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The Venus Flytrap A Complete Guide
Without a doubt the most famous carnivorous plant, the Venus Flytrap is - for many growers - a gateway drug! Charles Darwin famously described the plant as "one of the most wonderful in the world," and few who have witnessed a healthy trap snapping shut on an insect would disagree.
Venus Flytraps attract their prey using sweet nectar. Touch a trigger hair twice, or two hairs in quick succession, and an electric charge closes the trap, its interlocking teeth forming a cage. The insect's continued struggles will cause the trap to seal, at which point digestive enzymes will dissolve the victim's soft tissues. The trap reabsorbs this nutritious soup, and - after about a week - reopens, using the carcass to attract new visitors.
The single species - Dionaea muscipula - has a very limited native range, growing only in the coastal bogs of North and South Carolina. Habitat destruction has endangered its survival, and it's believed to be extinct in several of its native counties. Well-intentioned horticulturists have introduced the plant to new areas (so-called 'exotic' populations), but these efforts are ill-advised and likely to cause more harm than good.
The Venus Flytrap's reputation as a difficult plant to grow is not deserved - follow the instructions in this guide and you should have no trouble. To grow the plant successfully - and to understand the issues surrounding its conservation - the best place to start is with the species' natural habitat.
Where do Venus Flytraps grow?
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There is only one species of Venus Flytrap - Dionaea muscipula - but dozens of weird and wonderful cultivars are available. Most forms consist of a small rosette of leaves (called petioles), each of which ends in a trap. The traps of adult plants are typically around 2.5 cm in length, but can reach up to 5 cm in some of the giant varieties.
Cultivars are generally selected for colour, size, or mutation. The first group, particularly the all-green and all-red forms, are among the most popular. These include Dionaea ‘Justina Davis’, which remains completely green even in full sun, and Dionaea ‘Akai Ryu’ (also known as ‘Red Dragon’), which develops a striking maroon or burgundy colouration over the entire plant. Particularly large varieties include ‘Slack’s Giant’ and ‘South West Giant’, the latter of which originated right here in the UK.
Finally, there are the mutants. These are typically the result of tissue culture mishaps, and some are deformed to the point of being unable to catch prey. They are seemingly loved and hated in equal measure; while some growers like the novelty, others find them grotesque!
Venus Flytraps need direct sunlight for healthy growth. If you’re growing your plant indoors, choose a bright sunny windowsill (preferably south-facing if you’re in the UK). Insufficient sunlight will cause your flytrap’s leaves to become weak and floppy, and the insides of its traps will lack red colouration.
They do not require a terrarium to grow, although they often appreciate the higher humidity of the enclosed environment. They can be happy in terrariums provided you respect their winter dormancy requirements (see below) and provide sufficient light. Artificial lighting can work well, particularly high-powered fluorescents such as T5 growlights.
They can grow extremely well in conservatories and unheated greenhouses. Temperatures in the Carolinas frequently hit 30°C (86°F) during summer and drop below 0°C in in the winter (32°F), and so Venus Flytraps are perfectly happy in the UK climate provided they are protected from the elements.
Note that most Venus Flytraps produce different kinds of leaves throughout the growing season. Those produced at the start and end of the growing season (spring and autumn) tend to be lower-growing with heart-shaped petioles, while those produced in summer are held up higher on narrow, elongated petioles.
Venus Flytraps require a cold winter dormancy between November and February. You need to mimic the conditions of their natural habitat, which means providing a cold resting period. Much like you need to sleep every night, Venus Flytraps need to go dormant over winter!
If you grow your plants on a windowsill or in a terrarium during the growing season, you will need to move them somewhere colder - sit them next to a window in your garage or shed, for example. Plants growing in unheated greenhouses can remain there over winter.
As the days shorten and the temperature drops, your plant’s leaves will start to turn black and your plant will die back to the rhizome. This is normal, and you can safely trim off any dead growth. The end of the winter dormancy period is a good opportunity to repot - and even divide - your plants if they require it before growth begins in March. A 10 cm (4 inch) pot is sufficient for adult plants.
Flowers & Seeds
Fully grown Venus Flytraps flower in Spring, but unless you are an experienced grower and intend to harvest seed, you should cut off the flower stalk once it’s reached about 5 cm tall. Flowering can be exhausting for Venus Flytraps, and most plants will grow more vigorously during summer if prevented from flowering.
If you’re looking to buy, sell, or trade seeds, I suggest you read up on the seed bank scheme which is operated by the UK Carnivorous Plant Society. If you wish to sexually propagate your Venus Flytrap by collecting and sowing seeds, I recommend reading this article by Flytrapcare.com.
Water & Soil
Like many other carnivorous plants, Venus Flytraps need pure water. They evolved to grow in damp, low-nutrient soil, and giving them bottled, filtered, or tap water can result in a build-up of minerals that will eventually kill your Venus Flytrap. You should avoid fertilisers for similar reasons. Your best options are rainwater, distilled or deionised water, or water produced by a reverse osmosis system. I’ve outlined your options in more detail here.
During the growing season, you should stand your pots in about 1 cm of water (about ⅓ inch) and avoid watering from the top. They prefer to grow in soil which is wet, but not completely waterlogged. During winter they require less water, and the soil should be kept just damp.
The traditional compost mixture for Venus Flytraps is sphagnum peat moss mixed with either lime-free horticultural sand or perlite, to a ratio of about 2:1. You can buy bags of peat (and suitable peat-based mixes) from specialist nurseries and on Amazon. 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. A good, sustainable peat-free mixture is fine milled bark (e.g. Growbark Pine from Melcourt), lime-free horticultural grit, and perlite, to a ratio of 2:1:1.
If grown outside, Venus Flytraps will catch more than enough food for themselves. If you keep your plants indoors then you can feed them with dead or live insects, but you should do so only once you’ve taken care of all their other growing requirements. In order for Venus Flytraps to properly digest prey, the trigger hairs need to be stimulated after the trap has closed - this is to prevent the plant from wasting energy trying to digest non-edible matter which may have fallen into the trap.
If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve listed some recommended resources and blogs below.
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 Dionaea are brilliantly detailed and great for beginners beginners. Available on Amazon.
FlytrapCare.com, based on Oregon and run by Matt Miller, is a carnivorous plant nursery specialising in Venus Flytraps. The site has fantastic guides on all aspects of cultivation, including advanced topics. Link.
The CP Photo Finder. This website is maintained by Bob Ziemer and sponsored by the ICPS. If you’re struggling to find a photo of a particular Dionaea variety or cultivar, make this your first port of call. Link.