Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sundews and Butterworts

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

For the first cleanup project, it’s time to start with two Triffid Ranch show stalwarts: the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and the primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primulflora). Although not even closely related, they both make excellent beginner plants, being very easy to keep indoors under artificial light. In the Dallas area, due to our wildly variable humidity, they’re best kept enclosed, and their small size makes them suitable for small containers such as glass jars or bottles. Of course, the combination of bright light, high humidity, and milled sphagnum peat for a growing medium means that sphagnum moss spores will germinate and spread. Normally, this is extremely desirable, as not only does the sphagnum look nice, but the moss exudes acid into the soil, interfering with the germination and growth of other plants. In this case, though, the sphagnum grows faster than the plants inside, and occasionally it needs to be trimmed back or moved so it doesn’t choke out everything else inside of the container.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers
  • Bonsai root rake or old fork
  • Tamper

The really important tools here are the scissors, the long tweezers, the root rake, and the tamper, and many bonsai tools combine tweezers or rake with a tamper end for flattening and smoothing soil. A nice extra tool to have on hand for tall and narrow bottles is a narrow-mouth alligator forceps, sometimes called an ear polypus because its narrow mouth is perfect for reaching foreign objects caught in human ears. (Hey, I’m not judging here.) With these standard 2-quart (1.89L) jars, you probably won’t need it, but if you do, they’re available in stainless steel from American Science & Surplus.

To start, spread out your mat or towel across your work surface: wet sphagnum can sometimes stain or damage furniture finishes. Next, clean your tools before use with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them, and set them within easy reach. The last thing you want to do is fumble your plant while trying to reach a misplaced tool. Once you’re done, open the lid if your container has one and give it a good serious look before doing anything. Get an idea of what you want to do and what you want the inside to look like, so you’ll know what you want to add and what you want to remove. If container decorations don’t move you any more, or if you want to add something to accent what’s already there, this is the time.

Before doing anything more, you need to clear out excess sphagnum strands to see what’s underneath. That’s where the forceps come in: CAREFULLY tease and pluck sphagnum away from the plants, and odds are pretty good that you’ll find more sundews than you expected. With the excess sphagnum, you can put it to the side in the container, discard it (it’ll be perfectly fine in a standard compost pile or bin), or save it to jumpstart sphagnum growth in other carnivore containers. Further away from the plant or plants, use a bonsai root rake or an old fork to pull up excess sphagnum: since it doesn’t have roots, pulling at a sufficiently thick chunk of sphagnum will just pull it up like a piece of rug.

When you’ve cleared away sphagnum to your satisfaction, now is the time to clear away any dead or dying sundew leaves. If they’re really old and moist, many old ones can be removed with a quick pull with the tweezers, but the fact that not all of them will is a good reason to use scissors instead. After each cut, wipe your blade with isopropyl alcohol to prevent bacterial or fungal infection, and pull the sundew chunks out of the container and dispose of them elsewhere. While clipping dead leaves, check on the living ones: as this picture shows, sundews getting sufficient light and humidity have the energy to produce mucilage, the adhesive each hair produces for attracting and capturing prey. With most species, a REALLY happy sundew produces bright red hair tips (fun fact: the official name for these hairs in sundews is “tentacles”) within the mucilage as an additional attractant.

Now that the sundews are clear, let’s work on the rest of the container. Sphagnum can climb the walls of most plastic and glass containers, and grows big “pillows” given half a chance, but mashing it down doesn’t hurt it at all. You don’t need much force: a gentle finger is enough to squish it in place. Said sphagnum also grows layers of algae, though, so if you don’t like the feel of slime, a tamper gets the job done, too. My handmade tamper has both a big fat end courtesy of a wine cork glued to it, and a standard blunt end for occasional gentle prying as well as tamping. If ornaments such as stones or plastic figures are in the way, feel free to pull them out and set them aside while tamping: now is a good time to give them a stout rinse in clean water before putting them back in.

With the primrose butterwort, the process above works very well with one very big caveat. Sundews reproduce both by seed and by growing new plants from their roots: give them the right conditions, and a container could fill with sundews, all genetic clones from the original. Butterworts go about things in a slightly different way. They bloom as well, and butterwort blooms are a big reason why the whole genus Pinguicula is getting so much attention these days from carnivore enthusiasts, but for reasons not well understood, dying leaves tend to sprout new plantlets that are also clones of the original. Butterworts also tend to have very weak roots, so be very careful working around a parent or pup butterwort so as not to uproot it. With luck, by the time you need to do this again, you could have anywhere between one and five new plantlets of various sizes, and if you’re VERY careful, you can move plantlets to your choice of locations within the container to do everything from highlighting a rock in the container to spelling out words. It’s your call.

Finished? Okay, now mist the container well before closing the lid, partly to replace what moisture it lost while the lid was off and partly to circulate the air a bit. Put the lid back on and put the container back underneath a light, and know that you’re ready to do this again whenever the plant needs it. And if you want to separate out plants and put them in other containers? That’s a different how-to guide for another time.

To be continued…

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