How to Grow Pitcher Plants A Beginner's Guide to Sarracenia
American pitcher plants have it all: fearsomely efficient flycatchers and easy for beginners to grow, the eight species of Sarracenia are bizarre and beautiful.
Most have tall, narrow pitchers which attract insects with bright colours and inviting scents. Visitors are forced into perilous positions by waxy surfaces or tricked by transparent leaves, while nectar laced with poison intoxicates them. Those who slip and tumble down the pitcher are trapped by downward-pointing hairs and quickly digested by the plant's own enzymes.
Pitcher plants are mostly found on the southeastern coastal plains of North America, and grow in sunny, open wetlands. The greatest diversity can be found in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, although one species extends north along the east coast into the Upper Midwest and Canada. Sarracenia populations have declined rapidly in recent years due to drainage of their habitats for housing developments. Some species are now critically endangered.
This guide will cover essentials of cultivation, from water and soil to feeding and dormancy. To successfully grow these magnificent plants - and to understand the issues surrounding their conservation - the best place to start is with their natural habitat.
Where does Sarracenia grow?
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There are currently 8 recognised species of Sarracenia (taxonomic controversy aside!). These are S. alata, S. flava, S. leucophylla, S. minor, S. oreophila, S. psittacina, S. purpurea, and S. rubra. Each species varies considerably and some are further divided into subspecies, but for a general primer, check out the gallery below.
North American pitcher plants are unusual in that all species can be hybridised, and that these crosses result in fertile offspring. In other words, Sarracenia taxonomy involves a fascinating mixture of complex hybrids, backcrosses and cultivars, many of which are extraordinarily beautiful.
Unsurprisingly, many hybrids occur naturally in the wild and were once given names as if they were species. S. × catesbaei, for example, is a hybrid between S. flava and S. purpurea. The vigour often exhibited by hybrids is another reason why hybrids - along with the super-hardy S. purpurea! - are frequently recommended to first-time growers and sold at garden centres.
For more detail on individual species, hybrids and cultivars, check out the resources list at the end of this guide.
Sarracenia require full direct sun. As such, they are candidates for only the brightest of windowsills - a lack of direct sunlight will cause your plants to become weak and poorly-coloured. If you wish to try windowsill growing, your best bet is a smaller species like S. purpurea or a hybrid involving it.
Terrariums are generally unsuitable. While seedlings can thrive in a terrarium, you will struggle to provide the light intensity required by adult plants. Remember too that erect species like S. leucophylla can reach almost a meter tall!
Generally, Sarracenia grow best in unheated greenhouses and conservatories. They are quite temperature tolerant, with conditions in their natural habitats frequently reaching 32°C (90°C) during summer. While some can be grown outside year-round in the UK - in a bog garden, for example - the taller species don’t always cope well with strong winds, and as such are better suited to growing behind glass.
Winter Dormancy & Division
All North American pitcher plants require a cold winter dormancy between November and February. Temperatures in their natural habitats frequently dip below freezing over winter (0°C / 32°F), and so you must provide a cold season for plants in cultivation.
If you keep your plants indoors during the growing season, you will need to move them somewhere colder - sit them next to a window in your shed or garage, for example. Plants growing in an unheated greenhouse can remain there over winter. For year-round outdoor growing (i.e. exposure to the elements), species occurring further north - S. purpurea, S. flava and their hybrids - are generally the hardiest in UK weather.
As the days shorten and the temperature drops, pitchers will turn brown and your plant will start to die back. This is normal, and you can safely trim off any dead growth. Some Sarracenia will also produce flat, non-carnivorous leaves called phyllodia during autumn; these will often last throughout winter.
The end of the winter dormancy period is a good opportunity to repot - and even divide - your plants, if they require it. A 12cm (4.5 inch) pot is sufficient for adult plants. Sarracenia grow from a rhizome, which is a thick underground stem that sprouts roots and leaves. Large adult plants will often have multiple growth points on their rhizome, and by snapping the rhizome and potting the pieces separately, you can propagate multiple (genetically identical) plants! Check out this guide by Phil Wilson for some helpful photos and a detailed tutorial.
Water & Soil
Like many other carnivorous plants, Sarracenia require rainwater or distilled/deionised water, and lots of it! This is because they grow in low-nutrient waterlogged soil, and evolved to draw minerals from prey instead. As such, you must avoid tap water, bottled water and filtered water - all will result in a build-up of minerals and cause your plant’s health to deteriorate. You should avoid fertiliser for similar reasons. I’ve outlined your options for obtaining water in more detail here.
During the growing season, you should stand your plants’ pots in about 2cm of water (just under an inch) and avoid watering from the top. During winter, the soil should be kept just damp, rather than wet.
The traditional compost mixture for Sarracenia is sphagnum peat moss mixed with either lime-free horticultural sand or perlite, to a ratio of about 2:1. However, the impact of peat extraction on the environment - both in terms of habitat destruction and global warming - means that many are moving towards peat-free mixes. Mike King of Shropshire Sarracenias recommends a mix of fine milled bark, lime-free horticultural grit, and perlite, to a ratio of 2:1:1.
Kept outside, Sarracenia will catch more than enough food for themselves. The taller trumpet species such as S. flava and S. leucophylla are particularly ruthless, and often fill to the brim with flies, wasps, ants, and moths by the end of the growing season.
If you’re interested in flowers & pollination, seed propagation, hybridisation, or any of the more advanced areas of cultivation, I’ve listed some recommended resources and expert blogs below. This list is obviously not comprehensive!
The Savage Garden, by Peter D’Amato. In my opinion, this is the single best book on carnivorous plants you can buy today. Its chapters on Sarracenia are brilliantly detailed yet still accessible by beginners. Available on Amazon.
My interview with Matt Soper. Hampshire Carnivorous Plants is owned and operated by Matt Soper, and it offers the widest range of carnivorous plants in the UK. I spoke to Matt about his incredible Sarracenia breeding program and his successes exhibiting these plants are flower shows - check it out here.
Sarracenia.com, by Barry Rice. It might be ugly, but Barry’s FAQ is one of the oldest and most authoritative resources on carnivorous plants on the web. Geared around science and conservation, it’s well worth bookmarking. Link.
Sarracenia Northwest, based in Oregon, are a carnivorous plant nursery with an excellent YouTube channel. Jacob offers seasonal growing tips and helpful tutorials, and I highly recommend subscribing.