The dos and don’t of tropical pitcher plants


Above: Cephalotus follicularis, Heliamphora tatei x (arenicola x ionasi) and Nepenthes palawanensis.

While I’m waiting for some certain bulbs to come out of dormancy (my next big article) I’ll give everyone a quick rundown of my experience with tropical pitcher plants. By “tropical pitcher plants” I mean Nepenthes, Cephalotus and Heliamphora. I’ll break down the care into a few categories.


When it comes to watering Nepenthes, it is fairly variable and rather easy. Some of the more subaquatic Nepenthes and ones with less sensitive roots can take being submerged in water, but others should be watered overhead frequently. DO NOT LET THEM DRY OUT. Nepenthes need to be constantly wet or they will shrivel up and die. Water quality isn’t much of an issue for Nepenthes, and most can take tap water, though purified water or rainwater are always preferred. For Heliamphora, I believe the water quality should be the same as the Nepenthes since I haven’t had any issues with water in the past. The plant that’s really sensitive about water is Cephalotus follicularis, the Australian pitcher plant. These plants should have boiled, purified or reverse osmosis water, though rainwater is the best. They should be watered from below as prevent crown rot and the trays of water used must dry out, but the soil must never dry out.


Nepenthes are tolerant of a fair amount of substrates, including dead sphagnum, but live sphagnum seems to be the best or a mix with sphagnum, orchid bark/charcoal and perlite. When using pure sphagnum, make sure to water a bit less, as Nepenthes can be prone to root rot. For Heliamphora, some mixes use sphagnum, although I’ve heard equal parts peat and perlite work well. For Cephalotus follicularis, mine grow well in equal parts silica sand and peat moss for drainage, but there are other substrates you may want to explore.


Light can be the trickiest part for many pitcher plants. It isn’t the biggest concern for Nepenthes, but lower humidity must be supplemented with brighter light. I plan to grow my Nepenthes like the rest of my pitcher plants, under full spectrum LED gro lights and 75-80% humidity. Cephalotus prefer bright light but they will grow well on a windowsill or even outside in zones 9b-10b. Heliamphora require A LOT of light and rarely do well on a windowsill. They should be grown under full spectrum gro lights, but can be grown in a very bright part of a greenhouse with success.

More to come on these genera as I gain more experience with them, but I needed to post something before the big surprise post is revealed.

Featured image: Nepenthes macrophylla(?) seen at California Carnivores


An Expedition to California Carnivores

Tucked into the farmlands of Sebastapol, is Northern California’s very own carnivorous jungle. With not only a retail area but a chunk of the greenhouse for viewing, stepping into California carnivores and being confronted with the toothy pitchers of Nepenthes hamata is truly an amazing experience.

The first part of the greenhouse is actually outdoors, with plants of Drosera, Sarracenia and other temperate carnivores resting in both pots and a stunning “Memorial Bog,” full of seedlings and adult plants alike. Now for a few photos of the species living outsideRIMG3187.JPG This Sarracenia sp. has its pitchers full and ready for its next meal.rimg3186Drosera (or sundews) drop many seeds that germinate easily. This seedling was so young it had yet to unfurl its sticky traps.

After I took about a million photos, I headed inside to main chunk of the greenhouse. Before I saw many carnivorous plants, I was greeted by this blooming Pleurothallis orchid.


Pretty soon, I began to see what I hadn’t seen in almost a year, the most breathtaking collection of carnivorous plants in the state. I wish I could write more and post fewer pictures, but words will do few of these beastlike vines justice.


I’m not sure of the name of this strange bulbous hybrid, but one of the species used to make it was definitely Nepenthes aristolochoides, which creates the bulbous base and small, turned down hood.


I was also reunited with one of my all-time favorite plants, the chalice-like Nepenthes lowii, a very finicky ultrahighlander from Borneo.


I was lured in by the breathtaking blackness of this Nepenthes ramispina, a highlander from the Malaysian peninsula and one of the most beautiful Nepenthes in my opinion. Not sure about the growing conditions, but I assume it follows the same conditions as other highlanders.


At California Carnivores, hybridizing plants is a constant chore, so all developing seedpods are marked with yellow tags such as this one to remind the owners of the species that went into the creation of this potentially new cross.


This Nepenthes villosa looks similar to one of my favorite pitcher plants, Nepenthes hamata, due to the “teeth” along the pitcher, but I couldn’t help being attracted to the candy-colored orange of the pitcher, which is unusual in Nepenthes, as well. In the background, a tag can be seen that reads “Nepenthes rajah, seed grown.” This only a seedling, but it is a seedling of the largest pitcher plant in the world, which was very cool to see in person.

But enough about Nepenthes. Here are some photos of my favorite carnivorous plant, Heliamphora.


These stunning Heliamphora hail from a cool, humid, elevated mountain range in Venezuela and need a LOT of light. I purchased a couple seedlings of Heliamphora tatei x, which I hope makes it in my friend’s greenhouse until mine is done. If it doesn’t thrive, I’ll put it in a terrarium under some grow lights. This is the only genus of pitcher plants from South America.

Another fascinating plant is the Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, shown below.


These pitcher plants can be grown outside in zones 9-10, but they must stay constantly moist and anything more than a 1/4 inch of water (if sitting them in water) will rot the roots. Watering from above will do the same, so it’s recommended to soak them in water from below and then remove them so they’ll stay moist but not waterlogged. They also like bright light, so the more light they get the better. These may look large, but the adult pitcher are a little bigger than my thumb nail and my seedlings from my collection (shown below) are truly tiny.


The last plant I’d like to talk about in detail is Darlingtonia californica, our very own native cobra lily.


These rare pitchers from far Northern California and Oregon (the furthest south I’ve seen reports of is Mendocino county) grow in cool pools of running water across the mountains and swamps of the area. Darlingtonia national park in Oregon is dedicated to their preservation. Because they need cool running water along their roots, they are very difficult to grow in captivity. Sometimes they are watered with cold water very frequently, but a bubbling water system with an evaporative cooler is best and like most pitchers, they like a lot of light. Unlike most pitcher plants, they don’t have open pitchers, but rather draw insects up their “tongue” and into the hood where they are digested, with many layers of exits beneath the hood. While I find this much more striking than the Sarracenias, it is closely related and designated as in the same family, Sarriceneacae.

While that concludes my highlights reel, I highly suggest a trip to California Carnivores if you’re in the area. The hospitality and customer service is extraordinary and the retail area has a plant for everyone from the frustrated pest-preventer to the highland savant.

Orchids and How (not) to Kill Them

planAh, orchids. Their intoxicating beauty is only rivalled by how easy is to kill one, especially the rarities. I’ll be making a separate post about why common orchids die (this is for other reasons) and I’ll be focusing on the unusual species obtained from a small orchid greenhouse or annual orchid expo. I’ve had to build a greenhouse just to keep mine in thriving conditions, but the non-ultra tropicals can be grown indoors with the proper care. Because it is the most common cause of orchid death in the hands of a capable horticulturist, I will be focusing on root rot.

For this reason, I strongly object to purchasing those breathtaking Dracula and Masdevallia orchids that not only won’t flower outside of a greenhouse, but will almost always die. Trust me. I’ve lost quite a few. This is due to the fact that these so-called cloud forest orchids need sphagnum moss to keep their roots moist enough in a non-tropical environment. In using pure sphagnum, you are restricting the aeration of the roots, leading to fungal diseases.

Root rot affects more than just cloud forest orchids. Many orchids will not get enough (or will get too much) light indoors, leading to the fungi multiplying and the roots rotting away. Orchids optimally need outdoor sun (like in a greenhouse) with a 50% shade cloth, though orchids that need more light can be moved near the brighter greenhouse sides. This isn’t necessary, as plenty of Dendrobiums (as seen in the featured photo) and Epidendrums can grow just fine in a household windowsill, but these still need light and should not be growing in an area that receives very little sunlight.

What it boils down to for the less tropical orchids is light and ventilation, which can often be

The Succulent Garden

For my first real gardening post, I thought I’d explain the gardening that so many people are lured into due to its apparent easiness (sometimes it is, others it is not) and explain where everything goes wrong.

The problem with the rarer, more arid succulents (Stapelia, Lithops, many Pachypodiums, etc.) is that they have a very fine line when it comes to watering them. Too much water will kill them (as I have done many times) and too little water, will also kill them. This seems like it is impossible and while it is difficult, I can assure you it’s not impossible.

An arid lithops from my collection is shown below. These have a nice indicator as they swell as they take in water, but are some of the easiest to kill via overwatering.


To start off, here are a few words about root rot and how to prevent it. Root rot occurs when water around roots creates a fungal disease and kills the roots, later leading to the death of the succulent itself. The first way to prevent this is by choosing a well-draining substrate, with large amounts of lava rock, lava sand, or perlite. Anything that dries quickly. I suggest 50% cactus mix and 50% lava rock, but many other approaches can be taken, specifically if using perlite or pumice.

One should also know to water more during the growing season and less during the dormant season (with sometimes more than a month left between waterings). This goes for Hoyas as well, which I’ll write about at some point. Different amounts should be given for dormant succulents, but remember that if you want to be safe, less is more.

Now that I’ve explained the main real problem around succulent gardening, you can rest assured that by following these steps you (probably) won’t be killing your next arid succulent.

Introduction to the fantastic hobby of horticulture

One of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a packet of seeds. ~Dan Bennett

Horticulture is “the art or practice of garden cultivation and management.” Despite this definition, horticulture is not defined to the backyard garden that may come to mind. While it may take this form, it may also be the ornate Victorian greenhouses of expansive lily ponds glistening in the morning light. Whatever form it takes, it is one of the most fulfilling hobbies one can become interested in.

It’s been about 3 years since I began to practice the hobby and it already feels like a thousand. The surprises, anticipation and learning I have already experienced is a decade worth alone. I still have much to learn, but I have enough experience to share it with the world.

Horticulture has a deep and rich history behind, which is fantastically outlined in books such as The Reason for Flowers and The Orchid Thief. This has all culminated in the science of horticulture in the modern age, where breakthroughs are happening like never before.

Of course, horticulture comes with great responsibility and requires great patience, which is part of the reward. Knowing this, I hope you go into horticulture ready and willing, as the rest of the days ahead will be fulfilling as can be.