Category Archives: Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap

Gothic Gardening: “Six Easy Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap”

(Background: this essay was one of several columns commissioned for the magazine Gothic Beauty between 2009 and 2011. Since the magazine hasn’t published a new issue in years, it’s time to drag up a few of these old columns so they can find a new readership.)

Previously published in Gothic Beauty #29

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, the comment is always the same: “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the dealer’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die. 

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or general nursery, and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies. What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their proprietors honestly don’t realize, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good dozen species that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. 

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy, just like the one I have in my greenhouse that’s been thriving for the last four years. It doesn’t take any special care, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines. 

Step 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween. About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases, usually in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivore sharing the space. Even if the plants don’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap will gradually go black and appear to die off in November and December, and it gets pitched or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job. 

The funny thing is that the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting, and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb below ground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves, and the traps are really just modified leaves, for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed. 

Now, that dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with almost no warning. Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes also need that dormancy period. It’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). 

Step 2: Plant it in your garden. Unless your garden is in a sphagnum moss bog, with incredibly acid soil that’s almost nutrient-free, planting a Venus flytrap in a standard garden is a good way to kill it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants, but planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums is a waste of good flytraps. 

Step 3: Water it with tap water. In the wild, flytraps get regular intense rainstorms, and those regular rainstorms over the last half-million years or so have left their preferred soil almost completely free of dissolvable minerals. Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, the local water is best described as “crunchy”, and some areas have so much dissolved iron in their water that it stains the sides of houses and sidewalks. That’s why, for safety’s sake, I always recommend watering carnivores with rainwater or distilled water, and I have two 60-gallon rainwater tanks solely to capture water for my carnivores. That warning about tap water is important, because insufficiently pure water can and will burn a flytrap’s roots right off, killing it in days or even hours. A reverse osmosis filter can render tap water safe for carnivores, but boiling it does absolutely nothing to remove those minerals (unless you’re running a steam distiller), and water softeners merely replace calcium salts for sodium salts, which are just as dangerous. Likewise, stay away from spring water or drinking water, as they usually have salt added for flavor, and that will kill flytraps just as dead as watering them from the tap. 

Step 4: Keep it in a terrarium. Some carnivores can take life in a terrarium, at least for a while, but Venus flytraps are best raised outside. Not only do they need the winter dormancy mentioned before, but they weaken and die unless they get at least six to eight hours of direct sun per day. They won’t get this in a terrarium, nor will they get this by keeping them in a window. If you absolutely have to keep one indoors, for whatever reason, a sunroom or greenhouse that gets that level of sun will work quite well. A terrarium getting that much sun, though, will usually heat up and cook everything inside. 

Step 5: Set off its traps with your finger. Nearly everyone’s response to seeing a flytrap for the first time is to stimulate the inside of the trap with a finger to get it to close. The closing process is an interesting example of topography, but the plant’s re-opening of the trap is a regular growth process. Set off a trap too many times, and the trap will refuse to close any more and will become just another photosynthetic leaf. Set off all of the traps too many times, and the energy lost in re-opening the traps will weaken or kill the flytrap. 

Step 6: Feed it hamburger. Carnivorous animals capture prey for energy and for various compounds necessary for growth. Carnivorous plants capture prey to get nitrogen and phosphorus they can’t get from their soil. Therefore, they only need to be fed occasionally, and not as if they’re a dog or hamster. In the wild, a flytrap’s prey is going to be about the size of a fly or small spider, and very lean: hamburger is far too fatty for a flytrap to process, and dropping hamburger in a trap will invariably cause the trap to decay and die. If the decay spreads, it can kill the whole plant. 

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores. Finally, flytraps are particular about their growing conditions, but that doesn’t keep some nurseries from selling them in cubes that also contain Australian sundews (which don’t need a dormancy period) and cobra plants from the Pacific Northwest (which need cooler nighttime temperatures). Usually, the stresses of keeping one plant alive will guarantee that the others will die, and the flytrap is usually the first casualty. If you’re feeling adventurous, or if you have prior experience with carnivores, feel free to separate all three and put them in separate pots, but please don’t keep them together in the same pot. 

Naturally, this isn’t a comprehensive list of requirements, but follow any of the mistakes above, and I guarantee that your flytrap will die in a horrible manner. If you avoid them, though, your plant will probably live, thrive, and even bloom. After all, what’s the point of buying a beautiful plant like a full-grown Venus flytrap if all you’re going to do is scrag it? 

Postscript: if this list looks familiar, it’s because it was the basis for the Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap series. If it doesn’t, then you have more flytrap care tips to read. Either way, we all win.

Absolute Surefire Steps To Kill Your Venus Flytrap, Step 8

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 8: Keep moving it around.

Most of the appeal of carnivorous plants is in their appropriation of traits normally associated with animals. That’s also their doom. Since some are more active, from a human perspective, than most plants, we tend to ascribe feelings and impressions to them better suited to pets than ikebana. One of the most dangerous of these impressions is the assumption that since carnivores catch and digest prey, they need to be fed on a schedule and regimen more suited for a dog than a pitcher plant. The other, equally dangerous, is that they need to get out for a while.

By way of example, a friend of mine purchased a butterwort from me last year. He keeps a wide variety of reptiles, so he had a good grasp of the basic requirements for keeping a butterwort happy and healthy: good water, decent air circulation, and lots and lots of light. He went for a couple of months without any problems, and then he contacted me in a panic. His butterwort was collapsing in on itself, and when I tried to diagnose the trouble, he told me “I put it outside for a little while, so it could get some air.” In the middle of last summer’s heat wave.

Another example came from another good friend, who was very proud of her new Venus flytrap. Flytraps require lots of sun, high humidity, and good air circulation, of which you can get two out of those three during the summer. I combat this by raising flytraps outdoors in large glass globes: excess heat vents out the top, but humidity loss is kept to a relative minimum, and the flytraps just explode with new growth when given this option. Her flytrap was doing remarkably well for a while, and then she wrote me to ask about its health. It went into a sudden decline a couple of weeks ago, about the time the temperatures started to spike, and she couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t, either, until she said that the problem came one day after she brought the plant “back inside” from where it had been during the day.

This is where the impression of carnivorous plants as animals with chlorophyll is dangerous to them. While protecting them from temperature and humidity extremes is recommended, most animals kept as pets have no problems with being moved around a bit for a change of scenery and some fresh air. The problem here is that the vast majority of animals get up and move when temperatures and other conditions fluctuate past “nominal”. Plants can’t do that, or at least they can’t do it quickly, and carnivorous plants are still just that: plants.

Part of the reason why we humans blank out on most of the incredible variety and diversity of flora around us is because it doesn’t move. We’re conditioned, from millions of years of evolutionary development, to seek out the lone animal in a panorama of green. Show a portraiture of prehistoric life, and the emphasis is always on the animals. If any plants show up, they’re purely background unless an animal is eating or climbing one. Carnivorous plants subvert that by their nature, so we tend to home in on the features of carnivores that look the most animal-like, such as the “mouths” of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. (This also helps explain the odd connection in fiction between dinosaurs and man-eating plants, but that’s the subject of another essay.)

The danger here is that while carnivores may act like animals in some ways, they’re still vegetation. Nobody (or at least nobody sane) digs up a rose bush and carries it around with them in a gilt pot all day. Plants can move in any number of fascinating ways, but with the exception of floating varieties such as the aquatic ferns of the genus Azolla, they’re ultimately limited to the place where their roots first went down. Most plants generally move across the countryside either when they’re dead (tumbleweeds scattering their seeds) or in serious trouble (aloes trying to escape poor conditions by snapping free of their stems and rolling to new locales). They just don’t have the energy to move far on their own, and so they don’t have the adaptations animals have to deal with the changing conditions faced even ten feet away from where they were growing previously. They can deal with changes, but on a gradual basis, and moving your flytrap back and forth happens too quickly for it to adjust.

To give you an idea of how a low-energy organism like a plant adapts to this, imagine you’re at home, sitting on the couch. You’re in comfortable clothes, you have a cold drink in your hand, Spaced is on the television, and all is right in the world. You’re just getting into things when something moving too fast for you to see or even acknowledge picks you up and dumps you into a cold mud puddle out in front of the house. You’ve just had the chance to spit out water and wonder “What the hell just happened?” when you find yourself back on the couch. And then you’re tossed into the refrigerator. And then under an air conditioner vent. And then next to the oven. Then you’re thrown out into the sun, sans sunscreen or sunglasses. Just as you’re starting to burn, you’re dumped in a closet for a few hours with no food. Then you’re put out back in the sun, in the middle of a sunny July day in Phoenix. And then you’re put next to a swimming pool. And this goes on for days.

Now, you can move to adjust, but whatever is moving you is moving too fast for you to do anything. Reach for an available cup of water, and you’re swung out of range. Reach out for a blanket to deal with the chills, and suddenly your arm is snipped off with no warning. Ultimately, the stress of dealing with all of this is going to make you sick or depressed or both, and you’re going to run out of energy to fight the constant changes. If you’re lucky, that something will take pity on you and leave you alone until you get rid of the cold you got from being bounced in and out of air conditioning. If you’re not…well, you might be remembered fondly as you’re tossed into the garbage after you finally let loose one last scream before dying. That, in essence, is what you do to any plant if you move it around and transplant it constantly.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never move plants from adverse conditions. What I am saying is that you need to give them time to adjust. Just as how keeping you indoors under AC all summer and then expecting you to run a 100-mile bicycle race with no training and no opportunity to acclimate to the heat will probably kill you, swinging a plant back and forth between extremes will do the same thing. When you buy a flytrap and bring it home, pick a good spot for it to grow and leave it there. If you have to move it, do so only because the current space is an immediate threat to its health and continuing existence, and try to make the change as gradual as possible. You don’t want the Tralfamadorians to load up on sugar, go into full Cornholio mode, and toss you into a snowbank for a few hours, do you? Then why would you want to do the same thing to your flytrap?

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Introduction

Some of this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, or asking about a plant that could eat the questioner’s ex-spouse, the comment is always the same. “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.”

What happens next varies. Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the seller’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying or for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some people relate that this happened decades ago, with a plant they purchased from a roadside stand, and others talk about the flytrap they purchased at a Home Depot a few weeks earlier. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die.

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Out of those ten, maybe seven will be amazed to discover that any other carnivores exist, and of the remaining three, they’ve definitely never had the opportunity to examine one. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or “home improvement center,” and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies.

What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their employees honestly don’t know, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good half-dozen species, of at least three genera, that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. Sarracenia pitcher plants get much larger, sundews and butterworts are easier to feed, and triggerplants move even faster when set off. That said, I can understand exactly why flytraps have such an appeal, and they’re an essential part of any properly stocked carnivorous plant collection. You just can’t have a carnivore collection without one.

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy and thriving for years. It doesn’t take any special requirements, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines.

Over the last few years, I’ve built up a list of basic questions to ask when I’m told about a customer’s dead flytrap. With very few exceptions, I can usually pinpoint the cause of death within three questions, and most require no more than two. Over the next few postings, I’ll share those points, so that you can kill your own flytrap with the best of them. Or prevent that from happening, as the case may be.

Step 1 – Buy your flytrap at Halloween.

Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.

Step 3 – Water it with tap water.

Step 4 – Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.

Step 5 – Set off its traps with your finger.

Step 6 – Feed it hamburger.

Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.

Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Now these are the main things to watch for when trying to kill your flytrap. Pay attention to these tips and avoid them, and you’re likely to have a flytrap that lives a very long and healthy life. Most of all, you’ll be the envy of your jealous friends, all of whom will tell you about how “I had a flytrap, but it died.” If you’re a real friend, you’ll pass on what you’ve learned, and they’ll have happy and hearty flytraps, too.