A Beginner's Guide To Growing Tropical Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes) Indoors
If you've gotten the hang of keeping your monsteras and philodendrons happy and are ready to level up your houseplant collection with more unique varieties, might we suggest a pitcher plant? These carnivorous plants are fascinating to watch—especially when you consider the modifications that have helped them survive for the past millions of years.
There's a lot to know about these plants, as shown by the countless hobby groups and specialty retailers dedicated to studying them. But consider this your quick introduction to what pitcher plants are, what makes them special, and how to grow lower-maintenance varieties indoors at home.
What is a pitcher plant?
Tropical pitcher plants, or Nepenthes, are the most common types of pitcher plants, with over 100 known species growing around the world—mostly in Southeast Asia. These are the ones we'll be focusing on in this piece (though North American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, are another interesting genus native to the southeastern coastal plains of the U.S.).
In the wild, you'll find highland and lowland varieties of tropical pitcher plants, explains Domonick Gravine, the owner of Redleaf Exotics, a carnivorous plant nursery that specializes in Nepenthes. The highland varieties are more tolerant of cooler temperatures at night, while the lowland varieties prefer more heat.
What makes both types of Nepenthes special is the way they have adapted to survive in their native habitats. These plants have long grown in nutrient-poor soil, so they've needed to devise other methods for getting valuable minerals. That's where the "pitcher" part of their name comes in; over time, Nepenthes have developed modified leaves that lure and trap prey.
These funky leaf sacs look like pitchers of water, and each one can hold up to 3.5 liters of digestive fluid (that's nearly 15 cups' worth!). Once the plant catches an animal, it digests it in this pitcher fluid to extract the nutrients it isn't getting from its soil.
Nepenthes come in all shapes and sizes, and they can sustain themselves using this unique pitcher adaptation for a long, long time. Carnivorous plant specialist Damon Collingsworth notes that he's kept his first Nepenthes for over 30 years now, and the nursery he owns, California Carnivores, has ones dating back to the Victorian era.
These days, most tropical pitcher plants you find in stores will be hybrids that are bred to be more resilient, but you can find rarer species in specialty shops like Gravine's and Collingsworth's.
How carnivorous plants work.
Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants, meaning they get their nutrients from prey.
They usually feast on bugs and insects, but larger plants can even stomach animals like mice and birds, Collingsworth explains. Once the plant traps these critters, their pitchers will break them down into nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate, which the plant then uses to grow. The process doesn't look as violent as it sounds, and it shouldn't lead to any funky odors either—as evidenced by this incredible video of a pitcher digesting a mouse in Collingsworth's nursery.
In addition to pitchers that turn prey in nutrients, this plant also has standard leaves that photosynthesize to make sugars from the sun. You can find Nepenthes that don't have any pitchers and just look like a typical green houseplant, but this isn't a great sign. While a plant can survive with no pitchers, it won't thrive unless it's catching prey.
Different types of pitcher plants.
Beyond the hundred or so (and counting!) species of tropical pitcher plants you'll find in the wild, there are now thousands of Nepenthes hybrids. Hybrids are created by selectively breeding two species, and Gravine notes they're the way to go for anyone new to the plant.
"If it has more than two names in it, it's usually an easy-to-grow plant," he explains, due to what's known as hybrid vigor. "When you cross two different species together, that genetic difference tends to make the hybrids more vigorous. Those will be easier to grow," echoes Collingsworth.
Here are the two Nepenthes hybrids you're the most likely to find in your neighborhood plant shop, probably hanging in a basket. Both are relatively easy to care for at home:
- Nepenthes × ventrata: A cross between Nepenthes alata and Nepenthes ventricosa that produces red-green pitchers.
- Nepenthes x miranda: A cross between Nepenthes maxima and Nepenthes northiana that produces red-green pitchers with a striking spotted pattern.
Growing a pitcher plant.
When searching for the right spot in your home to place a pitcher plant, look for the light. "Since pitcher plants like bright light, a spot near a window will help them thrive. Specifically, near an east- or west-facing window is ideal," says Brooke Blocker, the founder of Outside In.
"If you don't have that strong light, you can grow them under grow lights," adds Collingsworth. He suggests running a full-spectrum light for 12 to 14 hours daily within 8 to 10 inches of your plant to keep it happy.
Blocker notes that since tropical pitcher plants tend to grow in wet, steamy regions in the wild, they need a certain amount of warmth and higher humidity when brought indoors. Gravine suggests setting yours up next to a humidifier.
When taking home a new tropical pitcher plant, you can also place it in an enclosed environment like an empty fish tank or large terrarium to get it acclimated to your space. This will better replicate the humid conditions it probably grew accustomed to in the nursery: Put your plant in a closed space to start, to trap moisture, and then gradually pull back the lid off the container over the course of a few days. Plants don't like drastic changes, Gravine explains, but "as the plant gets a feel for the light and the conditions, you can get it out into the house a little more."
"They require more attention in the beginning," he notes, "but once you get the hang of them, they're pretty easy."
Caring for the plant.
Once your Nepenthes is happily settled in a bright, humid part of your home, here is how to care for it to encourage healthy pitcher growth.
"Nepenthes don't want to be wet in their feet all the time or they'll rot," says Gravine. "They have very fine roots, almost like hair, so let them approach dryness before you water them."
You'll likely need to water your Nepenthes every one to two weeks depending on your home's conditions and the time of year. When you do, don't use any old tap water, Collingsworth warns. "All carnivorous plants need to have distilled water or rainwater. Tap water can kill them," he says, due to its high mineral concentration.
"Pitcher plants require bright light, and will thrive with some exposure to early morning or late afternoon direct sunlight," Blocker explains. "Just be careful of harsh midday sun since that can scorch many indoor plants. On the other hand, not enough light can hinder the growth of new pitchers."
Tropical pitcher plants have vastly different soil needs than most other popular houseplants. Since this plant is used to nutrient-poor conditions and evolved to get its minerals from prey—not soil—typical houseplant potting mixes will be far too rich for them.
Instead, Collingsworth explains that they'll be happier in a substrate like Sphagnum moss, which is loose and airy but still retains moisture. Perlite and coconut coir can also be incorporated to create a chunky blend for this plant, adds Blocker.
"Since Nepenthes are tropical plants, they won't tolerate cold or extreme heat. But indoors, that shouldn't be an issue you have to worry about," Blocker explains. "Typically, as long as it's a temperature that you are comfortable living in, the plant will be comfortable too."
Temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit should be suitable for most Nepenthes, especially those low-maintenance hybrids. Keep in mind that your Nepenthes may not produce as many pitchers during the shorter, colder winter months.
Your Nepenthes should thrive in any plastic pot or net basket (this is a great plant to hang from a wall or ceiling), as long as it's not too big. The plant should fit snugly.
It's a good idea to repot your Nepenthes in fresh substrate every few years. (Here's a guide to the repotting process.) If you notice that your plant has become root-bound in its current pot, move it to a container that is one size larger.
What to feed a pitcher plant.
Now for the fun part, feeding your pitchers! Unless your home already has critters that your Nepenthes can catch, you'll need to source the plant's food yourself.
There are a few ways to feed pitchers indoors, and you might want to experiment to see which one works best for you and your plant. Here are the methods that have worked for the pros:
- Feed with bugs: You can buy a batch of dead insects online or in an aquarium store (any type should be fine!), or procure some living ones if you're feeling adventurous. When you spot a new pitcher form on your plant, look inside to make sure it contains liquid (digestive fluid). If it's dry, fill it up with a bit of distilled or rainwater before dropping in one to two critters. Gravine says less is more when it comes to feeding Nepenthes, so this initial burst of nutrients should be enough to keep the pitcher going for a month or so.
- Feed with pellets: Insect-phobes can also feed their pitchers nutrients in the form of plant pellets. Collingsworth has found success dropping an Osmocote slow-release pellet into each pitcher every month or so.
- Fertilize (carefully!): While nutrient-rich fertilizers can quickly overwhelm Nepenthes (remember, this is a plant that evolved in bare-bones conditions), Gravine does use them on most of his tropical pitcher plants. In spring, summer, and fall, he'll spray his pitcher plants at root level and in their pitchers with a mix of water and Alaska Fish fertilizer every month or so. While the fertilizer smells pretty gross, he's found that the plants in his greenhouse really love it. However, he does have a specialized watering system that dilutes this fertilizer just right every time, so those at home will want to be very careful when trying this method themselves. Gravine always recommends starting with the lowest concentration of fertilizer first and gradually working your way up.
Common problems & how to fix.
If your Nepenthes starts showing any of these signs of distress, you may need to adjust your care routine:
- Not growing new pitchers: Pitchers don't last forever, and it's natural for them to die back after their job is done. Your plant should then grow a new pitcher in the lost one's place. But let's say your pitcher plant doesn't have any pitchers? It's likely not getting enough sun to spur new growth and should be moved to a brighter spot in your home, says Collingsworth.
- Dry, brown pitchers: If lots of your plant's pitchers are turning brown and looking dry, it could be a water issue. Try to give your Nepenthes more humidity or water it more frequently to see if it helps.
- Red leaves: If your plant's green leaves are starting to turn red, they are likely "sunburned" and should be moved out of direct light.
Tips to keep in mind.
Here are some final tips and tricks for helping your Nepenthes thrive indoors:
- "As new pitchers form, try misting them with water to encourage growth," says Blocker. "Pitcher plants enjoy high humidity (around 60%), so a boost of moisture in the air can help them thrive to their fullest potential."
- Losing pitchers now and again is normal and not cause for concern. "Carnivorous plants have a pretty quick turnover for their leaves," Collingsworth reiterates. "The average pitcher will probably only last two weeks to a month. I tell people not to freak out if they start to brown."
- Depending on the type of Nepenthes you have, your plant might stop producing pitchers in winter. As long as the rest of the plant looks healthy, this is normal—though you'll want to reduce your watering and feeding during the quieter winter months.
The bottom line.
Nepenthes are moisture-loving plants that have adapted to survive in some pretty inhospitable conditions. If you're keeping one indoors, you'll have to find a way to feed it the nutrients it would naturally catch from insects outside, but the effort is well worth it. I mean, just look at this plant!
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.