Growing carnivorous plants

 Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

You are about to enter the world of a rather unique, sometimes bizarre type of flora - carnivorous plant life. There are gardeners who lovingly cultivate these plants, often men who fell for the gruesome aspect of flesh-eating plants as little boys. One member of the International Carnivorous Plant Society (numbering about 1000 members) says he grew his first Venus flytraps for a science fair project when he was a kid.

However, if you're a gardener and a curious one at that, you may already have your own collection of carnivorous plants at home. If not, you may be considering the possibility of purchasing one and the information contained herein will help. Then again, you may just be interested in the uniqueness of fauna-eating-flora - the category into which I fit! Read on for a quick lesson in carnivorous plant life:

These plants have adapted to a carnivorous diet to get nutrients they can't get from their environment. Non-carnivores get fed from the decomposition of mulch, but carnivores flourish in a substrate so acidic that fungi and bacteria can't break down discarded plant material. In Florida and Georgia, carnivorous plants are often found in gravel ditches along the sides of roads.

So what is it about these "creepy" plants that intrigue growers? First, the whole idea is somewhat menacing. Most predatory plants set their traps for insect prey, from gnats to flies, beetles to wasps. It is said that the very large pitcher plant of Borneo captures an occasional rodent, but that may be hearsay.

Second, the colors and forms of carnivorous plants are unlike anything else in your garden, and usually quite beautiful. Pitcher plants growing in the swamps of New England are a sight to behold.

Third, the mechanisms that have evolved and the engineering of each one, are amazing. While flytraps are portrayed in fiction as huge plants capable of eating humans, flytrap leaves are generally as small as a fingernail. Most predatory plants are passive. They lure the unsuspecting with fragrance or color. A lurid maroon mimics rotting meat, for example, to beckon houseflies.

Pitcher plants use such color and odor to entice bugs to fall into their beakers, which are lined with downward-pointing hairs that make it impossible to climb back up. The clever trap of Sarracenia minor has translucent false windows in its hood, which tricks the bug into butting futilely against the membrane until it is too tired to continue; the bottom of the pitcher contains enzyme fluids in which the insect drowns. The enzymes work to digest the meal.

Plants that move use clever methods to capture prey. The Venus flytrap, touched twice, snaps shut on its prey in an instant. An electrical impulse transmitted to the midrib of the leaf makes this happen. For an hour, the leaf squeezes tighter until it's a flat pouch. It stays closed for as long as several weeks. Once its prey is consumed, the flytrap leaf opens; after a leaf has performed two or three times, the plant sheds it.

Despite their unique existence, savage plants are fairly easy to grow. They like poor soil, a lot of sun and lots of water. Except for tropical species, they go dormant in winter.

For propagating indoors, start with a terrarium. For a single plant, a big jar works just fine. For multiple plants, an aquarium is good. You'll need a lid to create a humid environment - 60 to 80 % is ideal. Layer the bottom of the terrarium with coarse, clean sand, and top it with long, green sphagnum moss.

Sarracenia pitcher plants produce rhizomes. Break off one with some root on it and stick it into the moss; water heavily. Sundews and Venus flytraps can be reproduced from cuttings. Stick the leafstalk into the moss, with the leaf lying flat on top. Plantlets will grow from the leaf surface.

Finally, the International Carnivorous Plant Society sells seeds, answers questions, and provides general information. You can visit their website at Many species of native carnivorous plants can be seen at the Bog Garden habitat at Garden in the Woods, part of the New England Wild Flower Society. For more information, contact the society at

It won't cost a fortune to experiment with a carnivorous plant. You can buy one of the basic plants for $4-$6. Others cost several times that amount, but starting with a basic plant is recommended. If you are into learning about something new, interested in cultivating a conversation piece, or have a few too many houseflies, just buy a Venus flytrap - and break out of your gardening mold.

Read other articles about controlling insects & garden pests

Read other articles by Kay Hinkle