The pitcher of the toilet pitcher plants looks much like a toilet, doesn’t it? Photo: floravitro
Yes, you just knew something like this had to exist in the plant kingdom, didn’t you? A plant in the form of a toilet (it even has a lid!) that is used as a toilet: Nepenthes lowii, the toilet pitcher plant.
On Mount Kinabula in Borneo (yes, I’ve been there), there are many species of Nepenthes or tropical pitcher plants. They are well known as carnivorous plants (insectivorous would be a more appropriate term, though), producing a curious pitcher-shaped trap on a tendril that extends from the tip of their leaves. (The tendrils are used for climbing, as nepenthes are lianas, N. lowii growing up to 33 feet/10 m in height.) Insects, attracted by a syrupy liquid given off by the trap, slip and fall into it, where they drown and are digested, feeding the plant.
That’s usually where the story ends, but some species have gone beyond the insect-eating phase and developed other relationships. In fact, symbiotic ones. (A relationship profitable to both participants.) Such is the case with the toilet pitcher plant.
On Latrine Duty
Its extra-large pitcher doesn’t attract insects, but rather mountain tree shrews (Tupaia montana), that come daily to the pitcher to lick the oddly scented, sugary, whitish secretion it produces from its lid. (Apparently, the odor is a tree shrew lure.) Even the pitcher’s lip is allegedly colored in such a way as to make it stand out from the surrounding vegetation … at least if you have the tree shrew’s visible sensitivity. As the animal hovers over the open trap, licking away, it’s droppings fall inside, deep into the bulbous digestive zone below. There they decompose and feed the plant. Animal excrement is rich in minerals, especially nitrogen, and nitrogen is often lacking in the soil in which nepenthes grow. So, everybody is happy!
Birds too are known to visit toilet pitcher plants and obliging poop into the pot.
Nepenthes lowii is not the only tropical pitcher plant that is suspected of having switched from carnivory to … oh dear, what is the term? Perhaps toiletry? Or crapivory? N. macrophylla, N. rajah and possibly some other species are also considered potty plants and likewise attract tree shrews and birds, encouraging them to poop into the pitcher.
Grow Your Own
In case you wondered, yes, you can grow your own toilet pitcher plant at home. And who doesn’t need a 33 foot (10 m) toilet-producing liana in their living room? (In fact, it generally stays much shorter in cultivation.)
You can find N. lowii and various other tropical pitcher plants through specialists in carnivorous plants. Check the Web: there are plenty of them!
You’ll discover the toilet pitcher plant needs bright light, high humidity and warm temperatures year round, so the more your living room feels like a jungle, or at least, a tropical greenhouse, the better. It prefers aerated, acid potting mix (I use sphagnum moss for my nepenthes, others use orchid mix) and mineral-free water (rainwater or distilled water). Keep the potting mix moist at all times.
As for feeding the pitchers, you don’t really have too, but if you insist, consider raising hamsters or guinea pigs and feeding the pitchers on their droppings.
Toilet pitcher plants: what will Ma Nature think of next?