Hurray! Spring! If you’re a Sarracenia grower like me, you look forward to this time of year, every year. Your plants wake up, put on a bedazzling flowery show, and start popping fresh pitchers. The garden looks lovely and all is right in the world. How excellent the show ends up being is dependent on what we do leading up to this time of year. So, how do we get our Sarracenia into tip-top shape and push their growth to the max?
Before we dive in, do keep in mind that I grow out of Southern California where winters are mild-to-warm, summers are hot, humidity is low, and pests are geo-specific. That said, I’ll try to speak in high-level generalities while diving into California-specific details that may vary based on your location.
We’ll cover the following chronological topics, starting from winter and ending around spring:
- Winter care
- Pruning, repotting and dividing Sarracenia
- Preventative pest control
- First seasonal feedings
- To flower or not to flower?
Tldr: mature Sarracenia require dormancy for long-term health.
What you do ahead of spring will determine how strong your pitcher plants start the season. So, let’s roll back in time to when your plants are still dormant.
Your pitcher plants require cooler average temperatures, shorter photoperiods (number of hours/day of sunlight received) and prefer slightly drier conditions. Like deciduous trees, Sarracenia will “drop” their leaves (more like allow to dry out and shrivel up) in the winter and doze off into a state of dormancy during which time they won’t visibly do much. Let them. This is a natural occurrence that is important for the long-term health of Sarracenia.
Pruning, Repotting and Dividing Sarracenia
Tldr: get an early start so your not stuck with wonky growth. Consider leaving green things attached. Tear dead pitchers off to rough up the rhizome and encourage new crowns.
Here’s a handy-dandy link to an in-depth article on repotting Sarracenia. I do recommend starting early – when existing pitchers start crisping up, new pitcher production stops, and phyllodia have grown out. Catching your pitcher plants during winter dormancy will minimize stress on the plants, and early repotting and dividing will give rhizomes a healthy amount of time to settle in before the following season’s growth. If you get caught repotting as plants are just coming out of dormancy, it’s not the end of the world, but you may have aborted flowers or deformed early-season pitchers.
It’s at the point of repotting that many growers will pull out the chainsaw (or pruning sheers, depending on the size of your collection) and go to town decapitating growth to within a few inches of the Sarracenia’s crown. I get it – no one likes to look at a bunch of crispy old, mostly dead pitchers. Plus, trimming things back lets you keep an eye on how things are looking down at the soil-level. I, however, take a different and slightly more tedious approach – I selectively trim back anything that’s clearly dead, and leave on anything that’s still got life left in it. My thinking? Those pitchers are often stuffed to the brim with insects and lined with chlorophyll meaning that they’re still useful to your plant. Even phyllodia, or the non-carnivorous leaves your plants produce leading into dormancy are like little solar panels soaking up what reduced sunlight they can. Leaving them attached provides some extra oomf for early-season growth.
Hey, while you’re at it, beat up your rhizome a little. It’ll encourage new growth. You can lightly notch rhizomes, or as I like to do, tear off old, dead pitchers all the way back to their origin at the rhizome. This will expose small surface wounds that don’t normally harm the plant or get infected, and can turn into new crowns the following season. Tearing off pitchers has the added benefit of removing rhizome nooks-and-crannies that pests like to crawl into. Speaking about pests…
Let’s talk about preventative pest control
Tldr: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pitchers. Get ahead of pests so they don’t get ahead of you.
I see it as an inevitability that, given you have your plants for a while, you will run into some form of pest. Don’t stress it. We’ve all been there and had to take emergency action to save a plant or prevent the spread of something sinister. You know what’s better than panic-spraying insecticide, though? Casually and calmly taking preventative measures to keep pests at bay before they ever take hold.
I recently wrote a post on caterpillars, so you can go in-depth in this article. They will chew holes in leaves, and some of the buggers bore into rhizomes. They can dramatically set back or even kill Sarracenia. The short of it; apply Bacillus thuringiensis, a highly-selective and safe bacteria, during winter and spring to keep munchers at bay.
If you are experiencing an attack by soft-bodied insects like thrip, mealy bug, or aphids on your plants or on neighboring plants, consider applying Neem oil to knock out the current pests. It kills when it comes into contact with these pests and can be used as a spot treatment to keep small outbreaks at bay. Neem is an oil extracted from the seeds of Azadirachta indica (Indian Neem Tree) and is much easier on your local environment than something like a systemic pesticide.
If push comes to shove, and you have or expect to have a pretty gnarly infestation of critters, you may consider using the nuclear option – a systemic pesticide like Orthene. Something like Orthene uses acephate that affects an insect on contact or after being eaten. A key feature of acephate is that your plants will absorb it, making their delicious-looking leaves poisonous to pests. It’s very effective, but less healthy than the prior alternatives for you and the environment, so try to use sparingly.
First meals of the season
Tldr: give your plants an early-season foliar fertilizing to encourage larger growth.
I have a confession to make – I cheat a little. I pitcher and foliar-feed my Sarracenia to supplement what they naturally extract from their environment. This “juicing” amps up growth and is common practice in expediting Sarracenia seedling growth. It is a less common practice with mature pitcher plants, but I’ve had good results.
I use a 50% dilution of seaweed fertilizer like Maxsea, and mostly spray inside remaining old pitchers, new pitchers (make sure not to overdo it, or the water weight will bend/snap pitchers) and lightly on the outside surface. While I’m not entirely sure how capable last season’s viable pitchers are at nutrient uptake, it does seem to help the first, and mostly the second set of new pitchers. This is anecdotal, but my plants really seem to enjoy it.
To flower or not to flower
Tldr: flowers take energy away from pitcher development. However, removing flowers only seems to impact the first or second set of pitchers.
Flowers are a must-have if you want to breed your Sarracenia. You can learn more about Sarracenia hybridizing in this other article we wrote. But, should you leave flowers on if you have no intentions of pollinating them? Doesn’t flower production take energy away from pitcher production? Kind-of.
Some folks will tell you to snip your Sarracenia flowers as soon as you can in order to maximize pitcher size. I find that flowers only impact the first one or two pitchers of the season. At the same time, Sarracenia flowers are so unique and beautiful, that they rival those from orchids. In my humble opinion, they’re part of the spring show, and I personally battle with the notion of lopping them off in favor of slightly more pitcher size. I’d suggest leaving them attached, and countering the energy toll by fertilizing per the above instructions.
I hope this article helps you navigate the winter and spring months, and kick-start your pitcher plants in a big way this year! As always, happy growing!
Check out some of the awesome Sarracenia available from community members in the Carnivorous Plant Resource Marketplace: