Nepenthes Pitcher Plant Care

Nepenthes Pitcher Plant Care

If you’re a professional gardener, growing and caring for the carnivorous plants known as pitcher plants can be both rewarding and difficult; particularly plants of the genus Nepenthes. These plants are fascinating, exotic, and many are strikingly beautiful. This article will provide all you need to know on Nepenthes pitcher plant care.

Pitcher Plant Basics

Sometimes called monkey cups because it was once thought that monkeys drank the water from them, pitcher plants can make for great houseplants, although growing them can be challenging. Pitcher plants mainly come from 3 families spread around certain regions of the world – Nepenthaceae, Sarraceniaceae, and Cephalotaceae, with the largest family being the Nepenthaceae.

These exotic plants are usually harvested from their original habitat, which is mainly Southeast Asia and sold in nurseries worldwide. Because they are often collected from nature and little is known of many of them, the adaptation, cultivation, and propagation of many species of these plants can be complicated.

nepenthes khasiana
Nepenthes khasiana, the only Nepenthes species native to India.

Nepenthes plants can be either male or female. The best way to identify their sex is when they produce a flower spike. The male buds will be round in shape, while the female buds will be oval. The male round buds will open up a flower with pollen tipped stalk. Female buds will open a flower shaped like a vase with a receptacle to receive male pollen.

A curiosity of pitcher plants is that they can easily cross breed in the wild, producing many hybrids. Nepenthes pitcher plants also have aerial and terrestrial pitchers, which can look very different from each other, as if they were from altogether different species.

Another curiosity of pitcher plants is there are many organisms that inhabit the watery pitchers of pitcher plants, obtaining food and shelter from the plant, and collectively known as pitcher plant “infauna”.

pitcher plant infauna
Pitcher plant infauna.

What’s contained in the fluid in pitcher plants?

The fluid in pitcher plants usually consists of rainwater mixed with digestive enzymes secreted from the plant in order to break down any trapped insects. This enzyme makes the fluid acidic, the pH ranging from 2-6, depending on the species, and aids the plant in digesting its prey. Essentially, the pitchers function like stomachs for the plant, and studies show a lot of bacteria to be present in this fluid, similar to the gut flora of animals.

NB: It is feared that some rare species can go extinct with excessive harvesting in the wild, so this is for everyone to do due diligence. It is illegal to import and export wildlife/plants that are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). For the record, there are 104 Nepenthes on the IUCN Red List, with 63 listed as Vulnerable or Endangered, and 9 of those being Critically Endangered. Avoid all these.

That said, there are many other alternative but attractive pitcher plant species which can be legally grown by the gardener, such as species from Sarraceniaceae, which are native to the United States.

sarracenia pitcher plants
Sarracenia pitcher plants. These are native to the US.

Recommended Nepenthes Species

Species of Nepenthes that can be recommended include:

  • Nepenthes sanguinea – A good highland choice, being hardy and not fussy.
  • Nepenthes ampullaria – Mainly feeds on plant matter, so you can actually feed it plant fertilizer.
  • Nepenthes alata – Lowland species common throughout the Philippines. Very easy to keep.
  • Nepenthes ventricosa – Highland species from the Philippines that is quite easy to grow when provided with a lot of light.

Nepenthes enthusiasts have also created many hybrids from cross breeding different Nepenthes species. Check with your supplier, who should be able to recommend you some. These hybrids may be easier to keep and have less requirements.

nepenthes alata
Nepenthes alata, a species that is relatively easy to keep.

Choosing the ideal location

When bringing your new plant into a new environment is essential to provide the ideal conditions for them to adapt and thrive. Most species of Nepenthes pitcher plants need a cool, humid, and moist climate to grow in as even in the tropics, they can only grow in highland areas.

There are also lowland species with lesser requirements, so first of all, make sure you know whether the species you’re growing is a highland or lowland species. Knowing all this, it’s highly recommended to go for lowland species.

Adapting plants to the new environment

When introducing Nepenthes to a new environment, such as your garden or home, it is necessary to provide similar light and humidity conditions to ensure their healthy development.

Many species of Nepenthes have a vining habit, and will climb on any structures you provide them. For this, moss poles are excellent. Leaves are produced along their climbing stems, and some of these leaves will develop pitchers on their leaf tips.

nepenthes hamata
Nepenthes hamata, a highland pitcher plant species.


Sunlight plays a key role in the development of pitcher plants. They require a large amount of daylight, preferably indirect light. Some species can tolerate direct sunlight for short periods. It’s essential to avoid excessive exposure to intense sun, as this can cause damage to sensitive leaves.

You must provide a consistent photoperiod, mimicking the natural conditions of their home region. Generally, indirect sunlight of 12 to 14 hours per day is ideal for growing pitcher plants.

A location with bright, indirect light is suitable. A sunny window sill can work, if other factors are optimal. If there is not enough light, you can use specific grow lamps (minimum 40 watts) for the plants as a supplement.

Humidity and Moisture Requirements

Pitcher plants are native to tropical regions where humidity is high. For correct adaptation to the new environment, provide adequate humidity for your Nepenthes pitcher plants.

Pitcher plants need a moist environment to thrive. For most Nepenthes species, relative humidity around 50% to 70% is acceptable. You can achieve this by placing the plants in a greenhouse or specialized terrarium, where the humidity can be more precisely controlled. Do note that highland species would prefer a more humid, yet cooler environment.

A constant daily temperature of 60°F/15.5°C for nights and 81°F/27°C for daytime should be quite adequate for most species of Nepenthes, although lowland species thrive better on night temperatures of around 68°F/20°C and highland species do better with daytime temperatures of around 71°F/21.6°C.

If you are growing pitcher plants in an area with a dry climate, you may need to take steps to increase the humidity around the plants. This includes using water trays or humidifiers.

Choosing the right substrate

The substrate to keep these plants must be a specific substrate. Unlike other plants, pitcher plants like inert substrates (no nutrients) that maintain good humidity, and yet drain well. A mixture of sphagnum moss, perlite, and tree bark works well. Avoid using any potting soil, because the composition of such soils can kill your plant. Nepenthes do not develop deep roots, so you don’t need a very deep container to house them.

nepenthes grown in mossy substrate
Nepenthes grown indoors, in mossy substrate.


These plants prefer acidic soils, with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. You can adjust the pH by adding peat moss to the substrate. Do not use shells or other types of calcareous materials on the substrate or vase.

Nepenthes Pitcher Plant Care – Watering

Watering is an important factor in the correct handling of Nepenthes. Be careful when watering them. Pitcher plants are sensitive to tap water due to the chlorine and other chemicals present. Use distilled or rainwater to water your plants. Moderately hard or acidic water should not cause issues, but make sure the water drains through the soil.

pitcher plants for sale
Pitcher plants of various types for sale.

Use of moisture tray

Placing the potted pitcher plants in a tray filled with water can help maintain adequate moisture in and around the potting plant.


Natural prey

Pitcher plants are carnivorous and capture insects for nutrients. Avoid feeding or fertilizing your plant. However, they can also get nutrients from the soil, so don’t worry if they don’t catch bugs regularly. You can feed them dead ants, fruit flies, or crickets which will be more than enough. You can add a few fish pellets on occasion, but don’t overdo it, as they can rot in the traps/pitchers and cause problems. Try to be as natural as possible.

General maintenance


Pruning is not necessary, but you can remove dead or brown leaves to keep the plants aesthetically pleasing and maintain the plant’s health. Pitchers that have digested insects will turn brown over time and die, so cut them away when they die off.

An important point to note is that Nepenthes are slow growers, and may appear to “sleep” for 5-10 years when young, and then suddenly burst out in a growth surge. So don’t worry if your plant appears to be dormant.

nepenthes grown from hanging baskets
Nepenthes grown from hanging baskets. This setup works well for many species.

Pests and diseases

Pitcher plants are generally pest resistant, but keep an eye out for mealybugs or spider mites. If necessary, use a suitable organic insecticide.


In some cases, it may be necessary to replant pitcher plants to provide additional room for the roots as they grow. Repotting is also done when the potting mix has deteriorated and needs replacing.


Propagation is an essential part of growing these plants and conserving the species. Propagation can be made in different ways.

Leaf cuttings

It’s the most common form of propagation. The cut of a healthy stem with leaves is taken at a point between nodes and planted in a suitable substrate and environment. Roots should develop within a month or so. The rooted cutting can then be transplanted elsewhere.


Although less common, some varieties of pitcher plants can be grown from seed. You can obtain seeds from breeders or specialized stores.


Growing and caring for Nepenthes pitcher plants can be a fascinating activity for plant enthusiasts. By providing the ideal conditions of light, humidity, temperature, and substrate, you will be providing an environment conducive to the healthy growth of your carnivorous plants. Remember to adapt to the specific needs of each species and enjoy a unique garden full of impressive pitcher plants.

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