Gardening Unplugged - Pitcher Plants in the Garden

Gardening Unplugged - Pitcher Plants in the Garden

with Tony Avent

By Published August 2022

In this episode of Gardening Unplugged, Tony shows guests some of the wonderfully diverse pitcher plants at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden. He also answers questions from guests and discusses just how easy it is to grow sarracenias. This talk was recorded during our spring Open Nursery and Garden Days in May 2018.

Pitcher plants featured in this video:



Video Transcription

So, this morning we're going to talk about pitcher plants. Pitcher plants are a really one pf the most interesting of our native plants. They occur in North Carolina, down at the coast, as well as a couple up in the mountains but generally, they're coastal plants. They run generally all around the Gulf Coast. There's only one species native further north and that is Sarracenia purpurea and you can find that all the way up to Canada, so that's certainly the most cold hardy but all of them are good to at least zero and most of them down to at least minus 20.

Moist Toes, Dry Ankles

Sarracenias are a plant that like it moist, but not particularly wet, and that's where a lot of people make a mistake is they try to keep them too wet. I know when we first tried, we kept ours, we thought they were bog plants and kept them in the bog and killed them all. What they like are moist toes and dry ankles. So, if you were to look down, the roots always need to stay moist, and that would be six inches down in the ground. But their ankles, right here at the base, actually likes to dry out. So, if you go in a bog in the middle of summertime, it actually is crunchy it's so dry on the top. But if you dig down about six inches, you'll always find moisture. So, they are tolerant of droughts short term just not extended droughts. So, what we've done in this case, is we came in and put in a liner and we filled it full of nothing but peat moss. And the liner... probably about a foot deep. What you want to be sure of is that the liner, however, does not come all the way to the top because if it does, then they stay waterlogged. So, we actually stopped the liner about two inches below ground level so that they always can keep their ankles dry. That's the key. So, if you use a tub, like a little artificial swimming pool, bury that below and then plant the plants about two inches above it. That's the key. You can also drill holes in the side, if you're planting them in a container, about two inches below the surface and that's the key to getting them to survive.

Now they're fairly evergreen. We call them semi-evergreen because they look pretty good until about February and then they start getting a little ragged. We go in in spring, cut all the old pitchers to the ground, which at that time look really rough, and what you're seeing now is flowering season. And most people have never seen sarracenias flower and that's generally because they don't grow them in enough sunlight. These really prefer bright sun to flower well. You see how many flowers are on these. And the flower colors range from reds, to pinks, to yellows, some into the cream, and even oranges. You can see up here this is just finishing now. This is Sarracenia flava which looks really, really nice. And so, the parts of the flower, let me grab a flower here. So, the pedals are the first thing to fall. So that's the flower, so once the petals fall, which you can see on the one up there, you can look underneath it and see all the pollen. Loads of pollen. And the pollen is dropped right in here so the bee can get in there and to go around and then pollinate. And then what happens once it finishes, right in the middle of the pollen, this little round thing, that's going to be the developing seed. And the cool thing about sarracenias is it drops the seed in this cup, and they'll stay in the cup till you're ready to gather them.

So, sarracenia seed like to be sown very fresh. You do not want to let these dry out. If you sow them fresh, they'll be up in a couple of months. And very easy from seed. You can generally flower them in about two to three years from seed. You can also divide sarracenias. They're very easy to divide. So, if we were to go in and they basically have a stem that runs right along the base of the ground so we could simply go in, if we wanted to divide, and take a knife and just go in here and cut right at the base. There's a new sarracenia. It's that simple. And so, you can pop that up or plant that directly in the ground. We're just going to go right here and I'm going to cut the flowers off, so they don't take a lot of energy from are the developing pitchers. That’s where it gets its photosynthesis from, so I actually prefer to leave those but we're going to get rid of the flowers and we're just going to plant that right back like that. And it's good to go. And that will start growing. So, they're extremely easy, you can divide them really any time of year. We haven't found a bad time yet.

Lose the Chemical Fertilizers

What they do not like is chemical fertilizers. So, lose the chemical fertilizers. This never gets any nutrition. Where they develop to grow is in very poor soils down at the coast. And the way they work is they have an attractant to insects, and of course the pitchers are full of water, and they add their little chemical to it. And when the flies crawled down in here, they can’t get back out and they basically drown, and the plant dissolves the insect tissue and gets its fertilizer from that. So, they actually feed on the insects. And then when a pitcher gets completely full of insects it, will just fall over, and die away and then the new ones come and that’s how it is able to maintain itself in very, very poor soils.

Not Just a Bog Plant

We’ve also found that they grow very well in non-bogs. If we...if you walk around today on the full sun garden next door. You will see, we planted them in normal garden soil the same as we plant our agaves in, exactly the same. The pH is normally, let me back up. They normally grow in a pH around 4 to 4.5. Very, very acidic. We’re growing them at a pH of 6.5, which isa hundred times as alkaline as they're used to. They grow absolutely great. No bog at all, no liner, no nothing, as long as you've got an area stays slightly moist. That’s the only key. So, these have potential to be used as bedding plants. We actually have an area right outside our exit gate that we planted. We want to use them as a bedding scheme so if you have an area that simply stays moist, as long as you lose the chemical fertilizers, they’re absolutely fine. So, they're much easier to grow than people give them credit for. Everybody’s... you see these long treatise on what you have to do to grow them, and it’s just not that hard. So, people are always surprised at how easy these are to grow.

Now pitchers range from very short to very tall. This particular one, red bug, this has got a lot of Sarracenia rubra in it. There's about, depending on your taxonomist, around 8-9 species. That never gets any taller than that but things like the white top pitcher, they can get up to 3 feet tall. So, if you come back in summer when these are finished flowering, you really see the pitchers begin. See, they're just starting. So, pitchers typically emerge almost alongside the flowers. So, the diversity of color in the flowering is just amazing. Now this is very interesting. This is a white top pitcher. Now normally, the white top pitcher always has red flowers. So, here's... this is the normal white top pitcher. That's the flowers. This is an albino. So, what that means is... typically this one, you see the red veins in the pitcher, this one has no red veins because it had no red pigment which is called anthocyanin. The flowers are all yellow. So that's a classic albino. But these, by the end of summer, will get up about this tall. And they really need no maintenance. It’s one of those plants that... as long as you’ve got a moist site, they're so incredibly easy to grow.

Q: These tall ones are not really affected by strong winds?

A: No, not at all. Yes. With any plant, the key is good air movement. The way plants work, the stem cells strengthen themselves in wind. So as long as you've got good wind those stems will be very sturdy. Now if you've got an area and you protected it from all wind and then you get a gust, yes, it's going over. So that's the key on everything. You’ve got to let those cells exercise. It’s just like humans. If you don't exercise the cells in your arm, your muscles will atrophy. Same with plants. So that key is that moisture. Now i said they prefer full sun. In the wild, you'll find them growing in shade. Not a problem. They actually do grow there. They don't grow as well, they don't grow as nice, they don't flower very well. So, if you want really nice-looking pitchers, grow them at least half a day sun. So, six hours is absolutely ideal. But as you can see here these have only been in for probably two years now, maybe a couple of them three years, so they grow extremely fast. And they're just...

Q: Do you divide them when you get a large quantity?

A: Yes, we're just showing. Very easy to divide and we were just... we were just, you just basically take a knife and just come in and I'll do one more in case anybody else wasn't here. So, I'll just go in like that. That's it. Just divide it. Yep so, I'm going to, as I was telling them, I’m going to get the flower off. Leave the pitcher, because that's where the new growth comes from, and just simply replant it. That's it.

Q: And you didn't squash it down either?

A: Well yeah, a little bit, but yeah this is because this is planted in pure peat moss. There’s not really a lot of squishing you can do. Peat moss doesn't really compact. But that's it. Now I would water that but it's that simple. It’s not, as I was telling...some people try to make pitcher plant growing very difficult and it's not. It’s about as simple a plan as you could ever grow. So, as long as you have a site that below ground stays moist, that is the key. So not too wet, plenty of sun, and no chemical fertilizers. At all. Zero. They do not like chemical fertilizers. Now if you want to put a little Plant-tone or something organic on it, great, great. Certainly, don't mind that. But you got to keep, again, the myth about pH, it's sort of a myth. You really don't need to keep it that low. So, if we find if you've got anywhere between 4 and 6.5, you're absolutely fine. Any other questions?

Q: So, do you have to replenish the peat, I mean like mulch?

A: You don't have to replenish. Peat really doesn't go anywhere. Peat is, unlike compost, which continues to decompose, peat moss is completely finished decomposing. There's nothing to decompose left. It's gone. So, it's there forever. Now if you just want to make it look nice, we did our bog down here, we just, for appearance’s sake, spread a thin layer of peat moss out. But that's simply for appearance. The plants don't care. Yes. Question?

Q: I'm in Ohio and I've had a lot of success. When you come in to cut them, do you cut them by hand? I’ve never end up cutting them and they do end up looking kind of ragged.

A: Yeah, we come in with just a hand clippers. We generally do it around mid-March and just clip them right off at the ground. It’s very simple. It makes them look so much nicer to not have that old dead foliage from winter.

Q: Can you tell us, if you have them in a pot, how big should the pot be to emulate what’s in nature?

A: Good question. We typically grow ours for sale in quart pots, but I would put them in, you know, if I bought one in the quart, I'd probably put it in a 3 quart. What’s called a trade gallon and that'll be great. When it gets bigger you can move it into a 2-gallon pot. You rarely see any that really need to be much bigger than a 2 gallon. And then just, you can, a couple different ways in a pot... you can put it in a pot and put it in a saucer of water. That works absolutely fine. You can try it without a saucer water as long as you keep it moist. We grow them both ways. We’ve seen absolutely no difference one over the other.

Q: Does the depth of the pot make a difference?

A: It doesn't seem too.

Q: Because these don't seem deeply rooted. Their just like iris.

A: Yeah, they're not, they're not deeply rooted at all and it's a very interesting. Yeah, the roots have got a lot of root hairs so you definitely do not want to let the roots get dry because those root hairs will die just like that.

Q: What about the type of water? Does it need to be rainwater? Unfiltered water?

A: It's best if it's rainwater. You don't want to put anything with salts in it. So, chlorine, fluorine, are not your friends. So, if you've got...

Q: Treated water...

A: Yeah, yeah, alright. If you have treated water, let it sit out. Let all the salts evaporate, and then you're good. But yeah, love rainwater. That's really great. Any other questions?

Q: Do you ever add in, like perlite or sand? Or is it always just straight peat?

A: We do straight peat. Now there are some growers that swear you have to grow them in half sand half peat. Years ago, when I worked at the State Fair, we had a guy that entered every year, and he had the best pitcher plants of anybody. And I went to him, and I said ...what is your secret? He said straight peat. He said everybody grows them in all these other mixes, straight peat is number one and that’s what we've done ever since. And I'll tell you, I've never seen a plant grow as good. So, unless you just have some sand you want to get rid of, straight peat. It’s just too easy. I think people, a lot of times, want to make things more complicated than they are. These are insanely easy but yet if I read some of the instructions that I see. Oh, I'd just, yeah, I'd just give up. It’s like you got to do it... well no you don’t. Get a pot and get a bed, put some peat moss in it and plant it, and leave it. It's really that simple. And so yeah, I think a lot of people got scared away but I really do hope people will enjoy this. And come back and see it in July and September when the pitchers really grow.

Now typically, look, one more thing. Pitchers typically grow in spring and in fall. They do not grow in the summer, or very few new pitchers. But once you hit late August, you get a whole new flush of pitchers that are often even taller than the spring pitchers and it's really amazing. So, our September open house, the flush of pitchers for that is just, it's just absolutely splendid. So, you're just seeing it now with the baby pitchers but these things...are just, just really pretty neat. And so, there's no need to gather them out of the wild they're so easy to propagate.

Now, they are promiscuous in the garden. If we gather seed out here, which we do, they are crossing with everything. I mean they love to cross with each other so we grow them up and after about two years you can start making selections. And you get some really cool stuff when you have this many growing together. But again, I hope this helps you to realize how easy and how great these are to grow. And take a look, we just redid our big pitcher plant bog down in the woodland garden. Take a look at that. And go over here in the area across the road and you will see, we just tucked them in among other perennials. And they've been in now for probably six years over there and do absolutely fabulous.

Q: It seems to me they won’t spread if I put too many in one pot?

A: This is, this was one division so it will spread to that in about three to four years.

Q: And then you can separate them?

A: Easy to separate. Absolutely easy. So, there is no wrong because you just take them out. They don't miss a beat when you transplant them, so yeah, you can put them you can combine them. The key as I was mentioning earlier, is any container you want to have a hole in the side of the container about two inches below the ground level. That is critical. You could use a pot with no drainage, as long as you have side holes.

Q: Below ground level.

A: About two inches.

Q: When planting in a pot, can we leave the pot out?

A: Outside in the winter?

Q: No, I'm sorry. Just out in the summer.

A: In the summertime, yes. As long as you keep them watered. Yeah, we have some pots up here in in front of this house that they're in big ceramic pots. They've been out for 15 years, and they stay out all winter. Now if you get much below zero, I'd probably bring them in on those nights. But absolutely you can grow them in a pot.

Q: So, you don't need side holes in the pot for outside? It’s a terra cotta pot.

A: No, no, you always need side holes that is, unless you have bottom holes. Now if you have bottom holes, you're fine.

Q: With a saucer?

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you have a saucer and bottom holes, you’re fine but a lot of people like to put them in pots that have no drainage.

Q: And then they drown.

A: Yeah right. Yeah, then you have to do the side holes. But yes, as long as you have bottom holes, you’re absolutely fine.

Q: Do these produce pheromones that attract the insects to the pitchers?

A: They do produce a chemical attractant that brings them in. It's very interesting. There’s been studies done that said - are the same insects that pollinate it the same insects it eats? And the answer was no. Which is probably good because you wouldn’t live real long if you were killing off your pollinators. So, it was a really neat study that showed that totally different insects come in and pollinate it. And generally, gets things like wasps and yellow jackets, some flies, but really wasp and yellow jackets are the biggest thing that it consumes.

Q: Another reason to grow them.


A: They really, it's quite amazing to watch and if you sit by one for probably five minutes, you're going to see insects going in. It's absolutely amazing how many it captures.

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