Today’s blog is about all the different types of fascinating carnivorous plants and how they work

Today’s blog is on a topic that I first fell in love with as a young child when I visited a friend’s house and witnessed the wonder of a carnivorous plant for the first time, when their window sill Venus flytrap caught a fly right in front of my eyes. I had never seen this before and pondered how it could even be possible. Being a child and inquisitive I walked up to the plant and tried to mimic what had just happened by sticking my finger into the leaf. Shock horror… the leaf closed. Now I am not encouraging touching carnivorous plants as this is actually a faux pas and leads to the death of that specific leaf if done too much, as the leaf is not receiving the nutrition intended by catching food. I believe every child should have a carnivorous plant, even adults should. They are truly a wonder of nature, and are so interesting to learn about. This article covers the four most commonly available carnivorous plants available in South Africa and some horticultural facts to help you look after these plants as there is a knack to looking after them and helping them to flourish.

Dionaea  muscipula – Venus Flytrap:

This carnivorous plant is native to subtropical wetlands of certain coastal parts of Carolina (America). Its prey consists of mainly insects and spiders. The terminal part of each leaf is the trapping structure, which has sensitive hairs which are triggered when insects etc come in contact with the hairs. The fascinating part is that the plant can distinguish between living prey and non-prey stimuli for example raindrops, debris etc. It does this with its hairs (trichomes), where two hairs must be touched in succession within 20 seconds of each other or one hair must be touched in rapid succession. The two leaf lobes then close shut on the insect and the fringes or cilia along the lobes then mesh together to stop the prey from escaping.

At the same time the gaps in the cilia allow prey that are too small to escape which suits the plant as it will not waist its energy on something that will not provide much benefit. Digestion of prey takes about 10 days and then the leaf will open up again. Another interesting fact is that the reason a Venus fly trap has to catch food is because its natural habitat is nitrogen and phosphorus poor boggy soils so it makes up for this lack of appropriate soil nutrition with prey. Venus fly traps are plants which go dormant in winter so don’t immediately think it has succumbed to death. Venus fly traps require moist, acidic, nutrient deficient soils and are therefore usually grown as pot plants to be able to recreate these specific conditions. They do best when in a brightly lit condition or sunny spot, but be careful with full direct sunlight as they can burn. If the plants do not have a pink interior or leaves get long and spindly then you know that not enough sunlight is being received. If you are ever needing to repot a Venus fly trap do not plant it in potting soil as this will be too nutrient rich, but rather a combo of one third sand and two thirds peat moss.

Another thing is that they must not be fertilised (can actually kill them). They prefer to have some humidity which is why they do well indoors. The plants do like to be moist but must also not be constantly in water either. To accomplish this it is best to put water in the tray and let this be soaked up. Only add water again once tray is dry as this will give the wet soil a chance to breathe again. Collect rain or use distilled water as tap water can be too alkaline and also have too much nutrition in it. Plants should be watered less during dormancy so that rhizome does not rot. These plants are only capable of eating live insects which stimulate their cilia. Please keep in mind that they don’t need to eat insects all the time in order to survive. Remember as mentioned in my introduction that leaves must not be touched and stimulated without having food in them.

Drosera capensis – Cape sundew:

Although this carnivorous plant looks very different to the Venus flytrap it grows in fairly similar conditions, that is in marches, along streams and in damp areas but just in a another part of the world which happens to be locally in our country along the south-western Cape. Please note that is the most commonly available Drosera in South Africa but others from South Africa exist as well as from other parts of the world. Drosera capensis is a free flowering plant, but the pink-mauve flowers are only open briefly for a few hours. Flattened long leaves or lamina’s bear knob-shaped tentacles, which are stalked with mucilaginous glands. These tentacles occur mainly on margins but fewer shorted ones occur in the centre as well. The glands on the tentacles secret a fluid, which contains weak acids and enzymes for digesting the insects. Once insects stimulate the tentacles then the glands secrete more fluids to trap the insect. The tentacles around then spring into action and lean over to engulf the prey with the leaf sometimes folding over. Just like the Venus flytrap the tentacles can distinguish between food and non-prey stimuli. This plant can be grown indoors as a pot plant or outdoors in a bog garden, along a stream or as a semi-submerged pond plant. The growing instructions are the same as with Venus flytraps.

Drosera spathulata

Drosera capensis

Sarracenia – Trumpet pitchers:

These North American carnivorous plants are as far as I am concerned truly beautiful and can be quite brightly coloured. They again grow in boggy marshy conditions and should be treated in the same way as Venus Fly traps and sundews. Please use growing instructions for Venus fly traps. These plants are like Venus flytraps in that they have a winter dormancy period. This plant has many tubular pitcher shaped leaves which have extrafloral nectaries on the lips of the pitcher leaves which make them slippery. Insects are attracted to the leaf colours and the scent and then slip into the tube when they come in contact with the nectar. Inside the tube is a pool of liquid enzymes which digests the insects. The trumpet pitcher produces stalks of umbrella like flowers in spring which remind me of Aquilegia’s.

Nepenthes – Hanging or Asian Pitcher plant/ Monkey cups:

Nepenthes are tropical pitcher plants which come from different parts of the world including South East Asia, India, Madagascar and Australia. They are usually vines but some can be compact in habit. The pitcher is actually a swelling of the mid vein of the leaf. The Asian pitcher works the same as that of the Trumpet pitcher except that it is hanging pitcher. They can come in some interesting colours and have interesting markings. Plants require similar conditions to that of the other insectivorous plants mentioned. Please see info on Venus flytraps. Nepenthes are usually grown indoors and in greenhouses and if they are not in a humid enough circumstance, will not create pitchers. With the right care you can have this interesting plant for many years.

In conclusion, I hope you have found this topic as fascinating as I have. Carnivorous plants are weird and wonderful all at the same time, as well as very beautiful as far as I am concerned. They do need to be grown and looked after in a specific way but as soon as you get the knack for that you will have many years of joy with these plants in your family home. Just remember to remind the kids that they should not be touching the leaves of the Venus fly traps and sundews as this will lead to the leaves fatality and therefore general degradation of the plant. Also something to note is that they go through a winter dormancy and are therefore not for sale during winter period. Usually carnivorous plants will become available again from August when temperatures warm up. This gives you time to plan which one you would like to get (If not all…) and find that perfect spot for it or them.

Blog written by :

Jessica Ruger

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