Tropical Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes) Care Information:
PLEASE NOTE: The care information we have placed here is specific to Tropical Pitcher Plants (genus Nepenthes), and may not be valid for other types of carnivorous plants. For a more basic understanding of the care and maintenance of carnivorous plants, and an appreciation for how easy they are to care for, we suggest that you also read our General Carnivorous Plant Care page first.
A bit of information about Nepenthes and their care in general: The genus Nepenthes (many hobbyists call them Neps) is made up of well over 100 species at this point, with new ones being found, described, or rediscovered on a regular basis. They are vining plants and all produce a tendril on the end of each leaf, which in turn gives rise to the 'pitcher' on the end. The pitchers have digestive liquid in the bottom, even before they open, and use this liquid to break down prey into nutrients, which are then absorbed into the plant through the tendrils. The plants also have nectar-secreting glands on their leaves, tendrils, and on the pitchers (inside and out!), with the highest concentration of glands near the pitcher opening. Talk about luring unsuspecting animals to their death...one species has even been documented to eat small mammals! They are native to a large range that stretches from Madagascar east to the Philippines, and from mainland Asia southward to Australia. Borneo seems to be the center of distribution, and this island has a wealth of species! The areas where Nepenthes and most other carnivorous plants usually grow are primarily bogs and fens, where they grow in very moist, acidic, nutrient-deficient soil. However, some Nepenthes species (the 'highland' species, as they are called) grow high up in the mountains (cloud forest), and some species perch precariously on rocky outcroppings. While they are protected by most governments, the enforcement of poaching violations by local authorities is not great. As a result, poaching is a major concern for the long term viability of many Nepenthes species in the wild. Additionally, rainforest deforestation in all its forms (fires, logging, cacao/palm plantations, etc.) continues to devastate the native habitat where these spectacular plants live. Of course, in our opinion, why would anyone want to take one from the wild, when you can get nice healthy plants in pots from PetFlytrap.com!
Because Nepenthes can be found growing from near sea level all the way to the summit of many mountains (we had the opportunity to go on an exploratory trip to the top of Gunung (Mount) Lumut in Sulawesi back in 2013 to see Nepenthes hamata in the wild!), they are often divided by hobbyists into three major groups, depending on their temperature requirements:
- Lowland species, which need high temperatures and humidity (above 70 degrees and 70% humidity)
- Intermediate species, which vary quite a bit in their 'comfort zones'
- Highland species, which generally need cooler nighttime temperatures to grow well in the long term.
There are many different Nepenthes species, hybrids, and even man-made cultivars (named identical clones, like 'Miranda' or 'Red Leopard'), and almost all share the same general care and water/soil requirements. The only exceptions are the lowland and highland plants. More on that later.
Regarding general Nepenthes care, they can be grown successfully both outdoors and indoors if provided the appropriate environment, and provided they are brought indoors when the temperatures get too cold. For those with good outdoor growing conditions, place the pot(s) in a shallow saucer or dish, or grow them in a hanging basket. For indoor growing, a terrarium, enclosed grow rack, glass vase/bowl, or similar humidity-retaining method will help keep your plants happy and healthy.
Watering: As with all carnivorous plants, Nepenthes require pure water of some sort, such as distilled, reverse osmosis (RO), or rain water. Bottled water and spring water from the grocery store are not recommended, as these contain salts and minerals to make them taste better to us humans. Regardless of your growing method, keep the soil moist but not waterlogged at all times. Do not use tap water or your plant will die over the course of time. Treated tap water contains chemicals and dissolved solids which build up in the soil and will certainly affect the health of your carnivorous plant. Also, never let your plants dry out; place them, pot and all, in a tray or saucer, and add ¼ to ½ inch of water to the saucer. Allow the water in the saucer to be absorbed by the soil before you add more water to the saucer, so that moisture can be kept in the soil but the roots have a chance to 'breathe' in between waterings. If you are growing them in hanging baskets, water from above and let the excess drain out the bottom of the basket. The soil around the base of the plant should always be damp to the touch, but the saucer can and should be allowed to go dry before adding more water. Remember: Do NOT let the soil dry out. You are better off using tap water if absolutely necessary, rather than letting your plants get too thirsty! A quick note if you are growing your plants directly in soil (no pots) in a terrarium: be very careful not to overwater your terrarium...it takes very little water to replace the small amount that evaporates over time!
Soil: It seems every web site out there has their own special ingredient list for Nepenthes soil. Just remember that Nepenthes are tropical plants, meaning they prefer a more open, airy soil mix. We use either pure Long-fiber Sphagnum moss (LFS), or LFS with some added Orchiata (pine bark) and/or perlite. Above all, you want a soil mix that is acidic, and it must be open enough to provide for good aeration and drainage. In our opinion, the LFS provides the acidity; while the Orchiata and/or perlite help to keep the soil from getting too densely packed, and provide for good soil drainage. Long-fiber Sphagnum, Orchiata, and other soil ingredients can be purchased from PetFlyTrap.com in the Supplies section. If you purchase your soil/ingredients from other sources, be certain that they do not have added chemicals, fertilizers or surfactants in them, as many name brands do. NEVER use potting soil or any nutrients of any kind in the soil: compost, fertilizers, anything that guarantees big beautiful plants, can be detrimental to the long-term health of carnivorous plants. These plants get nutrients through their leaves and traps, and fertilizers in the soil may cause the roots to die off and kill your plant!
Humidity & Air Circulation: If you are in an area where you can grow Nepenthes outdoors in the warmer months, this is a wonderful way to grow them, and allows them to experience natural conditions, like higher humidity. While many Nepenthes can tolerate somewhat lower humidity if they are slowly acclimated to it, they all prefer higher humidity environments, and will stop producing pitchers (or may even die) if they are grown without enough humidity. Higher humidity helps the plant to produce more prey-attracting nectar, and slows the evaporation of the digestive enzyme 'soup' in the bottom of the pitchers. If the humidity is too low to do this, the plant may not even make pitchers! Lower (but not stagnant!) air circulation over the plant will aid in the maintenance of humidity. This climate is often achieved by placing the plant inside a plastic or glass dome or a true terrarium, with air holes to allow for air transfer. This can be something as simple as a 2-liter bottle or cheese ball container for smaller plants! If a dome, cover, or terrarium is not available, frequent misting with pure water may assist in increasing humidity. Keep in mind that most species originate from rainforest habitats.
Food: Nepenthes obtain few nutrients from the soil, relying on their pitchers to catch insects and other prey (yes, it's not just bugs!) to give them the micronutrients they need for long-term health and growth. Bugs and other animals are a dietary supplement (like a vitamin pill) that help the plant to grow faster, but are not required in 'human' quantities for the health and survival of the plant; they still absorb and store energy from the sun (photosynthesize), just like other green plants. We recommend feeding your plant live or freshly killed food items (think juicy...not a dead 'husk of a bug' from your windowsill!). We know of growers who will use a bit of very weak orchid fertilizer on the leaves of their plants, but we have not found this necessary here in the Houston area. We have plenty of food! We will occasionally drop an Osmocote pellet (timed-release fertilizer) into a pitcher or two, but there is no need for a regular fertilizing schedule.
Light: Contrary to what many web sites state, we recommend growing these plants in partial/filtered sun at the most, with a artificial lighting or a sunny windowsill (indoors), or shady porch or similar location (outdoors), being ideal. Most areas have sunlight that is just too intense for these plants to be out in full sun, and this will cause them to get sunburned at the very least. Nepenthes enjoy 14 to 16 hours of indirect light per day. If growing the plants indoors, we typically recommend bulbs in the 5500K to 6500K color range, and placed 12 to 18 inches from the plant(s), depending on the particular light system you use. The amount of light will determine plant and pitcher coloration. If Nepenthes are grown in insufficient light, their pitchers will remain more green. As the light increases (and depending on the variety of plant), the red coloration and patterning intensifies. Above all, remember to slowly acclimate your plants to any changes in condition...especially lighting. While they can take bright indirect light, it’s best to start in a lower light environment and slowly increase the amount or intensity of the light gradually to allow the plant to adjust to the environment.
Dormancy: Nope...not this one! Nepenthes are tropical plants, and do not need a dormancy at all. In fact, be sure to keep these plants above 50-55 degrees F for best growth. And if you are fortunate to live in a more southern (or tropical) area, you may be able to grow them outdoors year-round!
Important Notes to remember:
1) As with all carnivorous plants, Nepenthes will always have older leaves and pitchers that are withering and dying back. This is a normal occurrence in nature; simply trim off the dead plant matter. The plants grow new leaves out from the center of the growing point. You know you have a nice, healthy plant as long as this is happening.
2) Keep the soil moist at all times using the watering instructions above.
3) While Nepenthes pitchers are relatively rigid once they are completely formed, the newly forming pitchers are not, and can be easily damaged. Be extra careful with these to have the best chance of getting more of those wonderful traps!
4) While we do occasionally stock and sell true lowland and highland Nepenthes, the vast majority of what we offer for sale grow well in intermediate conditions. We feel this is important, so that our customers have the best chance of having a positive, rewarding experience with these unique plants. Those Nepenthes that require LL/HL conditions are usually noted in the description of that particular item.
5) Keep in mind that YOUR CONDITIONS WILL DIFFER GREATLY DEPENDING ON YOUR GROWING ENVIRONMENT AND WHERE YOU LIVE! Someone growing a Nepenthes in Minnesota will need to care for their plant very differently than someone who lives in the arid deserts of Arizona!
Of course, please feel free to contact us via e-mail at [email protected] or 281-433-3290 if you have any specific questions. We're happy to help!