Among the curious carnivorous plants visitors encounter in the Rose Hills Conservatory are American Pitcher plants, the Sarracenias.  We grow them inside because their native habitats are swamps and bogs, where the humidity is constantly high, a climate we best maintain in a greenhouse. Interpretive displays in The Huntington’s Rose Hills Conservatory show how the tubular leaves, the “pitchers,” can each entrap thousands of tiny insects. 

Sarracenia flower, showing white petals

Visiting the conservatory in early spring, people will see the unusual flowers of these plants, each blossom produced on a single stem from the plant base.  A flower opens with large sepals, droopy petals, and an oversized stigma.  Soon, the petals fall and the fruit begins to develop underneath the stigma.  Thus, the most obvious feature remains the huge stigma, which faces outward, an angular, rounded shield that reminds people of a clock face – a face without numbers.  That’s the reason people in the East call these plants Dumbwatches. It’s a dial that doesn’t “speak” to you.

Sarracenia, showing the shield-like stigma remaining after petals have fallen

But clocks weren’t always chatty. Timepieces have changed continually; indeed it wasn’t until about 1690, following development of ideas about pendulums promoted by Galileo and more fully developed by another scientific genius, Christiaan Huygens (who introduced a practical pendulum clock in 1656), that clock faces really developed. The norm had been the sundial, which necessarily positioned noon at the top, and showed the progress of the gnomon’s shadow in a “clockwise” direction. Following that standard, with additional mechanisms it became possible to measure time to within an accuracy of a few seconds each day…, at which point the minute hand and all of those dots were added to the face, reflecting circumferential degrees of a circle.

American Case Clock in the Fielding wing of the Scott Gallery, Jonathan Milliken, ca 1775
Armillary Sundial in the Rose Garden

The day will come when children aren’t taught to “read time” as many generations of people around the world have known it.  The clock face will be as anachronistic as the fixed sundial, and nearly as dumb as the Pitcherplant flower.

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