by Matt Gibson
Pitcher plants look like an exotic, rare, tropical species that you would expect to find growing only on a little-known island somewhere in the Caribbean. In actuality, many species of pitcher plants are native to the southern United States, in the swampy, boggy regions of Louisiana and Mississippi.
If you’re looking to start keeping these unusual plants yourself, this article will tell you everything you need to know to grow and care for pitcher plants. Carnivorous plants develop in nutrient-poor soils and therefore have developed alternative ways of getting their nutrients. These plants form traps, sticky spots, and enzyme-filled pools to capture and consume their prey, drawing the nutrients that they need to survive from unlucky insects that fall into their grasp.
Some carnivorous plants develop super-sticky leaves that will trap any insect that lands upon them, and some have suction cup leaves, or long, inescapable chambers with entrances that draw shut behind the insects that crawl or fly inside.
Other bog-loving plants, like the famous venus flytrap, become equipped with what are known as snap traps. These hinged, sharp-toothed leaves feature tiny hairs that are triggered when prey land inside the trap. When the hairs are touched, the doors snap shut around the prey, capturing the insect inside the plant’s its airtight chambers so it can feeding on the insect while it is still alive inside.
The pitcher plant, however, develops what are known as pitfall traps, in which the leaves curl to form deep pools. The insides of the pitcher-shaped leaves become coated and partially filled with digestive enzymes that encourage insects to slip down into the liquid-filled pitchers.
There the enzymes work to break down and consume the trapped insects (and even small mammals) that fall inside, in the same way that your stomach breaks down a meal.
Varieties of Pitcher Plants
There are about 80 different species of pitcher plants that share the genus names Sarracenia, Nepenthes, and Darlingtonia. Many of these varieties are not suited to growing outdoors, specifically those from the Nepenthes genus, which are tropical plants that require an incredibly humid environment to thrive.
However, there are many varieties of pitcher plants that are simpler to grow, such as the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), which thrives in zones two through nine and is adaptable to a wide range of growing environments. Some varieties are suited to colder areas, while others like it hot and humid.
Another type of purple pitcher plant grows in the wild in Canada and grows well in temperate to cool regions, while the yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) needs a warm, humid environment, such as the coastal regions of Texas or the boggy Florida swamplands.
Cobra pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica) are very difficult to cultivate, and gardeners will have very little success if they try to grow this species outside of its natural habitat. Cobra pitcher plants grow only in the northern tip of California and the southern lands of Oregon.
The green-spotted pitcher plant and the parrot pitcher plant (Sarracenia psittacina) are warm season annuals. They are both on the endangered species list and are therefore illegal to sell or to harvest from the wild.
Growing Conditions for Pitcher Plants
Growing pitcher plants outdoors is all about picking the right site and providing the proper soil. These plants do not require a rich, organic soil, instead preferring a slightly acidic nitrogen-deprived medium that has excellent drainage. Pitcher plants perform well in environments from full sunlight to light shade.
If you’re growing pitcher plants indoors, pick any type of container for them, then provide a well-draining, low-fertility mixture, such as an equal mix of peat moss, bark, and vermiculite. The size of the pot is not important, as pitcher plants do well in small, confined spaces but will also adapt to larger containers if given the extra space. They also perform well inside of terrariums.
The pitcher plant’s soil needs to remain constantly moist, and the plants themselves need to be kept wet. For this reason, pitcher plants perform very well in water gardens and boggy environments. You can also plant them at the edges of a pond and have them growing out of the water so that they stay wet without a lot of extra effort on your part.
How to Care for Pitcher Plants
There is very little care needed to ensure the success of your pitcher plants once the ideal growing conditions are met and the plants are established. If growing your pitcher plants indoors, the perfect temperature range is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Fertilize your indoor pitcher plants at the beginning of the spring using a high-quality orchid food. Fertilize again each month until the fall.
Indoor pitcher plants should also be fed insects occasionally. If using dried insects, you will want to use a toothpick to simulate live prey with movement inside the pitcher so that your plant will secrete more digestive enzymes to break down the insect it believes it has trapped. There is no need to mimic motion if living insects are used because they will naturally writhe around a bit when they fall into the pitcher trap.
There is no need to use fertilizers when growing pitcher plants outdoors, as they should get plenty of insects to eat and will get the majority of the nutrients they need to grow and expand from their diet. Outdoor pitcher plants will start to lose some of their pitchers each year. As they start to die back, cut them away with a sharp, clean pair of garden shears. In the fall, mulch around the base of the rosettes to protect your outdoor pitcher plants from winter freezes.
Reproduction of Pitcher Plants
If you like growing the carnivorous pitcher plant, you will no doubt want to eventually propagate some of your specimens to increase the amount of pitcher plants in your garden. The best ways to propagate pitcher plants are by either planting the seeds or by rooting cuttings. Though carnivorous plants appear to be exotic and hard to grow, both propagation methods are highly successful and require little effort.
Harvest pitcher plant seeds by breaking open the dried capsules over an envelope or dry paper towel. Place the seeds into a sandwich bag with a fungicide, such as Captan, then shake the bag vigorously until the seeds are coated in the fungicide. Place the seeds and the fungicide powder onto a paper towel and blow off the extra powder. Next, spread out the seeds on a damp paper towel, roll the towel up, and put them into a Ziploc bag to store in the refrigerator for two or three months.
Sprinkle the seeds over a mixture of sand and peat moss to sprout the pitcher plant seedlings. Water your seedlings, and place the planter tray under grow lights for 18 hours per day. Germination and sprouting could take many weeks. Seedlings need to stay under the grow lights for at least four months before transplanting them into their permanent homes.
A quicker method to propagate pitcher plants is by rooting a cutting. Cut off pieces of stems that have two or three leaves on them, then clip each leaf in half. Cut the bottom of the stem diagonally and cover it with a rooting hormone powder. Fill a planting container with sphagnum moss and soak it with water. Make a hole in the moss with a pencil and place the powdered stem into the hole, pushing the moss around the stem to secure it in the ground.
Water the pot after planting the stems and cover the whole container in a plastic bag. Place the container and the bag under grow lights, and keep it there for two months. Once the plant cuttings begin to root, they will grow new leaves. Now they can be transplanted into their permanent homes.
Videos About Pitcher Plants
BBC’s David Attenborough traveled to a secluded island to show the world some rare carnivorous plants. In this BBC Studios wildlife special titled “The Secret Life of Plants,” David shows off the pitcher plant, using a time lapse film of the pitcher plant growing from a seedling into a full-grown, meat-eating monster. The film also shows how the plant kills and ingests its prey:
This video is Smithsonian channel’s exposé on carnivorous plants, starting with the notorious venus flytrap, then moving to the pitcher plant. Most carnivorous plants are limited to consuming only insects for nutrition. This film shows how the pitcher plant is an exception to that rule and can digest creatures as big as a small mouse:
Want to know how a pitcher plant’s stomach sac works first hand? This short film shows a curious science enthusiast dissecting a pitcher plant and describing how the plant breaks down and consumes its prey. Want to know what they find in the pitcher plant’s stomach? Spoiler alert: It’s the remains of more than 20 wasps. If one pitcher plant can take out that many wasps, everyone should have several of them growing on their property:
In this episode of Burke’s Backyard, Don Burke interviews carnivorous plant expert David Banks about pitcher plants. David is a botanist and author who specializes in rare, tropical plants: