Carnivorous Plants




Carnivorous plants, or insect-eating plants, are specially adapted to survive in poor soils.  To make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil, they are designed to catch and digest animals (usually insects).  They’re not as rare as you might think – there are nearly a thousand different species and they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.  They’re also not as hard to grow as you might think – once you know some basic information.  Plus, they’re a lot more fun than regular house plants!

My first experience with carnivorous plants (CP) was seeing little ads in the back of comic books and "Boy's Life" magazine offering "flesh-eating plants!"  As a teenager I bought my first Venus Fly-Trap, which died after a few weeks. It wasn't until I discovered a good book at the local library that I’ve had more success.  I'm now in my 30's and my collection consists mostly of North American Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia), various Sundews (Drosera), a few flytraps, and miscellaneous others.  Most of my plants do best when I grow them outside, rather than inside as house plants.  I'm currently living in the Los Angeles area of Southern California (San Fernando Valley) but have previously grown CPs in Salt Lake City, Utah. The climate in both locations is fairly similar, although Salt Lake City is much colder in the winter, but both are basically hot and dry and not particularly ideal for CP, but they grow well enough in spite of the low humidity.  I'm happy to offer what help I can if you are trying to grow CPs in similar circumstances. 

Outdoor CP Bog Garden

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Basic Growing Tips for Beginners

Following are some growing tips based on my own observations and what I’ve learned from others.  In particular, these tips may be most useful to those attempting to grow Sarracenia, VFTs, and most Drosera in less than ideal conditions.  I strongly recommend getting a good book like "The Savage Garden" by Peter D'Amato.  Not all books at the local library will have reliable information.   Some other authors I can recommend (although they might be hard to find) are Adrian Slack and Don Schnell.  Above all, you should take into account your local conditions when determining how to apply these tips and others.

Water.  Typically, CPs are native to wet, boggy areas, so they'll prefer to be much wetter than regular houseplants.  Many will even prefer to be left frequently standing in water.  I use rain water that I collect from the rain gutters on the house and store it in a 32 gallon plastic trash can with a lid.  Distilled or RO (reverse osmosis) water is also very good but can be expensive (be careful not to use mineral water or "drinking" water).  Regular tap water is usually not suitable for CPs as it often contains high amounts of dissolved solids and added chemicals such as chlorine.  It might be a good idea to call your local water department and ask about the water in your area before using much tap water.  In particular, ask about the tds (total dissolved solids).   In my Salt Lake City neighborhood the tds varied throughout the year, from a low of about 100 tds around December, to a high of just over 300 tds in August and September (when the water supply draws more heavily from underground wells).  Generally, water should be under 100 tds before you regularly use it on your CPs. 

Light.  Most CPs like lots of light.  Sarracenia, most Drosera, and VFTs do best with bright sunshine.  Nepenthes and some Pinguicula will prefer some shading.  My plants do best outside (in spite of the low humidity here) where they usually get several hours of direct sunshine.  A bright windowsill will also work, but be aware that temperatures can get high when the sun is shining on your plants.  I've also grown many plants under fluorescent lights, which do not generate a lot of heat.  Reflectors placed around the lights and plants will help to increase the light on the plants.

Soil.  Carnivorous plants are native to poor soils, so regular potting soil is generally not suitable.  I prefer peat moss mixed with white silica sand (the kind used for sandblasting) which is about the cheapest mix.  I usually mix it about 1:1 peat/sand, or 2:1 peat/sand for a mix that won't dry out as quickly.  Perilite can be substituted for the sand.  I've also added such things as chopped pine needles to my soil, which helps to make it more acidic, which most CPs prefer.  Another option I've had success with (although more expensive) is dried long-fiber sphagnum moss (in my experience, Darlingtonia grows well only in long-fiber sphagnum).  I've also heard that live sphagnum moss is very good for some plants.  
        Peat moss is readily available in large bales for around US$4.00.  I've found white silica sand in 100 lb bags at a local home improvement store called Sutherland's that caters more to contractors and construction people for about US$5.00.  Dried long-fiber sphagnum moss can be difficult to find locally.  Often, nurseries will sell "green moss" or "sheet moss," which is not suitable for CPs.  I've found it (locally) sold as "orchid moss" or packaged for fisherman to store their worms in.  I've also bought it on the web from Calwest Orchid Supplies for a reasonable price.

Potting.  Plastic pots with drainage holes are the best.  They're usually not the prettiest options (much to the annoyance of my wife), but they work better than clay pots.  Sitting them in extra-deep water saucers will make it easier to keep them wet.  I prefer using a long plastic window-box type pot, about 3 feet long, and growing lots of plants together.  It makes them easier to water and care for, although the pot can get a bit heavy. 

Humidity.  Most CPs grow in very humid environments.  Salt Lake City is not very humid!  During the summer, relative humidity usually averages between about 35-40% at night and 10-20% during the day.  I do several things which I hope increase the humidity around my plants.  First of all, I have a healthy lawn and garden, which should improve the local microclimate.  Also, I try not to put my plants in windy locations.  And spraying the surrounding area (not the plants!) with the hose helps, especially on the hottest days.
        I only grow a couple of Nepenthes, but the only thing I've been able to do for them to achieve high enough humidity (when not grown in a greenhouse) is to cover the whole plant with a large clear plastic bag (when grown under lights).  It's not pretty, but it works.

Feeding/Fertilizer.  CPs usually catch plenty of bugs on their own, especially when grown outside.  You can give them the occasional bug, but don’t overdo it.  And never feed them anything like hamburger!  I’ve experimented with weak foliar fertilizers on seedlings, and while it may have helped a bit, I find they grow best when allowed to catch insects.

Dormancy.  Although I've listed this topic last, failure to provide a dormant period caused me to lose all the pitcher plants I initially tried. Sarracenia need a "rest" period each year, similar to trees stopping growth during the winter. If they do not get this rest period, they will become progressively weaker until they die. For plants being grown outside in a bog, simply mulch them with a good layer of pine needles and nature takes care of it. For plants grown under lights, gradually reduce the light period to about 7 or 8 hours a day, and keep them in a cool spot. Another option is to keep them on a cold windowsill, or move them into a cool garage for two or three months.  Overall, I find it difficult to maintain plants dormant inside, with my Sarracenia usually sending up flowers by the end of January, but it seems to be enough.

Other online sources of information I have found helpful:
The Carnivorous Plant FAQ
Niagara Exotics (formerly Cherryhill CP)
Botanique Nursery
Best Carnivorous Plants (pygmy Drosera)

The International Carnivorous Plant Society homepage
Los Angeles Carnivorous Plant Society webpage
Carnivorous Plants of the Gulf Coast
Carnivorous Plant database
Meadowview Biological Research Station 
Carnivorous Plant Listserv
Carnivorous Plant Listserv - past archives
Carnivorous Plants of Western Australia
Uhaul North Carolina CPs


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Last updated: January 8, 2004. since January 1, 2002.
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