The easiest and most obvious way to feed carnivorous plants is to let them do what they’re designed for and that’s to catch bugs! But what if your carnivorous plants are indoors and don’t have a chance to take part in the bug buffet outside or you don’t have time to collect bugs for them? In this article, we’ll cover some alternative food sources along with how to feed carnivorous plants so they don’t miss out on important nutrients.
Alternative food sources
Fish Flakes & Crushed Pellets
Fish flakes or crushed pellets are a great alternative to bugs for carnivorous plants. They contain several nutrients that can be easily absorbed by the plant. We have used both TetraFin Goldfish Flakes and TetraFin Floating Pellets (crushed) with good success.
Freeze dried Bloodworms are another good food source for carnivorous plants and they may even boost disease resistance. Bloodworms contain a polymer called chitin in their exoskeletons; a polymer also found in the cell walls of fungi. Carnivorous plants (along with most plants) have the ability to detect chitin fragments from fungal infections, triggering a defense mechanism that protects the plant. The extra chitin in bloodworms helps activate the plants defenses without introducing actual fungus. This immunity can be important for helping prevent infections in vulnerable plants like Mexican Pinguicula (Butterworts) which are prone to browning heart disease.
Fertilizers like Maxsea and Oscomote are another option for carnivorous plants, but use them sparingly. Sarracenia and Heliamphora both appreciate small amounts of fertilizer in their soil or pitchers and often Nepenthes can benefit from pitcher-fed fertilizer. If you notice pitcher or leaf burn, this is a sign the fertilizer is too strong and needs to be diluted further.
The Carnivore Girl also has a great article that explores fertilizer for carnivorous plants in more depth.
Carnivorous plants and meat
Despite the name, carnivorous plants rarely eat meat. (Except for some Nepenthes which have been known to snack on rodents). Meat doesn’t contain many of the nutrients carnivorous plants need and it will invite harmful bacteria to start growing, so it’s usually best to stick with one of the food sources mentioned above.
How do I feed my carnivorous plant?
Feeding depends on the type of carnivorous plant in question:
Butterworts do a pretty good job of catching food on their own. If they seem to be having trouble though, sprinkle some fish food or bloodworms on a sticky leaf or two every 2-3 weeks. Try to keep food away from the sensitive crown though to minimize bacteria and mold growth.
Some Butterworts will enter a state of dormancy during certain times of the year. They will stop producing sticky leaves and the plant will usually shrink in size. There’s no need to feed Butterworts during this time.
Pitcher Plants are probably the easiest carnivorous plants to feed. During their active growing season, drop bugs, fish food, or fertilizer pellets in a few of the pitchers every 2-3 weeks. If the pitchers are dry, squirt water in them with a pipette or eyedropper after feeding, otherwise they won’t be able to absorb the nutrients. If you move plants after the pitchers are full, do so carefully. Partially digested food from a spilled pitcher smells atrocious.
Sundews can be one of the more difficult carnivorous plants to feed. If they aren’t catching bugs on their own, feed a few of the dewy leaves dry fish food or bloodworms every 2-3 weeks. If you’re in a hurry, store the food in an old spice shaker and give it a few shakes over the plant occasionally. Just be careful not to pour too much out or get food near the crown of the plant.
If you’d like a more targeted approach, use a pair of pointed tweezers to stick food on the tentacles. After feeding, most sundews curl their leaves around prey within about 20 minutes. If a sundew doesn’t have dew on its tentacles, this could be a sign that it’s stressed. Only feed it after the dew returns.
Venus Flytraps are some of the most fun carnivorous plants to feed! Using tweezers, gently brush a bug, damp fish food, or bloodworms against the hairs inside one of the traps. The trap will snap shut after a couple of strokes, getting a mouthful of food. The amount of food you give each trap depends on the size of the trap. Generally, the size of the food should be about 1/4 of the size of the trap.
For food that isn’t fed live, gently massage the trap after it has snapped shut. This mimics a bug moving inside and stimulates the trap to seal more tightly and produce extra digestive enzymes. Learn more about this amazing process here. Feed a few traps every 2-3 weeks during the plant’s active growing season.
Now who’s hungry?
This article gave a brief overview of what and how to feed carnivorous plants. Hopefully you found it useful but please check out some of the linked resources for more specifics. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave questions and comments below, we’d like to hear from you!
Potting bare root carnivorous plants can be intimidating since the plants tend to be fragile. Watch our video to learn how to plant them easily!
One sad part of living in Southwestern Ohio (besides the weather) is the region’s distinct lack of carnivorous plants. We envy folks fortunate to have native species growing practically in their back yards, or within a short drive.
One day we headed north to hike at John Bryan State Park. Inside the visitor center, there was map of all the state parks in Ohio hanging on the wall, several of which had the word “Bog” in the title. Bogs in Ohio?! This was worth checking out.
Turns out, Ohio does have bogs
In fact, Ohio used to have a ton of bogs, many of which were part of The Great Black Swamp until it was drained to make room for farmland. Today only a few bogs remain, spread throughout the middle and northern parts of the state. Not every bog has carnivorous plants, but to our excitement some of them do! Ohio’s bogs are home to several species of carnivorous plants including Sarracenia purpurea, Drosera rotundifolia, Drosera intermedia, and a few types of Utricularia.
Cedar Bog err… Fen
The first stop on our expedition took us to Cedar Bog on the east side of Dayton. Cedar Bog is the largest fen in Ohio.
What’s the difference between a fen and a bog?
In short, bogs are closed systems and typically very acidic. They get most, if not all, of their water from rainfall. Fens on the other hand, tend to have a neutral or alkaline pH and get their water from surface and underground sources. As a sign in the visitor’s center bathroom so nicely put it…”Fens flush, bogs clog.”Cedar “Bog” has a boardwalk that allows visitors to explore the area while minimizing damage to the environment. From our research, we knew that D. rotundifolia and a species of bladderwort were in the area…but didn’t know where exactly to look. We moved slowly, but eventually transitioned from the wooded area into a grassland with plenty of sun. A little green flash in the sea of brown caught our eye, it was Drosera rotundifolia!
Soon, we were seeing the little guys everywhere and even found a patch of sphagnum moss growing nearby. A group of college students wandered by and asked what we were looking at. We explained we were looking for carnivorous plants and had found some! With a lifeless tone, one of the students said, “Oh yea, I heard those types of plants were out here” and walked away without even looking. The lack of enthusiasm nearly crushed us. Despite soulless college students though, we enjoyed the rest of our time in the fen before pressing on to the next stop.
Brown’s Lake Bog Preserve
Brown’s Lake Bog Preserve is an actual bog near Wooster, Ohio. It’s unique in that it is a kettle bog. Kettles are large holes left by receding glaciers. Kettle bogs form when the hole fills with rainwater and then becomes acidic from decomposing plant matter.
We made it to the bog in the early evening and were the only ones there. After walking a short ways through the woods on a rickety boardwalk, we arrived at the kettle portion of the bog which was mostly covered in a mat of Sphagnum Moss and ferns.
It didn’t take long to find what we came for. Dozens of Sarracenia purpurea were poking out of the moss near the boardwalk!
Some grew as individual plants and others clumped together in mounds of Sphagnum Moss. Most were bright green, but several had beautiful purple and red veining. Once again, we were blown away that these plants grow in the wild right here Ohio.
A note on conservation
The fens and bogs of Ohio are beautiful and each is unique. We’re glad there are still a few to visit, but most of these fragile systems are extremely small and threatened. Some suffer from natural processes like forest encroachment and others are affected by agricultural runoff which changes the water chemistry. If you’d like to help preserve these unique places and the amazing carnivorous plants living within them, please see The Nature Conservancy for more information.
What do you do when one of your carnivorous plants has a pest or fungus problem and neem or other natural pesticides or fungicides aren’t cutting it?
Obviously something needs to be done or you run the risk of losing the plant or infecting others in your collection.
The first and most important thing to do is isolate the infected plant(s) from the healthy ones. Then, treat the pests or fungus. We recommend using one of the sprays below and have found them safe to use on several types of carnivorous plants noted at the end of this article.
The active ingredients in both of these sprays are Tau-fluvalinate, Imidacloprid, and Tebuconazole.
Tau-fluvalinate is a contact killer for pests. It works fast to stop the immediate damage.
Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide meaning the plant will absorb the insecticide through its tissue and roots. If a pest takes a bite out of the treated plant, it will also ingest the pesticide.
Tebuconazole is a systemic fungicide. It works by inhibiting fungal growth and spore distribution, slowing the spread of the disease.
Which spray should I use?
The only difference between the two sprays above is the concentration of active ingredients. The “Ready-To-Use” version is just that; it can be applied to carnivorous plants immediately. The “Ready-To-Spray” version on the other hand is designed for hose attachment for large areas and is more concentrated. Using a hose to douse all your plants probably isn’t the best idea, but the concentrate can be economical if you have several to treat. All you need to do is dilute it to equal the concentration of the “Ready-To-Use” spray by figuring out the ratios.
Active ingredient percentages listed on each bottle:
Tau-Fluvalinate ……… 0.61%
Tebuconazole ………… 0.65%
For these percentages, a ratio of 14mls of concentrate mixed with 650mls of distilled water is comparable to the Ready-To-Use formula. Tada! Now you can have gallons of spray at a fraction of the cost.
What types of carnivorous plants are safe to treat?
We’ve tested this spray on several types of pitcher plants, specifically heliamphora, cephalotus, nepenthes, and sarracenia. It is safe to use on most flytraps and some sundews as well. The rule for all of these plants though is to keep the spray away from the trap portions of the plants (i.e. the dewy portions of sundew and inside pitchers). These areas of the plants are often more sensitive and absorbent and so will be more prone to burning. Try to focus the spray on the crowns, leaves, and growth points of plants as well as the soil around them. Pests and fungal infections tend to target these areas the most anyway.
Follow the package instructions on how much of the spray to use and when. This particular one can provide protection for around 30 days depending on what you’re treating and whether the plant is indoors in a tray or outdoors and flushed with rain.
Some Notes of Caution
- Even though we have used this spray on several types of carnivorous plants, it’s always good to test it on your own plants as well. Treat a small portion of the plant and see how it reacts or only treat a single plant if you have more than one before spraying the whole batch.
- This is a poison so please don’t taste the dew on your capensis after treating them. Be honest, we’ve all tried at one point. 😛
- This is a chemical pesticide so if your plants live outdoors, please remember to save the bees!
What about you?
Do you have a tried and true pesticide and fungicide that you use? What plants have you tested it on? Please tell us in the comments!
Not all water is the same
Using tap water for carnivorous plants in many cases isn’t a good idea. Tap water contains salts and chemicals (Also called Total Dissolved Solids or TDS). While harmless to humans, some of these salts and chemicals can have detrimental effects on sensitive carnivorous plants, causing root burn, leaf browning, wilting and eventual death of the plant.
The amount of salts and chemicals in tap water is measured by parts per million (PPM). The PPM of tap water can vary depending on location but often falls between 100 and 400. Most carnivorous plants can tolerate a PPM range anywhere from 50 to 140, but the lower the number the better. If you are considering using tap water for your plants, buy a TDS Meter to check your PPM first. It’s also important to note that if your PPM is in the upper end of the “safe” range, flushing soil and trays regularly with fresh water is a good idea to help prevent mineral buildup.
Source: “What is TDS?” HM Digital
Rain and stream water
Rain or stream water can be good and inexpensive alternatives to use for carnivorous plants, if the plants are outdoors. Using rain or stream water can have downsides for indoor plants though. The main ones being possible contaminants like algae, bacteria, fungus and plant pests. Yes, even rainwater may contain small amounts of these! Exposing indoor plants to these contaminants is risky because there isn’t a balanced ecosystem like the one outside to keep various outbreaks at bay.
In addition, rain water tends to be acidic with a pH of around 5.6 due to interacting with carbon dioxide in the air. This may or may not be harmful to your plants but is still something to think about.
Using distilled water is the safest route when watering indoor carnivorous plants. The water is free from salts and chemicals and the steaming process kills organisms that may be present as well. You can purchase distilled water at the store or distill it yourself. We have found a basic household distiller like this one works well for the average hobbyist. It can produce up to 6 gallons per day. Using distilled water in combination with the tray method of watering is a good practice if you want healthy indoor carnivorous plants.
And don’t do this…please.
A common misconception about distilling water is to leave tap water in a container overnight to give minerals and chemicals a chance to “evaporate”…there’s a problem with this method though, it doesn’t work! The only thing that evaporates is the water leaving what remains even more salty. Only use this method of “distilling” if you want to kill your carnivorous plants.
Who knew there were so many types of water
Hopefully this article helps you determine what type of water you will use for your carnivorous plants based on your location and growing environment. If you have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!