Pitcher Plant Care 101: How to Grow This Carnivorous Plant Indoors

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Pitcher plants are carnivorous, which eliminates their need for plant food. Tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes spp.) are most often grown as houseplants, while hardier species, such as the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), die dormant during the winter. The latter should be grown in a bog garden or in an outdoor container moved to a cool but protected place during the winter.

Despite its popularity, caring for tropical pitcher plants can still be difficult indoors. Its foliage tolerates normal home conditions reasonably well, but it may not produce pitchers unless provided with high levels of humidity.

Pitcher plant care at a glance

Common name: Tropical pitcher plant, monkey cups
Scientific name: Nepenthes spp.
Floor: Blend of long fiber sphagnum moss
Light: Partial sun or indirect bright light
Water: constantly wet
Food: Insects
Temperature and humidity: Warm temperatures, high humidity
Spread: Tip cuttings
Security: Nontoxic

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Pitcher plant characteristics

Close up of the orange and red pitcher of a pitcher plant

Photo: istockphoto.com

Native to countries that surround the Indian Ocean, tropical pitcher plants can climb up to 70 feet in the genus’ natural habitats. Under optimal conditions, the midribs of its lance-shaped leaves send out tendrils from the tips of the blade, which eventually form pitchers. These vary in size and color depending on the species, but they often include red or brown streaks or spots.

The coloring of the pitchers, which resembles a rotting carcass, helps attract flies. The vines also produce inconspicuous stalks of greenish flowers on both male and female plants, with the male flowers producing an odor similar to rotting flesh as an added attraction to insects. Similar to how Venus flytraps catch their prey, the insects trapped in the pitchers are then consumed by the digestive enzymes that accumulate at the bottom of the receptacles.

Lowland types of pitcher plants are generally easier to grow than highland types, some of which require a wide variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures.

Types of pitcher plants

  • Nepenthes alata: Considered one of the easiest pitcher plants for beginners to grow, N.alata has large 8-inch green pitchers speckled with red.
  • Nepenthe ‘Lady Luck’: This cross between N. ventricosa and N. ampullar produces 3 to 4 inch darker red pitchers in lower light conditions than most varieties.
  • Nepenthes x ventrata: A hybrid between N.alata and N. ventricosa, this cross is also easy to cultivate. Its 3-5 inch pitchers range in color from orange-tinged green to red.

Soil Selection for Pitcher Plants

Pitcher plant soil should not be soil. A recommended mix is ​​a combination of one part long-fiber sphagnum moss (the type used for growing orchids) and one part perlite or coarse building sand. This mixture will dry out too quickly in terracotta containers, so place pitcher plants in plastic or glazed ceramic pots.

Mesh pots with open slits on the side, like those used for hydroponics, will also work in places with high humidity. Alternatively, some growers choose to plant pitcher plants in the substrate of a terrarium rather than in a pot.

The right light

Give the pitcher plants about 4 hours of sun, preferably in the morning, followed by bright, indirect light for the rest of the day. Avoid the midday sun, which could scorch their leaves. If nearby windows don’t provide enough light, hang a fluorescent or LED light about 12 to 15 inches above the foliage, timing it to run 12 to 14 hours a day.

The amount of light required varies depending on the type of pitcher plant. Some can thrive in bright, indirect light with no sun, while others can tolerate full sun, especially in winter when its rays are weaker.

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Watering Pitcher Plants

A pitcher plant’s growing medium should be kept consistently moist but not soggy, similar to the feel of a wrung-out sponge that is still damp. If you water the plant from the bottom of the pot, do not let it sit in this water for a long time and then let it drip off.

Use lukewarm rainwater, distilled water, or filtered water, such as that passed through a reverse osmosis system, instead of hard tap water. If any liquid should spill or drip from the pitchers, add about an inch of any of the aforementioned waters to the bottom of each pitcher to keep them from drying out prematurely.

Fertilize pitcher plants

Top down view of pitcher plant with a dead flying insect inside one of its pitchers

Photo: istockphoto.com

Because pitcher plants get their nutrients from the insects they eat, they don’t technically require any fertilizer. However, some growers like to give them very small amounts of 16-16-16 kelp fertilizer – mixing just ¼ teaspoon of fertilizer in 1 gallon of water and spraying it on the foliage – monthly approximately in spring and summer.

If there aren’t enough insects in the house to naturally supply the plants, buy dried crickets from the pet store, as they are often used to feed reptiles as well as carnivorous plants! Place a single insect in each pitcher and wait for it to completely dissolve before adding another.

Temperature and humidity adjustment

Keep the area around an indoor pitcher plant at 75 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, with the temperature not falling below 60 degrees at night. Highland types often prefer nighttime temperatures of up to 55 degrees, but this is difficult for most owners to manage.

Pitcher plants like very high humidity, somewhere between 75-80%. Providing this much humidity usually requires a grow tent or a large terrarium, perhaps one constructed from an aquarium topped with a clear lid and grow lights. (If the lid is left a little ajar, a fan blowing over it can help provide ventilation.)

Plants outside terrariums will often tolerate the low humidity of an average household. However, they may not produce many pitchers in these drier conditions, except perhaps when grown as shower plants or kitchen plants. When moving a pitcher plant outdoors during the summer, bring it indoors before temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Propagate Pitcher Plants

Potted juvenile pitcher plant with small pitchers

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To propagate pitcher plants from cuttings, fill a pot with the type of mix typically used for plants, as listed in the “Soil Selection for Pitcher Plants” section above. Take cuttings that include two or three leaves each from the tips of the parent plant, cutting just below the bottom leaf of each.

Remove the bottom leaf of a cutting to expose the leaf node and insert the base of the cutting into the potting soil deep enough to cover the node. After putting in all the cuttings, enclose their pot in a plastic bag. Place the pot in a warm location with bright, indirect light until the cuttings root, which can take as little as a month or up to a year.

Security Considerations

Pitcher plants are not dangerous to humans or pets, only to insects. But this includes all insects, both beneficial and considered harmful. So it’s best to keep your pitcher plants away from beehives and other places where helpful pollinators hang out.

Since monkeys like to drink from the cups, it is possible that young children or pets will try to do so as well – it would be unhygienic, considering what might be floating inside the pitcher plant! Since it’s a climbing plant, it’s fortunately easy to hang the pitchers out of reach of curious fingers or lapping tongues.

Potential pests and diseases

For obvious reasons, pitcher plants are generally not bothered by pests. After all, they can eat their enemies! They are also not particularly prone to disease. However, their leaves can turn yellow or develop red streaks if they get too much sun. To alleviate sunburn, move plants to a less sunny site.

Their main problem is usually faulty pitcher production, which may indicate they are getting too little light or humidity. In this case, they should be moved to a sunnier or more humid location.

To keep pitcher plants strong, it’s a good idea to cut flower stems of any shape. These flowers divert the plant’s energy from cup production and can be foul on male plants.

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Pitcher Plant Care FAQs

Close up of green and red pitchers on a pitcher plant

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Below are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about pitcher plant care. For more detailed information, see the advice above on everything from tip cuttings to tip “cups.” These horticultural houseplant tips should help make your plant the “pitcher” of health!

Q. How long do pitchers last on a pitcher plant?

The life of the pitchers varies from 1 to 8 months approximately.

Q. Should I cut the dead pitchers off my pitcher plant?

Yes, but wait until the pitchers are completely browned to cut them.

Q. When should a pitcher plant be repotted?

Repot a carnivorous plant about once every 2 years or whenever it outgrows the old pot.

Q. How much sun do pitcher plants need?

Give them about 4 hours of morning sun, followed by bright, indirect light for the rest of the day.

Looking for more terrarium plants? Check out our guides on caring for baby’s tears, calathea and hairy fern.

About Charles Holmes

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