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It is a wonderful thing for a gardener to find an exotic and interesting plant that is easy to cultivate. Pitcher plants are a rare and unusual carnivorous plant that are easy to incorporate into the garden and are especially amenable to container planting; however, their cultural needs differ from most plants, and it is necessary to understand the lifestyle of pitcher plants so you can give them a proper home in your garden.
Most carnivorous plants are indigenous to sunny bogs and wet meadows with acidic, nutrient-poor soil that is low in the minerals essential for a plant’s growth and development. They must supplement the meager nutrition they derive from the soil and carnivorous plants have devised various methods to trap and digest insects.
Pitcher plants have adapted their leaf structure to attract and capture their prey. The hollow, tubular leaves secrete nectar that entices an insect inside, and then stiff, downward pointing hairs and a waxy substance inside the tube prevents the insect’s escape. Enzymes in the leaf go to work to digest the insect, making its nutrients available to the plant.
The genus Sarracenia is endemic to North America, with most species occurring only in the southeast North Carolina, in the Wilmington area. These amazing plants can be purchased from Frank Gallaway in Brunswick County. He cultivates the plants on his property and has several sales during the growing season. You must ask a serious gardener when Frank is having his sales. He sends out a notice to gardeners on his list for each event.
Despite their unusual lifestyle, pitcher plants are not as difficult to grow as you might expect, and you don’t need a large in-ground bog to enjoy these fascinating plants. Pitcher plants are quite comfortable in containers if you replicate the conditions they experience growing in the wild. They want full sun, nutrient poor soil with a low pH (abundant in southeast North Carolina) and plenty of moisture (not so abundant in our area). They will not thrive in standing water or anaerobic conditions.
There is no strict recipe for the planting medium, but most growers recommend Canadian sphagnum peat as the predominant ingredient; an equal mix of peat and coarse sand works very well. The sand must be clean with no additives or other minerals (sand blaster or builders sand is good). It is best to pre-moisten the peat for easier handling.
To create bog-like conditions you can use a container without a drainage hole, but drill some holes several inches below the edge to create the “high water table” to which they have become accustomed. Bowl shaped containers work perfectly. Plastic containers help to prevent too much evaporation. If you use a ceramic pot you can seal it with a coating or use a plastic liner. Terra cotta pots may leach some minerals into the growing medium, which is counter-productive.
Most pitcher plant species are very cold hardy and require a period of winter dormancy. Even in a pot, they can usually be left outdoors unprotected unless the temperature drops below 20 degrees. Trim away dead leaves to keep them from adding too many nutrients to the soil. Obviously, do not add any fertilizer to the soil at any time of the year!
Chlorinated water can be damaging to the plants, so if you must use tap water, let it stand in an open container for 48 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate. It is best to use rainwater or distilled water. Companion carnivores are sundew (Drosera), butterwort (Pinguicula) and Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula). You can enjoy some of our most unusual native plants up close and comfortable in your own back yard in or out of a container. It’s easier than you think.
Be responsible and only purchase pitcher plants from reputable nurseries. Local sources are: Carolina Carnivores, www.carolinacarnivores.com; Niche Gardens, www.nichegardens.com; Plant Delights Nursery, Inc., www.plantdelights.com and Frank Gallaway.