Nurturing Endangered Pitcher Plants

Sarracenia flava at one time grew wild around Jamestown, Virginia

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There are several good reasons to grow our native North American pitcher plants.  Maybe you enjoy chic, sculptural foliage plants, and are curious to try growing something new.  Maybe you want a striking plant that you can grow in a very small, sunny spot on your deck.  Maybe you care about preserving endangered plant species.  Or maybe, you would just enjoy growing something that will help reduce the population of ants and mosquitoes in your garden.

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If you think that you need to construct a special boggy bed to grow these beauties, you might be pleased to see that there is a clean and simple way to grow them.   You can create a mini-bog in a bowl, and grow your pitcher of choice for several years with little fuss or effort.

North American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, are endangered because so much of their natural habitat, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, has been drained and developed.  There is precious little land left where they can naturally grow undisturbed.  Enthusiasts all over North America have risen to the challenge of preserving, and further hybridizing these unusual plants in private gardens.

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There are a few basic conditions they need for survival, and these are conditions many of us can provide.

First, the soil:  Sarracenia naturally grow in acidic, peaty bogs.  Peat comes from decomposing mosses.  There is little nutrition in this soil, but there is a measure of sand.  Standard potting mixes aren’t a good choice, and pitcher plants won’t do well planted into clay or compost.   However peat is readily available in most places where other specialized potting mixes are sold.  Mix peat and sand together, and you have a good mix for growing your own pitcher plants.

Second, pitcher plants prefer full sun.  They will grow in partial sun, but their colors are better, and growth more vigorous, if you give them six or more hours of sun each day.

Pitcher plants want consistently moist soil.  Don’t let the soil dry out.  It should vary in moisture content, though, from fully hydrated to moist.  In other words, let the pitcher plants’ roots get some air from time to time so they don’t rot from constant standing water.  You also don’t want the water in their soil to sour.

Finally, all Sarracenia need a few months of winter dormancy each year.  In other words, don’t try to grow them as houseplants and keep them growing year round.  Allow them a few months of rest, even if you live in zones 9 or 10.

You can leave your Sarracenia outdoors in the winter, unless you live north of Zone 7.  Then, be guided by the natural zone of the species you are growing.  Some species can survive colder temperatures than others.  But you may be able to keep tender Sarracenia through the winter in a cold frame or cold greenhouse, even if you are living in Zone 5 or colder.

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If you can provide moist, peaty soil and full sun, you can grow a pitcher plant.  Just remember that they are carnivorous, and the insects that wander into their tubular leaves provide all the nutrition they need, in addition to the sugars produced during photosynthesis.  Never add fertilizer to your pitcher plants.

You can create your own little container bog in a pot.  Choose a pot that will be large enough to hold your plant when it grows to maturity.  While some pitchers, like Sarracenia purpurea may grow to only a few inches tall, other species, like Sarracenia flava may grow to 40″ or more.   Taller pitchers will need more substantial pots, of course.

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I ordered Sarracenia ‘Tarnok’ from Sarracenia Northwest about a month ago. It has been growing on in its nursery pot in my larger bog garden since. But now I’m ready to move it to a miniature bog garden on my deck.

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If your pot has a drainage hole, then keep it in a shallow container with an inch or two of standing water.  If your pot doesn’t have a drain hole, then let the soil begin to dry out a little bit in the top few inches between waterings.  Many experts suggest watering with rainwater, spring or distilled water.  I have to admit that I often use tap water.

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This is the first  pitcher plant I brought home some years ago. Planted in a mixture of peat and sand, the pot sat in a saucer filled with gravel and water.

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Abundant moss often covers the natural bogs where pitcher plants grow in the wild.  Moss is the appropriate ground cover for a container bog, as well.   The pitcher plant you find at a local garden center, or that you order through the mail, may already have moss growing in its pot when you get it.  Just keep the soil moist, and that moss will keep on growing.

If your new pitcher doesn’t come with its own moss, you can transplant moss you collect onto the soil of your container bog.

I prefer to cover the bottom of my closed container with a few inches of sand to serve as a drainage area and reservoir.  Then, I fill the rest of the container with a moist blend of pure peat and coarse sand.  You can make your mix with up to half sand.  My mix is about 1/4 sand by volume.

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Pack the peat mixture fairly tightly in the bottom and onto the sides of your pot, leaving a well about the same size as the pitcher’s nursery pot.  Carefully tip the nursery pot over, supporting the soil mass with one hand, leaves through your spread fingers, and tap the bottom and sides to loosen the root ball.

Gently invert the freed roots, original soil, and leaves as you slip the entire mass into the well you’ve created.  Gently pack additional moist peat mix into any open space around your plant’s roots.

Leave an inch or so of head space between the top of the finished soil and the rim of your pot, then gently water until there is a little standing water on top of the soil.

Finish your pot with bits of wild moss, if you choose, or with fine, clean gravel.   I often add a few bits of glass or stones on top of the soil, too.

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Pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, native to the Southeastern United States, in its first season in our garden.  I eventually moved this growing plant into a larger pot and added it to our bog garden.

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Site your new pitcher plant in any sunny spot outdoors where you can relax and enjoy it.  Even though your newly purchased plant may have tiny leaves when you get it, it will bulk up with time.  Soon, you will see it mature into its potential.

I usually move my potted bog gardens under shelter in heavy rain, since there is nowhere for overflow to drain.  While the plants won’t mind sitting in water for a day or two, let the excess water evaporate so the top few inches of soil are just moist before watering again.  Peat holds a lot of water, and you never want it to dry out entirely.

Just as in nature, let the moisture content of the soil vary.

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Pitcher plants are found in abundance  at Forest Lane Botanicals in York County, where owner Alan Wubbels propagates several species.

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I began with a single pitcher.  I was a little unsure whether I was really interested in pitcher plants, but soon grew fascinated with these strangely beautiful plants.  My collection continues to grow, and my ‘wish list’ for different species and cultivars grows as I learn more about them.

You will find many sources for native pitcher plants once you begin looking for them.  I bought an unnamed Sarracenia at the Great Big Greenhouse in the Richmond area this spring.  They had a fine display of various carnivorous plants, and I bought a Venus flytrap, which is native to coastal North Carolina, at the same time.

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The Venus flytrap is another native carnivorous plant that has become endangered in recent years as its natural habitat has been developed. These are hardy and relatively easy to grow, if you provide the growing conditions they require.  The leaves close to digest insects that wander onto the leaf pads. 

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I hope you will give these beautiful plants a try.  Maybe you, too, will discover their charm and beauty, and will dedicate a bit of your gardening space to preserving these amazing native carnivorous  plants.

Woodland Gnome 2017
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Fabulous Friday: Pitcher Plants

Sarracenia flava

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, really, pitcher plants grew wild in the boggy wetlands along the Atlantic coast.  They grew right around here, along the banks of the James River and the many creeks that feed it.

The yellow trumpet pitcher, Sarracenia flava, is native to our part of coastal Virginia.  Most species of pitchers grow from Virginia south to Florida, and west along the Gulf coast.

Only one species, Sarracenia pupurea ssp. purpurea, grows from Virginia north to Canada and west to the wetlands around the Great Lakes.  Most of these species live in bogs and wetlands at sea level, but a few species grow at higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia south into Georgia.

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It’s rare now to find a pitcher plant growing wild.  Over 97% of their habitat has been drained and developed.  A few species and natural hybrids are all but extinct.  These beautiful carnivorous plants are sustained these days mostly in private collections.

And the good news, gardening friends, is that these striking plants are easy to grow!  Anyone with a sunny spot can participate in keeping these beautiful and unusual species going.

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If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow most any of the North American pitcher plants outdoors year round.  If you live in colder climes, you probably can grow the species and hybrids of Sarracenia purpurea, Sarracenia oreophila, or Sarracenia montana.  Even if you live a zone or two colder than your plants are rated, you can find ways to insulate them over winter.

These easy to please plants simply want wet, acidic soil and as much sun as you can give them.  Grow them in pots filled with a mix of half peat moss and half sand, or three quarters peat and 1/4 perlite or fine gravel.    Keep the soil moist by growing in a glazed ceramic pot with no drainage hole, or a glazed ceramic pot with a deep, water filled saucer beneath.  Peter d’Amato, owner of California Carnivores and author of The Savage Garden, recommends growing potted Sarracenias in glazed pots kept standing in  2″ of water at all times, so the soil stays evenly moist.

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These are definitely tough, outdoor plants and prefer full sun.  If you grow them indoors, keep them near a window with bright light for at least 6 hours a day, or in a greenhouse.

Never use commercial potting mix, compost, or commercial fertilizers with pitcher plants.  Peat is closest to the soil of their natural habitat, and provides the acidic environment they require.

The only pitcher plant that has ever failed for me came from a local grower.   He cut corners, and blended his own compost based soil mix rather than using good peat.  He admitted this to me when I returned the plant to him the following spring after I bought it, because it hadn’t begun new growth.  He replaced the plant, and I immediately re-potted it into the proper mix.  It is thriving still.

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There are several distinct features to the different species of pitcher plants.  The pitchers can be as short as 5″-6″ or as tall as 48″ depending on the species.  Each hollow pitcher is actually a leaf.  The most common pitchers, the S. purpureas, are also some of the shortest.  They are usually a beautiful red or purple and have red flowers.

S. flava, S. leucophylla and S. oreophila produce some of the tallest pitchers.  Some pitchers stand up tall, and others form recumbent rosettes of pitchers.  Pitchers may have wide mouths with fancy, frilly openings, or may have wide open mouths that catch the rain.  S. minor and S. psittacina pitchers have hooded openings.

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Some pitchers are mostly green, others are red or purple.  S. Leucophylla have white around the openings to their pitchers.  S. flava is also called the yellow pitcher plant, and they are a beautiful  chartreuse yellow.

Sarracenia flowers may be red, purple, white, peach, yellow or some combination of these colors.  There are so many interesting hybrids and cultivars that a pitcher plant enthusiast has many choices of which plants to grow.

I ordered two new pitcher plants from Sarracenia Northwest, in Portland OR, this spring.  I’m now watching S. ‘Bug Bat’ and S. leucophylla ‘Tarnok’ begin to grow.  Both were very carefully packaged and arrived in growth and in perfect condition.

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And then earlier today, I found an interesting carnivorous plant terrarium kit at Lowes, with a dormant Sarracenia and a dormant Dionaea, or flytrap; little bags of peat and sphagnum moss.  There were potting instructions and a clear plastic box to hold the plants until they begin to grow.  At under $10.00, this looked like a pretty good value.

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Our newest pitcher plant  came in a carnivorous plant terrarium kit found at Lowes.  I’ve planted it, and a dormant flytrap in this bowl given to us by a potter friend.

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I potted the little dormant plants in my own mix of peat and sand, in a beautiful bowl our potter friend Denis Orton gave us at the holidays.  The bowl has no drainage and is a perfect first home for both plants.  They may need potting on next year or the next, but that is the way of things, isn’t it?

It will be a surprise to see which species of pitcher plant grows from this start, but I’m guessing it is most likely the most common, S. purpurea.

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Pitcher plants have various ways of luring insects into their open mouths.  There are nectar trails that lure insects up the pitchers and into their open mouthed leaf.  Each species has ingenious ways to keep them from escaping again.  These plants catch and digest every sort of insect from crawling ants to mosquitoes and flies.

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There is no shortage of insects in our May garden!  We have come to the part of summer haunted by every sort of bug imaginable, and it’s fabulous irony that one of our most beautiful native perennials also helps control the bug problem!

Our little collection of pitcher plant is growing now, and it is fabulous to admire their fresh new pitchers on this very muggy Friday afternoon.  I am looking forward to watching the new ones grow and show their special colors and forms.

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Pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, native to the Southeastern United States

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If you’ve not yet tried growing pitcher plants, I hope you’ll think about giving them a try.  These endangered species need all the help adventurous gardeners will give to keep them going on into the future.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Happiness is contagious!  Let’s infect one another!

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