Nepenthes ampullaria Jack
by Dr. Ruth Kiew
Nepenthes ampullaria Jack
by Dr. Ruth Kiew

Nepenthes ampullaria (Nepenthaceae) is one of the most distinctive pitcher plant species with its little round pot-like pitchers (ampullaria is Latin for flask-like) with a narrow upstanding lid that does not cover the mouth of the pitcher. It is also one of the most common, not only in being widespread (it is found from Thailand to New Guinea) but also in being common where it grows. It is generally a lowland species (usually below 100 m altitude) found in swampy places where its pitchers are sunk into moss or leaf litter.

Like other pitcher plant species, it is a climbing plant. It can grow to about 15 m tall with a stem 1–1.5 cm thick. Its leaves have hardly any petiole. The leaves that form a rosette at the base of the stem are long and narrow, 2–5 x 0.5 cm, while those produced by the climbing stem are much larger reaching 25 x 6 cm.

The lower pitchers are pot-shaped, 2–10 cm high and up to 9 cm wide and are semi-circular on the dorsal side and flat ventrally with two fringed wings to 1.5 cm wide. The peristome (rim) is flattened and up to 1.5 cm wide. The lid is narrowly oblanceolate, to 4 x 1.5 cm, and is reflexed away from the mouth. The nectar glands on the lower lid surface are few or sometimes absent. The pitchers are usually green, but are sometimes flecked with red or rarely are entirely red. Sometimes these lower pitchers are produced in bunches high up on the climbing stem. Another unusual feature of this species is that it only very exceptionally produces aerial pitchers In Peninsular Malaysia they are known only from plants growing Kota Tinggi area, Johor. These upper pitchers are broadly funnel-shaped and are small and very rudimentary measuring only about 2 cm long and 2 cm wide.

In contrast to the attractive pitchers, the inflorescences are rather dull and are quite similar among the species. Pitcher plants are diocecious so male and female flowers are produced on different plants. In N. ampullaria, both male and female flowers are dull coloured with a perianth of 4 green or yellow, broadly elliptic tepals measuring 4–5 x 3–5 mm. They are reported to produce a ‘foul musky smell’ in the daytime (Clarke, 2001) that suggests pollination by carrion flies that come to sip the nectar produced from glands of the upper tepal surface. The flowers are produced in many-flowered narrow panicles that can grow to 40 cm long. In the male flowers, the filaments are joined to form an androphore 3–5 mm long and the anthers form the subspherical anther head measuring 2 x 1.5 mm. The female flowers have a superior ovary with 4 locules, each locule with many ovules. The capsule is 2.5–3 cm long and splits longitudinally to release many thin, long seeds 12–15 mm long that are dispersed by wind.

Recently, Clarke, (2001) has drawn attention to possibility that for N. ampullaria trapping leaf litter may be a more important source of nutrients that trapping insects and other prey. Indeed, its unusual features compared with other Nepenthes species may be related to this, such as the reflexed narrow lid that ensures that the mouth of the pitcher is open to falling vegetable debris from the canopy can be, the very small ‘slip zone’ of wax scales inside the pitcher may also be an indication that trapping insects is not important, and the much longer life span of the pitchers was also suggested as related to slower rate of decomposing leaf litter.

Like most Nepenthes species, the pliable stems of Nepenthes ampullaria are used opportunistically as rope. Its pot-like pitchers can conveniently be used to cook rice and are said to impart an appetizing flavor to the rice.

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