Carnivorous plants Native plants

The Pitcher Plant: Insect Charmer

By Julie Boudreau

Carnivorous plants are imbued with mystery. The pitcher plant is no exception. Its leaves, modified into elongated urns, have become formidable traps for anyone seduced by the sweet aroma of nectar. Who will be its next victim? Maybe a gardener…

The pitcher plant is mainly present in peat bogs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Insectivorous plants in general are gaining popularity and the pitcher plant is the recommended plant for a first experience with them. This native plant extends across the entire American east coast and crosses Quebec to the northern regions of the province. Where there is a peat bog, marsh or lake in acidic soil, we are likely to come across the pitcher plant. However, in several states and provinces, this plant is on the list of rare and endangered species. This is not yet the case in Quebec, but it is strongly recommended not to pick it in nature.

The Pitcher Plant “In Action”

Sitting in its peat bog, the pitcher plant wisely waits for food to fall from the sky, in the form of flying insects. Indeed, where it grows, the soils are very acidic and this acidity blocks the absorption of almost all minerals, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. To obtain these nutrients, it attracts insects using nectar secreted in the leaves. Thirsty , the insects enter the tube formed by the leaf. To prevent its prey from escaping, the inside of the leaf is covered with downward-facing hairs. Out of breath, the victim ends up falling to the bottom of the leaf.

Contrary to popular belief, the liquid in the leaf is not an acid, but simply rainwater. To digest insects, the pitcher plant produces digestive enzymes (nothing very corrosive) and also benefits from the enzymes released by bacteria that live in the leaves. No hinged mouth or sharp teeth. This is called a passive trap.

Purple in Fashion

The leaves are veined with purple and topped with a type of flap, called the operculum. On other species, the operculum serves to block the passage of light in order to disorient insects, but in the case of the pitcher plant it stands almost vertically. These leaves develop on a rhizome which can live for 20 to 30 years.

If the leaf is fascinating, the flower is no less so. Early in spring, a curious dark red, waxy-looking flower stands clearly above the foliage. The height of the flower stalk suggests that there is no question of capturing its own pollinating insects. The petals of the pitcher plant are folded on themselves, which gives the appearance of a shower head with a collar.

The flower of the pitcher plant is unique and quite spectacular. Photo: Julie Boudreau

Cultivation and Maintenance

The pitcher plant has three basic requirements. Acidic soil, moist soil and full sun. From the moment these conditions can be met, they are cultivated in several places.

They are all the rage as border plants in the water garden. Pitcher plants are planted in a mixture of 50% existing soil and 50% moistened peat moss. They can also be grown in marshes specially designed for wetland plants. To create a marsh, dig a pit 30 to 40 cm (12 to 16 inches) deep to the desired width and length. The bottom and sides of the pit are covered with a membrane like those used for making ponds. Then fill the pit with a mixture of two-thirds moistened peat moss and one-third coarse sand.

Also, a beautiful pitcher plant in a decorative container is all you need to spice up a garden table or around a terrace. The simplest is to plant directly in long sphagnum moss. You can also concoct a homemade mixture containing two parts perlite, one part coarse sand and one part well-moistened peat moss. We make sure that there is always water in the saucer.


For healthy pitcher plants , keep the soil constantly moist. The ideal is to water only with rainwater or demineralized water, but watering with treated water from time to time is acceptable.

Given its particular growing conditions, it goes without saying that the best companions for pitcher plants are other insectivorous plants or plants that like peaty and humid soils such as kalmias ( Kalmia spp.), Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) or crowberry (Empetrum spp .). Avoid planting too closely , because pitcher plants benefit from sunny exposure and cannot survive fierce competition at the roots.

Some Pitcher Plant Hybrids

Like all plants admired by gardeners, a few cultivars have developed over the years, all from other species of pitcher plants found elsewhere in the world. Those are much easier to find in the market than our native species.

The pitcher plant ‘Dana’s Delight’ produces leaves that are more elongated and narrow than those of the pitcher plant. The tips of the leaves are white with dark pink veins. The cultivar ‘Tarnok’ (Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’) has leaves with dark red veins on a white background.

Being a lover of peat bogs, discovering a small colony of pitcher plants is always a great treat!

Some pitcher plants, found on the Mingan Islands. The plant, the place, the landscape. What great memories! Photo: Julie Boudreau

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

1 comment on “The Pitcher Plant: Insect Charmer

  1. Kristy Ruffino

    My husband and I were married in the center of our flowering picture plant field. We carefully timed our wedding with the season’s bloom, it was spectacular! I have traveled to Canada and seen maroon picture plants on top of a mountain in a snall bog, they were such a treat to find. I look for them on the sides of highways and ditches and am always delighted. Keep an eye out for their companion plant, the bog button. I find it fascinating as well. It is wonderful people are celebrating them and enjoying them like we do!

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