By Rob Co at The Pitcher Plant Project
If you’ve ever read my blog, then you know it’s no secret that I absolutely adore plants. Especially carnivorous plants. And especially carnivorous pitcher plants! There are many types of carnivorous plants with different types of trapping mechanisms. But my favorite ones are Sarracenia—the North American pitcher plant. These plants are curious, devious, deadly—and simply beautiful masterpieces—like finely sculpted vases with a dark side.
Sarracenia can be found growing in wetlands and bogs of the southeast US. The range of one species even extends into New England and Canada. They grow in bogs that are low in nutrients, but have a shrewd adaptation and obtain their sustenance elsewhere—in the little flying and crawling packets of nutrients that are all around them!
These plants employ ingenious and complex devices to lure, trap, and digest their prey. A combination of colors, scents, and sweet intoxicating nectar are used to attract a meal. And to prevent prey from escaping, these botanical curiosities use slippery interior wall surfaces, downward pointing hairs, and in some cases “windows” that provide a false hope of escape.
The insects are drawn to the plant by the colors that the plants emit. Then the insects then start sipping on the sweet nectar that the plant produces, which can be found throughout various parts of the pitcher leaf. The trail of nectar leads up to an area where the nectar is mostly concentrated—around slick and smooth lid/mouth, which doesn’t provide a good foothold at all. The insects find themselves gravitating towards that part of the pitcher. It has been said that some Sarracenia’s nectar even contains a very small amount of “coniine”—a neurotoxin that intoxicates the prey as they sip. (Don’t worry—there’s no effect to humans or larger mammals, but it is a different story to bugs.) On multiple occasions I’ve walked up to flies that have had a little too much to drink and have been able to gently nudge them into the pitcher. Yeah, the insects are that out of it. Down goes the drunken victim into the watery abyss. Some pitcher plants (such as Sarracenia minor) have “windows” that give the insect a false sense of hope that it can escape. The insect tries to escape the pit of death and flies towards the light, but alas—it cannot escape. Eventually it tires and falls into the abyss. At the base of the pitcher, a pool of enzymes break down the prey so the plant can absorb the nutrients. That pool is also lined with downward pointing hairs that guide the meal in and prevent escape. These plants are truly cylindrical savages.
The beauty of Sarracenia is not only found in their devious methods of lure and capture, but also in their appearance. Their pitchers can easily be mistaken for “flowers,” but they are actually modified leaves of the plant.
Each spring the flowers emerge–colors range from cream to deep red with everything else in between—depending on the species or species influence in the hybrids. Sarracenia flowers appear like an upside-down umbrella and they have this otherworldly beauty like some type of magical sea creature.
Pitcher plants take many forms, shapes, and sizes and they can hybridize with each other very easily. That’s the other thing I love about them: the creative aspect of breeding. I’ve been working with the plants for the past decade and enjoy creating my own hybrids. You see, hybrids can be hybridized with other hybrids providing endless creative possibilities. Colors, forms, and shapes can all be combined and recombined. There is so much potential and the combinations are truly endless.
Pitcher plants are also relatively easy to grow, provided the basics are followed:
These plants are native to USDA Zones 4-8.
Outdoors or indoors?
Outdoors is best—the plants have better air circulation, exposure to the elements (which will make them stronger), exposure to the natural seasons, and easier access to insects, which they love! Indoors on a sunny windowsill is a possibility, however one will run the risk of weaker, lanky, and less colorful plants if there isn’t enough light or food. The risk of fungus also increases if there isn’t enough light/air flow. Greenhouses can certainly work, but growing outdoors is strongly advised.
Full sun, all day. They grow best in a sunny location.
The plants need clean water (distilled, rain water, or reverse osmosis filtered water is best) and need to be kept moist at all times. Tap water generally has too many minerals that the plants are sensitive to. Remember, they come from bogs that are lacking in nutrients and minerals. Also, they love to stay wet. I usually have my plants in large water tables or trays of water. Their pots just sit in the water of a depth of one to two centimeters and are constantly wet.
I use a peat moss based mixture. Usually equal parts of peat moss to perlite, or peat moss to sand. Sometimes I use pure peat moss. Do not use peat moss with the added fertilizers as that can be detrimental to the plants.
Plastic pots or glazed ceramics are suggested. Basically anything that won’t leech any type of mineral, salts, or metals into the soil. Terra cotta pots can be risky because of the mineral and salt content that can leech into the potting media, which can be detrimental to the plant. Terra cotta can be used if the salts and minerals are leeched out—simply soak the terra cotta pot for 24-48 hours in clean water (distilled or reverse osmosis). Although terrariums may be popular for many types of plants, it can be tricky for Sarracenias, and in some instances, may limit the growth and health of the plant. For instance, terrariums have the potential of limiting air circulation and may overheat if placed in direct sunlight, also known as the “greenhouse effect.” These precautions are necessary for growing Sarracenias in terrariums and must be maintained in order for these plants to thrive in a healthy environment. However, types of terrariums with a large, wide opening allowing good air circulation—such as a large glass bowl or tank—may work just fine.
They’ll catch their own food and feed on insects, especially when grown outdoors! If you’re concerned, dropping in a couple bugs every month or so should be sufficient. Also, avoid feeding the plants animal protein like hamburger. This is a common misconception. The plants expect bugs, not cows. Although they have been documented to capture other creatures like small lizards, animal protein is not what they have adapted to lure and digest—at least not yet, anyway. Plus, I don’t think you’ll want to deal with the stench of rotting protein.
In late fall or winter, the plants will start to go dormant. Pitchers will start to die back. The dead pitchers can be removed as new growth will happen in the spring. Cut back on watering and just let soil stay moist—but not in standing water. They can handle frost/snow, but protect plants from any deep freezes.
If you have any questions or want to find out more about these plants, I’d love to hear from you!
Have you grown carnivorous plants before? Did Rob convince you to try? Let us know in the comments below.
Robert Co is a carnivorous plant enthusiast and creator of The Pitcher Plant Project—a blog where readers can partake in his obsession for growing carnivorous plants, specifically Sarracenia, the North American pitcher plant. He enjoys sharing helpful tips and advice on how to successfully grow this crafty species.
Co has grown and hybridized Sarracenia for the past 10 years and in the process has amassed his own unique collection.
A lover of gardening since childhood, Co attributes his passion for plants to his green-thumb grandparents. The Pitcher Plant Project is his way of honoring their legacy. He currently resides in Pacifica with his wife Dahlia and their two boys, Josiah and Lucas.
You can find Rob on his blog and on Instagram.