CS is a northern gardener whose heart lives in the tropics, and loves exotic-looking plants that make a garden more Brazil and less Boston.
Meet Your New Favorite Houseplants: The Sundews (Drosera)
As I sit here beginning my Love Letter to Sundews, I find myself at a loss as to how to begin describing them.
These little carnivores have a dab of all the strangeness the plant kingdom can serve up. They're gooey, cute, quietly violent, elegant, and look less like a plant and more like a tiny tentacle monster trying to escape from the soil.
And they're easy: almost ridiculously so. Yet, they remain overlooked. They're an obscure little backwater in home gardening. Add them to your home lineup, and I promise you'll fall in love with these savage oddballs.
The Houseplant World Discovers Sundews
Finally, sundews are starting to become more widely available in specialty plant shops, albeit not by leaps and bounds.
As a group, sundews are extremely diverse, with representative species scattered across the globe, including North America. The bulk of the roughly 200–250 species (taxonomy is being resolved as we speak) hail from Australia and Africa, but the genus Drosera is widespread and diverse, spanning every non-Antarctic continent. They turn up in odd places, from boreal bogs in Alaska to the rain-blasted tepuis of Venezuela.
They're the First Confirmed Carnivore in the Plant World
What they all have in common is that they love water and insects. In fact, sundews were the first plants confirmed to be carnivorous, by none other than Charles Darwin himself. Darwin was a big fan who adored sundews, so anyone that comes to appreciate their botanical charm is in some prestigious company.
How Did They Get Their Name?
Sundews get their name from the sticky dollops of "dew" they secrete at the tip of hairs extending from the surface of their leaves. This dew is both a snare and a stomach for them, gluing insects to the leaves while slowly digesting them and absorbing their precious nutrients.
It also makes them glitter in the sunlight like no other plants on Earth, a fact that is only just beginning to be appreciated by home gardeners. It's puzzling why, but my best guess is that their generally diminutive stature makes them easy to overlook in a world of flashy tropical houseplants.
Still, sundews are enjoying a quiet explosion in popularity as houseplants that earn their rent, both as eye-catching accent plants and exterminators. You can now easily obtain seeds from a number of species in the mail, or even adult plants (not recommended, especially during winter). The most common species is also one of the largest, Cape Sundew (Drosera capensis), but you can easily obtain a number of the teeny 'dews too.
Living Flypaper for Your Home
Even if they weren't cool to look at, sundews are one of the few houseplants that truly earn their keep. If you have fruit fly problems in your house, one adult D. capensis can mop them up completely, often in less than a week.
That's not to say that sundew are selective. Mine routinely snatch houseflies, and I have one ambitious D. spatulata that somehow managed to wrestle a hornet to the mat.
Once they do, you'll be treated to one of the coolest aspects of sundew "behavior." They will gradually curl their leaves around their prey to bring them into contact with more sticky hairs, like a wee kraken claiming a sailboat. Depending on the size of the morsel, this can happen surprisingly quickly, over the course of only hours. You can practically hear them humming contentedly as they wrap themselves around a juicy bug (or maybe that's just me).
For parents, this unique aspect of sundews (and carnivorous plants generally) are a wacky, fun way to introduce kids to plants. They fall somewhere between plant and pet, so they make a good responsibility training tool if you're working up to animal pets (and way less work than an ant farm).
How to Maximize Fly-Catching
To take full advantage of their skills, I recommend keeping them as close to your garbage can, fruit bowl, or other sources of winged nasties as you can, provided they have bright light. I haven't noticed so much as a gnat flying around in my house in years, just a gentle happy hum from my sundews every time I put fruit in the window box to ripen.
Low(est)-Maintenance Carnivorous Plants
If you've been looking for a non-finicky initiation into carnivorous plants, sundews are your gateway.
Cultivating them is simple, despite purists' attempts to complicate it. Sundews generally want as much indirect light and water as possible, and to be left alone to do their job. They feed themselves (NEVER fertilize them) and will absolutely thrive in your average kitchen window box.
The easiest way to keep established sundews happy is to put their pot in a dish of distilled water in the bright sun and keep it full. That's it.
It'll be tempting to try to feed them, but it's completely unnecessary, and you might overdo it and kill them. Some species can tolerate moderate light and tap water, but they are all incredibly sensitive to any level of fertilization. After all, they evolved carnivorously to survive in bogs with essentially zero soil nitrogen; fertilizing them is therefore like trying to force-feed an entire large pizza into a hamster. They'll feed themselves, I promise.
If you've already got sundew and want more (I don't blame you), you'll be happy to know they are just as easy to propagate as they are to maintain. Even better, there are a lot of ways to do it, that fall into four basic categories:
D. capensis in particular produces astonishing numbers of seeds every time they bloom, each of which is nearly microscopic. If your sundew blooms, simply let the flower mature, then shake the seeds out onto wax paper once the bloom starts to wilt. This is also the best (albeit slowest) way to start your collection from mail-order sources.
Starting from seeds and scratch:
- Make a mixture of roughly 75–50% sphagnum moss/25–50% perlite, both of which should be available at any garden center. Feel free to go heavy on the sphagnum, which will keep things extra swampy.
- Sprinkle as few of the dust-like seeds as you can with tweezers on the surface of the growing medium. Don't sneeze! Or breathe. Seriously, their seeds are like dust.
- Put the seeded pots into a covered seed starter frame (or just inside a freezer-sized Ziploc bag) with about a cup of distilled water per pot, seal it up, and leave it in a sunny/warm place for two weeks.
- After two weeks, open them up and check for baby plants. Look very closely. No, closer. Tiny seeds mean tiny plants, and young sundew look more like algae or moss at first. If nothing has sprouted yet, cover them up and check once a week until they do. Seeds don't need light, but as soon as you see baby plants they should be getting at least moderate indirect light.
- If there are baby plants, leave their enclosure slightly unsealed and start adding distilled water as it evaporates. Wait until they get at least five teeny leaves before uncovering them and putting them in a dish of water in bright light.
Anyone who has handled sundew seeds can tell you exactly how easy it is to get "a few" seeds instead of a carpet, and you will inevitable have to thin if you start from seed.
- Wait until their leaves are starting to touch each other.
- Scoop up unwanted seedlings and a bit of their medium with a butter knife, and replant them in their own pot. Waste not!
In addition to seeds, some sundew species (particularly pygmy sundews) produce asexual "survival pods" called gemmae (pronounced "Jimmy"). These grow at the very crown of the plant and are much larger than the dust-like seeds. When mature, each of the gemmae can produce an adult plant in a fraction of the time required for seeds to grow to the same size.
Like the seeds, all that has to be done is to place the gemmae on top of the carnivorous plant medium, keep them very humid, and give them light. Taking advantage of gemmae can easily turn one plant into dozens in the space of a year. Not all Drosera produce gemmae, but for those that do, it's a handy trick.
4. Vegetative Propagation
As if there weren't enough options, sundews rival succulents for ease of vegetative cultivation. The easiest way goes like this:
- Clip or tear off a leaf, ideally with a bit of stem.
- Float it in a petri dish or bowl of distilled water until wee plantlets start sprouting around the edges.
- Place the leaf on top of a fresh pot of damp medium, and treat it like an adult plant. They'll do the rest.
Sundew seeds are easy to grow, assuming you get good seeds. There are a lot of mail-order options, but the opportunity for scamming is high. Starting out, I strongly recommend purchasing seed from reputable carnivore nurseries to avoid buying lemons instead of sundews.
Solid, Reliable Sources for Seeds
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on January 03, 2021:
I must say these pictures have peeked my interest.
I have never heard of such a plant other than the venus flytrap which is not a thing of beauty.
Great writing. Maybe I will look into one if these creatures.