Carnivorous pitcher plant care

Carnivorous greenery make fine houseplants. Chances are, a well-stocked nursery or garden center near you has a selection, most likely pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. Two good destinations are Logee’s family-owned nursery in Danielson and Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford. To care for a carnivorous plant, it’s important to understand they are plants much like any other, and not some hybrid of plant and animal. Pitcher plants, sundews and Venus flytraps all use photosynthesis, have roots and share most other features with plants. Trapping and consuming insects merely supplements what are otherwise normal plant life processes. The proper way to look at caring for a carnivorous plant is to see it as only a slightly exotic, but otherwise ordinary plant.

What You’ll Need

  • Well-drained garden plot or pot with drainage hole
  • Perlite or sand
  • Peat moss
  • Distilled water or filtered water
  • Spray bottle
  • Feed insects (indoor plants only)

Instructions

  1. Plant the carnivorous plant in a well-drained location or a pot with a drainage hole. Fill either the pot or the garden bed with a mixture of one-third perlite or sand and two-thirds peat moss.
  2. Water the plant frequently using distilled or filtered water. Carnivorous plants need moist soil, and are sensitive to chemical contaminants.
  3. Carnivorous plants need a lot of light to grow well, but many of them can’t tolerate too much heat. If you have a bright windowsill that gets the morning sun, your plants will grow well there. If you don’t, you can use artificial light. Hang a standard fluorescent light 12 inches above your plants, and keep it on about 14 hours per day in the summer and eight hours a day in the winter. Fluorescent lights help your plants to grow, but won’t cause them to overheat.
  4. Mist your plants with a spray bottle once or twice per day, or more if the humidity is unusually low.
  5. Feed your plant if it resides primarily indoors. Most carnivorous plants require one or two flies about once a month. Outdoor plants feed themselves. Be warned: Only feed your carnivorous plants insects that are part of their wild diet, such as flies, gnats, mites and sowbugs. Some large species even consume small frogs. Never feed the plant meat products.
  6. If you keep your plants outdoors, be sure to bring them inside during the colder weather. Carnivorous plants usually come from humid, warm climates, and no variety performs well in dry conditions, cold or freezing winters such as those in Connecticut.

Sergei Aleshin/.com

The Venus Fly Trap

The most iconic carnivorous plant in the country, and probably the world, is the Venus flytrap, some of whose leaves, designed along the lines of leghold traps, shut on unsuspecting insects — and sometimes small vertebrates such as frogs — that crawl onto the inner surfaces of the trap leaves. Touching several trigger hairs on the inner leaf causes it to close on the unfortunate insect.

But you’ll never see a Venus flytrap in the wild in Connecticut. They’re only found in a small area by the ocean in longleaf pine habitats in the coastal plain and sandhills, straddling the state lines of North and South Carolina.

This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Did you like what you read? You can subscribe here.

Contents

How to care for communities and carnivorous plants before they turn into a little shop of horrors

In 2016, I adopted my first carnivorous plants, a Venus Fly Trap and a Pitcher Plant, which my Facebook friends named Gordon and Bananarama, respectively. I quickly discovered that the health of Gordon and Bananarama was closely connected to the environment I provided as much as to their ability to catch the occasional bug and get energy from the sun. In this article, I’ll pull from my experience working with open source communities—and a few months of experience keeping Gordon and Bananarama alive—to explain how caring for carnivorous plants is much like caring for a community.

1. Prepare before diving in.

I should have researched carnivorous plants before impulsively buying a couple in the flower aisle of Whole Foods in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I didn’t. Had I done my homework, I would have learned that the Venus Fly Trap is the official State Carnivorous Plant of North Carolina, for example, and only about 35,000 currently grow in their natural habitat along our coastline. Instead, I nonchalantly threw the plants into my basket, right next to a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I hadn’t considered how plants, like open source communities, are living organisms with different needs, and that thrive under specific kinds of care. For someone like me who lacks a green thumb, this was a huge and somewhat costly mistake.

You shouldn’t join an open source community before first doing a bit of research, either. Knowing about a community’s history, culture, organization, and etiquette will help you avoid inadvertently causing damage. Like species of carnivorous plants, each community is unique and thrives under different conditions.

Luckily I did research carnivorous plants after I returned home with my new purchases. As it turns out, my carnivorous plants need rainwater or distilled water to survive, and they soak up the water from holes in the bottom of their pots. Had I poured tap water over my new plants, I easily could have killed them.

2. A sunny spot isn’t enough.

Healthy environments must be maintained. Carnivorous plants and communities can’t simply be placed in a sunny spot and then left alone to fend for themselves. They require maintenance, and what kind depends on various factors.

Carnivorous plants need a bunch of sunlight and mild temperatures, and they require a special, somewhat complicated mix of soil. Communities gather around a common interest and set of goals, but to thrive they also need organization, collaboration and communication tools, a recognition or reward system, and regular attention. A neglected community will not thrive or survive longer-term.

To maintain a healthy carnivorous plant or open source community requires observing and listening to feedback. A common mistake organizations make with open source communities is to create or share an open source project and assume that the community will organically form around it and do the rest. Rarely will a plant or community die unexpectedly; instead, they explicitly ask for help or send out warning signs first.

3. If it’s not broken, you might not need to fix it.

Gordon and Bananarama were happily thriving in my sunny kitchen, but I thought their original brown plastic pots were unattractive and missed a few features I thought my plants and I would like. I thought the plants would benefit from pots that sat in a tray of water, and I thought turquoise pots would look better in my bright kitchen than the drab brown ones. (The turquoise pots only came in a set of three, which is how I ended up with a third Pitcher Plant named Mouse, after the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. But that’s another story.)

Let’s say the pots my plants were thriving in were like IRC, and then I moved them over to Slack. That’s when I created new problems.

Carnivorous plants, like open source communities, are unpredictable about adapting to change. I knew I had to handle the move thoughtfully and get the soil mix just right, otherwise I’d harm instead of help my plants. The same is true when introducing change in open source communities. If your community effectively collaborates over IRC, are you sure moving to Slack will be an improvement? Or will the change result in a drop-off in communication or community member engagement? Or is it possible to add options, without taking away tools that already work?

My plants continued to grow and quickly outgrew the new blue pots. I’d given them a self-watering tray and colorful environments, but I forgot something: I’d failed to give them any room for growth. This was poor plant-community management on my part. The plants were still young and had a lot of potential, but I’d need to remove obstacles if I wanted them to grow.

4. Plan for growth, then adjust plans accordingly.

I needed to upgrade to a platform that would scale, and in plant terms, that means bigger pots. Bigger pots meant I’d need more soil mix. My $10 plants were becoming increasingly expensive and had needs for which I hadn’t budgeted.

I didn’t want to shock my plants by taking them out of soil they thrived in, but I needed to give them more soil to allow for bigger roots and new leaves. So I took the community-equivalent approach of keeping IRC and adding a couple of Slack channels—I kept the soil they were in, and I added a new mix of soil to help fill their new, bigger pots. I put them in a new window in my kitchen and decided to kick back and watch them grow.

5. Metrics matter.

Growth slowed down. Leaves started to brown. What did I do wrong?

I’d added a new mix of soil, put the plants in new pots, and moved them to a new window all at once. Because I made several major changes at the same time, I couldn’t pinpoint which change impacted my plants. I had the metrics to determine growth, but I didn’t have the metrics I needed to help point to why growth patterns had changed. (See James Falkner’s Community Metrics Playbook column for tips for what to measure for your community.)

On Opensource.com, for example, we look at lots of metrics to help us determine what topics interest readers, when and how frequently to post content or update social media to get the best results, and how site design affects reader engagement. Being mindful of how changes we control affect our metrics helps us determine whether the changes were good or bad for our community, and we also have to think about unexpected changes outside our control (for example, Facebook newsfeed algorithms).

6. Energy and enthusiasm ebbs and flows.

I’ve moved my plants to a different window to see if they perk up, but I still can’t be certain that something I did or didn’t do affected their growth. Could the change in productivity be a result of something beyond my control and the timing was simply coincidental? Perhaps.

Plants and communities both go through growth and productivity spurts. Because Venus Fly Traps are adapted to their environment, they go dormant during winter months, starting in the fall. Meanwhile, thanks to community metrics, we’ve noticed that activity tends to drop slightly on Opensource.com over holidays and at the end of a calendar year, and then readership and article submissions start picking up with fresh energy and enthusiasm in January.

Knowing when there will be bursts of energy before or after specific events or seasons helps when planning the care of communities and carnivorous plants. I can stop worrying that my brown thumb is why Gordon is being quiet now that I know it could be normal behavior for a Venus Fly Trap, and our editorial team can plan months in advance for an expected slow-down in article submissions from our community.

7. Leaving isn’t always bad.

People leaving a community, or leaves browning on a plant isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, a community moderator, Nicole, recently left our program, but that’s because she accepted a new role on a documentation team at Red Hat. Leaving our program is a sign of success for her because she has a new job, and she can still participate in our community when time permits.

You see this kind of activity often in open source communities. As community leaders, we need to know why people leave our communities to make sure unexpected departures don’t indicate a problem.

When Gordon and Bananarama started getting brown leaves, I suspected that they weren’t getting enough sunshine or the soil mix was wrong, so I moved them to a sunnier window to start diagnosing the issue. I noticed that they were still getting new leaves, and I’ve been monitoring to see whether the brown increases. If that happens, it could be a natural result of old leaves dropping off to make way for new ones. But if new ones aren’t coming in, there’s a bigger problem to rule out.

8. Watch out for pests and burnout.

Brown leaves can signal pests or mold problems, much like people departing open source projects can signal problems, such as toxic personalities, entering the mix. In either case, the problem probably won’t resolve itself. Buying a pesticide to get rid of critters on a carnivorous plant is a lot easier than managing toxic personalities in an open source community because we are, after all, talking about humans instead of critters.

Community leaders occasionally find themselves in a position that requires them to address personalities or behaviors that are damaging—or have the potential to hurt—an otherwise healthy community. Unfortunately, there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all solution, but our community moderator (and a seasoned community leader) Jono Bacon thoughtfully addressed this topic in his article on how to fire community members. In that article, Jono explains, “If, through an empathetic, mentored, and considerate approach, we identify that someone is just noise, is bringing down the motivation of the community, and is an inhibitor to innovation, it is our responsibility as leaders to remove them. If we don’t, we compromise the very fabric of what makes open source incredible: human relationships connected by a core mission and ethos, and underlined by the spirit and acknowledgment of doing.”

Now back to the brown leaves analogy—they can also be the sign of a healthy plant that is merely shedding older leaves to make way for new ones. In communities, people departing a project could also be a healthy sign of growth—for example, if they’re moving on to new challenges—or it could be in response to burn out. As I told a former employer years ago, once a person is burned out, it’s too late. Although it’s possible you could retain them in your community or see them return later, seeing the signs of burnout in advance and addressing the issue before it turns into a problem is a better approach.

Preventing burnout for yourself or a community takes practice. For example, earlier this year I spoke privately with a writer who was contributing a lot of great content to our site, which raised a red flag for me. From a personal perspective, I was thrilled to get the articles and wanted him to keep up the pace. But from my experience, I saw that he was working at a pace that would be hard to maintain for long, and that he was creating an expectation for himself that he had to keep up that pace. I scheduled a phone call with the writer and we talked about my concerns, and I encouraged him to take a break when he needed it… and maybe even before he needed it. He confessed that he had been feeling early signs of burnout and was relieved to have the preemptive talk and be reassured that I (and my colleagues) value, respect, and encourage self-care.

Seeing the signs of burnout in advance and addressing the issue before it turns into a problem is a better approach.I’m happy to report that he still writes for us, and he takes breaks from writing for us when he needs to. For great tips on dealing with burnout, read Jono’s practical guide for avoiding burnout and living a happier life.

9. You can’t take care of a community or carnivorous plant alone.

If you’re charged with caring for either a community or carnivorous plant, you’ll need help. When I’m not home to care for my carnivorous plants, my pet sitter is charged with caring for my cats (Maggie and Buffy), and for Gordon, Bananarama, and Mouse.

I’ve yet to see a community leader who can care for an open source community alone. Community leadership requires a team of people who are invested in the health and maintenance of a project and the people contributing to it. For example, on Opensource.com, members of our writing community are familiar with at least one or two other people on my team, including our content manager, Jen Wike Huger, and Jason Baker, who specializes in our OpenStack and container content and manages our Resources collection.

Opensource.com also depends on help from our group of community moderators, who help our editorial team recruit writers, promote our calls for proposals, and answer questions over social media, at events, and in our Freenode IRC channel (#opensource.com).

To learn more about how to get involved in our community, see our Participate on Opensource.com page, which includes links to our social media accounts. To learn more about caring for carnivorous plants, check out mycarnivore.com, because I’m still not sure I’m doing it right.

Pitcher plant

Sarraceniaceae

The family Sarraceniaceae consists of three genera of pitcher plants and is distributed throughout North America and the western portion of the Guiana Highlands in South America. Members of this family commonly inhabit bogs, swamps, wet or sandy meadows, and savannas where the soils are water-saturated, acidic, and deficient in nutrients. The carnivorous traps of this family commonly resemble trumpets, pitchers, or urns and primarily capture insects.

  • common pitcher plantCommon pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea).Kurt Stueber/www.BioLib.de
  • cobra plantCarnivorous cobra plants (Darlingtonia californica).© NoahElhardt

The genus Sarracenia, sometimes known as the trumpet pitcher genus, consists of some 10 species native to eastern North America. Insects and other prey are attracted to the mouth of the pitcher by a trail of nectar-secreting glands that extend downward along the lip to the interior of the pitcher. The throat of the pitcher, just below the lip, is very smooth and sends the animal tumbling down into the liquid pool at the bottom of the pitcher, where it drowns. The body is then digested by enzymes secreted within the leaf. The purple, or common, pitcher plant (S. purpurea) has heavily veined, green to reddish, flaring, juglike leaves that bear downward-pointing bristles to keep prey, including salamanders, from escaping. Its flowers are purple-red. The parrot pitcher plant (S. psittacina) has small, fat, red-veined leaves that are topped by beaklike lids and bears dark red flowers. The sweet pitcher plant (S. rubra) produces dull red, violet-scented flowers. The crimson pitcher plant (S. leucophylla) has white trumpet-shaped pitchers with ruffled upright hoods and scarlet flowers. The yellow pitcher plant (S. flava) has bright yellow flowers and a long, green, trumpet-shaped leaf the lid of which is held upright. One species, the green pitcher plant (S. oreophila), is critically endangered and is found in limited areas of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

The cobra plant (Darlingtonia californica) is the only species of its genus and is native to swamps in mountain areas of northern California and southern Oregon. Its hooded pitcherlike leaves resemble striking cobras and bear purple-red appendages that look similar to a snake’s forked tongue or a set of fangs. Unlike other pitcher plants, the cobra plant does not appear to produce digestive enzymes and instead relies on bacteria to break down its prey.

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The genus Heliamphora, known as sun pitchers or marsh pitcher plants, consists of some 23 species native to the rainforest mountains of western Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. These species form cushions on ridge crests and swampy depressions and bear stout pitchers that can attain a height of 50 cm (20 inches).

7 Carnivorous Wonders of the Plant World

Death traps that seduce insects, frogs and even mice with juicy-looking flesh and sweet nectar and then melt their bodies with acids, carnivorous plants are deceptively beautiful and totally fascinating to watch. Though some botanists once thought that carnivorous plants caught insects purely by accident, we now know that they evolved a taste for flesh often out of necessity, growing in places with nutrient-poor soil. These 7 types of carnivorous plants stand out for their unusual trapping mechanisms or bizarre eating habits, like one that happily consumes the droppings of small animals.

Mouse-Eating Pitcher Plants

(images via: wikimedia commons)

Jug-like plants half-full of rainwater, acids and enzymes, pitcher plants secrete nectar along their rim to lure in prey – typically insects and the occasional amphibian. But sometimes, they have an appetite for food of a larger and meatier variety. A newly-discovered species named Nepenthes attenboroughii, named after the British naturalist and television host David Attenborough, has been known to eat not just little mice but also larger rats. Their pitchers can be as large as a football and are often found to contain giant centipedes and spiders up to four inches long.

The Beautiful and Deadly Sundew

Covered in dewdrops that sparkle in the sun, Drosera – commonly known as sundews – are beautiful ornamental plants. They’re also deadly, attracting insects with that ‘dew’ on the tips of their tentacles and then trapping them with the sticky mucilage, releasing enzymes to digest them. It can take up to fifteen minutes for the insect to die. The nutrient ‘soup’ that is left behind by the dissolved insect is then absorbed into the leaves of the plant. All species of sundew are able to move their tentacles , bending in toward the center of the leaf to bring the insect into contact with as many glands as possible.

Pitcher Plant Eats Shrew Poo

(image via: discover magazine, wikimedia commons)

The Giant Montane Pitcher plant, Nepenthes rajah, is the largest meat-eating plant in the world. It’s big enough to trap rats – though it doesn’t do it very often. But there’s another taste it prefers to that of meat: poop. Specifically, the waste of the tree shrew.

When there aren’t enough bugs around, Nepenthes rajah is perfectly happy serving as a toilet for the tree shrew. It uses nectar to lure the shrews close and then collects their waste in its giant pitcher. Scientists believe that the plant’s pitcher has evolved to this perfect tree shrew toilet size specifically for the development of this strange symbiotic relationship.

Butterworts: The Flypaper Plant

(images via: wikimedia commons, emmc)

Members of the genus Pinguicula have a special ability: trapping insects on the surface of their leaves just like flypaper, liquefying their prey and then absorbing it. Commonly known as ‘butterworts’, these plants form pretty stemless rosettes, sometimes growing a single blossom on a long stem. Many can cycle between being carnivorous and non-carnivorous depending on the season. These plants have specialized glands scattered across the surface of their succulent leaves that produce visible wet droplets, which draw in bugs like mosquitoes that are in search of water. For the unfortunate bug who chooses to land upon this little plant, struggling is not just futile, but counterproductive – it causes the insect’s body to come into contact with more sticky glands which trap it even further. Like the poo-eating pitcher plant, butterworts have learned to take what they can get: they also digest pollen that lands on their leaves.

Bladderworts: Deceptively Innocent

(images via: cascade carnivores, wikimedia commons)

They look like ordinary aquatic plants, and even have lovely little yellow flowers that sprout forth above the surface of the water. But Utricularia – also known as bladderworts or bladder traps – have extremely sophisticated traps that can even pull in slippery, wriggly prey like tadpoles. Along its long stems, generally submerged in pond water or lying in damp boggy soil, bladderworts have little pouch-like traps which, when set, are under negative pressure relative to their environment. When their ‘trapdoor’ is triggered by potential prey, the water surrounding the trap is sucked in, and when full of water, the traps ‘close’. This trapping mechanism makes it possible to catch larger prey, slowly sucking in a tadpole by its tail and ingesting it bit by bit. Mosquito larvae, nematodes and water fleas are also common prey. Bladderworts grow all over the world in virtually any wet environment, and even sometimes grow in the damp bark on trees in South American rainforests.

The Cobra Lily

(images via: wikimedia commons, marlin harms)

Typically found in streams or bogs fed by cold mountain water, the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica) – also known as the California Pitcher Plant and the Cobra Plant – is a rare find, and difficult to cultivate. Its tubular leaves are arranged in such a way that from certain angles, the plant resembles a cobra about to strike, tongue and all. Unlike other pitcher plants, the Cobra Lily doesn’t collect rainwater in its pitcher. It actually regulates the amount of water by pulling water up out of the soil through its roots. Once an insect is lured inside, lubricating secretions and downward-pointing hairs prevent them from escaping, and translucent ‘exits’ that aren’t actually exits at all seem to taunt them in their final moments. Once the insect gets tired of trying to escape, it falls down into the water and drowns.

The Venus Flytrap

(images via: wikimedia commons, platycryptus)

The star of the show – the carnivorous plant with the most dramatic meat-eating reflexes – is, of course, the Venus Flytrap. Beetles, spiders, ants and grasshoppers make up the majority of the Venus Flytrap’s prey; interestingly, a number of small holes on the plant’s surface allow small flying insects to escape because the nutrients they contain are not worth the energy expended in trapping them. When open, the trap’s lobes are convex, luring insects with juicy-looking pink flesh. When trigger hairs on the surface are stimulated, the trap clamps shut, forming a concave cavity, and as the insect or spider struggles, the lobes press together even tighter, sealing hermetically and forming a ‘stomach’ to digest the food. Venus flytraps have occasionally been known to eat larger prey such as frogs.

The giant plants that eat meat

Most pitcher plants devour insects, and evolution has shaped the three parts of a pitcher to each perform a precise task that ensures an insect’s demise.

At the top of the pitcher is a lid called an operculum. The lid keeps out rainwater that would otherwise dilute the digestive juices.

The slippery rim of the pitcher is known as the peristome.

The pitcher species Nepenthes rajah of Borneo is large enough to drown a rat

“It has lots of grooves, and a microstructure that makes it so insects can not attach to it that well,” explains Dr Tanya Renner who studied pitcher plants for her PhD, and will continue to explore them as a professor at San Diego State University, beginning August of 2015. She is currently a post-doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

The rim is very ‘wettable’, she adds. In other words, “when water touches it, it makes it very slippery.”

Once an insect slips into the pitcher pool, the inside of the pitcher is extremely waxy. “It’s like ice-skating on a leaf surface,” she says, and the bugs can’t get any traction to crawl out.

Even flying insects rarely escape. If a bug doesn’t drown immediately, the sugars and digestive juices give the liquid a tackiness that makes flying with wet wings very difficult.

The training of the shrew

But one tropical pitcher plant species, Nepenthes lowii, tends to be curiously lacking in insects.

Instead, this plant’s pitchers fill with faeces from a much larger prey: Tupaia montana, the montane tree shrew.

To see if the pitcher plants had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the shrew, in 2009 a team of scientists led by Dr Jonathan Moran of Royal Roads University in Canada, travelled to the montane cloud forest of Malaysia where N. lowii grows.

An individual plant of N. lowii has two types of pitchers: terrestrial pitchers along the ground, and aerial pitchers held in the air.

Tree shrews perch on the pitcher and lick sugary juice from its rim

By remotely videotaping these plants during the day, the team confirmed that only the terrestrial pitchers catch insects. Videos showed the aerial pitchers are visited by the tree shrew, which eats nectar the plant produces on its rim.

While the tree shrew feeds, it often defecates into the pitcher. The faeces is very nitrogen-rich, and would be extremely useful to the plant.

To determine if the plants were able to incorporate nitrogen from the tree shrew droppings, the scientists conducted a stable-isotope analysis on the pitcher’s leaves, a technique that tracks the origin of an element. The team concluded that N. lowii plants with aerial pitchers derive 57-100% of their nitrogen from this shrew poo.

This study revealed the first known mutualism between a carnivorous plant and a mammal. The discovery sparked a sudden scientific interest in the giant plants that eat meat.

For example, the pitcher species Nepenthes rajah of Borneo is large enough to drown a rat.

Just like the inside of a newborn baby, each nubile pitcher begins its life completely free of microbes

That sparked speculation that some plants actually killed and ate the flesh of mammals.

In 2011, a different band of scientists from Germany and Malaysia headed to Borneo to monitor this giant pitcher plant.

Like the previous study, the scientists filmed pitcher plants to reveal who visited them. But instead of only filming nighttime visitors, this group split their recording time between day and night.

They found that, during the day, tree shrews perch on the pitcher and lick sugary juice from the pitcher rim, then defecate directly into it.

After the sun sets, the nocturnal rat Rattus baluensis feeds in the same way, trading sweet juice for nitrogen-rich faeces. The same pitcher plant species forms multiple symbioses with mammals, separated only by the time of day.

During the course of the two-month study, only one mammal actually drowned in a pitcher plant. The pitcher plants probably aren’t intending to kill rodents, though creepily enough, despite the presence of the rat corpse, other animals still sought nectar and used the pitcher lavatory.

But the rat cadaver could have deterred a different creature: bats.

The bat cave

A few scientists had glimpsed bats sleeping in tropical pitcher plants over the years.

But until the tree shrew studies were published, most scientists assumed the bats were simply freeloaders, exploiting the pitchers as free motels when they failed to reach their permanent roost by sunrise.

It took a bat-loving science duo, doctoral students Caroline and Michael Schöner, to show that the bats are actually loyal, paying customers.

The plants are really benefiting from the bats

The duo travelled to the lowland forests of Borneo in search of the pitcher plant Nepenthes hemsleyana. This species had been observed hosting woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii hardwickii), and a few clues hinted the plants had evolved to entice bat tenants.

N. hemsleyana is up to seven times worse at catching insects than its close cousin, N. rafflesiana and N. hemsleyana pitchers are up to four times longer, too. This increased length would allow a lanky bat to fit much more comfortably.

Once the Schöners knew which pitcher types to look for, the bats were easy to find. In just six weeks, the team found 32 different woolly bats roosting in pitchers. The woolly bat is the only bat species they found roosting in pitchers.

Michael and Caroline then placed trackers on 17 of the bats, to quantify how much the bats use the pitcher plants as daytime roosts.

What they found was surprising: the woolly bats exclusively use N. hemsleyana pitchers as daytime roosts. Though the forest holds many other bat-motel options, such as furled leaves or hollow trees, to the woolly bat, pitcher plants are home.

The bats are good homemakers, too. “Stable isotope analysis showed the plants are really benefiting from the bats,” Caroline says. N. hemsleyana reaps about a third of the nitrogen in its leaves from woolly bat faeces. The study was published in Biology Letters.

This type of mutualism is very rare.

When plants and animals usually collaborate, the plants provide food in exchange for services. Plants might supply nutritious nectar or fruit, for example, and in return animals visit the plants to feed, distributing pollen or seeds when they leave.

With pitcher plants, the roles are reversed: the plant receives nutritious nitrogen, and the animal receives services such as protection from predators and weather.

Caroline and Michael Schöner are supervised by Dr Gerald Kerth of the University of Greifswald in Germany and Dr T Ulmar Grafe from the University of Brunei in Darussalam. Together, the group is working to better understand this exceptional mutualism.

The team launched a second monitoring experiment that was much longer, and explored more field sites across Borneo. This research revealed the bats also sometimes roost in a second Nepenthes species, N. bicalcarata.

After a plant senses an insect in its pitcher it produces enzymes

Bats have their reasons for preferring to roost in N. hemsleyana, the team discovered. N. hemsleyana pitchers create a better microclimate for the bats, keeping a more stable and higher humidity than pitchers of N. bicaclarata.

“The bats have a huge wing membrane,” notes Caroline, and it is through this membrane that bats lose a lot of their water. A pitcher roost that maintains a higher humidity can be a huge plus to a bat battling dehydration.

Unhealthy bats can also suffer from ectoparasites.

Bats that only roosted in N. hemsleyana were completely free of parasites, unlike bats that spent time in N. bicalcarata, the other pitcher species. Unlike N. bicalcarata, N. hemsleyana pitchers have a slippery waxy zone on their inner surface, which makes it difficult for parasites to lay eggs on the pitcher walls.

Bats that preferred to roost in N. hemsleyana were in better overall condition, being larger, heavier, and free of parasites.

So, why do bats bother with N. bicalcarata at all?

This inferior pitcher roost is simply more common and a tired bat can’t always be a choosy bat.

Other factors influence bat decision-making, too, such as the pitcher’s distance from the ground, or exposure to rain and sunlight and the Schöners discovered then when possible, the bats did demonstrate a loyalty for resettling in different N. hemsleyana pitchers.

The second study was published in the journal Oecologia, and more publications are soon to follow.

Chemical warfare

In order to digest the insects they trap, pitcher plants have to be talented chemists. They produce proteins called enzymes to break down their insect prey.

“Insects are like little tanks,” explains Dr Renner.

The armour-like exoskeleton of an insect is made out of a very sturdy protein called chitin. Chitin has a complicated structure immune to most general enzymes.

After a plant senses an insect in its pitcher it first produces enzymes called chitinases. Only these enzymes can cut a chink in the insect’s chitin armour.

Once the armour has been compromised, the plant launches a second wave of enzymes. These mostly fall into three categories: proteases that break down proteins, lipases that reduce fat, and esterases that attack a range of other compounds.

The plant enzymes are highly specific, which led Dr Renner to wonder how the plants acquired such advanced weaponry.

“The majority of them look really similar to enzymes that plants use in defence,” says Dr Renner. “Non-carnivorous plants have to protect themselves against all sorts of things.”

Plants often must defend themselves against disease-causing fungi such as moulds. The fungi possess sturdy cell walls with a familiar key ingredient: chitin.

Both fungi and insects use chitin as part of their armour against chemical weapons.

Dr Renner’s research, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, shows the early ancestors of pitcher plants co-opted common defence proteins that kill fungi, to be able to digest insect exoskeletons.

A microbial army

But some pitcher species appear to enlist microbes to manufacture enzymes for them.

Leonora Bittleston is a PhD student at Harvard University in the US, studying both Nepenthes pitcher plants in Borneo, and an unrelated pitcher plant genus Sarracenia that grows in Harvard Forest, Massachusetts.

Just like the inside of a newborn baby, each nubile pitcher begins its life completely free of microbes. As the pitcher opens, resilient bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and even aquatic insects drift into the pitcher fluid, making a living in the dangerous fluid.

And much like the microbes that live inside the human gut, the tiny critters inside the pitcher fluid help the host absorb additional nutrients from their food.

The Sarracenia pitcher plants that grow in Harvard Forest may rely exclusively on microbial mutualists to digest their insect prey. In short, they get bacteria to dissolve the flesh of their victims rather than doing it themselves.

“So far there is no evidence that Sarracenia make their own chitinases,” Leonora explains. Fungal yeast and bacteria do make chitinases, however, and Leonora’s research suggests those are the microbes that have the largest effect on Sarracenia health.

Leonora is one of the first researchers to study the tiny communities that assemble inside pitcher plants. Her first pitcher plant study describes the methods she developed to compare communities inside the pitcher fluid, and is being published in Austral Ecology.

Even as tropical pitcher plant habitats are being destroyed at record rates, scientists and explorers are discovering new pitcher plant species in Borneo and the Philippines.

“Especially in the mountainous areas, I think there are several species not yet discovered, and what they do… nobody knows,” says Caroline Schöner.

Plant of the Week

Sarracenia purpurea range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Purple Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea). Photo by Gary Kauffman.

Purple Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea). Photo by Gary Kauffman.

Purple Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea). Photo by Gary Kauffman.

Purple Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea var. montana). Photo by Gary Kauffman.

Purple Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea var. venosa). Photo by Gary Kauffman.

Purple Pitcherplant, Saddle Flower (Sarracenia purpurea L.)

The pitcherplant is a perennial forb that spreads by short rhizomes. Plants form an open, spreading rosette of green leaves. The leaves are often tinged or veined with purple, and can grow to 30 cm in length. The plants flower in mid-spring, producing a solitary flower at the top of a scape 20 – 40 cm tall. The flower resembles a thick, flat disc ringed with dark, maroon petals. The plants are most noted, however, for the hollow, gibbous leaves, or pitchers, that give the plant its name.

The pitchers trap and digesting flying and crawling insects, making the species one of the few carnivorous plants in North America. The hollow pitchers fill naturally with rainwater. The pitchers also have broad lips where insects land. The insects crawl into the pitcher, where stiff, downward pointing hairs prevent them from leaving. Anectdoctal evidence suggests pitchers capture less than one percent of the flies that venture into their traps, but a few insects eventually fall into the water at the base of the pitcher, where digestive enzymes secreted by the plant release the nutrients within the insects. Eventually, the nutrients are absorbed by the plant, which supplements the nutrients absorbed by the roots.

At least two insects also use the pitchers as a breeding location. A community of microorganisms eventually develops in the water at the base of the pitchers. These microorganisms live on the nutrients of the decaying insects, and may actually increase the nutrients available to the plant by further digesting its prey. The microorganisms are themselves prey to at least two species of carnivorous insects – the larvae of a mosquito and the larvae of a midge – which complete their life cycles in the pitchers. For some reason, the digestive enzymes secreted by the plant affect neither species.

Pitcherplants are widespread in eastern North America, ranging from the Gulf Coast of the Florida panhandle to Nova Scotia, and across Canada to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Primarily a northern species, isolated populations occur along the Atlantic Coast and in the Appalachian Mountains. Pitcher plants grow primarily in sphagnum bogs, although they can be found in any wetland with long periods of standing water, including roadside ditches.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Sarracenia purpurea, purple pitcherplant
It arrived with a few broken traps July 15, 2019
Reviewer: Angel Valladolid from Orange , CA United States

It arrived with a few broken plants. It so far has been declining in health. *** RESPONSE FROM SARRACENIA NORTHWEST *** I’m sorry the plant isn’t growing as well as you hoped. In regards to “broken traps,” we often cut off old pitchers from the previous season, especially if the pitcher has already dried up. This is normal plant care we do every spring. Your plant also comes with a 30-day guarantee, and we are here to help you troubleshoot any issues you might encounter, As of date, I haven’t seen any messages from you requesting assistance. We are willing to help you, but we do need need relevant information about how you have been caring for your plant since it arrived so that we can diagnose the situation, pinpoint the problem, and come up with an appropriate solution. Please read the 30-Day Guarantee and Carnivorous Plant Help pages for details. This information is also included in the literature that came with your plants.
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Growing Pitcher Plants: Learn About The Care of Pitcher Plants

Pitcher plants have the appearance of an exotic, rare plant but they are actually native to parts of the United States. They grow in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana where soils are poor and nutrient levels must be acquired from other sources. The plants are carnivorous and have fleshy funnels or tubes that function as traps for insects and small animals.

Growing pitcher plants as indoor plants is common, but raising them outdoors requires a little know-how. Learn how to grow a pitcher plant for an interesting conversation piece in the home interior or exterior garden.

Types of Pitcher Plants

There are around 80 types of pitcher plants found in the genus names Sarracenia, Nepenthes and Darlingtonia.

Not all of these are suitable for outdoor growing, as Nepenthes are tropical pitcher plants, but purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) has a zonal tolerance of 2 to 9 and is exceptionally adaptable to a wide range of areas. The northern pitcher plant is another name for the purple type and grows wild in Canada. It is suited for temperate to cool regions.

Yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) is found in Texas and boggy parts of Florida.

Parrot pitcher (Sarracenia psittacina) and the green spotted pitcher (syn. yellow pitcher plant) are warm season plants. Both are found on the endangered species list and are not available for sale. They should not be harvested from the wild either.

Cobra pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica) are native only to extreme northern California and southern Oregon. They are also more difficult to grow.

Growing pitcher plants should start with a species that is native to your region or adaptable to the climate where you live.

How to Grow a Pitcher Plant

Growing pitcher plants is easy as long as you pay attention to some key items. Pitcher plant’s unusual shape and carnivorous habit are the result of nutrient deficiencies in their native soil. The regions where they grow are nitrogen deprived so the plant catches insects to harvest their nitrogen.

Growing pitcher plants outdoors and pitcher plant care starts with the site and soil. They do not need rich organic soil but do need a medium that drains well. Potted pitcher plants need to be in well-drained soils. Use any type of pot for indoor plants and provide a low fertility mixture in which the plants will grow. For instance, the potted pitcher plant thrives in a mixture of peat moss, bark and vermiculite. The pot can be small and they can even do well in a terrarium.

Outdoor specimens live in slightly acidic soils. Pitcher plants must be kept wet and can even grow in water gardens. The plants need boggy, moist soil and will perform well at the margins of a pond or bog garden.

Pitcher plants thrive in full sun to light shade.

Care of Pitcher Plants

Caring for pitcher plants is minimal. The best temperature for pitcher plants that are grown inside is between 60 and 70 F. (16-21 C.). Indoor plants should be fertilized at the start of the growing season with a good orchid food and every month until fall.

Most of the plant’s nutrient needs come from the insects they catch in the pitcher shaped organs. Because of this, the care of pitcher plants outdoors does not require much fertilization.

Outdoor plants will naturally lose some of the pitcher shaped leaves. Cut them off as they die back. New leaves will form from the rosette base. Pitcher plant care also includes protecting plants in the ground from freezes by mounding mulch around the base of the rosette.

How to Care for Pitcher Plants

Westend61/Getty Images

If you’re looking to plant something out of the ordinary in your garden, look no further than the pitcher plant, an eye-catching, carnivorous planting that loves lots of sun. Pitcher plants are species belonging to the genus Sarracenia and family Sarraceniaceae. They’re unexpected additions to Southern gardens, yet they’re native to the region and relatively easy to grow, making them one of the easiest ways to add interest to your planting plans. Read on for all the information you need to make pitcher plants at home in your garden this year.

What Do Pitcher Plants Look Like?

These plants produce colorful flowers in spring and can most readily be identified by their unmistakable “pitchers”, modified leaves that look like hollow, tube-shaped funnels. These are the features that give the plant its common name. The leaves trap insects and also undergo photosynthesis. Pitcher plants come in a variety of color combinations. Some pitcher plants are bright green, others are white, still others are red, yellow, orange, burgundy, or purple with contrasting veining. They can grow to a wide range of heights, from a few inches tall to over three feet tall in the right conditions.

Where Do Pitcher Plants Grow?

Pitcher plants are native to the South, and while they can be found across the region, they’re especially widespread in Mississippi, Louisiana and the Southeast. According to The Southern Living Garden Book, “Ten or so species inhabit bogs from Maryland south to Florida. They are found where soils are constantly moist but only briefly flooded. The soil in such sites is usually nutrient starved and acidic, lacking nitrogen and other elements.”

How Do Pitcher Plants Eat Insects?

The tubular funnels of pitcher plants trap and digest any insects unlucky enough to get caught in the carnivorous flower’s grasp. According to The Southern Living Garden Book, the plants are carnivorous to make up for the nutrient-poor soils in which they grow: “Pitcher plants compensate by obtaining these nutrients from the creatures they consume, including insects, spiders, and the occasional small frog.”

Pitcher plants are perennials that thrive in full sun with ample water, and they do best in acid soil. Pitcher plants go through a dormant period in the winter months, so they don’t thrive when planted in tropical climates or when tended indoors. For the optimal environment, grow pitcher plants in a bog garden that has amply moist soil and receives plenty of bright sunlight. They require minimal maintenance save for ensuring their soil is reliably moist. Do not fertilize, but be sure to remove any dead leaves when they begin to droop and fall.

Which Pitcher Plants Should I Grow?

There are a number of hybrids available to purchase online and in garden stores. A few regional favorites include:
Pale Pitcher Plant (S. alata) – Green or yellowish green pitchers
Catesby’s Pitcher Plant (S. x catesbaei) – Brick red pitchers
Yellow Pitcher Plant (S. flava) – Yellow-green pitchers with red veining
Sarracenia ‘Flies Demise’ – Dusty orange pitchers with red veining
Sarracenia ‘Judith Hindle’ – Ruby pitchers with red and pink veining

WATCH: Scientists Discover Tree Older Than Christianity in North Carolina Swamp

Have you encountered pitcher plants growing wild in the South? Do you have a boggy backyard garden in which they might thrive?

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.

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:

Want to Learn More About Pitcher Plants?

Better Homes & Gardens covers Growing Pitcher Plants

Tom’s Carnivores covers How to Grow Pitcher Plants

Gardening Know How covers Growing Pitcher Plants

Gardening Know How covers Indoor Pitcher Plant Care

Gardening Know How covers Pitcher Plant Propagation

Weekend Gardener covers How to Grow A Pitcher Plant

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