Carnivorous Plants Invade The Ramble

Carnivorous plants are a fascinating lot. I remember as a very young kid wanting my mother to buy me the plants I saw with her at the grocery store. I don’t know why, but I just wanted them. When I saw my first Venus flytrap, I was enthralled. Of course I killed it quickly.

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, grow naturally in the wetlands of the Carolinas and other eastern coastal states. It’s by far the most commonly encountered carnivorous plant in cultivation, and you can find them for sale in gardening stores and nurseries. They have a reputation for being difficult to grow. I believe the difficulty exists in maintaining one of the constants they need to survive: consistently and constantly damp soil. They cannot be allowed to dry out. While most plants can’t tolerate “wet feet,” the flytrap requires it. Its soil should not be saturated, however, since the roots can rot. The best solution I’ve found is placing the potted plant into a saucer and keeping the saucer full of water. I also had success transplanting my flytrap into pure sphagnum moss (or peat moss, provided it’s NOT fortified with fertilizers), which you can find wherever orchid-growing supplies are sold.

The flytrap evolved to survive where other plants cannot: in nitrogen- and phosphorus-poor environments, such as in bogs. In fact, do not fertilize them at all! They get their supplemental nutrients by digesting insects in their infamous traps.

While not a tropical plant, they do thrive in our direct summer sun, provided the water doesn’t run out. They also require some “down time” in the winter when they can go dormant, so don’t use artificial “grow” lights to supplement the sun during our sub-tropical winters.

The other kinds of carnivorous plants you may encounter are:

Sundews (Drosera), which resemble an octopus with outstretched arms. They trap prey on the sticky arms and slowly wrap them up and digest them. Some sundews are tiny plants, and would fit on a quarter. Sundews are some of the most varied of the carnivorous plants, with nearly 200 species in the genus Drosera.

Pitcher plants (Nepenthes), famous for their pitcher-shaped traps. Insects fall into the pitchers seeking sweet-smelling secretions only to be unable to exit, due to the pitcher’s downward facing hairs. They die, and are digested inside the pitcher. Pitchers can make the most beautiful houseplants, as they are often multiple shades of green variegated with purple and maroon markings, with “lids” atop the pitcher, making them look like lidded German beer steins.

Nepenthes 'Mata Hari' in Fairchild’s Conservatory

Butterworts (Pinguicula) look like innocuous little plants, with a rosette of leaves resembling almost a ground-hugging kind of fern or lichen. Their leaves often appear glistening with moisture, probably a way to lure insects, which are then trapped by sticky secretions, and digested (sundews use a similar luring strategy). Like other carnivores, they prefer nutrient-poor soil.

Carnivorous is really inaccurate, since these plants are insectivorous and don’t consume other types of “meat”. Well except for Attenborough’s pitcher plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii) It lives in the Philippines, and has been documented to have eaten a shrew, and Nepenthes rajah from Borneo, known to occasionally snack on lizards, and supposedly rats from time to time.

You can imagine I was thrilled to learn we have vendors at this year’s Ramble selling carnivorous plants! I even ran into one of the vendors at another local event. They were extremely helpful and knowledgeable, with beautiful plants for sale. Come to the Ramble this Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday and you might just get hooked and leave with some new bug-eating friends.