If the idea of carnivorous plants makes you immediately think of the blood-thirsty man-eater in Little Shop of Horrors, don’t worry, you will not be considered their prey! Real carnivorous plants (such as the Venus flytrap) dine only on insects—though the speed at which they can snap shut on an insect is amazing. Here are three common types of carnivorous plants that are fun to grow as houseplants.
Whether you’re looking for a fun houseplant or an unusual gift, discover the world of carnivorous plants. Yes, they eat those pesky little bugs! No, they don’t eat people or pets, though some larger tropical ones may be able to catch a wayward mouse, frog, or lizard. Instead of feeding on nutrients in the soil, these plants have evolved to get their nutrients from whatever they can catch. The methods of entrapment vary by species of plant. Here are a few of the common ones
Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
The most famous of the carnivorous plants is the Venus Flytrap. It’s a “snap trap.” Unlike Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, these ground-hugging plants are quite small—only a few inches across with pairs of one inch long, trap-like, hinged leaves. Insects are lured into the trap by its sweet nectar and inadvertently brush against the trigger hairs. Nothing happens after the first touch but the trap snaps shut the second time the hairs are touched. Fine teeth along the edge of the leaves keep the victim locked in place. As the captured bug struggles, the trap closes even tighter. The plant then exudes a digestive enzyme to dissolve its victim so it can absorb its nutrients. After successfully sucking up 3 or 4 bugs the leaves will die off and new traps will grow.
That’s one stinkbug you don’t have to deal with!
Native to bogs in the Carolinas where they are considered endangered, Venus Flytraps are a fun houseplant that most kids find fascinating. Though it is often said that you can feed your housebound flytrap bits of hamburger, it is not recommended since it could rot the traps. Stick to giving them bugs instead but don’t overfeed them. They are slow eaters and it takes several weeks for them to fully digest an insect.
These flytraps are double potted so they can sit in water.
Since they are bog plants they like having wet feet so sit the pot in an inch of water in a tray or saucer. Use only distilled or rain water since minerals can harm them. They also like bright light and will make larger traps if given 3 to 6 hours of full sun a day. Put your flytraps outside during a buggy spring and summer and the busy plants can grow a new trap a week. They never need fertilizing since they catch their own food. In fall and winter they go dormant. Place them out of direct sun in a bright chilly location for 2-4 months while they rest and keep them barely moist. Repot in March when new growth starts and return them to sun and warmth. They have small white flowers but it is recommended not to let them blossom because it weakens the plant.
Pitcher Plants are called “pitfall trappers.” They have leaves like funnels which bugs will accidentally slide down. They lure their prey into their long funnel-like leaves with the promise of nectar. The inside of the funnel is slippery and the bugs eventually slip down into digestive fluid and water that has accumulated in the base of the plant. Downward facing hairs prevent the captured bugs from climbing back out and here they drown and decompose to feed the plant. There are two common types that you’ll find in plant stores.
There are many types of pitcher plants. This one has yellow flowers.
The trumpet pitcher Sarracena leucophyllais a North American native. Very pretty, they could pass for orchids or calla lilies with contrasting colored veins on the leaves and cap-like lids hovering over the opening of the pitcher. They grow to be 1 to 2 feet tall and produce shiny maroon flowers in the spring. They need at least 5 hours of direct sunlight a day to keep them from becoming floppy. Like the Venus flytrap it prefers wet feet so keep the pot in a saucer of water during the spring and summer growing season. Give it a cool drier treatment during its winter dormancy. There are many hybrids of these interesting plants for sale.
Monkey cups are striking in a hanging basket. They need high humidity to thrive.
Nepenthes are their tropical cousins. Sometimes called monkey cups because monkeys actually drink from them in their native lands. They make an interesting hanging plant if you have a humid room or warm greenhouse in which to grow them.
Sundews (Drosera) are like living flypaper, luring bugs with sticky nectar. Their tentacles bend and curl around the trapped bug, asphyxiating it and eventually digesting it. There are many species and they are found all around the world.
The Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) from South Africa is one you are likely to find for sale as a houseplant. Like the other carnivorous plants they like it bright and wet but do not undergo a period of winter dormancy. It blossoms in late spring to early summer.
Cape sundew has a jewel-like drop of sticky nectar on each tiny tentacle.
Darwin was fascinated by sundews saying that he cared more about Drosera than about the origin of all the species in the world. It is the largest family of carnivorous plants. For more information about these fun and freaky plants check out the International Carnivorous Plant Society’s website.