How to Care for a Venus Flytrap
Talk about weird – the Venus flytrap was described by Charles Darwin as "the most amazing plant in the world." Commonly named after Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, its Latin name, Dionaea muscipula, pairs the Greek love goddess Aphrodite (daughter of Dione) and "mousetrap."
The small, insect-eating plants, native only to the sunny, acidic, wetland bogs of coastal North and South Carolina, have leaves tipped with hinged lobes that snap shut dramatically when triggered, then slowly dissolve and consume the decaying prey.
Though with the right care they can be grown for years in small pots or terrariums, they are not easy to keep alive for long. The most important thing is to make plants feel as if they are back home in those sunny, humid, moist, acidic conditions – with, of course, an occasional feeding of a small insect or spider. Fail on any of these points, and the plant won’t live long.
What Makes ‘Em Tick?
These special plants require sun and moist, acidic soil. Anything less will simply kill them – usually quickly.
Never plant in regular potting soil or compost, which are alien to this plant’s unique environment. Instead, plant or repot your Venus flytrap in a mixture of half sphagnum peat moss (which is very acidic and holds moisture) and sharp or horticultural sand. Most growers swirl new sand in a bucket of water and pour off the brownish rinse water until it starts to run clear.
Make sure your plant gets several hours of direct sunlight every day you can, preferably outside in a partly sunny area, or indoors place it within inches of a fluorescent light. It is common for a plant grown in low light to remain small, leggy, or floppy. Sometimes they simply turn black and die. Just snip off the bad leaves, and try to do a better job of mimicking its natural habitat conditions.
Be very careful to not overwater the shallow-rooted plant. Keep it moist, not wet, by setting the pot on a tray filled with gravel and water. Water frequently, but don’t let it sit in too much water. And use only rainwater or distilled water, because tap water contains added minerals and is often very alkaline.
If your home has low humidity, and you don’t want the expense or fuss of a terrarium, simply cut the bottom off a 2-liter plastic bottle and set it over the entire pot; remove and discard the cap so heat won’t build up inside.
Venus flytraps naturally go dormant in the fall, at which time they will stop growing and lose most leaves, which can be snipped off. Move your plants to a cooler place that does not freeze. Some folks actually put their plants, pots and all, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, checking ever couple of weeks to make sure they are still damp.
How to Feed
Because the Venus flytrap grows naturally in poor conditions, it is adapted to gather nutrients by trapping flies, spiders, caterpillars, and even small slugs. In fact, one of the worst things you can do is fertilize it with plant food, or feed it anything but small insects. Try to provide food that is a third or so the size of the trap leaves.
When an insect treads on open leaves, the trap snaps shut in an eye-blink. It’s fun to make a plant do this, but there is a catch: Struggling prey must move around inside the trap to stimulate tiny “trigger” hairs which cause the trap to slowly close more tightly. Because of this, dead prey won't work as well. However, you may trick it into accepting dead prey by gently teasing the inside of a snapped trap with a toothpick. Or lightly squeeze the closed lobes together a few times to simulate the insect moving around.
Note: Each leaf can be triggered only a half dozen or so times before it gets worn out; it may remain green for months, but won’t snap any more. This is a big reason to not play with your plant too much, or you will have to wait for it to grow fresh new leaves.
It takes about a week for the trap to digest the prey and then reopen. You can remove dead prey casings by moistening them with water, and quickly snatching them out with tweezers. Or just leave them there to decompose further.
And by the way, it is possible to over-feed your plants. They can get by on just a fly or two every few weeks.
Though all Venus flytraps are essentially the same species, plant breeders have come out with a few varieties, with various size traps, different leaf shapes, traps that can be all green, all burgundy red, or combinations, and different shaped trap spines.
Whenever possible, buy plants through specialty online sources that are dedicated to quality carnivorous plants. Theirs will more likely to carry healthier plants than those sold in local stores which are often past their prime and likely to not survive. Worse, some may be illegally collected from the wild or grown too quickly for fast sales.
For much more information on types and care of this and other carnivorous plants, check out the website of the International Carnivorous Plant Society (http://www.carnivorousplants.org/).