Chester Zoo earns pitcher plant collection status from Plant Heritage

Chester Zoo, home to one of the largest collection of the carnivorous Nepenthes ever seen in the UK, has been awarded National Plant Collection status by plant conservation charity Plant Heritage.

Out of the 150 known species, the zoo holds 129, with some thought to already be extinct in the wild and others in serious danger of extinction.

Botany and horticulture curator Mark Sparrow hopes to add to the collection by acquiring as many new species as possible, creating an insurance population, providing a vital back up to those left in the wild.

He said: "This is the National Plant Collection of Nepenthes (carnivorous plants), which is admired all around the world.

"It’s a dizzying variety of plants, which require some very different conditions. So it’s going to be a real challenge to grow them successfully.

"But with the talented staff and facilities we have here at the zoo, we’re confident we can cultivate a key safety net population."

Heat and humidity will be used to maintain conditions that replicate the environment of the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo – where temperatures can exceed 40°C and humidity 90 per cent.

The collection is home to one particular specimen - a large, rare pitcher plant known as Nepenthes lowii - that has a very special relationship with a species of tree shrew.

The shrew positions itself on the pitcher where it can lick the sugary secretions from the underside of the traps "lid" the rear of the shrew is then pointed to the open pitcher where it defecates. The waste products from the animal fall into the pitcher and are broken down and absorbed as nutrients.

Sparrow said: "People used to think that they only ate insects but that’s not at all true. Look inside a plant in the wild and you can see frogs, rodents and all sorts of other animal life.

"These pitchers have evolved to survive in extreme conditions where nutrients have to be extracted from passing prey. They are enormously efficient and truly carnivorous."

Plant Heritage conservation officer Sophie Leguil said: "Nepenthes are fascinating plants which have evolved intricate relationships with animals, so what better place to be growing them than a zoo. Chester Zoo has shown a strong commitment to plant conservation with its existing National Plant Collections; and I am really pleased by the addition of this unique Nepenthes collection."

Chester Zoo took over the collection from a private collector thanks to support from The Finnis Scott Foundation, The Topinambour Trust and The Ronald and Kathleen Pryor Charity.

Part of the Collection is on display at Chester Zoo and it is possible to see the full collection by special arrangement. Some of the plants will also be on display in the zoo’s new Islands exhibit which opens in June. Islands at Chester Zoo is the biggest zoo development ever in Europe, spanning 50,000 square metres where visitors set off on a journey to discover the island habitats of Sulawesi, Sumatra, Sumba, Papua, Panay and Bali.

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