Pitcher plants are very unusual in the botanical world, being carnivorous and adapted to wetlands and extremely poor soil. They are divided into two main families; Nepentheceae (Nepenthes) and Sarracenaceae (Sarracenia). Nepenthes are primarily tropical, whereas Serracenia is found throughout the world, including temperate and cold climates. Growing pitcher plants is not difficult as long as their native habitat can be replicated. Pitcher plants provide an exotic look in the garden, and make unusual specimens in containers.
Sarracenias are the most widely adapted family. Most varieties are native to the United States, with some growing as far north as Minnesota. This type can be easily grown outdoors.
Sarracenia alata (Pale Pitcher Plant) produces chartreuse pitchers that can reach two feet tall. This is one of the larger forms of sarracenia, so give it room to grow. Hardy in zones 5 through 9.
Sarracenia flava (Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant) is similar to Sarracenia alata, but with far brighter coloration. Hoods are clear yellow, shading to pale green at the base of the pitcher. This is another tall variety, hardy in zones 5 through 9.
Sarracenia 'Daina's Delight' provides a wonderful contrast planted with yellow varieties, with its red and purple veined hood, shading to pink pitchers. It grows up to two feet tall, and is hardy in zones 5 through 9.
Sarracenia purpurea (Purple Pitcher Plant) is the hardiest species, surviving in zones 2 through 9. Squat red and purple pitchers with green veins open from a rosette. Though smaller than most other sarracenias at only six inches tall, the clumps are vigorous and attractive.
Nepenthes species are very striking plants, but difficult to grow. Temperatures of less than 50 F can severely set back growth, and even kill the plant. Some varieties such as Nepenthes raja require far too much space for the home gardener. Nepenthes alata is one of the easier types to start growing. Moisture levels vary with each species, but all nepenthes require warm temperatures to survive. This is primarily an indoor or greenhouse plant in most areas.
Sarracenias exhibit superior cold tolerance as a group. Most will survive temperatures of -15 F, with Sarracenia purpurea living through -40 F. Snow cover will increase cold hardiness, as will a layer of mulch in the fall. Plants grown in a bog will have different responses to cold than those in shallow water. Bog plants are insulated by the surrounding soil, and can be mulched easily. Sarracenias in standing water may suffer damage and death due to winter ice formation. In growing zones 7 and southward, mulch is usually not needed.
Sarracenias thrive in full sun. Too much shade will cause spindly, floppy growth. Sarracenia purpurea can tolerate more shade than other varieties, continuing to grow happily with only a few hours of sun per day.
Soil should be acidic. A mixture of two parts peat moss to one part sand provides moisture retention and good drainage. Despite being adapted to wet soil, these plants still require some air spaces and oxygen in the growing media. Clay soil will often kill them. Fertilizer is not necessary, and if used will have adverse effects on the plant. Pitcher plants survive quite nicely by attracting and capturing insects on their own. Do not attempt to feed them by placing insects into the hoods.
Sarracenias can be grown in standing water in perforated plastic pots. Again, a mixture of peat moss and sand is required. In areas where the water will freeze solid in the winter, remove the plants and place them in a cool area that will not freeze, and keep moist.
When planted directly in a bog garden, a winter mulch of acidic material such as leaves or conifer needles will increase winter hardiness.
A small bog garden for pitcher plants can be easily created by digging a hole at least a foot deep and three to four feet wide. Line the area with heavy plastic, punching a few holes for drainage. Fill with a mixture of peat moss and sand, and water well before planting. Peat moss can absorb an astonishing amount of water, and some time will pass before the saturation point is reached. When planting sarracenias, remove them carefully from the pot to avoid damaging their roots.
Sarracenias make colorful and bizarre looking container specimens. The planting pot should ideally have only one small drainage hole. A well moistened mixture of peat moss and sand will keep plants both evenly wet and well drained. Taller species such as Sarracenia flava should be planted in the center of the pot, surrounded by smaller shade tolerant varieties like Sarracenia purpurea. Containers should be checked regularly for dampness. Glazed pots are far better than terra cotta for moisture retention. Unconventional containers such as wooden crates and flower boxes can be used if they are lined with plastic. Punch a few holes in the plastic for drainage, and proceed with planting.