii, a possible endemic to the pitchers, and the “slime mite” Sarraceniopus darlingtoniae) though it does produce at least one proteolytic enzyme of its own. In a somewhat unique growth pattern (at least as noted in cultivation), this species forms its first two leaves in a compass pattern facing north-south, and the second two east-west.

Cultivation: grow in a 1:1 sphagnum/perlite mix or well-aerated perlite/peat soil, kept very moist with cold or heavily oxygenated water (preferably both, though mountain forms may tolerate warmer water so long as it is well aerated). In the summer, keep the plant in the 60-80°F range (mountain forms more tolerant of high air temperatures than coastal forms). In winter as plants go dormant, place in a very cool location for a period of at least 3-5 months until spring returns. Seeds should preferably be fresh and very new seed can be sown on the soil surface without treatment, or to ensure germination submit to a 4-week minimum cold stratification. Grow in partial shade (not strongly recommended outside of providing cool conditions) to full sun, but keep pots shaded if possible to retain cool root conditions.

Lifespan and reproduction: long-lived perennial. Reproduces naturally through seed and underground stoloniferous offshoots from the rhizome, but can be propagated via division or rhizome cuttings.

Darlingtonia californica 1.jpg

Though I have attempted growth of this plant several times, true success has yet to be reached due to this plant's finicky nature (I can't grow it outside because of how hot it is in summer and roots would surely roast, and indoors conditions often stagnate too much in the soil for them to be happy). This must be fixed soon though, as this is one genus that holds a special place for me (what a curious plant, to be carnivorous and look like my favorite animal to boot!). Cobra lilies aren't particularly difficult to start from seeds and keep around for some time, but care must be taken to encourage them into a healthy dormancy and keep conditions cool and aerated for them through their next season (and lots of light helps too of course). 

An interesting note about Darlingtonia is that, unlike many other carnivorous plants including their closest relatives, the first true leaf from these plants is a flat, lanceolate non-carnivorous leaf very similar in appearance to the cotyledons, and it's not until the second leaf that traps are regularly produced. This may be an ancient ontogenetic trait, inherited by this ancient genus but lost in its relatives, a callback to the non-carnivorous ancestors of the species. 

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