Nepenthes Care Guide
- Nepenthes also known as the “Tropical Pitcher Plant” or “Monkey Cup” are a group of Carnivorous plants with over 120 species and many different hybrids that are cultivated and that occur naturally. They are located in the tropic’s of Southeast Asia and vary in many different shapes and sizes. Nepenthes are also known for the very beautiful and odd pitchers that they develop. Their pitchers are quite beautiful, but are deadly too insects an other small rodents. Over the eons they have evolved to the point where their pitchers supply them with the nutrients they can’t get from the nutrient-depleted soil that they are found in. Unlike venus flytraps, Nepenthes have a more clever way of capturing and digesting insects. With their pitchers, they secrete nectar that lures insects too the plant’s pitchers where most of the surface and inter-parts are slippery (usually when wet). The nectar glands are usually on the leaves and pitcher body where they secrete nectar. Once the insects are lured to the pitcher lid they usually slip in to the pitcher where they can’t escape and are digested. Some Nepenthes species have developed interesting methods of capturing certain types of insects. Inside the pitcher you’ll find that the plant creates it’s very own digestive fluid that slowly drowns and then digests the dead decomposing insect in an almost soup like liquid. The digestive fluid of Nepenthes is the most complex in the carnivorous plant kingdom because it contains the most types of enzymes in it’s fluid.
- There are two main types of Nepenthes which are called ”highland” and “Lowland”. There is also an “intermediate” catagory which is a combination of the two and is usually much more easier to grow. Lowland Nepenthes require high temperature’s and are found to grow below 3000 feet. Highland Nepenthes usually grow above 3000 feet with cooler temperatures and a temperature drop at night. I will be giving the care for both highland and lowland Nepenthes right after I list the basic care.
- Anatomy of a Nepenthes Pitcher
The care for Nepenthes is almost all the same as any other Carnivorous plant, but with a few exceptions. The care really depends on what type of species of Nepenthes that you have because certain species of Nepenthes often require certain needs. This short guide is just for the basic care of a Nepenthes so that you can understand the care, but keep in mind that you have to make sure that you can handle the care of these amazing plants, making sure that you have the right lighting and care for it. If you feel that your Nepenthes requires special care and want to know more about them please feel free to post a comment or email me and I’ll try to resolve your problem as soon as possible.
- 1. Media
- As you may know by now Carnivorous Plants require nutrient-free soil to grow in. The soil you use must have very little to no traces of minerals in it. Also, remember that using fertilizers is very bad for your plants overall health and unless you are an experienced grower that knows his or her way around orchid fertilizers and growth hormones. For an idea of soil mixes I have listed below some soil mixes that are now somewhat universal for some Nepenthes growers. Many Nepenthes growers use special recipes while some use 100% live sphagnum. I use 1 part orchid bark, 1 part sphagnum, 1 part peat, and a handful of silica sand. Your homemade mix won’t matter to the plant as long as it drains well and is mineral free. Below is a universal recipe that most nepenthes growers use.
- 3 parts coconut husk and 1 part dried sphagnum moss
- 1 part dried sphagnum moss and 1 part perlite (or pumice)
- 1 part peat moss, 1 part perlite and 1 part silica sand
( This mix contains excellent soil aeration and drainage. You can also use washed sand and silica sand as well.
It is not required but I highly recommend that you rinse your new soil overnight (and microwave it if it’s peat moss to rid of the nasty bacteria) to rid of any salts and contaminants. Also, NEVER EVER reuse your soil unless your doing it for seed germination with sarracenia or something in that catagory. Nepenthes seeds are more vunerable to this and should be sown on fresh media.
I don’t usually repot my Nepenthes often but for some species repotting once a year or more is a must. Over the years I have observed most Nepenthes to grow in small pots with out any root problems occuring. I believe this is because most Nepenthes are ephites and grow in the tight cracks and crannies of trees. Some other species, however, do not like to be kept in the same pot for a long amount of time as their roots will quickly out grow the space. Most of these Nepenthes are big and bushy in appearance when they are old which explains why they need a lot of root space. I will list the “big root” spoecies below that I currently know of.
- N. Truncata
- N. Robcantleyi
- N. X Miranda
- N. lowii
- N. merillana
- N. Rajah
- N. Bicalarata
I would like to note that N. Lowii is a very slow grower and will take quite a while to reach it’s massive size. If you have any of the species above then I would recommend checking their root systems once a year to see if they need a repot. N. Bicalarata grows it’s roots extremely fast and will probably need a root check up once a year. A root check can be done by simply lifting the plant by it’s main stalk out of the pot it is in. If the roots grasp most or all of the media then it is time for a repot. I would recommend moving up one inch in pot size for Nepenthes with < 6 inch pots and moving up 2 inches in pot size for Nepenthes in > 6 inch pots.
When picking out soil remember to NEVER EVER use soil that have miracle grow in them! Miracle grow is a mineral that can be harmful to Nepenthes. The most common mixes to have miracle grow in them are perlite and peat, so make sure to check the bags to make sure they contain no fertilizers.
I would also like to add that there are several species that appreciate airy soil mixes. Airy soil mixes are best made with 75% sphagnum with the rest composed of perlite and a pinch of peat. Peat moss tends to make the soil very moist so I don’t add much in the pots of the “air-soil-loving” species that I grow. Adding some orchid bark at the bottom of the pot wil also help keeping the drainage stable and not from “sucking” up too much water. Here are the species that like airy roots that I know of. Please note that there are most likely more species that appreciate airy roots but to my knowledge these are the ones that stand out the most.
- N. Robcantleyi
- N. Jacquinleae
Both of these species have shown a clear liking towards airy mixtures in my care.
- 2). LIGHT (Photo period)
- The most important thing for the plant’s energy is light. Without light the plant will slow down in growth and die. Depending on what type of of species of Nepenthes you have depends on how much light they will get. The two most common lighting types that I have seen are as shown: Direct sunlight (or partial sunlight) and artificial lighting which is done with TFL (Tube Fluorescent lights) or CFL’s which are Compact Fluorescents. It is possible to do a LED setup, but these usually end up costing a lot and work the same as any other normal CFL would. Lighting is probably the hardest catagory to go over because of all the results I have seen in other grower’s terrariums and setups. There really is no “universal” lighting requirement for Nepenthes. What works for you is what works for you (really!). If you are unsure how to go about your lighting for your Nepenthes then I suggest you follow the steps of somebody elses lighting setup. My highland Nepenthes are situated about 3.5 feet under four standard 36″ CFLs and seem to enjoy it a lot. Some other growers use different spectrums to try and see what their Nepenthes prefer. I’ve never really been an expert with lighting but here is what I would recommend you start off with:
- Artificial lighting
- - The color temperature that you’re looking for is within the 6500K.
- - CFL over 100w and tube over 40w
- As with the other catagories I have gone over there exists some species that are light sensitive and light loving. I will first make a list of the most light sensitive Nepenthes that I am aware of. There are most likely more species that are light sensitive but for now this species has shown the most dis-approval toward high light levels while in my care.
- - N. Robcantleyi
- Light sensitive species are pretty easy to deal with. In the case of N. Robcantleyi you will most likely see red leaf burns on the leaves if the plant has been receiving too much light. Placing a plastic bagging over the Nepenthes or moving it to a light-deprived part of your grow area will help with reducing light levels. You may have to do a bit of trial and error to see what the Nepenthes likes for its light levels.
- Now for the light-loving species. To be honest I have never really encountered a Nepenthes that has shown a clear relationship with the amount of light it has received. Still, there exist some light-loving species that I know need high light levels by viewing photos of their natural habitats. Here is the list of them:
- - N. Pervleii
- It is highly unlikely that you will encounter N. pervleii because of it’s rarity. If you do happen to stumble upon a N. pervleii to take in to your posession then I recommend you give it full sunlight in intermediate conditions (I will go over the condition requirements for intermediate,highland, and lowland species later)
- Acclimation to sunlight
- If you do not want to use lighting systems then you can always have the choice of keeping your Nepenthes in sunshine. While natural sun can save you money, it also has it’s drawbacks as well. Acclimation to sun light often depends on the variety of the plant. Some plants are used to high light levels whils some are used to low light levels because of where they live in the jungle. The best way to introduce a plant to high light levels is to shield the plant with coarse cloth. You can do this with a white towel. After about two weeks the towel should be removed and replaced with something a little more light permeable (a plastic grocery bag is good for this). This should stay over the plant for several weeks. After the time has passed you can remove the bag altogether. If you notice any burning on the leaves then it would be best to go back to the previous shading method and allow the plant to adapt a bit more. In my experience full sun is pretty hard to adapt to most Nepenthes because of the sun’s varying UV intensity during winter and summer. I recommend that a shade cloth be placed over the plants as this will decrease the risks of growing in full sun with various species and hybrids. Please note that very few Nepenthes grow in full sun. Most of them grow as ephites and are shaded by their host tree or they grow on the jungle floor.
- Unlike other carnivorous plants, Nepenthes can tolerate hard water from 100 ppm (parts per million) and below, but this doesn’t mean you should always give it to them. I highly recommend giving them pure water most of the time. For this I use a RO (Reverse Osmosis) system. RO systems require a certain pressure to run so the water can be pushed through the membranes. If your not sure of your water pressure it would be best to check it before you buy a RO unit. I replace my RO filters once a year for about 60$ for all four 150 GPD (gallon per day). This is a pretty good deal considering how many gallons of water I use each year. Getting water from a RO unit is about the cheapest way to make water for your plants. If you get a RO unit then I recommend you get all the parts you’ll need as well. Most of these are obtainable from a hardware store (atleast where I live). If you can’t find any then I recommend looking online.
- You will need:
- 1. RO unit. If the amount of sediment and solutes in your water is high then I recommend getting a 4+ filter unit. The amount of GPD (gallons per day) depends on what you will be using the RO unit for. I use mine to water all my plants and supply water to the greenhouse for misting when the temperature inside gets above 90*F.
- 2. 1/4 inch plastic TUBE input with a regular female hose connection on the end for a garden hose. They’re are many styles but here is what one looks like:
- I always use pure RO water to insure my Nepenthes live long and don’t have as many issues. Many Nepenthes can live on for centuries to be spread as vegatative cuttings in cultivation.
- Your Nepenthes should be watered about once every three days or so depending on what media they are in. The top soil can be allowed to dry out but the soil under the top bedding should always be moist. Before watering your Nepenthes I recommend sticking your finger into their soil to make sure it’s slightly dryish-moist. If so, then it is time to water. If its still moist-wet, then you should water later.
Above: A rare highland species, N. Macrophylla
Highland Nepenthes are Nepenthes that are found over 3000ft in the wild. They require the same care but because of the higher elevation they need cool night’s (45° – 65°F) and day’s (65° – 85°F). Highland Nepenthes usually expect partial to filtered sun but the sunlight depends on the species that is grown. All highlanders require a night time tempature drop of at least 15-20 degrees. Nepenthes spathulata is an example of a Highland Nepenthes. One highland Nepenthes, Nepenthes Villosa, lives at 8000 feet at its highest and requires 50-40 degree night temps. This Nepenthes would be considered a Ultra Highlander that should only be grown by experts. However, just because N. Villosa lives ay high elevations doesn’t mean that it needs very cold night time temperature drops to thrive in cultivation. Obtaining the correct info for a highland species’ temperature requirements should be more based off of what other experienced growers find the certain species likes to grow in then what the certain species grows in. A few highlanders can be grown on a wind sill as long as they get the right amount of light for the species. The “wind sill growers” are often very easy to grow and have a wide range of adaptable conditions. N. Ventricosa, N. X Ventrata, and N. X Miranda are a few species and hybrids that fit into this category well. The humidity you give our highland Nepenthes can be what you want it to be. I have many highland Nepenthes that have adapted to the arid conditions that they are living in. I have also seen many other growers adapt their Nepenthes to even more arid conditions then mine. Out of all of the highland Nepenthes I have had, I have only observed one Nepenthes that HATES low humidity: N. burb. X Edwardsiana. This is probably one of the most finicky Nepenthes I have run into and should be kept bagged if you don’t have high humidity. Make sure you bag all Nepenthes arrivals (if your humidity is low) and slowly poke holes in the bag over a few weeks time to let them adapt. I have learned to identify if a new Nepenthes is already hardy by looking at it’s leaves. If the leaves are waxy in appearance, then the Nepenthes will not need to be bagged. Still, this doesn’t mean the Nepenthes is “free to grow”. Keep an eye on the Nepenthes over the next few days as it may suddenly start to wilt. If that happens, then the Nepenthes should be bagged immediately.
Above: N. X I’le De France enjoying the lowland Greenhouse
Lowland Nepenthes are Nepenthes that come from below 3000ft so the daytime and night time temperature’s are higher than the highland nepenthes. Lowland requires night time temperatures above 70°F and day temps in the upper 80′s and lower 90′s, but sometimes with higher humidity. I keep my lowlanders in high humidity because I do not want to risk having them in low humidity. I’m sure lowlanders can be adapted to conditions, but I highly recommend that you place them in a humid environment. Lowlanders are perfect for humid and hot locations such as Florida. Make sure they have a hot and humid place to go when winter comes! A greenhouse with a fan,mister, heater, exhaust vent, a couple of thermostats and a Reverse Osmosis setup will fit a lowland Nepenthes environment perfectly year round.
Intermediate Nepenthes grow in the altitude between highland and lowland Nepenthes and are much more easier to maintain. Since the plants are from both “elevations” in their natural habitat, they can be easily fit into most conditions as long as there is light. Nepenthes Ventricosa is considered a very easy tropical pitcher plant due to its intermediate status. Most “intermediates” will be able to fit into a highland environment better then a lowland environment (unless they are a complex hybrid with many lowland and highland parents).
-Pests (aphids, spider mites, etc..)-
Either if your dealing with aphids, spider mites or some other “pest” the best insecticide for me is always alcohol diluted 50/50 with water! Although this may seem deadly to your nepenthes, it always seems to kill whatever pests my nepenthes have. Once the pest is dead, the water molecules act as a buffer to the alcohol molecules so they don’t harm the plant. Alcohol molecules are a lot lighter then water molecules and will evaporate before the water molecules do. If your still worried, spray your plant with water ten minutes after the alcohol solution has been sprayed on the affected area. DO NOT spray with 100% alcohol as this could burn the Nepenthes and endanger the stomata pores that are responsible for absorbing water and releasing gas out of the leaves.
For fungus or mold problem’s best to use a SULFER BASED FUNGICIDE! I use Physan 2.0 for Nepenthes mold, but I’ve never had any problems with mold affecting my entire Nepenthes collection. You can also use the 50/50 water alcohol solution to eliminate the mold.
-Brown or Yellow leaves-
Some other common problem’s are when the leave’s turn yellow or brown. This is due to the fact that the pitcher’s leaves are getting old, so the best thing to do is cut them off. This wont harm your plant at all. This could also be a sign of mold or fungi. If you have any concerns, email me the picture at lance.plater1@gmail(dot)com and I will look over it and send back a report on the infectant.
Dying pitchers are due to the lack of energy of the plant. This usually happen’s around fall and winter when the sun is putting off lower light than summer or spring. Don’t worry, this is completely normal! Another reason could be is that the pitcher reached the end of its life. Most species’ pitchers last only a few months, but some can last for a year or more! Don’t worry about the browning pitcher. Once the tendril (stem) has died, feel free to cut off the pitcher.
Feel free to email me at lance.plater1@gmail(dot)com if you have any suggestions or concerns!
- Lance Plater