(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.