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Each year I speak to dozens of adults and children about the wonders of carnivorous plants.
Afterward, it’s virtually inevitable that a few people will approach me and tell the sad story about the untimely demise of their Venus flytrap. Yes, next to “What happens if I stick my finger in a Venus flytrap?” the question I hear most often is, “Why did my flytrap die?”
Well, I have some good news for those who’ve asked this question—it wasn’t your fault! And it wasn’t your flytraps fault either. Venus flytraps are actually very hardy plants and are easy to grow with just a little bit of knowledge.
The blame for the vast majority of deceased flytraps can be placed squarely at the feet of the wholesalers who grow them, and the retailers who sell them to you.
Now mind you, the plants are usually healthy enough when they leave the nursery for your local retail store. However, the information included with the plants by the growers is more often than not, insufficient or downright incorrect. For instance, if you expect to keep your plant alive for longer than a month or two, you are going to need to know a little more than what many labels tell you: medium light, moist soil, and high humidity.
Secondly, once the plants arrive at the retail store, they usually don’t receive the best treatment. Some stores may stack one flytrap container on top of the other. This is bad for the plants because things can get pretty stuffy inside those plastic containers and because not much light can reach those on the bottom. With this kind of treatment, it’s no wonder the flytraps died when you brought them home; many were already terminal by the time you purchased them.
Your first step to successfully growing Venus flytraps is to know what a healthy flytrap looks like. Among five retail stores I visited one day I was able to find excellent specimens in each store. But I had to examine several containers in each location to find the healthiest and best-looking plants.
The plants should be bright green with very few, if any, black leaves. Plants with bright red traps are a bonus, but that doesn’t always mean the plants are any healthier than the others. Some flytraps genetically have less color than others. If you can’t find flytraps that look similar to those pictured, don’t waste your money. Wait until another shipment arrives at the store.
Another alternative is purchasing from reputable online growers who will ship plants directly to you via priority mail. One such grower is Sarracenia Northwest (see www.cobraplants.com). They sell very healthy plants that come with complete (and accurate) growing instructions.
By the time you’ve purchased it, your plant has most likely been locked up in its airtight plastic container for at least a few weeks. This gives people the false impression that they require extremely high humidity. This is not true! I refer to these airtight containers as “death spheres.” If they remain locked in this high humidity environment for too long, they become susceptible to mold infections, and their leaves will become spindly and soft. (By the way, so would we.) The first thing you should do when you get your plant home is open the container and get rid of the covering. You won’t need it again.
Venus flytraps need water, but not just any water will do. They grow naturally in nutrient deficient soils which receive lots of rainwater. Therefore, the only acceptable waters for flytraps are rain, distilled, or water that has been filtered with reverse osmosis. Tap water, containing high amounts of minerals and or chlorine, is poison to flytraps. (Remember the instruction label above? It leaves out this important detail.)
Take your potted flytrap and place it in a saucer containing about an inch of water in it. If your plant came in one of those plastic boxes you have to lift the whole clump of moss out and place it in a 4-inch tall plastic pot.
Venus flytraps require at least four hours of direct sunlight per day to be truly robust. (Another important detail missing from our growing instructions above!) However, before you place your plant in direct sunlight, it’s a good idea to reacclimatize it to direct sunlight over a few days. Remember, it’s been locked inside an airtight container in sunless conditions for quite some time. I like to slowly expose newly purchased flytraps to increasing amounts of sunlight over a period of a week. Some leaves may still burn and turn brown, but do not panic. Your plant has not died. The next generation of growth will be fully acclimated to direct sunlight. My flytraps experience 8 full hours of direct sunlight during the summer months.
We’ve now discussed the proper water to use and the necessary amount of sunlight. You’re half way to becoming an expert.
Next we need to discuss the proper soil to use. Your plant will do okay for one season in the three-inch pot it most likely came in. But that’s not room enough for a flytrap to grow indefinitely. Single potted flytraps will do best in a 4-, and preferably, a 5-inch pot. Repotting should be done annually just before spring in either late February or March. You can repot it when you first bring it home if you like.
To repot your plant, tip the entire pot over and tap the sides until the whole clump comes loose. Be sure to have your hand under it so the flytraps fall into your palm. Then gently begin to break away the old soil until the rhizome and roots are visible. The white part is the rhizome (underground leaves), and the roots are the stringy black threads attached beneath. Be careful not to pull off any of the roots. Rinse them with water and peel off any brown, dead material that may have remained from the previous season.
Now it’s time to repot, but into what kind of soil? The only soil you should ever use is 100% sphagnum peat moss. Standard potting soil is poisonous to flytraps. And don’t buy brands that contain fertilizers! Fertilizers are lethal to flytraps. (Oops! Another detail missing on the instructions label.) You can mix the peat moss in a 50/50 ratio with perlite, which will help aerate the soil mixture.
You’ll want to make sure the perlite has no added fertilizers either. Fill the new pot to the brim with the soil mixture and press down until firm. Then poke a hole large enough for your flytrap and place the roots and rhizome into the hole. Gently press the soil around the sides until the plant is firmly in place. Then set the pot in a saucer of water and keep adding water until the soil has become thoroughly saturated again.
Those of us who enjoy these unusual plants usually do so because of flytraps’ unique ability to snap shut and digest insects. I’ve been growing flytraps for over 30 years and still never tire of watching a flytrap do this. You may have heard that flytraps will eat hamburger. Wrong! While they will snap shut on virtually anything that disturbs their trigger hairs, they are not designed to digest the high amounts of protein, fat, and fillers contained in beef. God designed Venus flytraps to eat insects (flies, bees, hornets, pill bugs, ants, etc).
So how much should you feed a flytrap? If you grow them outdoors, which I highly recommend, they will catch exactly what they need on their own. A typical flytrap might catch a dozen or so insects throughout the course of its growing season. But, of course, I know you are all itching to feed them yourselves since it is a lot of fun.
You can use a pair of tweezers and feed them an insect or two from time to time. But keep in mind, flytraps like eating live food. Placing a dead insect into a trap will cause the trap to snap shut, but the trap will not continue to the digestive phase. Flytraps can sense movement! They want fresh, live food. If fed a dead insect, the trap will slowly reopen over the next 24 hours, looking for a live meal. On the other hand, when fed a live insect, a flytrap goes through several phases.
The first phase, the rapid closure phase, takes place almost instantly. Nectar glands on the edges of the trap attract this unsuspecting fly.
Each side of the leaf (trap) has three or four trigger hairs.
If any one hair is moved twice, or any two separate hairs moved individually within the space of about 20 seconds the leaf snaps shut. This is a rather ingenious mechanism. By requiring two stimulations, the plant is less likely to waste energy closing on a non-living item that might fall into the trap such as a twig or leaf.
Phase one, which is the rapid closure stage happens in half of a second! If the plant detects an edible meal inside, it will quickly proceed to phase two—the squeezing or narrowing phase.
Note how the bristles are no longer interlocked horizontally, but are beginning to stand erect. This happens over a period of 10 to 20 minutes.
The bristles are no longer interlocked at all and are standing vertically away from the edges of the trap.
A tight seal, similar to a storage bag, is created. After about 30 minutes to an hour, the plant is completely sealed and the insect is contained inside a type of “plant stomach.”
Digestive juices are secreted from the interior walls of the trap, which break down the soft tissues of the insect. This is the third or digestive phase. The soft parts of the insect become a kind of bug soup, which is absorbed by the inner walls of the trap and sent down through the leaf.
After about one week to 10 days, sensing mechanisms in the trap walls tell the leaves it’s time to reopen. Whereas the flytrap initially closes very rapidly upon its prey, it reopens slowly over a period of about 24 hours when it’s finished digesting a meal.
The sides of a trap slowly peeling apart. Sometimes digestive juices are still visible.
Viewing the remains of the “victims” is not for the squeamish. All the insect’s bodily fluids have been broken down, squeezed out, and absorbed by the flytrap.
I’m often asked, “What happens to the remains of insects left inside the trap?” Well, sometimes rain or wind will push them out. But at other times they stay in the trap and invite other nosey insects to come in and take a look.
Here’s a case where curiosity killed the fly. It flew into a trap that contained the remains of a box elder bug and ended up as the trap’s second meal.
An individual trap can close six or seven times throughout its lifespan, which lasts several weeks. The mechanism wears out after this many closings. In addition, while the closing mechanism will shut the trap six or seven times, the trap can only digest an insect up to three of those times. This leads us to the next point.
I’ve noticed an almost strange hypnosis that comes over people when they see a Venus flytrap. They seem to have to poke it!
You can trick your flytrap closed once in a while to demonstrate how it works. But remember, each trap has a limited number of closings before it wears out and ceases to function. In addition, each closing uses up the traps energy stores. Therefore, if you want to have a truly healthy flytrap, keep the pokings to a minimum.
Venus flytraps are temperate plants that require a dormant period each year. Flytraps will generally begin to go dormant around Halloween and remain in this resting state until close to Valentines Day. (This is yet another important tidbit missing from the instructions label.) Growth slows down and may eventually stop altogether. Many of the leaves will turn black and die as well. But the plant itself is still alive below the surface, taking its winter nap. Unfortunately, many new flytrap owners have thrown their flytraps out thinking they’ve died.
During this time of year I cut back on watering my flytraps. Instead of keeping them in a saucer with standing water, I drain the standing water and water my plants from the top about every week or so with just enough water to keep the soil damp, but not really wet. You can also trim away any black leaves to prevent mold growth. You should also remove your flytrap from direct sunlight during its dormant phase.
The Carolinas experience a mild winter so flytraps are capable of withstanding brief temperatures dips as low as 20°F. They can also withstand mild frosts and even snow.
I live in blustery and freezing cold Michigan, so I keep my flytraps on an unheated back porch during the winter. An ideal temperature for flytraps during dormancy is 35 to 50°F.
If you live in an area that doesn’t experience cold winters, you can do two things to help with your flytrap’s dormancy: cut back on watering and place your flytrap on a sunless windowsill—preferably a north-facing one. A north-facing window should be the coolest in the house. The reduced water and lack of sunlight is usually sufficient to keep your flytrap snoozing through the winter. When late February or March arrives you can repot your flytrap, place it back in its saucer of water and start giving it full sunlight again.
In April and May mature Venus flytraps will send up flower stalks. Many growing instructions will tell you to cut the flower stalks off as soon as they appear. I’ve often read that allowing a flytrap to flower will weaken the plant resulting in fewer traps. Once again, hogwash!
A healthy flytrap has no problem with flowers—God made them that way! After several weeks, the flowers will die back and form seedpods.
The seeds are black, pear-shaped, and about the size of a pepper grain, which you would season your food with.
Sprinkle the seeds on the soil around your flytraps, and in about six weeks you’ll see the first sprouts. Shortly afterward they’ll begin to take shape. Growing flytraps from seed takes a lot of patience.
Congratulations! You now know more about growing Venus flytraps than 99% of the retailers who sell them. Armed with your newfound knowledge, it is possible to grow flytraps to their fullest potential. Have fun!