Growing Carnivorous Plants: Sundews

Interested in growing carnivorous plants? Skip the Venus Flytraps at first and start with something easier like sundews.

In the world of carnivorous plants, Venus Flytraps get all the attention. But though flytraps are found pretty close to home (they’re native to North and South Carolina), they’re actually extremely challenging for the home gardener to grow, due to their demand for very specific water and light conditions. If you’d like to try growing carnivorous plants, I recommend you start with sundews, which are delicate, lovely, and much easier to grow.

Growing Carnivorous Plants Sundews

What is a carnivorous plant? Simply speaking, a carnivorous plant is one that eats insects as part of its regular diet. All plants take in carbon dioxide and use sunlight to convert it to food to help them grow (that’s photosynthesis). But plants also require nutrients, which most of them get from the soil – it’s why many plants require regular fertilization. But carnivorous plants have evolved to grow in very poor soil conditions, and instead take in the extra nutrients they need by capturing and digesting insects.

Sundew Traps. Sundews are members of the genus Drosera, and they’re found all around the world. Like many carnivorous plants, sundews generally grow in boggy conditions, usually where they also get plenty of sunlight. Sundews capture prey using what is known as a “flypaper trap”. The surface of the plant is covered with tiny tentacles, each of which secretes a small drop of very sticky mucilage (glue). Insects are drawn to the sweet scent of this mucilage, and are trapped on the plant. Digestive enzymes are then secreted to break down the insect and allow the sundew to absorb the nutrients.

Growing Carnivorous Plants Sundews

Growing Sundews. There are 8 species of sundews native to the U.S. and Canada, with the greatest variety found in the Southeast. See a complete list of native sundews, including range maps, by clicking here. If you’re going to try growing sundews at home, though, I recommend you start with one of the easiest and most readily available: Cape Sundew (Drosera capensis), which is native to South Africa. You’ll sometimes find sundews for sale at specialist nurseries or plant sales, but the easiest way to find them is to order online from a reputable seller. Be sure your seller is raising these plants responsibly, rather than collecting them from the wild. Poaching, along with habitat destruction, poses great threats to all carnivorous plants. California Carnivores is well-known, and a good place to start.

Growing Carnivorous Plants Sundews

Grow Sundews in Containers. The most important things to keep in mind when growing carnivorous plants are water and light. They actually prefer poor soil, and you’re best off leaving your sundew in the pot you purchased it in. Don’t try to plant it in the ground – you’re unlikely to have the proper soil conditions in your yard. If it outgrows the pot (which will likely take several years), you can repot it carefully following instructions found here. Find it a nice sunny location – at least 8 hours of full sun each day.

Now, water: here’s where things get tricky.

  • It is essential that you use only rainwater or purified water for your sundews. Regular tapwater, well water, chlorinated water… all of these will kill your plants. If you don’t already have a rain barrel, now’s the time to install one.
  • Humidity is also essential to the health of sundews. If you live in a very humid climate, like the southeast, you can grow these in containers outdoors and they will probably get the humidity they need. For everyone else, you’ll do best if you grow sundews in a terrarium. Get instructions for building a basic terrarium here.
  • Sundews require consistently moist soil. The easiest way to provide the water they need is to set the pot in a shallow bowl and keep the bowl filled with water. The needed water will wick up through the potting medium to the plant’s roots.

Feeding Sundews. Of course, one of the most fun aspects of growing carnivorous plants is getting to feed them insects from time to time. If your plants are growing outdoors, you probably won’t really need to feed them, though – they’ll catch all the insects they need. Inside, you can feed your sundews with small ants, or even place a piece of fruit nearby to draw fruit flies, but unless they’re in a closed terrarium, they will also probably get all the nutrients they need from bugs living in your home (we all have them!). Find more on feeding carnivorous plants here.

Dormancy and Flowering. Many sundews experience a winter period of dormancy, and may even require it. This is why Cape Sundews make such good starter plants when growing carnivorous plants: they don’t require dormancy. If you do have a species that needs dormancy, you can learn more about providing it here. In the spring, healthy sundews will produce flower stalks, which can be very lovely. The flower stalks raise high above the sticky plant leaves, since you don’t want to eat the same insects that are helping to pollinate you! You can trim the flower stalks to help encourage plant growth, or you can allow them to flower and go to seed. Many sundews re-seed readily, so expect lots of baby sundews in the future!

Growing Carnivorous Plants SundewsJill Staake
Jill Staake Flowers of thread-leaved sundew (Drosera filliformis)

If you enjoy growing sundews, you can try branching out a bit, but you’ll need to educate yourself first. A good place to start is the book Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato, often considered the definitive handbook to growing carnivorous plants. Be patient, and expect failures while you work out the right growing conditions. The reward will be growing some of the most unique plants around!

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.