Cobra Lilies

I am not sure I understand the attraction, but I love pitcher plants. Anywhere they grow, I try to visit and photograph them. There is a very interesting pitcher plant in Northern California (and parts of Oregon) called the cobra lily that I had long wanted to photograph. I had my chance a few weeks ago when I was up north photographing the redwoods with a friend, Chuck Summers.

I had asked at one of the visitor centers where I might find pitcher plants. The ranger was really helpful and directed me to a place east of Crescent City, California. And he suggested I check with the Forest Service visitor center in Gasquet (also east of Crescent City). The woman running the center was hugely helpful, offering maps and all sorts of information. It turned out there was an excellent area for cobra lilies just east of Gasquet. I love stopping into visitor centers and talking with the staff there. They have always been extremely helpful in directing me to better photo opportunities.

The location was great for cobra lilies, but conditions were harsh sunlight and not so great for photographing the plants.

I tried all sorts of things -- I was determined! That last shot is even HDR! That shows the conditions.

And then I got low, below the plants looking up at the sun -- I finally got something I found exciting.

This image does a number of things besides being visually fun. It shows off a bit of the setting, giving a sense of the plant in its environment. In addition, this low angle shows off the opening below the "cobra head" where insects go inside.

Insects are attracted to smells from inside the plant. They enter the hole, but then there is a big problem for them. The top of the plant glows with light (you can see that in the photo, too) at its top. The top of the "cobra head" is more translucent than the rest of the plant and really lets in the light.

This is very attractive to insects who head toward the light. You have probably seen this with flies at a window. This makes for a very efficient trap that always stays open! Insects get tired out, then fall back into the tubular main "stalk" of the plant (this part of the plant is technically a modified leaf!).

There, down-facing hairs and slippery sides force the insect down to its death. A pool of water below holds enzymes and bacteria that dissolve the insect for its nutrients. All pitcher plants tend to grow in conditions where it is difficult to get certain needed nutrients for growth from the soil, so they have developed this ingenious way of getting what they need.

While at this location, I noticed the cobra lilies were blooming. The flowers are quite unusual, too, and could be easily overlooked. Their colors blend with the surroundings.

These striking pitcher plants are quite beautiful. And they do indeed look like cobras!

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at; my blogs are at and
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8 Responses to Cobra Lilies

  1. Vivien Stevens says:

    Thank you, Rob. A really interesting article and images.

  2. Great article, Rob. The next time you are in Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp, look for pitcher plants there too. This photo was taken right near the Waycross end of the swamp: pitcher plant. I don't know what exact kind it is, but hope the fires currently burning there don't kill them all.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks for the note, Kayla. I have not seen the pitcher plants in Georgia, though I have visited them in the panhandle of Florida. I would guess that the pitcher plants are adapted in some way to fire if it goes through. Fires have long been a part of many Southern ecosystems.


  3. Fascinating article and photos, Rob, thanks.

  4. John Sun says:

    Nature has amazing ways to adapt! there's an exhibit at the SF Conservatory of Flowers called wicked plants:

    they have "killer plants" like carnivorous plants, and tobacco, other poisonous plants.

  5. Capt Suresh says:

    Superb photos and would love to read the Blog soon. Its a delight to such work.

  6. Rob Sheppard says:

    Thanks Teresa and great link, John!

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