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Drosera serpens: The Grand Imposter

Drosera serpens "Jacky Jacky"

Once upon a time, a single species of spider-leaved sundew was recognized found across from Africa through Australia, unique in its structure yet variable in dozens of ways. Tall, erect or scrambling, and with filiform spreading leaves, this annual plant came in a myriad forms: miniscule and barely inches tall, more than a foot and a half in height, green, red, purple, a dozen various unusual glands and hairs covering its stems and leaves, and flowers that could be white, pink, purple, nearly red, even orange.

Then, it was realized that many of these differences were not simply the variation of a single species, but nearly a dozen cryptic taxa each with a unique set of glands or characteristics to comprise section Arachnopus (translated: the spider-leaved sundews as above). Thus, D. indica was split into D. serpens, D. finlaysoniana, D. hartmeyerorum, D. cucullata, and many more. The type species was relegated to plants lacking unique growths across Africa and Asia (though possibly still extant in Australia, the hot spot for this group), and through the change suddenly the vast majority of plants in cultivation became recognized as something else. The most common, as they are also highly widespread: D. serpens and D. finlaysoniana. In general, if you had a plant with no petioles, it was the latter; if it had petioles and tiny y-shaped hairs, it was the former.

D. serpens "Pink Flower," a highly common version of the species in cultivation

For me, D. finlaysoniana is a frustrating, weak plant that never seems to like how I grow it. Only once have I ever brought one to flower so far, and they all remain ridiculously lanky and sickly looking. D. serpens, by contrast, is a straight-up weed. So long as it has wet, peaty soil (this is one group that seems to inevitably fail on sphagnum), lots of food (these are hungry plants and don't like to starve) and very bright light, this plant will be happy. The first form I acquired is a common pink-flowered version that generally maintains little other color, save perhaps some red in the stem, and it can grow to over a foot tall. Plants can persist for more than a year and a half if kept well-fed, though it's not uncommon for them to literally flower themselves to death. Once a plant starts blooming, it doesn't stop.

More recently though, I managed to acquire another form of this species, one that, while not hugely different from "pink flower," starts to show the vast variability of this species, which can be pure green to solid purple and have flowers in nearly the same range (substitute white for green though).

The hot pink flower of D. serpens "Jacky Jacky"

The "Jacky Jacky" form is an Australian locale, producing plants that are generally smaller in stature than the common form but possessing a lot more red especially in old stems. In addition to the y-shaped hairs on the petioles, this version also more readily shows another trait that is supposedly diagnostic of the species: small glandular hairs with red heads that cover the stem and back of the leaves. I have yet to find the yellow mushroom-cap hairs that are supposed to be present on either form though.

The first bloomer of "Jacky Jacky," a plant with a greener profile.. The red infusing the stem and flower stalk is easily seen though.

Red "Jacky Jacky" plant, slightly smaller than the green one to the left but with a deeper color

While the common green form often does not begin to flower until it reaches 8 inches or more in height typically, "Jacky Jacky" started blooming for me at barely 5 inches on the largest plant. Leaves on both are similar in size though, giving "Jacky Jacky" a broader and more filled out appearance as they begin to unfurl outwards and them down with age. The flowers too are larger, and deeper pink, but maintain the species characteristics of filamentous stigmas and white, triangular stamens. They appear to be maintaining the prolific status of the species too, as one plant hasn't even finished its first flower stalk and another is already rising to take the spotlight. With any luck, this will mean much seed of this rarer locale to distribute among growers.

When it comes to plants for beginners, D. serpens is definitely a good one, especially if you want something that looks very different from the many common flat rosetted species. If you can keep them warm, wet, and bright, they're no problem to grow at all. One downside though: you must be willing to start them from seeds, as like many other annuals they hate root disturbance. It is possible to transplant them or even take stem cuttings of ailing plants to root, but the resultant appearance is typically far more sickly than a plant that grew from seed and stayed put its whole life. As long as they are fed well though, seeds are rarely an issue to produce; one flower might give 50 or more, and a heavily fed plant can throw out dozens of blooms.

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