by Matt Gibson
A carnivorous plant is a member of a species that can attract, capture, consume, and digest prey with the digestive compounds it produces. Patience is key for gardeners growing these hungry plants, as carnivorous plants tend to use up a lot of their energy in pursuit of food. They focus on creating traps and making enzymes that can break down prey, burning valuable energy that could otherwise be spent on more rapid growth.
So why are carnivorous plants so intriguing? The answer is pretty simple. Plants aren’t normally able to eat other creatures. Sure, as dead things break down into the soil, nutrients from their bodies can be consumed by plants as fertilizer, but plants actually trapping and consuming living creatures? That’s pretty incredible stuff, to say the least. But it’s just one of the many truly odd ways that Mother Nature has adapted to thrive, no matter a plant’s surroundings. Carnivorous plants grow where other plants can’t. In the wild, they’re usually found in soggy, nutrient-deficient soil. How do these plants survive without proper nutrients? By finding their fuel it in other, less expected ways.
The Most Common Types of Carnivorous Plants
The three most popular types of carnivorous plants are sundews, pitcher plants, and flytraps. We’ve got the scoop on each as well as some information on less common varieties.
Sundews are carnivores that are covered in sticky red tentacles that close around insects unlucky enough to land upon the plant. The prey is then drawn to the plant’s trap by the sweet smell that it emits from a sugary adhesive, which oozes from the hair-like tentacles that cover its leaves. The most common carnivorous plant, sundews tend to have voracious appetites, and they can even catch and consume small frogs and reptiles.
Pitcher plants are the most hardy of the carnivorous plants. They are commonly found growing in the wild in the boggy areas of Northeast America and flourish all the way to Central Canada. Pitcher plants create deep pitcher-shaped structures with their leaves. The lip of the pitcher secretes a nectar that attracts insects. Further down inside the pitchers, more nectar is collected, which urges prey to travel deep inside the receptacle. Once the prey travels down into the pitcher, it’s too late. Pitcher plants either have super-slick interior walls which cause would-be escapee insects to slide back down to the bottom of the trap, or they grow sharp, downward-facing hairs, which keep prey from traveling back upward to freedom. Once the insects hit the bottom of the pitcher, enzymes are released to start breaking them down so that the pitcher plant can digest them.
Though Venus flytraps are the most culturally iconic carnivorous plant, beginning carnivorous curators should not attempt to grow flytraps if they wish to avoid some serious frustration. Though flytraps aren’t impossible to keep happy, they are very finicky plants, especially particular about soil and water. They require six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily and must have full winter dormancy every year, or they will die. Once you have a some experience with carnivorous plants and have a little knowhow under your belt, feel free to try your hand at flytraps. Until then, you’ll be more successful if you stick with hardier species of carnivorous plants, such as sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts, or triggerplants.
Bladderworts are the largest family of carnivorous plants. They grow tiny bladders that drink up their microscopic prey, which include larvae and nematodes. This carnivorous variety recognizes movement of prey when they cross tiny sensory hairs on each bladder, causing the bladders to open up and suck the prey inside.
When an insect lands on a triggerplant searching for nectar, a column, which the plant keeps cocked back and ready, drops the hammer and splashes a dollop of sticky pollen on the insect. This sticky situation traps the prey in place so that the triggerplant can slowly devour it alive.
Growing Conditions for Carnivorous Plants
Carnivorous plants are native to bogs, and contrary to popular belief, these exotic specimens are actually not that hard to grow. As long as you can replicate their natural growing conditions, carnivorous plants will thrive and help keep your garden’s insect population to a minimum in the process. All you need to do is maintain an environment that’s damp, wet, and with some species, even soggy. In order to create the humid environment your carnivorous plants feel most comfortable in, they will need lots of sunlight as well, though indirect light will work better than full sun. A humidifier placed near the grow site is a great idea if you’re growing these plants indoors.
You will also need to use an acidic, mineral-free soil and hydrate with mineral-free water to create the ideal conditions for growing carnivorous plants. That’s because most tap water has too many additives for carnivorous plant growth. Collected rainwater, reverse osmosis water, distilled water, or deionized water are all good ways to make sure your carnivorous plants get plenty of moisture.
If you don’t live in a tropical or subtropical region, providing the needed conditions for carnivorous plants may prove a challenge. However, you can build a terrarium or vivarium that will replicate their natural habitat in a contained enclosure, allowing you to maintain a miniature bog no matter what climate you live in. If you don’t feel up to building your own enclosure, you could also repurpose an aquarium to make a carnivorous plant habitat.
Planting Carnivorous Plants
It is not recommended for beginners to grow carnivorous plants from seed. Instead, your best bet is to purchase seedlings online or at a local plant shop. Once you have a bit more experience and have done some research, feel free to try your hand at planting carnivorous plants from seed, but to kick off your collection, going with the seedlings will earn you a much higher success rate. If you are using a terrarium or vivarium, make sure to leave it open so that the humidity does not go overboard and create an environment prone to fungal infections.
Most carnivorous plants need specific soil specifications, but generally, a mix of equal parts sphagnum moss, perlite, and sand works for most species. The most important thing to consider when selecting soil for carnivorous plants is to avoid fertilizer and choose mineral-free products, as fertilizer or minerals are sure to kill the plants. Playbox sand is usually free of any fertilizers or minerals. Be careful to keep an eye out for Oregon green moss being sold as sphagnum moss, as this variety will also kill carnivorous plants. Check to be sure that what you’re buying is actually sphagnum moss—preferably domestically grown long fiber sphagnum.
How to Care for Carnivorous Plants
To replicate the bog environment, you want to keep the soil soggy. The most efficient way to do this is to use the tray method. Keep pots in a tray or saucer, and keep water in the container at all times. Pitcher plants enjoy a lot of excess water, so you can keep the water levels in their trays halfway up the pot. However, most carnivorous plants will do best with a quarter inch of water. Replace the moisture when your plants begin to run dry by watering from below. This method will ensure that you don’t wash off the sticky mucilage that sundews and butterworts need to capture their prey. Watering from below will also keep flytraps from closing prematurely, as drops of water can trigger a false alarm for their traps. Again, use distilled water or reverse osmosis water, never bottled water or tap water, as mineral content can burn out carnivorous plants and kill them off.
Do not fertilize or feed carnivorous plants as a general rule, as they prefer to grow in soil with a low mineral content. Instead of getting their nutrition from the soil, these plants get it from devouring prey. Each plant should only need one or two insects per month to thrive. If your carnivorous plants aren’t getting enough to eat from flybys in their environment, you can purchase freeze-dried insects from a pet shop.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Carnivorous Plants
Carnivorous plants may eat insects, but they still have to deal with fending off certain garden pests that they don’t consider food. Aphids, mealybugs, snails, slugs and caterpillars can sometimes pester carnivorous plants. Sprays that are recommended for plant use won’t hurt these exotics any more than other plants and can be an effective remedy. Botrytis is a fluffy grey mould that can sometimes infect pitcher plants and Venus flytraps during the spring or autumn seasons. You can try using a fungicide if you catch a botrytis outbreak early enough, but be aware you will most likely still need to cut away and discard all infected plant materials to save the plants.
Videos on Growing Carnivorous Plants
This video teaches you how to grow the three most popular carnivorous plants: sundews, flytraps and pitcher plants.
This video teaches you how to build a carnivorous plant rock garden.
This video teaches you how to start your own carnivorous plant bog garden in a bathtub.
Want to learn more about growing carnivorous plants?
Better Homes & Gardens covers Growing Carnivorous Plants Outdoors
Carnivorous Plant Nursery covers Carnivorous Plants Growing & Care
Grow Carnivorous Plants covers Carnivorous Care Guides
Little Shop of Horrors covers Carnivorous Pests & Diseases
Mother Earth Living covers How to Grow Carnivorous Plants
Reptiles Magazines covers Carnivorous Plants For Beginners