New to carnivorous plants? Start here!
12 June 2017
Whether you’ve just returned from the garden centre with your first Venus flytrap, or are simply looking for an easy-to-grow carnivorous plant as a unusual gift, you’re in the right place.
On this page I’ve included answers to common questions, descriptions of the main ‘types’ of carnivorous plants, simple growing instructions for popular species, tips for water & dormancy, links to essential resources, and my top recommendations for specialist nurseries. Read on!
- What kinds of carnivorous plant are there?
- Which carnivorous plants are good for beginners?
- How do I care for my Venus flytrap, Cape Sundew, or Purple Pitcher Plant?
- Where can I find detailed care instructions?
- Where can I buy carnivorous plants?
- Should I remove the plastic dome my plant came in?
- Why is my tropical pitcher plant not making pitchers?
- Where can I obtain carnivorous plant seeds?
- Where can I get purified water?
- Where on the web can I learn more about carnivorous plants?
1. What kinds of carnivorous plant are there?
The Venus Flytrap: Without a doubt the most famous carnivorous plant, the Venus flytrap is - for many growers - a gateway drug! The speed at which a healthy plant will snap shut on an insect is amazing the first time you witness it. There is only one species - Dionaea muscipula - but dozens of weird and wonderful varieties are available.
The Sundews: There are almost 200 species of Sundew (Drosera). They vary enormously in size, shape, and growing requirements, and can be found on every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Most are covered with tentacles which have brightly-coloured, glue-covered tips. These tentacles can move, helping the Sundew to quickly suffocate and digest insects which have become stuck.
The Butterworts: You can find Butterworts (Pinguicula) throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest concentration being found in Mexico and Central America. There are around 100 species in all. Their leaves normally appear green and glossy, growing in a ground-hugging rosette. They are also known as flypaper traps, on account of the sticky leaves they use to catch gnats and fruit flies.
The Pitcher Plants: Pitcher plants typically feature leaves shaped like tubes or vases. Insects slip on the pitcher rim and fall into the digestive enzymes below. There are actually five different kinds (or ‘genera’) of pitcher plant - their common and scientific names are listed below.
- North American Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia) - 8 species
- Tropical Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes) - 160+ species
- West Australian Pitcher Plants (Cephalotus) - 1 species
- The Sun Pitchers (Heliamphora) - 20+ species
- The Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia) - 1 species
In garden centers, you’re most likely to encounter the first two: Sarracenia and Nepenthes. For care advice, keep reading!
The Bladderworts: With over 200 species, the Bladderworts (Utricularia) are another hugely diverse genus of canivorous plant. Found almost everywhere on Earth, Bladderworts capture prey using bladder-like organs on their roots, which are submerged underwater. Tiny organisms (such as water fleas) are sucked into the bladders in less than a hundredth of a second, where they are digested. Bladderworts are particularly popular for their flowers, which can be as colourful and as beautiful as those of orchids.
This list is far from exhaustive! There are dozens of other carnivorous and semi-carnivorous plant species out there, but you’re less likely to encounter them as a beginner. They include the Waterwheel plant (Aldrovanda), the Rainbow plant (Byblis), the Corkscrew plant (Genlisea), and the Dewy Pine (Drosophyllum).
2. Which carnivorous plants are good for beginners?
For first-time growers, I recommend the following easy-to-grow species:
- Drosera capensis, the Cape sundew: one of the prettiest and most entertaining sundews, this species is also one of the most adaptable. A great fly catcher and a perfect plant for new growers.
- Dionaea muscipula, the Venus flytrap: Not quite as easy to care for as the Cape sundew, but just as awe-inspiring and rewarding to grow.
- Sarracenia purpurea, the Purple pitcher plant: This species - and hybrids involving it - is the most tolerant of all North American pitcher plants. It’s also smaller than the erect species, and its squat pitchers make it suitable for windowsill growing.
3. How do I care for my Venus flytrap, Cape Sundew, or Purple Pitcher Plant?
These beginner’s plants share very similar growing requirements.
- Light: As much as possible! Venus flytraps, Cape sundews, and North American pitcher plants love full direct sun, so in the UK that means a south-facing windowsill, a conservatory, or a greenhouse.
- Water: Sit the pots in a tray filled with 1-2cm of distilled water or rainwater (read more about water for CPs), adding water to the tray rather than top watering. These are bog plants, and the growing media should be kept moist throughout the growing season.
- Compost: Never use normal potting soil! A good, sustainable peat-free mixture for CPs is fine milled bark (e.g. Growbark Pine from Melcourt), lime-free horticultural grit, and perlite, to a ratio of 2:1:1. The traditionally recommended peat-based mixture is sphagnum peat moss mixed with either lime-free horticultural sand or perlite, to a ratio of about 2:1. You can buy peat (and suitable peat-based mixes) from specialist nurseries and on Amazon. Never add fertiliser.
- Pots: Plastic pots work best, but fully-glazed ceramic pots are also fine, provided they have plenty of drainage holes. 12cm pots are large enough for adult plants, and repotting is best done in the Spring.
- Dormancy: Venus flytraps and all North American pitcher plants require a cold winter dormancy between November and February, while Cape Sundews can grow year-round. To provide a dormancy for indoor plants, move them somewhere colder - sit them next to a window in your shed or garage, for example. Your plant’s leaves will go black and die back, only to start growing again in Spring.
- Food: Here on my blog, I’ve written articles on the best foods for carnivorous plants, and reasons why flytrap leaves may turn black.
4. Where can I find detailed care instructions?
The best single resource for growers of carnivorous plants is Peter D’Amato’s book The Savage Garden. Peter updated the book in 2013, so be sure to buy the second edition (here on Amazon).
Other recent books which I personally find useful and would recommend include Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Natch Greyes (link), Carnivorous Plants: Gardening with Extraordinary Botanicals by Nigel Hewitt-Cooper (link), and - for serious growers - the work of Stewart McPherson (link).
Alternatively, if you’re looking for online resources, consult the list below. For each genera, I’ve linked to (what I consider to be) good growing resources.
- Dionaea - The Venus Flytrap: A Complete Guide, here on Tom’s Carnivores
- Drosera - The Sundew Grow Guides, on growsundews.com
- Pinguicula - Butterwort Care, on thecps.org.uk (PDF)
- Sarracenia - How to Grow Pitcher Plants, here on Tom’s Carnivores
- Nepenthes - The Nepenthes Interactive Guide, here on Tom’s Carnivores
- Cephalotus - Growing Cephalotus, on flytrapcare.com
- Heliamphora - Growing Heliamphora, on flytrapcare.com
- Darlingtonia - Growing Darlingtonia, on Sarracenia Northwest
- Utricularia - Growing Utricularia, on the thecps.org.uk (PDF)
5. Where can I buy carnivorous plants?
Plants purchased from specialist carnivorous plant nurseries will typically be much healthier than those from garden centers or department stores. You’ll also get much better advice on successful growing. I’ve limited the list below to UK and EU-based nurseries which have online shops:
From me! I currently offer very limited quantities of rare and beautiful Nepenthes tropical pitcher plants, raised in my personal greenhouse. You can find these on my sales page. I sell both easy-to-grow hybrids, as well as some rarer species suited to the more experienced grower. For other carnivorous genera, read on…
Hampshire Carnivorous Plants: Matt Soper offers one of the widest ranges of carnivorous plants in the UK. He sells all major genera, has won dozens of medals for his exhibits at national flower shows, and offers a friendly and efficient mail order service. I’ve done a Q&A with Matt which you can read here. Look out for his fantastic nursery open days too! www.hantsflytrap.com.
Wack’s Wicked Plants: Based in North Yorkshire, Peter Walker (Wack) and his wife Helleentje offer a wide range of carnivorous plants via mail order, and also put on medal-winning displays at many of the major UK flower shows. www.wackswickedplants.co.uk.
Alba Exotics: Based in Limekilns in Scotland and run by David Durie, Alba Exotics offer a wide variety of carnivorous genera, from tropical to temperate. You can read my Q&A with David here, and be sure to follow him on Instagram too.
Wistuba - Exotische Pflanzen: Based in Maselheim in Germany and run by Dr Andreas Wistuba, this is a specialist nursery offering a wide range of Nepenthes and Heliamphora. Wistuba is best known for tissue cultured plants, and the nursery offers many spectacular and rare species. In my experience Wistuba’s plants are sold very young, so I recommend this nursery to experienced growers only. www.wistuba.com.
If you’d like to recommend a seller, please get in touch with me via email.
6. Should I remove the plastic dome my plant came in?
Many plants purchased from garden centers will come in clear plastic domes. Although these mini-terrariums may be fine in the short-term, in my experience mould can quickly become a problem. If your plant is a Venus flytrap (Dionaea) or North American pitcher plant (Sarracenia), I would suggest removing the dome and finding a good sunny growing location - see beginners care above.
Alternatively, if your plant is a tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes), you might be better off leaving the plant in its dome for the time being. These plants require high levels of humidity in order to grow successfully, and cultivars for beginners are often sold in ‘Bio-Domes’. More detailed guidance on all species is available above, under detailed care.
7. Why is my tropical pitcher plant (or ‘monkey cup’) not making pitchers?
The most common reasons why tropical pitcher plants will not produce new pitchers are low humidity and insufficient light.
There are over 150 species of tropical pitcher plant (known as Nepenthes). While some have special requirements, the species you will usually find in garden centres and sold as beginners plants by specialist nurseries are quite tolerant of conditions you’ll find in a typical home. They like very bright light - not as much as a Venus flytrap or Sarracenia, but ideally partial sun. A bright windowsill plus daily misting with a spray bottle is often sufficient for a Nepenthes to grow happily.
Shorter daylight hours during winter can cause a tropical pitcher plant to slow its growth. Similarly, moving a plant to a new location can cause a degree of shock and cause its pitchers to go brown. Don’t try to feed your plant during this time. Just water it regularly with distilled water and watch closely for new growth in the weeks and months to come.
For more help, read my complete guide to Nepenthes pitcher plants.
8. Where can I get carnivorous plant seeds?
For UK readers in particular, your best bet is to join the Carnivorous Plant Society - membership includes free access to the world’s leading carnivorous plant seed bank. Other good options include specialist carnivorous plant nurseries, other society-run seed banks, and exchanges in active carnivorous plant groups on social networks.
Be careful when buying carnivorous plants seeds: the online market is sadly flooded with fakes. I suggest you read of this guide to buying seeds without getting scammed, and only buy from reputable sources to avoid supporting poaching and unsustainable collection of wild seed.
9. Where can I get purified water?
Pure water is essential for healthy carnivorous plants. This is probably the biggest pain point for new growers.
Most tap water and bottled water is high in dissolved minerals, and the gradual build up of these minerals in the soil will cause your plants to become sickly. You need water which is low in Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), such as rainwater or distilled water. TDS is typically measured in parts per million (ppm), and most carnivorous plants require under 100 ppm (and ideally much lower) for healthy growth.
Good TDS readers are inexpensive, and by buying one of the many readers available on Amazon you’ll be able to easily test the TDS of your water. If - like most growers - you live in an area where the tap water is unsuitable, what can you do?
- Collect rainwater: Simply put a few trays outside and collect the water in empty plastic bottles. Once you’re hooked and your collection has grown, you can upgrade to a rain barrel!
- Buy purified water: Distilled and deionised water is available by the litre from all DIY and hardware shops. Alternatively, you can get it delivered in bulk - 20 litres, 50 litres. Finally, you might also try your local aquarium specialist - they sometimes sell water purified by reverse osmosis (RO).
- Install your own Reverse Osmosis system: These can be quite an investment, but for large collections will quickly pay for themselves. Most units are designed for installation under your sink, but compact units intended for aquariums are also available.
10. Where on the web can I learn more about carnivorous plants?
If you’re enjoying this guide, you can subscribe to Tom’s Carnivores via email - you’ll receive a notification whenever I publish a new article on my blog:
I usually write once or twice a month, and you can unsubscribe with one click at any time. Your information will never be shared or sold to a 3rd party.
I’m currently reworking my blog roll - if you run a carnivorous plant website and would like to be included, please drop me a line via email!
There is a thriving carnivorous plant scene on Instagram. It’s obviously geared around photos rather than discussion, but many growers share stunning pictures of their collections and setups, making it well worth joining. Check out the carnivorous plant growers I follow to get started.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to get in touch via email if you’ve got any questions, comments, or requests.
- Previous post: A look at Simon Lumb's Nepenthes collection