What Are Carnivorous Plants?

Carnivorous plants are plants which have evolved to derive some of their nutrients from trapping and consuming other living organisms – typically insects, though also other animals or protozoans.

While they also derive energy through photosynthesis, they have adapted to get nutrients in this way because the places in which they grow do not typically allow them to get what they need from the soil. They typically grow in areas where the soil is thin, or low in nitrogen and other nutrients – such as acidic bogs, for example.

Carnivorous plants have a range of ingenious mechanisms that they use to trap and extract food from other living organisms. Some have traps, some pitchers. Others use sticky pads, or use suction techniques.

Carnivorous plants come from a wide range of different climate zones and habitats, from tropical Asia, Australia and Mexico, to temperate Europe and as far north as Alaska. They have become popular with many gardeners as houseplants, greenhouse plants, outdoors container plants or even for growth in an open garden. Children and all those who are curious-minded are always fascinated by these unusual plants.

Popular Carnivorous Plants Grown In The UK

Perhaps the most popular carnivorous plant grown in the UK is the Venus Fly Trap – Dionaea muscipula. This is a popular greenhouse or windowsill plant, native to eastern North America. This is the only member of the Dionaea genus. Here are the main genus of carnivorous plants grown in the UK:

How To Care For Carnivorous Plants

Nepenthes ampullaria with botanical garden in background

The first thing to understand is that, due to their varied native ranges and natural habitats, carnivorous plants can vary considerably when it comes to what they need.

When it comes to growing medium, it is crucial to choose the right mix for each genus. All dislike nutrients in the medium, but some prefer free drainage, while others require very boggy conditions. It is important to research and create the right growing medium for the specific plants that you would like to grow.

Additional feeding is not required for carnivorous plants. And you should take care not to overfeed insects.

You do have to make sure that you water well, according to the needs of the plant or plants you have chosen. It is best to use rainwater rather than tap water containing chlorides and fluorides to water carnivorous plants wherever possible. Hard water areas may have water that is too alkaline for many plants of this type.

Carnivorous plants should be watered from below throughout the growing season. Usually, this is done by standing the plant pots in a shallow vessel filled with water. In the winter, the same approach should be taken, but excess water should be drained between times in most cases.

Maintain high humidity levels by keeping pots on shallow vessels filled with pebbles or gravel with water poured between, below the surface of the gravel or pebbles.

Some carnivorous plants are hardy, and may find a place in an outdoors bog garden. While many others, of course, require greenhouse or indoors conditions.

Some that can be grown outside in some parts of the UK include:

  • British native Drosera rotundifolia.
  • filiformis var filiformis.
  • Some species of Pinguiciula, such as British natives P. grandiflora and P. vulgaris.
  • Several hardy Sarracenia.

Most, carnivorous plants, however, are grown in an undercover growing area or indoors.

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

Most carnivorous plants will thrive in a bright position indoors or under cover, but should not be placed in an area with hot direct sun that can scorch plants through glass. However, certain tropical species (like Nepenthes for example), prefer a more shaded spot, since they naturally grow in jungle conditions.

Always avoid placing carnivorous plants in a growing medium that is not specifically suited to them. Media with high nutrient content are usually not suitable and should be avoided.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Soil Mix Do They Prefer?

As mentioned above, the soil mix suitable for carnivorous plants will depend on which genus and variety you are looking at. Due to their association with peat bogs, carnivorous plants have traditionally usually been grown in a peat-based medium. But peat-free alternatives are available, potentially more eco-friendly, and can be equally effective.

A peat-free potting mix recommended on the RHS website for carnivorous plants, for example, includes:

  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part fine or coarse Cornish grit (lime-free).
  • 2 parts fine-milled bark.

One peat-free potting mix for Venus fly traps is:

  • 5 parts sphagnum moss.
  • 3 parts horticultural sand.
  • 2 parts perlite.

Remember, it is important to take the needs and native growing conditions for each individual carnivorous plant into account. As their needs can differ considerably when it comes to which soil mix will be right for them.

What Are The Best Carnivorous Plants For Mosquitos?

You might wonder whether carnivorous plants can help you in dealing with mosquitoes, midges and other flying pests. The important thing to understand is that even the most voracious of carnivorous plants will not be able to make significant headway when it comes to keeping down the numbers of these pests. But along with a wide range of wildlife predators, they could potentially help keep an ecosystem in balance.

Some carnivorous plants that will eat mosquitoes and other insect pests are:

  • Drosera (sundews)
  • Venus fly trap
  • Pitcher plants.

But controlling mosquitoes, midges and other such plants may best be achieved in a garden not by planting carnivorous plants that eat them, but rather by choosing plants with a scent that may aid in repelling them to a degree. And more importantly, by attracting a range of native predatory wildlife such as amphibians, birds, bats, and other insects.

Can You Feed Carnivorous Plants Mealworms?

Certain carnivorous plants like Venus fly traps can be fed on mealworms. This can be a good way of ensuring that the plants get the nutrients they need. But it is very important not to overdo it. Your plant will often be perfectly capable of catching insects on its own. And when you take matters into your own hands, you may be inclined to feed plants more than they need. This can make them less healthy, and may even kill them.

Before you start feeding mealworms or any other ‘snacks’ to your carnivorous plants, make sure you have a good idea of their feeding habits, and how frequently they need a meal. Often, plants require no more than one insect per week at most. Remember, also, that many carnivorous plants will require far less food, or even no food at all, over their dormant period during the winter months.

Depending on the plant, it may be necessary to chop mealworms into smaller pieces in order for them to easily digest them, and to prevent damage to the plant. Note that if live mealworms are being fed, the head is often removed to prevent them from damaging the plant. If the mealworms are dead, you may have to stimulate the sensors on the trap manually in order to get traps to close. Dried mealworms should usually be rehydrated with a few drops of water before feeding.

How Do They Digest Insects?

Carnivorous plants use enzymes to digest the insects they prey on and trap. Most, including Venus flytraps, butterworts, sundews and many pitcher plants make their own digestive enzymes for this purpose. Certain other carnivorous plants, however, do not make their own digestive enzymes, Rather, they depend on bacteria to produce these substances. Some plants, such as Sarracenia, use both their own digestive enzymes and those generated by bacteria to digest their prey.

Which Carnivorous Plant Is The Easiest To Grow?

Venus fly traps are popular and familiar in part because they are one of the easiest carnivorous plants to grow. But they are most definitely not the only option suitable for beginners. Some other carnivorous plants that are relatively easy to grow are:

  • Sarracenia (pitcher plants)
  • Nepenthes x ventrata (monkey cup – one of the easiest tropical pitcher plants to grow).
  • Butterwort (Pinguicula)
  • Sundews (Drossera)

Where Do Carnivorous Plants Live In The Wild?

Carnivorous plants are found on all continents with the exception of Antarctica and a number of Pacific Islands.

Though the environments in which carnivorous plants live in the wild can differ greatly, from cold temperate zones to the tropics, most live in habitats with high light, waterlogged soils, and very low available nitrogen and phosphorus. As such they are required to seek nutrition from their prey, instead of their soil.

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