Carnivorous Plants: A Beginner’s Basic Grow Guide

Carnivorous Plants: A Beginner’s Basic Grow Guide

Welcome! If you’re visiting this page, you’re new to carnivorous plants. We’ll outfit you with just the bare essentials here to get you familiar with the main groups of carnivorous plants and some basic care points – enough to keep that Venus flytrap or sundew happy and healthy while you study up on better ways to trick out your grow space!

What we’ll cover:

  1. A list of carnivorous plants – there are more than you might think!
  2. Beginning Grower’s Guidelines: Soil, Sunlight, and Water
  3. Feeding your carnivorous plants – do they need to eat?
  4. Common mistakes and how to avoid them: Winter dormancy, sunlight, temperature, and humidity. Also, should your plant be outside?
  5. Identifying your specific carnivorous plant and more information.

Venus flytrap against black background

Carnivorous Plant Genera

First off, there are about 1,000 species of carnivorous plants! Native across every continent (except Antarctica), carnivorous plants are everywhere and have been catching bugs (and the eye of passers-by) for a very long time – possibly many millions of years. Those 1,000 species are divided into 18 genera. You’re probably looking for a list, so here you go:Aldrovanda – Waterwheel plant. Once more common but now on the edge of regional extinction, this cousin to the Venus flytrap grows as long, floating stems interspersed with whorls of snapping leaves.Brocchinia – Bromeliad. Native to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana. A terrestrial bromeliad, Brocchinia traps and digests prey in its water tank, the pool at the base of its leaves. Utricularia can sometimes be found growing in this small pool.Byblis – Rainbow plant. The analog for butterworts in Australia, with the appearance of tiny frosted bonsai. Byblis look like sundews, but are far more delicate in appearance, with finer leaves, irregular tentacles, and thin stems.

Catopsis – Lampara de la Selva. A common epiphytic bromeliad from South America and Florida. It gets its common name from the luminous bloom of its leaves, possibly a lure for prey.

Cephalotus – Albany Pitcher Plant. Denizen of coastal Southwest Australia and an entirely unique evolutionary line of pitcher plant. Cephalotus are coastal plants, hugging the ground and growing in dense colonies in cool wetlands.Darlingtonia – Cobraplant. The only pitcher plant native to the West Coast of North America. Tall, tubular leaves with inflated hoods and long nectarous “fangs” give this plant its name. A truly stunning creature plant.Dionaea – Venus flytrap. B I T E Y B O I. The one and only. Related to sundews and inheriting their sense of touch, Venus flytraps close when prey stimulate their trigger hairs, sealing shut to digest them. They are native to a 90-mile radius around Wilmington, North Carolina, USA.Drosera – Sundew. Over 350 described species, with diversity centered in Australia, the Cape of South Africa, and South America, but native to most countries in temperate and tropical zones. Sundews come in a plethora of fantastic shapes, sizes, colors, and are among the most popular carnivorous plants to grow.Drosophyllum – Dewy Pine. From the lands around the Strait of Gibraltar. Unlike the dew of Drosera, the mucilage of the Dewy Pine is oily and runny, snaring hundreds of insects per plant. Its glue has been known to cause welts when applied to human skin.Genlisea – Corkscrew plant.  S C R E W B O I. Tiny plants native to Central Africa and Mesoamerica, corkscrew plants trap insects in their hollow roots. Grown primarily for their dramatic blooms, similar to Utricularia.Heliamphora – Sun Pitcher Plant. Restricted to the remote tabletop Tepuis in northern South America, Heliamphora are renowned for their simple elegance and a gorgeous array of diversity.Nepenthes – Hanging Pitcher Plant. Mostly a Southeast Asian genus, but native to Madagascar, Seychelles, and Australia as well, these dramatic plants are among the largest and most diverse carnivorous plants in the world. Members of this genus are the only plants known to devour vertebrates, including lizards and small, weak mammals.Philcoxia. A newly recognized genus of carnivorous plant. These rare plants grow in quartz sand in highland Brazil, catching nematodes with tiny, sticky leaves held just beneath the surface.Pinguicula – Butterwort. The “Little Greasy One”. Sticky leaved, rosetted herbs with flat, glue-covered leaves, pings are often grown for their colorful flowers which compliment their lush foliage. Many Mexican species can be grown similarly to succulents.Roridula – Fly Bush. Sticks to your hair! Native to semi-arid savanna in South Africa. A proto-carnivorous plant, Roridula use Pameridea bugs to digest caught insects for them, absorbing the nutrients in their droppings.Sarracenia – North American Pitcher Plant/Trumpet plant. Includes among the largest carnivorous plants in terms of trap size and plant diameter. About 10 recognized species, depending on who you ask, and countless interspecies hybrids. Native to the coastal American South, up the eastern seaboard of the United States, and into Canada.Triphyophyllum – Tri-leaf Sundew. A rare plant from coastal West Africa. Unlike any other carnivorous plant, it produces carnivorous leaves just once in its life-cycle, before it vines and flowers, reaching up to 100 feet into the rainforest canopy. It is distantly related to Drosophyllum and Drosera.Utricularia – Bladderwort. Native across the globe, Utricularia is one of the most diverse of all carnivorous plant genera. Their roots trap microorganisms, and their flowers are among the loveliest of all carnivorous plants.  Both terrestrial and floating fresh-water aquatic species exist.Sarracenia carnivorous pitcher plant with flowers GIF

Beginning Grower’s Guidelines

So there are all these genera of carnivorous plants you can get into and be passionate about! The biggest question you probably have is how to grow them. Here we’ll give you just enough to keep your plant happy, while you read up on their specs later.Generally, growing carnivorous plants is very simple, so simple in fact that kids under 10 have been known to keep collections on their own. Think you’re smarter than a 5th grader?The three general points are:
  1. 50/50 peat & perlite soil
  2. full sun
  3. low-mineral water
That’s it! You can grow about 75% of all carnivorous plants under those conditions. Let’s flesh those points out:

Soil

By peat and perlite, we mean only the most basic elements of garden soil. These two components are easily found in garden centers and are cheaper than nutrient-rich mixes. The key is that the soil is devoid of any nutrients or minerals. Carnivorous plants are carnivorous because they derive their nutrients from prey, not their growing media. Seek unenriched sphagnum peat moss (a yucca wetting agent is OK) and perlite, and mix at around a 50% ratio for your plant.carnivorous plant soil mix peat perlite sand

Full Sun

Generally, full sun means direct sun for 6+ hours a day. For carnivorous plants this tends to be the bare minimum. The Venus flytrap, for instance, is a denizen of savanna-like swampland in the Carolinas – a plant out in the open can get 8-9 hours of sun a day in midsummer. Such a plant will be more successful than one grown in shade, because photosynthesis gives the plant energy. The more a plant photosynthesizes, the more leaves it will crank out in a growing season, and the more energy it can store if it needs to enter dormancy.The same principle for sunlight follows for Drosera (sundews), many species of Pinguicula (butterworts), all species of Sarracenia (North American pitcher plants), and many others. But there are a few exceptions! In some places, “full sun” (6+ hours a day) might be a hotter and drier experience than the same exposure elsewhere. If you live in an arid environment like much of Arizona or Southern California, you may experience different rates of growth for your North American native plants than growers in more Northern latitudes, and their leaves may burn in strong heatwaves.

Water

Most beginner carnivorous plants will thrive in wet soil. A simple maxim to follow: the hydration of the soil reflects the hydration of the plant. Dry soil means your plant is dying. You can choose to keep your plant on the tray system: place the pot in a saucer and keep the saucer filled about 1/8 or 1/4 way up the pot. This ensures that you have some time before the next watering, and your plant will be happy in the meanwhile.Think of your water tray like a gas tank: you’re good as long as the tank is full, but once you’re empty, you’ve got 30 miles (basically a day) before things get critical. Once your water tray dries out, it’s time to add more.Water quality is important as well. When growing carnivorous plants, one should take care that the water is low in dissolved solids – that is, how hard your water is in minerals. Minerals include salts of things like potassium, sodium, and magnesium, and other more complicated compounds.In the wild, dissolved solids are not present in most carnivorous plant habitats, so their roots usually have little adaptation to deal with them, and will burn if exposed to too much. If your tap water is below 50ppm in dissolved solids, you can grow pretty much any carnivorous plant in it. Above that, and you may have to use distilled water, rainwater, or water from a reverse-osmosis (RO) filter. These options are pure of dissolved solids and safe for your plants.Check out this deep-dive article for an in-depth take on carnivorous plants and water quality.Venus flytrap eating

Food! Omnomnom

What about food? Hold off on feeding your plant until you’re sure you can grow it long enough to make a difference. Without the preconditions of soil, light, and water which make carnivorous plants grow healthily, food should be dead last on the list of necessities. What food really is important for is flower production, ensuring some species survive their flowering cycles. Most carnivorous plants do indeed require a “blood meal” to grow from their juvenile state into adulthood. But for the short term, think less food, and more water.This being said, feeding carnivorous plants is usually why we get into the hobby to being with. There’s nothing more fascinating and satisfying than watching a Venus flytrap catch a fly on its own, or gazing in awe as sundews wrap around struggling prey, or maniacally chortling as ants cascade into your pitcher plants. Feed them small prey – flies, moths, and other weak flying insects are great for your plant. When in doubt, see what it catches on its own and follow suit with your own gnarly insectoid buffet. For details on how to make sure your Venus flytrap is fully digesting the prey you manually feed it, check out this article.

Drosera filiformis GIF

Common Mistakes

Sweet! So now that we’ve hashed out the basics, there are a few tricky points about growth cycles, sunlight, temperature, and humidity, which may trip up a beginner.

Does your carnivorous plant need winter dormancy?

You need to know whether the plant you have requires a winter dormancy. This is when a plant stops growing and hibernates for the winter. Venus flytraps, Sarracenia, temperate sundews, and temperate bladderworts and butterworts fall into this category. For these plants, dormancy is not optional – it happens naturally, like a person’s sleep cycle. Many people don’t realize that when their flytrap died at around Thanksgiving time, it wasn’t because they weren’t caring for it right – it was going dormant!Most temperate carnivorous plants require a rest period of at least 2 1/2 months where ambient conditions go from sunny and hot to dim and cold. They will still require water and can survive frozen in ice for up to two weeks, but they will cease growth and will remain dormant until heat and light activate their growth cycle to begin again in spring. Many species will drop their leaves.Sarracenia flava

Does your carnivorous plant need more sun?

When in doubt, give your carnivorous plant more light by placing it in a sunny location with 6 or more hours of direct or indirect sun. If you thought you could grow your flytrap inside in your office with some spillover from the windowsill, you’re in for a lanky, green mess. Most carnivorous plants won’t produce working leaves without enough sun. Upright, rigid, colorful foliage (and dew if you’re a sundew) is the hallmark of a healthy plant getting enough light.Without enough sun in the long-term, you can expect your plant to become less resistant to pests and grow slower. Flowering may kill a sun-deprived plant. A light-deprived plant entering dormancy may not have the energy to wake up from it. For tropical carnivores, like South African sundews or Nepenthes, any windowsill facing anywhere but North should give your plant enough light. Sundews, however, enjoy extremely bright conditions, so supplementing their photoperiod with artificial lights is always a good idea.

How important is temperature for carnivorous plants?

A good rule of thumb: if you are comfortable around your plant in jeans and a T-shirt, then your plant is comfortable too. Most plants are also comfortable if you’re naked. Naturally, there are other extremes that plants experience that we can’t really relate to, not including nudity. Some rare species like it especially hot or cold. But those commonly found online and in everyday nurseries thrive at room temperature. 70 degrees or so is a good temperature to keep your plant at before experimenting with extremes.In the long term, temperature is also important to consider in regards to dormancy. Temperature also factors into how your plant may behave in a particular part of your home if kept indoors.I have about 30 Nepenthes sitting on a West-facing windowsill. They produce almost no new leaves in Winter when the room cools down to around 58°F (about 14°C), but in Spring they explode into growth when the sun returns and the room heats up. They then endure temperatures between 70°F at night to 100°+F in the day (21°C & 37°C). My plants are fine, they just go through periods of stalled and explosive growth.

Heliamphora heterodoxa x minor

Do carnivorous plants need high humidity?

This is a complicated question. Adrian Slack himself, a highly-respected pioneer in carnivorous plant cultivation, warned that the naïve assumption that carnivorous plants require high humidity could lead growers to incorrect assumptions about their care, ultimately killing them. Most carnivorous plants can grow in the ambient humidity of an air-conditioned apartment!For a beginner starting out with your first flytrap or sundew, to grow a healthy plant you do not need a complex, humidified grow-chamber. Simply give your plant enough sun and water and you’re golden! You can definitely get the best results with the simplest care.However, higher humidity and higher temperatures do sometimes lend larger size to your plants, and a greenhouse can extend the growing season for temperate species. But are you willing to keep a terrarium clean from mold when you could just set your flytrap outside? What will you do about winter dormancy? Mineral buildup from hard water? Lack of airflow? Correct lighting? Where will it get its food? And does the plant actually do better out in the open? See, enclosures make simple things complicated – ditch the terrarium and aim to keep a pretty potted plant that you can actually interact with. They don’t have terrariums in the wild!Of course, there are indeed a few species that cannot survive outside heavily monitored grow chambers, sort of botanical iron lungs which keep ultra-highland, tropical varieties alive in the comfort of your home – or, more likely, the expensive back room of a botanic garden. But these species account for a tiny percentage of the carnivorous plant market and buyer’s interest and are extremely expensive. There’s no way you purchased one of those at the hardware store!However, if you’re lucky enough to own a plant that requires particular conditions best controlled in an enclosure, we have you covered with an in-depth article on how to assemble your terrarium.

Drosera aliciae

What’s Next? ID your Carnivorous Plant!

This article was written for the everyman who’s just stumbled upon their first Venus flytrap and wants to keep it alive. The basics covered above will do just that – keep your plant happy for the time being. Now it’s time to find out what species you have!Knowing the species will help you search for detailed info about your plant, which you’ll need to know in order for it to thrive where you live. For example, you have to know if your plant needs a dormancy in the winter, as missing this critical hibernation kills plants! It’s also helpful to know if it likes a particular temperature range, or what its sensitivity to hard water is. Knowing if your plant can grow outside in your climate for at least part of the year can save you window space and money. Getting a grasp on these details are the true essentials to happy, healthy plants!Browse the plant categories above for a closer look. They’ll help you ID the plant you’ve got and give you some info on how to grow it. If it’s a Venus Flytrap, you’re in luck – there is only one species, and all care for them is the same. But most other genera have many species, and each one has its own personality and growth habits which make it unique and identifiable. A little sleuthing will reveal what you’ve got in no time!
By |2018-09-26T20:28:37+00:00September 10th, 2018|Cultivation|7 Comments

About the Author:

I've been growing CPs since 2001. My interest with them extends from a childlike fascination through horticulture and into international law and conservation. I am delighted to contribute to the CPR project and hope you find my submissions here both interesting and useful!

7 Comments

  1. Jane September 11, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Hi! Great article. I have a zone 9 pitcher plant and live in zone 6. I don’t know how to overwinter it but would love to. It has eaten a lot of wasps this summer. Lovely plant.

    • Carson Trexler September 13, 2018 at 10:40 am - Reply

      Hey there Jane,
      Overwintering North American Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia) is easy. I assume your plant is a Sarracenia because they are the only pitcher plants with the hardiness to withstand zone 9 winters.

      What you can do if you live in zone 6 is, first, allow your plant to go dormant as winter approaches. Let it experience several weeks of cold weather and frosts, maybe even an early snow. In November, you can leave your plants outside as long as temps don’t dip below 20 or so. Cut off all the old pitchers and spray with a sulfer-based fungicide. The point of leaving your plant outside right now is to make sure it’s dormant.

      Next, you can place your dormant plant on a windowsill in a water tray. Water your plant with the appropriate water. Make sure that the pot remains as cold as possible in this period too. A garage window might work well in this situation as well. Make sure that the windowsill or pot doesn’t heat up, else your Sarracenia might erroneously emerge from dormancy!

      When the weather stops dipping below freezing, you can place your plant back outside and treat it as normal – tray system and all.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Liz Kroeker October 7, 2018 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    I live in arid So California. I have mostly Highland Nepenthes and a few Lowland Nepenthes which are my babies. I noticed a few of the smaller pitchers starting to brown and dry up. Lighting is good and they’re always wet with distilled h2o but not sitting in water so assuming it’s a humidity issue. So I’ve set up a warm humidifier in same room for daytime only (as it’s been cool as well as dry here) and I have plastic with ventilation holes loosely covering them. Any other ideas or should I change something up? Tx in advance.

    • Carson Trexler October 7, 2018 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      Hey Liz,

      Unfortunately without a picture of the plant and the environment it’s in I can’t accurately diagnose specific problems, especially with Nepenthes, whose issues frequently depend on ambient conditions. I live in Oregon. It’s wet and rainy up here, and the experience I draw off of might not apply to Southern California. For a more complete response, I recommend reaching out to growers through the Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society and others in your region.

      Firstly, as I’m sure you’re familiar, Nepenthes pitchers senesce after a few weeks to months, depending on how your species or hybrids tolerate your conditions. Most Nepenthes sold through carnivorous plant retailers (N. sanguinea, ventricosa, x ventrata, x tiveyi, etc.) will survive and thrive in a west-facing windowsill with less than 30% humidity and lots of sun, at around 73 degrees. Generally, their preferred environment is similar to living-room ambient temperatures and humidity. Preferred lighting, however, is very strong.

      Indeed, humidity does affect the lifespan of Nepenthes pitchers to a degree, but even at 90% humidity, relatively easy plants refuse to pitcher if they don’t receive the correct light spectra. We notice at the nursery that plants pitcher the best when allowed a fuller spectrum of sunlight to reach them. An important element of lighting is UV radiation, which is supplied best by the sun. I am no expert in lighting terminology or how plants respond to it in a technical sense, but I know from experience that direct exposure to sunlight or T-5 fluorescent artificial lighting will help your plants pitcher better than any terrarium. If you are already providing sunlight through a windowsill, perhaps the window itself is canceling out enough UV radiation that the plants are not thriving. I say this with the knowledge that one cannot get a sunburn in front of a window, meaning that glass panes in general cut out a lot of the important radiation that plants might be adapted to. People can, however, get sunburnt in a greenhouse (just ask this nurseryman!), meaning that an adequate radiation spectrum is getting through. In the end, T-5 lights are a sure-fire way to provide good lighting. Such fixtures are readily available from hardware ore home improvement stores. Try for 5000K or more in the light provided by the bulbs you purchase.

      I recommend as much experimentation as you desire. Play with the conditions you want to provide your plants and enjoy the fun in testing new methods and techniques. For the simplest route to success, I still recommend bright light with less emphasis on creating a humid, enclosed environment.

  3. Liz Kroeker October 19, 2018 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Love your blog Carson. I’ve made some adjustments but have questions mainly with lighting. I am confused with all the terminology in regard to full spectrum grow lights. I am looking for T5 but no luck so far. I have 3 separate lights LED 27W, LED 12W and LED 12W 700 lumen. All are full spectrum on 12h daily plus my Neps are in sunny east facing window here in So California. It’s been very dry so I have a humidifier set up on kitchen floor. Plants are in Nep appropriate soil, always wet with distilled h2O and temps range mid to upper 70s daytime and 68 to low 70s at night. Humidity ranges 42 to 70%. I lightly spray foliage with highly diluted Maxsea once a month (recommended to me) and give one tiny Osmocote pellet one time only when lid first lifts (also recommended). I’ve not been feeding them as I left window ajar recently and accidentally let ants in. Pitchers are now full of dead ants. I recently moved my two lowland neps closer to lights and now wondering if too chilly at night.
    I would appreciate any further education/explanation on lighting. Is there a chance of adding to what I have to meet requirements for happy plants. It would be great not to blow my budget if possible. But I love my neps dearly and want them to grow into big healthy beauties. Tx!

    • Carson Trexler October 21, 2018 at 4:21 pm - Reply

      It sounds like you’ve got all the necessary conditions to grow happy, healthy Nepenthes! To fully get a feel for the adequacy of their growspace, give them more time. See if they grow any new pitchers in the coming months. As for the fertilizer, I recommend only spraying within the pitchers or spraying into the soil – enough that a few drops escape the drain holes, or until you otherwise feel that the plant has been adequately fed. Osmocote pellets in the pitchers is definitely a good way to fertilize. Remember though, the key is always experimentation.

      As for lighting and clarifying the terminology, I’m afraid that all I understand is not enough to fully satisfy your question. I can say that LED technology is not standardized, so the fixtures you may have can vary in plant growth effectivity despite similar wattages, lumens stats, etc. I wish I was more of an expert so I myself understood this clearer. Thankfully, another contributor is working on a detailed guide to CP lighting in general, so stay tuned to CPR so you know once its released!

  4. Elizabeth Esther Kroeker October 22, 2018 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Hi Carson, blogs like these are hugely helpful when embarking on a new journey so I thank you! How I wish there was a CP nursery in my area.
    I finally found a T5 LED full spectrum 2ft long light on Amazon. It’s a hanging light of course, so I constructed a stand out of 1/2″ PVC myself. It’s very sturdy and I’m quite impressed with myself. Can’t post a pic here but if you go to http://prettypredatoryplants.blogspot.com/2018/10/wrapping-my-head-around-lighting.html and scroll all the way down you’ll see my set up.
    I will definitely check out the coming article on lighting. I’m a RN by trade so the scientific side of me has a need to fully understand things like this. Again, thank you! Liz

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