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 pitcherplants that are simpler to grow, such as the purple pitcher plant (Sarraceniapurpurea), which thrives in zones two through nine and is adaptable to a widerange of growing environments. Some varieties are suited to colder areas, whileothers like it hot and humid.
Another type of purple pitcher plant grows inthe wild in Canada and grows well in temperate to cool regions, while theyellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) needs a warm, humid environment, suchas the coastal regions of Texas or the boggy Florida swamplands.
Cobra pitcher plants (Darlingtoniacalifornica) are very difficult to cultivate, and gardeners will have verylittle 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 thesouthern 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 PitcherPlants
Growing pitcher plants outdoors is all aboutpicking the right site and providing the proper soil. These plants do notrequire a rich, organic soil, instead preferring a slightly acidic nitrogen-deprivedmedium that has excellent drainage. Pitcher plants perform well in environmentsfrom 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 remainconstantly moist, and the plants themselves need to be kept wet. For thisreason, pitcher plants perform very well in water gardens and boggyenvironments. You can also plant them at the edges of a pond and have themgrowing out of the water so that they stay wet without a lot of extra effort onyour part.
How to Care for Pitcher Plants
There is very little care needed to ensure thesuccess of your pitcher plants once the ideal growing conditions are met andthe plants are established. If growing your pitcher plants indoors, the perfecttemperature range is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Fertilize yourindoor pitcher plants at the beginning of the spring using a high-qualityorchid food. Fertilize again each month until the fall.
Indoor pitcher plants should also be fedinsects occasionally. If using dried insects, you will want to use a toothpickto simulate live prey with movement inside the pitcher so that your plant willsecrete more digestive enzymes to break down the insect it believes it hastrapped. There is no need to mimic motion if living insects are used becausethey will naturally writhe around a bit when they fall into the pitcher trap.
There is no need to use fertilizers whengrowing pitcher plants outdoors, as they should get plenty of insects to eatand will get the majority of the nutrients they need to grow and expand fromtheir diet. Outdoor pitcher plants will start to lose some of their pitcherseach year. As they start to die back, cut them away with a sharp, clean pair ofgarden shears. In the fall, mulch around the base of the rosettes to protectyour outdoor pitcher plants from winter freezes.
Reproduction of Pitcher Plants
If you like growing the carnivorous pitcherplant, you will no doubt want to eventually propagate some of your specimens toincrease the amount of pitcher plants in your garden. The best ways topropagate pitcher plants are by either planting the seeds or by rootingcuttings. Though carnivorous plants appear to be exotic and hard to grow, bothpropagation methods are highly successful and require little effort.
Harvest pitcher plant seeds by breaking openthe dried capsules over an envelope or dry paper towel. Place the seeds into asandwich bag with a fungicide, such as Captan, then shake the bag vigorouslyuntil the seeds are coated in the fungicide. Place the seeds and the fungicidepowder onto a paper towel and blow off the extra powder. Next, spread out theseeds on a damp paper towel, roll the towel up, and put them into a Ziploc bagto store in the refrigerator for two or three months.
Sprinkle the seeds over a mixture of sand andpeat moss to sprout the pitcher plant seedlings. Water your seedlings, andplace the planter tray under grow lights for 18 hours per day. Germination andsprouting could take many weeks. Seedlings need to stay under the grow lightsfor at least four months before transplanting them into their permanent homes.
A quicker method to propagate pitcher plantsis by rooting a cutting. Cut off pieces of stems that have two or three leaveson them, then clip each leaf in half. Cut the bottom of the stem diagonally andcover it with a rooting hormone powder. Fill a planting container with sphagnummoss and soak it with water. Make a hole in the moss with a pencil and placethe powdered stem into the hole, pushing the moss around the stem to secure itin 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: