Sarracenia pitcher plant care

Pitcher Plant Dormancy: Pitcher Plant Care Over Winter

Sarracenia, or pitcher plants, are native to North America. They are classic carnivorous plants that use trapped insects as part of their nutrient needs. These specimens need moist conditions and are often found near water. Most varieties are not extremely cold hardy, which makes pitcher plant care over winter very important.

During pitcher plant dormancy, some exposure to chilly temperatures is necessary but most are not hardy below USDA zone 7. Over wintering pitcher plants in colder zones will require moving the plants or providing them with protection from the cold weather.

A Word About Pitcher Plants

Pitcher plants are bog plants and are often grown as part of a water garden or at the edge of a water feature. The genus Sarracenia supports 15 different varieties scattered across North America. Most are common in zone 6 and readily survive their areas cold snaps.

Plants that grow in zone 7, such as S. rosea, S. minor and S. psittacina, need a little help when freezes occur but can usually stay outside in cold temperatures. The most cold hardy species, Sarracenia purpura, can survive zone 5 outside.

Can pitcher plant survive indoors during the winter? Any variety of pitcher plant is suitable for growing in a greenhouse with controlled conditions. Smaller varieties may be brought into the home for winter if you provide air circulation, humidity and a warm situation.

Caring for Pitcher Plants in the Winter

Plants in USDA zone 6 are acclimated to short freezing periods. Pitcher plant dormancy requires the chilling period and then warm temperatures that signal it to break dormancy. The chilling requirement is important for all species of Sarracenia to signal when it is time to begin growing again.

In extreme cold, apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of the plants to protect the roots. If you have varieties growing in water, break the ice and keep the water trays full. Caring for pitcher plants in winter in colder zones will require you to bring them indoors.

Potted species of S. purpurea can stay outdoors in a sheltered location. All other varieties should be brought in to a cool covered location, such as a garage or unheated basement.

Reduce water and do not fertilize when providing pitcher plant care over winter for the less hardy species.

Can Pitcher Plant Survive Indoors During the Winter?

This is a great question. As with any plant, the key to overwintering pitcher plants is to mimic their natural habitat. This means each species will need different average temperatures, longer or shorter dormancy periods and slightly different site and growing conditions. Overall, it is safe to say that pitcher plants need warm growing conditions, plenty of moisture, peat or acidic soil, medium light levels and at least 30 percent humidity.

All these conditions can be difficult to provide in the home environment. However, since the plants are dormant for three to four months, their growing needs have slowed down. Bring potted plants to a low light area where temperatures are below 60 F. (16 C.), reduce the amount of water they have and wait for three months, then gradually reintroduce the plant to higher light and heat conditions.

Q: Sarracenia cultivation
A: Sarracenia are really not at all hard to cultivate, as long as you follow The Rules. If you deviate from The Rules, Sarracenia are either hard or impossible to grow. The most common causes for death are inadequate lighting, incorrect soil or water, or inadequate winter treatment by growers in tropical climates. Sarracenia are pretty straightforward plants—if they are unhappy with your growing methods, they die. There is very little lingering involved. So get it right, or you will have a soul stained with death.

  • S. flava thrilled to
    be wet and in sun
  • S. alata happy
    in full sun
  • S. a. subsp. alabamensis
    sick in dappled sun

Lighting: Sarracenia, especially the erect trumpet species, require extremely high sun. This means that they are not suited for terrarium culture. Simply put, do not try to grow erect Sarracenia in terraria, indoors, or in partial to full shade as they will never get enough light. Symptoms of insufficient lighting of your erect trumpet pitcher plants are pitchers that are floppy or poorly colored. The pitchers should be able to support their own weight, although you can expect some floppy pitchers late in the season for S. alata and S. rubra-complex plants.
The prostrate species—Sarracenia purpurea, S. psittacina, and S. rosea—can survive and even thrive in lower lighting conditions such as you might expect in a terrarium or windowsill. It is pretty obvious these shorter plants are adapted to the decreased sunlight they experience in the wild because of competing, taller vegetation. If you want to try to grow Sarracenia in a terrarium, start with these species or hybrids involving them. By the way, the seedlings of most species do well in terraria, until the seedlings are a few years old.

  • Oops

Water: Stick with purified water. Keep the plants moist, sitting in trays of water. A dried Sarracenia is a dead one.
Soil: Sarracenia are not too picky, as long as it is a zero-nutrient, acid medium. I recommend 50:50 sand:peat or Sphagnum, but something similar should be fine.
Temperatures: Use something like to learn about the seasonal variations your plant will expect. Use “Mobile, Alabama” to learn about Gulf Coast plants, and “Wilmington, North Carolina” to learn about Green Swamp plants. If you have a Sarracenia purpurea from some northern area, I suspect you already know what to do. The same goes for the rare Sarracenia species.

  • S. oreophila
    spring regrowth
  • S. oreophila
    winter die-back

Winter treatment: Sarracenia expect spring, summer, fall, and winter seasons. During the spring, they flower. During the summer, they produce their first pitchers early in the season. During the fall, they just sit there; some species make modified, nontrapping leaves during this season. During the winter, the remains of the summer leaves slowly die back. I think winter rest is signalled by cooler temperatures and/or decreased photoperiod/intensities, but I do not really know. You can take advantage of this slow season by trimming the leaves back as they die. Only trim off the dead stuff—never cut into living tissue. Sarracenia oreophila, S. jonesii, and S. purpurea subsp. purpurea expect cold weather and even frosts during the winter. If you keep your plants on a seasonal schedule, they will usually flower for you each spring. This means they are happy!
Indoor growers have their own challenges with Sarracenia. Sarracenia rosea and S. purpurea subsp. venosa do well in terraria year-round without a winter treatment. However, giving them one will encourage normal annual-rhythmic behaviour such as flowering. If you are growing other species in terraria, such as S. purpurea subsp. purpurea, you should devise a way to give them the cold period they expect. You may find some inspiration reviewing the dormancy tricks I provide for Venus flytrap growers.
Feedings and fertilizers: Every now and then I will throw a dead cricket into one or two pitchers, but only for the plants I grow in terraria. I never feed bugs to my outdoor plants because they capture plenty of their own bugs. I even have heard from people who have to stuff cotton plugs in their pitcher plants’ tubes because they capture so many bugs the plants suffer!
Contrary to conventional wisdom, some research indicates that Sarracenia do respond well to slow release soil fertilizers, although I encourage you to read the original study by Brittnacher (2009) to see how it was done. I do not use fertilizers, nor do I recommend them to beginning growers. My plants do great with the bugs they capture. If you kill your plants because of fertilizer toxicity, complain to whoever told you to fertilize. Do not whine to me because I will show you no mercy.

  • S. oreophila:
    lotsa seed set
  • S. flava: alas,
    crappy seed set
  • S. rosea
    leaf pulling

Vegetative propagation: If your plants are growing so large that they are splitting open the pot, you can divide them. This should happen only every three years or so. Of course, you can divide more frequently if you want to send a plant out to a trading partner. Gently rip the plant into parts, making sure that each separate piece has a few roots and a growing tip. Actually, it does not even need roots or a growing tip—a chunk of rhizome, potted and treated like a mature plant, can make both roots and a new growing point, if you are a skillful grower. Different growers have differing views on the best season for making divisions. I prefer to do it in the spring, just when the first pitchers or flower buds reach a few cm tall. Expect that a plant that has been divided might make distorted pitchers for the first year after suffering the abuse of propagation.
Sarracenia rosea, S. purpurea, and S. psittacina can all be propagated by leaf pullings. Related hybrids can also probably be propagated this way. I think other species could be propagated this way, but I have not figured out the details yet.
Sexual propagation: Sarracenia are easy to propagate this way. You will have to transfer pollen from the anthers to the stigmatic surfaces. Do that well, and in the fall you will have lots of seed. It takes Sarracenia plants about 3-5 years to reach flowering size from seed, although sometimes I hear of people beating this speed benchmark. Self-pollinating a plant can result in symptoms of inbreeding, such as poor germination rates or slow growth. Cross pollinate plants to avoid this. You might want to try cross pollinating plants to make hybrids, if that is your thing!
Page citations: Brittnacher, J. 2009; D’Amato, P. 1998a; Rice, B.A. 2006a; personal observations.

Growing Tips for Sarracenia

Sarracenia, American Pitcher Plants

Most American Pitcher Plants grow naturally in the bogs, pocosins and fens of the coastal plains of eastern N. America, from New Foundland to Florida, with greater numbers in the southeast. They typically grow among the sedges in the open sun, where the moist soil is typically a sand/peat mix, usually dominated by sand. The climate is generally warm temperate, except for S. purpurea purpurea, the Northern Purple Pitcher Plant, that survives freezing Winters. Summers are hot and humid and Winters are generally mild with occasional cold spells and even light frosts. Rainfall is about 8”/month (20cm) in the Summer and 5”/month (12cm) in the Winter. A common companion Carnivorous Plant is Drosera intermedia and Drosera filiformis.
The American Pitcher Plants are fairly tolerant of general Carnivorous Plant growing conditions. A standard Carnivorous Plant soil mix of peat and sand works well. I find that they grow better, when the peat content is higher. Mature Pitcher Plants prefer a deeper large pot of 6-8” (15-20cm) because of their long roots. Most pitcher plants do best when the soil is evenly moist, but not soaking wet. They can tolerate very wet, even submerged conditions, for weeks at a time. Let the soil become drier; yet remain somewhat moist, during winter dormancy. Water from below with mineral-free water. The tray method works very well. Stand the pot in a tray or saucer and keep about 1” (2.5cm) of water in it at all times during the growing season. American Pitcher Plants prefer full sun and develop their best colors in very bright light.
Sarracenia can be propagated from rhizome divisions, nicking a mature rhizome, and leaf pulls sometimes. Seeds can be slow and need light and steady conditons. Some need stratification (cool, damp winter). Tissue culture works well for clones.
A winter rest period is required of mature plants. As day length and temperature diminish the plant will slow its growth and many of the traps will die back, starting at the tops. Traps in the winter may still trap insects and nutrient decomposition still occurs. Cut back on winter watering, but allow the soil to stay moist. Provide cooler temperatures during dormancy. A cold porch or garage may work well. Trim dead tissue back in winter as pitchers die, trim dead growth in early spring before flowers shoot. Mulch with 6-8 inches of pine needles or similar mulch to protect plants from cold temperatures, expecially -22°F (-30°C) and below. Or remove rhizome from soil, wrap in damp long-fiber sphagnum, lightly sprinkle with fungicide or “bulb dust”, and store in refrigerator for 90+ days. A colony of plants will develop in a few years from natural budding along the rhizome.
American Pitcher Plants are constantly luring, trapping and digesting weary prey with their passive traps. They are quite good at this, and provided with natural access to insects they will “feed” themselves. Even indoors they will attract and capture an occasional fly or other insect. Do not feed them meat or cheese. This will likely rot and kill the trap. If feeding is desired, drop in a few dead crickets, wasps or similar insects. Freeze dried food from the pet shops works well.
Other Considerations
Sarracenia grow pitchers in the Spring and then again in the Fall. S. flava has its best pitchers in the Spring, while S. leucophylla has its biggest and best pitchers in the Fall. S. rubra and S. alata also have great fall pitchers.
It is generally a good idea to remove the flower spike when it forms. If left to grow, it draws energy from the plant and can weaken a potted plant to the point of death.
Tall growing American Pitcher Plants are difficult subjects for a terrarium, because it is hard to give such a vertically growing plant even light. Consider low growing S. purpurea or S. psittacina for the terrarium instead.
The rhizomes are planted with some top exposure. Similar to Iris. Repot every few years in a fresh CP soil mix, since the peat breaks down and can create poor drainage. Plant near the edge of the pot with the growing tip pointed to the center of the pot, so that the rhizome has room to grow. This is a good time to divide an already branching rhizome. Repotting is best done in the spring, before active growth begins. A soil top dressing of living Sphagnum Moss works well.
Consider growing American Pitcher Plants outdoors. They can tolerate frost or a light freeze. They grow exceeding well in a bog box or bog garden in the yard. They will thrive in full sun and moist Carnivorous Plant soil, naturally catching a variety of insects.
Some Pitcher Plants hold up well to the cold and even frost. S. purpurea purpurea, the most northern of all the species, can stay in good condition through most winters without showing excessing decline. This is true of most of its hybrids, especially S. x catesbaei, and S. x courtii. S. minor and S. psittacina and most of their hybrids also stand up well to the cold, expecially S. x excellens. S. alata and S. rubra hold their pitchers into the cold, but not as well. S. leucophylla provides a wonderful fall display for its pitchers, but dwindle with the frost.
One of the first Pitcher Plants to flower in the Spring is S. flava with its large, showy, bright yellow flowers. I have seen S. minor bloom not just in the Spring, but also in the Fall.
Trim any browing leaves if you prefer. I cut down old traps in the Spring, well after they have had a chance to absorb their nutrient rich catch from the summer before. Cutting sooner could deprive the plants of any nutrients from their traps.

Growing Carnivorous Plants Outside

Carnivorous plants are found all over the world in many different climates, and some will grow very well outside in the UK. If you just want to keep them outside in the summer, or can give a little protection with a cloche or cold frame, then most Trumpet Pitchers, Venus Flytraps and many Sundews will be fine.
But you can keep them outside all the time ? even in winter, without protection.
The plants that make the best display are the Trumpet Pitchers (Sarracenias). Not all will do well, but if you choose the right species and hybrids you can have a fantastic display of flowers followed by the lovely traps. On a smaller scale, there are some native sundews and butterworts which grow naturally in the boggy ground around the UK.
What to plant.
The plants that will do well outside are on the Outdoor Carnivorous Plants section of the website. Do give the plants room to grow. It is best to stick to just carnivorous plants. Don’t be tempted to add ornamental grasses or flowering plants for extra interest. They will compete with the carnivorous plants and are likely to take over. As a guide, our large hardy collection would be fine for a belfast sink.
The plants that do best are the early season plants, such as the Yellow Trumpet (Sarracenia flava), the Mountain Pitcher (Sarracenia oreophila) and the hardiest of all, the Huntsmans Cap (Sarracenia purpurea). In fact, the Huntsmans Cap grows far better outside than it does in our polytunnel. It may be because when kept naturally, the traps will fill with water and this help attract flies and insects. All carnivorous plants will catch more outside and this is a definite boost to their growth.
There are many hybrids that give a good variety of size shape and colour. Sarracenia x harperi is and excellent choice – vigorous and sturdy. Choose shorter plants if you think your site may catch the wind or will not get the sun all day.
For best growth and colour you do need full sun, but if you have semi shade then you can grow the Huntmans Cap and Sarracenia x catesbaei, Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) and even try the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica).
Smaller plants are the hardy Sundews (need full sun) and the hardy Butterwort (semi-shade), but they are on a completely different scale to the Trumpet Pitchers. They do still make a fascinating display. The container for these can be quite small, and shallow – a terracotta or plastic bowl. They are not usually vigorous plants so weeding is essential to keep out unwanted grasses etc.
Where to plant.
A position in full sun, sheltered from the wind will get the best results for the majority of plants and it is particularly true for the taller plants. If you have semi shade it will cut down the number of suitable plants but with the right choice, you will still get a good display. Some of the colours may not be as intense.

There are several ways to grow these plants in your garden:
The simplest way is to make a mini bog. This is basically a container that holds water, filled with suitable compost.
The container should either have no holes or you can line it with thick polythene to around 2/3rds up the side to hold water. It should not be made of concrete or limestone.(because of the lime). An old belfast sink with the plug in, oak barrel or glazed terracotta pot all work well. it can be any size from a washing up bowl upwards, but the larger the container the more self-sufficient it will be.
Another place to keep them is in a pond ?even less to do as they will have a constant supply of water. However, they are bog plants and not marginal plants so the water should be no more than 2/3rds up the side of the pot. Again, full sun will be best.
3.Bog Garden.
For a more naturalistic effect you can make a bog garden by digging out the area to a depth of 150 – 300mm (6-12″) and lining with some thick polythene. You can also plunge eg half a dustbin in the ground – make some holes 2/3rds up to allow for some drainage. As long as the compost is carnivorous plant compost, the plants should do well. If making a carnivorous section of an existing bog garden, we would recommend making a separate area as the compost used for usual bog plants will be too rich and limey for these plants.
Please also be aware a natural stream may be suitable, but if your stream comes over limestone or the soil is not acidic, you are best to line the area and use the correct compost. Any stream needs to keep running over the whole of the summer to be OK for bog plants ? though obviously it will be less wet in summer.

Any carnivorous plant compost will be fine, even pure moss peat, though a bit of lime free sharp sand will give extra body. Trumpet Pitcher compost does contain Perlite ? the small white balls, which can look a little unsightly at first but soon blend in. The way to calculate how much you need is to work out the volume. Compost is measured in litres so you can just see how much water it will hold. Fill the containder to 50mm (2″) below the top. This makes watering easier. Another aid to watering is a length of plastic pipe sitting vertically in the container 50mm (22) from the bottom. It should finish just proud of the compost and can then be used to water and to check the water level in the container. Evaporation can be reduced by mulching with good quality pine bark.

Plants that are potted can be planted at any time but March and April are ideal. The plants are just coming into growth and you should get the full growing season of flowers then traps.
Allow space to grow particularly for the Huntsmans Cap. Most large Sarracenias should be planted 20-30cm apart. Sundews should be planted quite close – 10cm apart. If growing Trumpet pitchers and Sundews in the same container, give plenty of space around the Sundews as Trumpets can quickly overshadow them. It may be easier to grow them separately.
As bog plants, they will need watering, but how much will depend on the weather. There can be quite a bit of evaporation from the soil and it is important they don’t dry out too much. As they grow they will start to cover the ground and moss will grow over the surface, reducing the need to water. A larger the container will need watering less often.
In winter, they will not mind being very wet but if you haven’t allowed for drainage up the side of the pot – difficult with a belfast sink, then just tilt on edge on a brick so excess water can flow off. It is not necessary to provide frost protection unless you are growing slightly less hardy plants – Venus Flytrap for instance.
Weeding is important. Grasses, ferns and other weeds will quickly take over. Other maintenance will be cutting off dead growth and generally keeping tidy. Feeding will not be necessary. The traps will be stuffed with flies.

Pests and disease
Grey mould or Botrytis is not really a problem when plants are grown outside, but they can still suffer from greenfly (aphids). Just wiping them off the new growth should be sufficient but use Provado if necessary. Slugs can attack them as well – usually the small, hard to see ones -not the big garden slugs! They will create holes in the new growth of trumpet pitchers but can also do a lot of damage to Butterworts.
Birds have been known to cause problems – not so much with the plants but taking the moss from amongst the plants for nesting material, and also have a general pick through for insects. Larger Sarracenias arent really affected but Sundews, Butterworts and Venus Flytraps can suffer damage or be pulled out the ground.

10 tips for growing carnivorous plants

Adding compost around carnivorous plants 6

Don’t feed with insects

Don’t feel you have to ‘feed’ your plant with insects – if it’s outside it will catch its own and even indoors there should be insects that it can feed on. If you have no insects in your home, put it outside for a few days every so often in summer so that it can catch its own.

Insects trapped in a Venus fly trap 7

Don’t fertilise

There’s no need to use fertiliser on your carnivorous plants – they get all the nutrients they need from the insects that they catch.

Frilly, red-veined tips of pitcher plant pitchers 8

Don’t tease your plants

If the traps on your Venus flytrap are no longer closing, it may be because curious fingers have poked at your plant too often. Each trap only closes around five times in its lifetime, so resist provoking your plant.

A closed trap on a Venus fly trap 9


Cut off the dead flowers with scissors – and in the case of Venus flytraps, cut off the dead traps if they go black – this often happens in autumn and winter.

Advertisement Deadheading a pitcher plant 10

Watch out for pests

Carnivorous plants are, surprisingly, not able to deal with greenfly, so use traps or biological controls. Carnivorous plants can also be susceptible to red spider mite, which thrives in hot, dry conditions. Improve air circulation in the greenhouse and boost levels of humidity by standing bowls of water on the benches between plants. If you are growing lots of plants, you could try releasing the predatory mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis on to your plants.

Greenfly on the back of a leaf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *