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What is a Cobra Lily?

By F. Hay
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Cobra Lily or California Pitcher Plant, scientific name Darlingtonia californica, is a carnivorous plant deriving some of its nutrients by passively trapping and eating arthropods and insects. It is the solitary member of the genus Darlingtonia in the family of Sarraceniaceae. The Cobra Lily has tubular rolled leaves which resemble the rearing head of a cobra and even has a forked leaf appearing to look like a serpent’s tongue. It was discovered in 1841 at Mount Shasta by botanist William D. Brackenridge and thrives in a wet environment.

Native to the United States in Oregon and Northern California, the Cobra Lily grows near acidic, nutrient-poor bogs. Although the soil may be nutrient-poor, the Cobra Lily has adapted itself to increasing its nitrogen requirements with carnivorous nourishment. In order to live long-term, it requires a cold weather dormancy period lasting from three to five months during which all growth stops. The warmer weather in the spring brings the Cobra Lily to life and it will continue to grow through the summer months.

The two major groups of carnivorous plants are those with active traps and those with passive traps. The Cobra Lily has a passive trap to lure insects into its pitcher and then uses enzymes produced by the plant to digest its prey. The Venus flytrap is an example of an active trap plant that uses rapid movement to bring its bristle-haired leaf blades together to trap its prey.

Not only does the Cobra Lily lure and capture its prey into its tubular leaves, it also carefully conceals the exit by curling the tiny opening to the underside and then offers numerous translucent false exits within its leaves. The insects become tired from trying to exit through the translucent false exists and plunge down into the trap. Tiny hairs pointed downwards and slippery walls prevent the prey from climbing out and escaping. The insects are absorbed in a pool of liquid digestive enzyme at the base of the leaf.

Watering is very important in maintaining a California Pitcher Plant. Since a pitcher plant’s natural habitat is a boggy, cool environment, it is crucial that the plant never becomes completely dried out. Mature plants can produce many side shoots which can eventually become a large clump. It is not wise to separate a clump due to the sensitivity of the root system. Removing a clump can expose the Cobra Lily to be susceptible to fungal attacks and disease and could force the plant to go into shock.

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Discussion Comments

By honeybees — On Jul 13, 2011

Most kids and adults are fascinated with the idea of Venus fly trap plants. These can be fun plants to have around and educational as well.

If you watch closely you can see the bugs being drawn to these plants. There are also several videos online where you can watch this, but it is not the same as seeing it yourself with your own flowers.

I have some striped cobra lilies that complement my hosta plants and seem to do well in indirect light to partial shade.

By andee — On Jul 12, 2011

When we moved from the Midwest to California, I planted some Cobra Lilies outside in my yard. I have always been fascinated by carnivorous plants, and now had the opportunity to grow some myself.

I did find out that they took a lot of water, and they did best if they received water on a very regular basis. We live in an area that is a little drier than what they require to really flourish.

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