growing carnivorous plants, with peter d’amato

Cover of THE SAVAGE GARDEN, plus beetel on Drosera leaf (Drosera photo Jonathan Chester)A WOODEN WINDOW BOX lined with plastic and filled with sundews and pitcher plants will attract more attention than one full of geraniums, writes Peter D’Amato in “The Savage Garden,” the fascinating bible of carnivorous plants that’s just out in an updated 15th-anniversary edition. Ready to try a mini-bog in a pot or the ground, or a hanging basket of tropical pitcher plants in your house–and also perhaps win a copy of the book?

prefer the podcast?

GROWING CARNIVOROUS PLANTS was the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public radio show and podcast, with Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores, author of “The Savage Garden” (Amazon affiliate link) as my guest. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The July 15, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

The backstory: About 20 years ago my longtime friend and fellow garden writer Ken Druse and I were working on a book about native plants, called “The Natural Habitat Garden,” and I joined Ken as he traveled around the country photographing natives, in nature and in gardens.

One of our wildest stops was up in Sebastopol, California, at California Carnivores, which has been open and dedicated to cultivating these dramatics plants–including various native American species–since 1989.  (A highly recommended destination if you are near San Francisco.) In 1998, Peter wrote “The Savage Garden,” but a lot has changed in carnivores in 15 years since the first edition–and even more so in the 40 years D’Amato has been growing them.

So many new species have been discovered in places such as the Philippines. “We’re now at an estimated 800 to 1,000 species of carnivorous plants worldwide,” says Peter; for many years the number was thought to be about 600. At the time of the first edition, for instance, there were 80 known species of Nepenthes (below N. rafflesiana); those outlandish-looking “tropical pitchers” are now counted at about 150 species.

Nepenthes rafflesiana

Speaking of which: In the “houseplant section” greenhouse of my local garden center, I’ve been admiring the giant hanging baskets of Nepenthes. Can I really bring one home and make it happy in my house? Apparently yes, Peter says—noting that two Nepenthes varieties (one called ‘Miranda,’ and another that’s a hybrid of N. alata) are being propagated vegetatively in recent years, and sold widely from Paris to London to the U.S. to Hong Kong.

Nepenthes do require “rather exacting conditions,” though, he explains:

  • They do well at room temperature–and can take temperatures down into 50s and 60s  and up to the 70s and 80s.
  • Like all carnivorous plants, they need sun: extremely bright or sunny window exposure, such as a sun room, or in your brightest window, for instance.
  • They need to be watered daily, but not with hard water that’s full of minerals. Use water that’s purified by reverse osmosis, or use rainwater or distilled water. (DIY countertop or faucet filters such as those that inside special water pitchers are not sufficient to lower the minerals.)
  • Avoid putting fertilizer into the potting medium of any carnivorous plants. Again, they don’t like high mineral content, but you can make a diluted solution of the fertilizer, and spray or otherwise wet down the foliage perhaps twice a month.  (The fertilizer they use at California Carnivores.)
  • More on Nepenthes, at the nursery website.

did you know? carnivorous-plant ‘aha’s’

  • All carnivorous plants are flowering plants. The “pitchers,” though highly ornamental, are not blooms but modified leaves—“forming traps to lure, drug, catch, kill and digest insects,” says Peter.
  • They adapted to get nutrition this way so they can survive in the natural habitats they hail from—such as wet grassy savannahs in the Southeast, or bogs in New England, or mountain forests of Southeast Asia. Other plants would struggle in such areas, where usually the soil is peaty or sandy, with water trickling through it and even high rainfall–water that leaches out excess minerals. “Carnivorous plants have adapted to catch all these vitamin pills with legs and wings that we call insects,” says Peter.
  • The United States has more carnivorous plant genera than anywhere else on the planet. (Particularly the Southeast, from Southern New Jersey to Northern Florida and the Gulf Coast, but there are West Coast species as well.)  The Southeast used to be an amazing belt of habitat for carnivores—but many are now on the verge of extinction, says Peter. “Only 5 percent of our native carnivorous plant habitats remain in the Southeast,” he says.
  • American pitcher plants have to be about 5-8 years old from seed to reach flowering age. When they finally do so, the flowers are timed to open before the year’s new pitchers develop, because the plants don’t want to catch their pollinators in the pitchers!

Mini bog in an antique tub, by Jana Olson Drobinsky

making a mini-bog

ALL CARNIVOROUS PLANTS must be container plants—unless you live in a bog, says Peter. That said, the “container” can be an actual vessel (like to old washtub above, or a whiskey barrel), or a sort of simulated mini-bog set into the ground, using a rubber or plastic liner or a pot, for instance, and filled with a proper growing medium. But these plants cannot live in garden soil.

Most plants in a simulated mini-bog are simply potted ones that sit in bowls of purified water so they’re always wet, year round, even when dormant and the water freezes.

Which kind of pot to choose? An undrained container 12 inches across or larger is fine, Peter says (or a shallow depression in the ground, about a foot deep, lined with a pond liner). If it’s smallish, it will require regular watering–even daily–so choose accordingly.

Sarracenia minor in a glazed dish garden, photo by Jonathan Chester/Extreme Images, Inc.

Alternatively, you can use a mini-bog container that has drainage holes, and would sit in a much larger water bowl—and that’s often much easier, Peter says. The bigger reservoir will provide moisture over a longer time than a small dish garden (above, a pitcher plant in a small dish).

If you’re growing in a pot with drainage, use sphagnum moss to cover the hole (to keep the growing medium in the pot). Mix your growing medium of 20 percent washed sand (either horticultural or play sand for sandboxes), or 20 percent Perlite, to either of which you add 80 percent sphagnum moss. Make sure the sphagnum is pure, with no fertilizer added, “which has become a big problem the last few years,” says Peter, as more potting mediums come already fertilized.

Premix your dry ingredients with a lot of water—again, not mineral-rich water!—until “it’s like soft mud,” he says.

Plants come two ways: potted, or bare root. Bare root are easier to handle in late winter, during dormancy, than during active growth, to minimize transplant shock. Potted plants are even easier and more flexible, because the medium around the roots needn’t be disturbed in the process of transplanting–and pots can even just be plunged in the medium in your larger garden container.

Many bog plants can take some winter, including freezes, but in extreme Northern zones they can be given winter shelter in a bright, cold location, such as an unheated or barely heated porch. Darkness during dormancy invites rotting; keep that in mind when selecting a spot.

More on growing carnivores on Peter’s website, or for the complete how-to, “The Savage Garden” is your best companion.

how to win ‘the savage garden’

The Savage Garden coverI’VE PURCHASED TWO EXTRA COPIES of “The Savage Garden” (Amazon affiliate link) to share with you. To enter, all you have to do is comment below, answering this question:

Have you ever grown a carnivorous plant? Have you ever seen them in nature, or in a botanical garden display, perhaps?

I’ve seen them in the wild and in gardens (and at California Carnivores–a great tourist stop in Sonoma County wine country) but never grown them myself. Re-reading “The Savage Garden,” I feel inspired to  to try a mini-bog, at least a dish garden-sized one–and to finally buy that crazy-looking Nepenthes hanging basket at my garden center.

Don’t worry if you’re shy or have no answer to the question–just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will. Two winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Monday, July 22. U.S. and Canada only. Winners will be notified by email. Good luck to all.

(Photos reprinted with permission from “The Savage Garden, Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants,” by Peter D’Amato; Ten Speed Press, © 2013. Top photo of Drosera with beetle and photo of Sarracenia minor ‘Okee Giant’ by Jonathan Chester/Extreme Images, Inc. Nepenthes photo by Sharon Bergeron. Mini-bog in an antique tub by Jana Olson Drobinsky.)

  1. Candace Robinson says:

    Wow! Very timely article. This spring I purchased a hanging Nepenthes miranda at my local nursery. It seems to be doing well and has produced quite a bit of new growth over the course of the summer (however, no new pitchers so far). Glad to know about the preference for soft water which will be important when I bring it in for the winter.

    I have seen pitcher plants in local bogs (they are the official provincial flower of Newfoundland) and the round-leaved sundews are also fairly ubiquitous around the Laurentian lakes near my home in Quebec.

    Your article has inspired me to seriously consider turning an old galvanized bathtub I had thought to use as a water garden into a little bog. Thanks for the helpful info.

  2. Molly W. says:

    I, too, grow a few carnivorous plants. Last year, I began with one Venus’s fly trap, bought from my local grocery store, and surprisingly it flowered. After about a month, it went dormant, and I thought it had died, – I knew virtually nothing about them then, – and it ended up getting thrown out. Now however, with the help of online resources, particularly a website, http://www.flytrapcare.com, I have quite a collection. I now have several ‘typical’ Venus’s fly traps, all rescued from the terrarrium-style cubes at Lowe’s, three ‘Pink Venus’ cultivar flytraps, a plethora of seedling flytraps, and one “FTS Fuzzy Tooth” style flytrap on the way from http://www.flytrapstore.com! I also have a bunch of Darlingtonia Californica seedlings (Cobra Plants, awesome looking creatures!) and one 4-year-old plant that I got from a known eBay seller. I also have two yearling Sarracenia seedlings (pitcher plants) as well as three new seedlings, two Drosera seedlings (sundew plants!) and a Sarracenia ‘Dana’s Delight’ on the way! I have become more than just an enthusiast, it has become a passion, as I seem to have a black thumb for nearly all other plant life!

    To correct one item in the article, there is actually now ONE pitcher type water filter that will filter water properly for a carnivorous plant, and that is the ZeroWater pitcher. It even comes with a TDS meter to test your water before and after filtering, so you know both that the water has been filtered, and how well the filter cartridge itself is working! I am using this to replace purchasing distilled water when I run out of rainwater, as rain unfortunately won’t fall when I want it to, of course!

    All of my babies except the adult Darlingtonia are planted in pure dead long-fiber sphagnum moss, without the sand/perlite mixed in, and they seem to love it. It’s been very easy to keep appropriately moist, and has really promoted the growth of the plants. They’re a great and fascinating plant to have, watch, and enjoy, and I highly recommend them to anyone who might be interested! I’m hoping some day that I’ll be able to go and see some carnivorous plants in their native habitats, as pictures I’ve seen are absolutely amazing!

  3. Carol says:

    I am a member of the South Carolina Native Plant Society and several years ago we went on a hike at Cypress Gardens in Monks Corner, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. There, we saw a very large area of native pitcher plants growing in the wild. Gorgeous! Makes me want to try growing them at home in Charleston. I live on a marsh and think part of my property might be suitable for them.

  4. Peggy Hauser says:

    I had Venus Flytraps when I was a child…loved them, but killed them by feeding them bologna…and acutally did a presentation for our local Master Gardeners on Carnivorous plants.

  5. Irena says:

    I don’t know how I came around the carnivorous plants, but what I do know for sure is that once I did, my wallet got by at least $100 lighter in a matter of a couple of weeks. I planted a big pot outside with a collection of different pitcher plants, but now, after reading the suggestion, am seriously thinking that it would be a great idea for a window box – if they could only catch all the mosquitos and Japanese beetles! By the way, my friend keeps a Venus fly trap on her kitchen windowsill above the sink – fruit flies are not very happy about it:).

  6. Jacqui says:

    I live in coastal Alabama near 2 awesome pitcher plant bogs. Would love to put in a small bog at my house. Must read more!!!

  7. Tina Knezevic says:

    I have not purchased a carnivorous plant or have seen them in nature but I would love to own one. Love the book!

  8. Gen says:

    I’ve seen carnivorous plants at the local botanical garden in my town, and I’ve also attempted to grow them on several occasions, but with no real success. I probably have always lacked improper potting media. I’ve never seen one in the wild though!

  9. margaret says:

    ENTRIES ARE CLOSED, but your comments are always welcome.

    The winners (Pat Y. and Andi) have been notified by email.

    Thanks to all for good carnivorous-plant tales. Fun!

  10. Gillian says:

    Just lost our little bog to raccoons! And all the plants were doing so beautifully. We rescued them once, only.to get hit again about a week later. A few are barely hanging on- the rest lost. Suggestions anyone?

  11. Tina says:

    My 9 year old grandson has become quite the gardener. I was telling him about a picture plant I used to have 30 years ago. He found that fascinating, so, after going online to order a Venus fly trap, picture, and dew plant, we are going to make a potted bog by our pool. We are both truly looking forward to our “carny’s”. Stay well, Tina and Ronan

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