Here I’ll show you how much abuse North American Pitcher Plants can really tolerate. From ripping off all their winter leaves to butchering them into pieces, Sarracenia really showcase how resilient carnivorous plants can be. Remember: a meat-eating plant that lives in the dangerous swamps of the Deep South can probably tolerate some serious manhandling. Sarracenia are my favorite carnivorous plants to work with precisely because I can take my deepest frustrations out on their crunchy little rhizomes. Rarrrrrrgh!
I just got done dividing and cleaning several hundred plants for my employer, which means a) I’m covered in pond scum and desperately need to shower, and b) right now I’m all about talking shop about chopping up pitcher plants! What I’ll be doing in the pics below is fully trimming and dividing a large, mature Sarracenia.
You do not need to divide or transplant your plant every year, but if you do, it’s best to do it all at once, while the plant is dormant. When a plant is still dormant, its “metabolism” isn’t at risk for being spent on both growth, shock, and healing at the same time. Shock is a general term for stress after transplantation. Dividing a plant in winter means the plant is numb to shock, and divisions won’t suffer an unbalanced growing season as would a plant divided in mid-summer. Just remember to give them adequate water immediately after division, or keep divisions stored in a bin of water until you’re ready to plant them. Also, you can divide healthy Sarracenia at any time of the year, but winter division means a more consolidated care routine for you, and a consolidated growth budget for your pitcher plant.
The whole process is kind of like preparing a chicken, without all the guts and it’s not actually dead! So let’s start off with an “unplucked” plant:
I chose this plant because the rhizome had been pushing up against the sides of the pot, and in some places had started to arch over the rim itself! I also wanted to split this plant up so I could have more of it. It could be kept undivided, and I could transplant the whole thing (cleaned of old soil and weeds of course) into a larger pot so that the roots grow more (wider and deeper pots generally give you larger plants). For the sake of this page however, this S. oreophila hybrid gets to be split apart!
First, remove all that old soil. I use a bonsai root hook, which is great for getting in-between all those hard-to-reach places. Plus, you can really get your shoulder into it!
Dormant, healthy Sarracenia are basically numb to root disturbance, so don’t worry too much about ripping off roots (but keep it to a minimum!). Sarracenia roots are extremely robust, ropey things that can tolerate being moved around – they don’t come off easily. At the nursery I work at, not a single Sarracenia has suffered from root disturbance alone no matter how I handle them. The only serious setback that Sarracenia experience from the whole process in this article will be from division. A Sarracenia rhizome, even without any roots, can still take root and grow when treated just like an undamaged plant! Seriously! I’ve seen discarded rhizome bits grow out of water trays, without soil, without attention. That’s how durable this genus is!
You can divide your plant if you want to. It’s always more fun to have multiples for trades and sales. To divide, simply break a section of rhizome off with your BARE HANDS (or cut with scissors, if you’re not a barbarian like me) that preferably includes a good portion of roots and at least one growth point. This is now a new individual plant, which will divide and grow just like any other.
Divided plants should not be allowed to flower until they’ve experienced a full growing season to replenish their energy and nutrient reserves. Division requires a lot of healing and forces the new plant to reorganize its budget of nutrients and energy. This makes flowering exhausting for your plant. Remove the buds once you see them. Carnivory will heavily benefit reproduction. It is essential that the insects trapped in the new growing season go to regeneration instead of flower production.
Division can also take the color out of certain varieties, especially S. flava v. rubricorpora and v. atropurpurea, among others. For over a year after division, proper coloration may not return to these plants, and they may even refuse to pitcher. The dazzling cultivar S. ‘Adrian Slack’ is among those plants that may languish for years in a sort of pitcherless coma until putting up fully-developed pitchers after being divided.
Warm, humid days (like the conditions in a greenhouse) with careful attention to mold growth, and the occasional addition of a mild orchid fertilizer (Maxsea is a favorite these days) can speed recovery in a plant within to a single growing season. But such conditions aren’t necessary to grow healthy plants.
Trimming dead leaves is very straightforward. For Sarracenia, it’s important to note that the rhizome grows horizontally, sometimes branching, along which dead leaves form a sort of “comet’s tail” that precedes the crown (the growth point). To trim, simply keep an eye on the crown proper to avoid it, and cut everything else off, down to one centimeter. You can choose to keep phyllodes or live pitchers (in my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter). I recommend using small bonsai clippers for this job, especially for the finely branched rhizome masses of S. rubra. In the end, do whatever makes it easy for you to avoid cutting the crown.
See how small the whole plant really is? It’s just a bunch of roots and a naked rhizome with a green/red/white growth point. Anything soft and brown can be stripped away – this can save you trouble from pests and diseases in the future. Remember, this isn’t possible or necessary in the wild, but in cultivation it’s something that you may need to do to avoid problems inherent to cultivation down the road. Us growers ought to pamper our plants to keep them as healthy as possible!
As I remove more soil with the root hook, I dunk the rhizomes in a tub of water and shake them at the water’s surface. This cleans all the old soil off, right up to the rhizome’s base. It’s not essential that all the soil is removed, but if you’re concerned about mineral buildup from your water or just don’t like your old soil, it’s good practice to give your plants a deep cleaning. It’s also a good idea to do this when receiving plants from another grower: washing off soil can remove a ton of potential pests, including mealybug eggs, thrips, mold, and even aphids!
Trimming rhizomes that are too large or which are rotten on one end is another good way to ensure the health of your plant. It also makes it easier to fit a large crown in a smaller pot if need be. Simply cut the dead rhizome chunks off. Leave as many roots as possible, but even if you’re left with a single root or even none at all, your plant can still survive! The size of the rhizome doesn’t necessarily contribute to the size of the plant. Instead, it’s the size of the crown which will tell you how large the plant will be in most cases (exceptions are the species S. minor, S. rubra, S. purpurea and allies, and most hybrids made with them).
In my next post, I’ll go over the dos and don’ts about potting up rhizomes.
Common Mistakes and Diseases
You cut the crown in half! Ouch! Fortunately, there’s still hope for your circumcised Sarracenia. Firstly, remember that if the crown has a root, or if it has even a few millimeters of tough, woody rhizome tissue attached to the cut, you’re still good. The crown can still develop roots. If you busted the crown open and exposed the inner growth point, but didn’t damage it, then you’re also still alright. But if you smashed it like an egg, you need to wait for the rhizome to grow a new crown from a dormant “eye”. The remainder of the crownless rhizome should sprout a new growth point from one of these “eyes” within the growing season. Don’t throw it out until fall!
What if you snipped off new growth? Wait, are you sure that was new growth? Or was it just a piece of the hibernaculum that protects the growth point during winter? If so, no worries – hibernacula can take a lot of abuse. That’s why it’s there. If you really did chop off one of the new budding pitchers, then no worries there either. It’ll grow more, because that’s what plants do ;)
What if you see mold or goo on the base of the plant? Looks like the soil line didn’t get enough ventilation during the winter. Extra humidity probably allowed some fungus to take hold. Remove all dead foliage, plucking out as many dead leaf bases from the rhizome as you can. It’s best to repot the plant, spraying it with a sulfur-based fungicide before planting it in new soil. If you need to, remember you can spray with sulfur during any time of the year.
I recently purchased a Sunbeam. It’s a small one but between transport and driving it home, it lost all its sticky dew. How long does it take to come back from shock?
Hi Jade, sundews can lose their dew for a multitude of reasons. Humidity, water, and lighting conditions are the big three. If these are optimal for the plant, it can recover it’s stick dew as soon as a few hours to as long as a couple of days. – It all comes down to the plant settling into new conditions.
So I’m in a bit of a bind. I bought a serious beauty that I’m obsessed with, but even the guy admitted it was about 2 or more years overdue for a division: it was in a 3-inch pot and trying to be about 6 x 8 inches; it had actually pull itself, dirt and all, out of the pot, and the newer branches were curling down and then back up. Yikes.
I’d love to break the lovely things up cuz I have friends who want some and I’d love extras, too, but I’m worried about shocking it by dividing it now (early June in DC) and killing the whole thing off…any thoughts or insights? Should I leave it and wait, or are the risks not so terrible as I fear?
Hi Tophie! It sounds like you have a good problem on your hands. I would wait until dormancy to divide your Sarracenia. Divisions can really set back growth, and the plant needs to focus on building up energy stores now, by catching prey and photosynthesising. During dormancy, you’ll be able to avoid much of the stress and the plant will have an opportunity to recover before the growing season starts up again.
Don’t worry too much about the plant outgrowing its pot – that happens. If it’s a serious problem, you can repot the pitcher plant into a bigger pot for this season, but be gentle on the root system and avoid taking divisions, for now.
I bought my first Saracenia last year and I was seriously in love. It lasted beautifully all season and then I brought it in for the winter and just let it float in my aquarium with my koi. Something tells me I should have not done that. It stayed pretty beautiful and vibrant all winter. But then I trimmed the dead growth off and now it’s SO scrawny! It’s as if there’s no air in the leaves! Is there anything I can do? Thanks in advance for any advice.
Howdy Dina, and thanks for reaching out! Flush your Sarracenia’s soil with pure rainwater or reverse osmosis water. You want to get any of the nitrogen/minerals out of the soil that it may have absorbed from the koi aquarium. Fish poop makes a great fertilizer which is good for many plants… except of the carnivorous variety. They can handle and benefit from foliar feeding using a diluted fertilizer, but having their root soaked in it will cook them.
Also, if the plant looked healthy and was growing over winter, there’s a good chance that it didn’t go dormant – winter dormancy is required for Sarracenia, and skipping it can weaken the plant.
Good luck reviving!
Thank you so much! I’m so happy to have found this website and I love that i can buy plants here! I will repot the Saracenia. If it doesn’t grow properly this season can I save it by letting it go dormant next winter?
I’m thrilled that you’re enjoying the site, and that it’s proven useful for you, Dina! It’s impossible to tell if the pitcher plant will recover without more information, but DO let it go dormant this season, and you’ll have a chance at recovery. Happy growing!
My plant seems dead or dormant. I have been watering the plant but still no new leaves or buds coming up. I wish I could send you a pic.
Sorry to hear this, Patrick! You can always email us using the contact form on the site. Dormancy is totally normal, so depending where you live, the plant may still be out cold for the season. Most Sarracenia in warmer climates should be putting on new growth at this point of the year.
Hi. Found reading your article very interesting, can you tell me when is the best time to cut back sarracenia please.
Trimming back old, dead/dying Sarracenia pitchers is best done during winter dormancy. December should be a good time. Do keep in mind that some species like Sarracenia purpurea and even some Sarracenia minor can hold their pitchers until the following season. My rule of thumb – if it’s green, let it be as it’ll provide some photosynthetic value to the plant.
Why does my sarracenia’s pitchers always bend over and begin to crack? No matter how much /litte sunlight it does this. Slightest wind bends them too. So i bring it in when its windy
Howdy Brian! There could be a few reasons for floppy pitchers – 1. the wind is too much 2. water is getting into your pitchers and the weight is causing them to bend and break 3. your plants are a little weak and it’s manifesting in the form of flimsy pitchers. Perhaps more sunlight is needed? 4. it could simply be the breed of plant – top-heavy pitchers with thin attachment points can flop over.
Glad to see that there is another person that has discovered that Sarracenia are far more hardy than most growers believe.
Most people will say to throw out rhizomes that do not have any root. I have good success just potting them up and treating them like a more robust division. As long as there is at least one dormant growth point on the rhizome, it will usually recover fine – although it may take a year or two. The same holds for active growth points with a bit of rhizome but no roots. I have even got those to put out roots in a tray of water.
Another is winter hold hardiness. I live in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Every Winter we often get an Arctic cold front that passes through over a week or so where the temperatures get as low as -10 degrees F (one winter it got even colder. I never cover/protect my plants over winter and they have always survived just fine – although I am sure the pitchers, rhizomes and roots were all frozen solid. The vital factor here is that there is no wind during these extreme cold spells, so the plants do not get dehydrated.
I have found that the greatest problem with dividing the plants too late in early spring results in a summer/fall of distorted and small pitchers. The following year they all seem to do fine.
I just wish that purpurea and psittacina rhizomes grew faster. Mine seem to seldom have more than one growth point and the rhizome is so small I am afraid to divide it.
If I divide my pitcher plant in middle of June (it has already flowered), will it survive? It is way overcrowded. Probably has hundreds of crowns in a half whiskey barrel.
I would recommend against dividing Sarracenia during the growing season. It may survive, but it will almost certainly pout and send up deformed pitchers. Waiting until dormancy will give you the best chance at loosing the fewest plants and having healthy new growth come next spring.
Is repotting into larger growing area an option? If so, your pitcher plant will be much happier being moved from one pot to another without being chopped up.
If the plant is so overcrowded that it’s seriously suffering and you can’t find a larger container for a simple repotting, try making as few divisions as possible and repotting the larger chunks into large growing containers until you can do proper dividing in the winter.
When rainwater isn’t available, i use reverse osmosis water. But the RO system puts a small amount of minerals for taste back into the RO water. Will that effect the plants?
And, I also use well water frequently, which has some metals and sulfur etc in it. Do you think that water would be harmful for the pitcher plants? Thank you kindly!
Hi, when I clean the roots can I use regular water or does it have to be RAIN or distilled water?