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Gardening: Pick pitcher plants as your Valentines — they need love too (and they eat bugs)

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American pitcher plant Dreamstime

If pitcher plants are in pots, leave them outside in the winter. The foliage will die back, but the exposure to cold will stimulate robust growth in the spring. Dreamstime

Pitcher plants need more love.

These wonderfully unique plants are brightly colored and, when planted correctly, very low maintenance. Best of all, they eat bugs. 

Don’t plant them for mosquito control. They’re not that hungry or particular about what they eat. Like many carnivorous plants, they are adapted to boggy environments that are wet and acidic. While most plants have difficulty obtaining nutrients in a low pH soil, carnivorous plants evolved to supplement their diet by trapping and digesting insects.

There are no moving parts on pitcher plants, although there are some exceptions. A curious critter is lured in by their scent and fall inside a tubular leaf. The inner walls are slippery, grooved and sometimes hairy. Most insects can’t escape, left to swim in a pool of digestive liquid at the bottom of a hollow leaf. The insect eventually dissolves into proteins and nutrients. The pitcher slurps it up.

The liquid inside the leaf may be mostly captured rainwater, although some pitcher plants are hooded. They excrete a sticky substance that clings to hopeless insects. Bacteria also swim in the liquid, aiding decomposition. Many of the bacteria are thought to be associated only with pitcher plants. Fungi will grow inside the leaf in search of a free meal. Pitcher plants ward off these freeloaders by producing anti-fungal substances.

pitcher plant with bloom

Pitcher plants grow best in full sun and around a water feature. Tony Bertauski/Provided

Native pitcher plants, such as sarracenia, are perennial in the Lowcountry and, in my opinion, underutilized in the landscape. The flowers are as unique and colorful as the foliage. They hang upside down on an upright stalk.

Pitcher plants grow best in full sun. Placing them around a water feature is ideal. All they require is a plastic liner in a pot or hole in the ground. They’re not deep-rooted, so they’ll only need about 4 to 6 inches of soil. A mixture of 50 percent peat moss and 50 percent sand is a suitable acidic growing medium. It doesn’t have to be saturated, just damp. I punch holes in the plastic to drain the excess water.

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If you have them in pots, leave them outside in the winter. The foliage will die back, but the exposure to cold will stimulate robust growth in the spring.

Acquiring pitcher plants will probably be your biggest challenge. They’re often difficult to find at local garden centers. You can purchase them online where you’ll find a great variety of colors and growth habits. Once you have them, you’ll be pitcher plant-rich. They grow in clumps that easily divide.

You can also purchase seeds online. This, however, presents additional challenges and a good deal of patience. I recently harvested a great deal of seed to demonstrate stratification in botany class at the Trident Technical College horticulture program.

Stratification is a dormancy mechanism that prevents germination until there is an exposure to cold. For pitcher plant seeds, this is not simply putting them in the refrigerator. They require moisture, as well. We experimented with two techniques. One batch of seeds were placed in a damp towel and the other batch was mixed with moist peat moss. Both samples were sealed in baggies and placed in the refrigerator for six weeks.

The seeds were then sown in four-inch pots filled with a 50/50 mixture of peat moss and sand. The pots were each placed in a sealed baggy to maintain humidity. They were exposed to light at room temperature. The seeds germinated after five weeks and the pots removed from the baggies.

Pitcher plant all green

Pitcher plants are best suited to boggy environments that are wet and acidic. Tony Bertauski/Provided

Currently, they’re in the greenhouse. I check on them daily. The growth rate is slow and steady. It’s like watching paint dry. Eight weeks after seeding, there are well over 50 seedlings that have only grown a centimeter. However, by this time next year, I hope to be filling planters with a variety of a bug-trapping pitcher plants. And once they’re mature, we can start dividing the pups and let the hungry babies eat.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.

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