Meet the Carnivorous Plants

Take a closer look at the butterworts, sundews, cobra lilies, pitcher plants and Venus flytraps that derive nutrients by trapping and consuming insects.

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Carnivorous plants get most of their nutrients from trapping and consuming their food, typically insects and other arthropods. There are several types of carnivorous plants, including butterworts, sundews, cobra lilies, pitcher plants and Venus flytraps.

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Sundew (Drosera) has sticky hair-like structures that ensnare insects. The sticky tips resemble tiny water droplets like dew drops. Sundews grow best in acidic, boggy soils and bright light.

Butterwort (Pinguicula) has sticky leaves that trap small insects. Its glistening leaves attract unsuspecting, water-thirsty insects that land on the sticky leaves and get stuck where they're slowly digested by the plant. Butterworts grow best in wet, boggy soils and partial shade.

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The pitcher plant (Sarracenia) produces flower-like modified leaves that capture the insects for feeding; each "pitcher" is tubular in shape with a flat cap hovering over the top rim. The flowers of the plant can be attractive but aren't quite as showy as the brightly colored pitchers. There are hybrids with a variety of sizes and colors of pitchers. Most pitcher plants flower first, before the pitcher appears, although some varieties bear both flowers and pitchers at the same time. Sarracenia is native to North America.

When a Sarracenia trap reaches full size and is open, bugs start coming to the sweet nectar that's secreted around the rim of the pitcher. The insect enters the pitcher and sucks on the nectar, going deeper into the trap. Most insects cannot fly straight up, and there are copious backward-pointing hairs and a very slick surface inside the pitcher. This creates a one-way, dead-end trip for the insect.

Sarracenia are high-light plants. Grow them outdoors in full sun to partial shade. If you live in a colder climate and overwinter them indoors, provide high-intensity fluorescent lights. In addition, Sarracenia are adapted to flooded savannah regions. They like wet feet, so make sure they're well-watered. When growing them in pots, let them sit in water-filled trays so they'll remain wet all the time.

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The Cobra lily (Darlingtonia) has modified leaves similar to the pitcher plant, except each leaf has a curled tip that resembles the head of a cobra. Cousins to the pitcher plant, cobra lilies are quite challenging to grow in cultivation, because they prefer acidic, boggy soils and bright light. Avoid watering plants with tap water since they prefer natural mountain springs in their native habitats.

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The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is perhaps the most well-known of the carnivorous plants. Its trap consists of two flaps connected together at a "hinge," with hairs covering the rim of each flap. These hairs are touch sensitive and cause the trap to close rapidly and tightly at any disturbance. An insect that is drawn to the trap's sugary secretions accidentally touches the hairs, and the trap closes tightly around it. The insect is unable to get out of the trap.

Venus flytraps can also be quite challenging to grow in cultivation due to their specific requirements: They prefer acidic, boggy soils and bright light. They also need to go through a winter dormancy period to maintain vigor year after year. Avoid watering plants with tap water since they prefer natural rainfall and therefore don't handle the salts in tap water very well.

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