Gardening Hints and Helps
Insect Eating Plants
After I had some success with perennials in my yard, I moved on to vines—clematises, jasmines, Gloriosa lilies, passion flowers, and morning glories. I still have all of them, including the morning glories, which come up everywhere. I spend half of my weeding time in the garden weeding plants I started out there. The passion flowers are actually more difficult to keep down because their roots go really deep, but I grow them for the frittilary butterfly larvae to eat, as does my neighbor, Jo, across the street. Our little cul-de-sac is filled with orange fritillaries in the summertime. So pulling up a few passion flower vines and letting four to five of them run free, is part of my garden plan every year. The flowers are nice, too, but the huge, ugly caterpillars that turn into beautiful butterflies are the main draw.
After vines I moved on to tropicals, which had to be kept in containers. Now my gardening hours began climbing upwards. Container plants always take more work than vines and perennials, but I was having so much fun I didn’t care. I also expanded my cacti and moved on to other succulents—Pachypodia, Stapelia, Euphorbia, Adeniums, and such. After my container-grown plants passed 150, I kept right at it, adding tropical fruits. All of these were potted plants, so when I became interested in insect-eating plants, having a few more containers didn’t bother me. At one time I counted about 220 total containers I had scattered across my back yard. Yes—I had a problem, but there wasn’t an organization called Plants Anonymous, so I just kept on and on.
I must admit that I started growing insect-eating plants because they were so weird, so interesting, that I couldn't let them pass me by. Plus, I was sure my grandchildren would be interested in them. They were, and still are. I found an old, unused fish aquarium and began my saga with insect eaters. I’d buy a few Venus fly traps every year, put them in the aquarium, and by then end of summer they’d be dead. I’d toss them out and repeat the process the following summer. No matter what I did, the little plants died on me. Of course, I did everything you’re not supposed to do, learning as I went along. I fertilized them. Don’t! Fertilizer kills them. They live in bogs that have little nutrients in them. I watered them with tap water. Don’t! They will wither from the chemicals we use in our water. If you can’t collect rainwater, don’t even consider growing insect eaters. I fed them hamburger. Don’t! Fly traps eat living insects, not dead cow meat! I kept them inside. Don’t! They’re called “fly” traps because they eat flies. Unless you have an abundance of flies inside your house, put the fly traps outdoors, where they’ll at least have a chance to eat the way they’re supposed to do.
The fact that nowadays you can find the insect-eaters at Lowe’s (Lowe’s carries them almost year-round) and other large plant-carrying stores makes acquiring the bug-eaters easy. The hard part is keeping them alive.
The two plants most available are Venus fly-traps and pitcher plants. Kids love Venus Fly-Traps—their little green jaws look so cool, so threatening. Looking at the tiny traps is eerie. Pitcher plants, on the other hand, don’t look threatening at all, but they’re pretty. I love them all.
I tried to feed my first Venus fly-traps by hand, giving them dead, swatted flies, and, as I mentioned above, hamburger meat. Don’t do this. The traps need to be triggered by movement—the struggles of the captured insects as they try to escape release enzymes needed to digest the bugs. If the enzymes aren’t released, the little traps turn black, rot, and fall off. Once I realized they needed live bugs, I tried to wound the flies that I fed to the plants, so they’d wiggle around and trigger the plant’s natural devouring mechanisms. I had partial luck with this ploy, but it involved more work and more touching of half-dead flies than I really desired.
When I bought my first pitcher plants, I ran into the same problem. I was certain they also needed live or partially live bugs to properly digest the little critters.
The amazing thing is that it took me so long to solve the problem. I had the answer to the “bug” problem right in front of me in another of my favorite plants, and didn’t realize it. The answer was in my Stapelia plants, a type of succulent I’d been growing for ten years.
Here is a great example of a Stapelia, and as you can see, the huge blossom, about 14 inches across, is beautiful. It's also the largest bloom of any plant I have. But the Stapelia will fool you. It stinks! It smells awful, and this is intentional. The plant is pollinated by flies who are attracted to the stench, mostly blue botflies, which will come to your house out of the skies by the hundreds if you have a Stapelia. The good thing is that these flies will lay their eggs on the Stapelia blossom, thinking it to be carrion, or rotting meat. A few days later when the blossom falls to the ground, the fly eggs hatch and the larvae die, because there is no proper food for it to eat. So even though the plant attracts flies, it also exterminates them. Neat, huh? But wait! There's more!
Here's another view of my Stapelia. I keep it in a hanging pot, and if you notice--next to it is a pot full of Venus fly traps and pitcher plants. I finally found the answer to feeding the fly traps and the pitcher plants. I finally used my brain and put the two differing plants next to each other. When I tried this experiment, the Stapelia were blooming, and the results were instantaneous. Flies flocked around all of the plants--the Stapelia and the bug eaters. The two types of insect-eaters got all the flies and other bugs they need. They flourished.
If you have trouble finding a Stapelia--I had to get mine from a mail-order nursery--ask me and I'll give you a cutting. In two-three years you'll have a pretty good-sized plant. And when it blooms and your grandkids see the gorgeous blossom, ask them to smell it. Tell them how good it smells (but only to the flies) and watch their faces as they take a whiff. Then, go out and buy some insect-eaters.
Here are the basic rules for raising insect eaters. Never, ever fertilize them. They must exist on bugs. Fertilizer will kill them. Plant them in sphagnum moss, not a pre-fertilized potting soil. In the summer I keep mine in 8 hours of full sun a day--they need 4-10 hours of good sunlight. I water mine with rainwater daily, from spring to fall. Once again--do not water insect eaters with city water--it will ultimately kill them--it has too many chemicals for them. I have a rain barrel just for my insect-eaters. I use it, too.
In the fall, before the first frost, I bring these plants inside. I dig the fly traps up, put them in a freezer bag, and refrigerate them until spring. If you don't do this, you're liable to over-water them during the winter, which will kill or stunt them. They also need the cool temperatures of their native homeland, the South Carolina coast. That's why I refrigerate them. My pitcher plants don't seem to suffer being inside over the winter. They're so fat from all the bug-eating, they probably need the restricted diet that will come from being inside. I'm sure they'll get a few bugs from the other plants I bring in, but nothing compared to the feast of being next to a blooming Stapelia.