All About Venus Flytraps and How to Care for This Carnivorous Plant
Venus flytraps are the most commonly known of all the carnivorous plants and probably the most infuriating to keep. Don't get me wrong—they're not hard to take care of once you know how, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what they need. Learn all the tricks to keeping a Venus flytrap happy and healthy below.
How Carnivorous Plants Eat Insects
In order to live in poor soil conditions, many plants have invented some fabulous and bizarre adaptations to help them survive: Carnivory, the eating of animal flesh, is one of them, and it has been found to exist in at least nine plant families and about 600 species.
The Venus flytrap's brilliant plan: By using their specially-modified snap-trap leaves, they can get nitrogen by catching and digesting a wide variety of insects—and maybe even some small amphibians. By preying on bugs, these plants have managed to not only survive, but to thrive.
Although we call them "carnivorous," insects are what most of these plants like to eat. This is why they are sometimes called insectivores, instead.
How does a carnivorous plant catch its prey?
Carnivorous plants have devised many ingenious ways to capture live food:
- Snap traps. These are hinged, toothed leaves that snap shut when trigger hairs are touched. Like a bear trap.
- Pitfall traps. These leaves fold lengthwise to create deep and slippery pools filled with digestive enzymes. It's like falling straight into a stomach.
- Suction traps. Bladderworts have leaves shaped like cups with hinged doors lined with trigger hairs. Insects crawl in and the door shuts behind them.
- Flypaper. Leaves covered in sticky, adhesive stuff to trap prey.
- Lobster-pot traps. Twisted, tubular chambers lined with hairs and glands: The insects walk in and can't find a way back out.
Of course, the Venus flytrap uses a snap trap to catch its prey. Learn more about how it works below.
The Venus flytrap: “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.”— Charles Darwin in his book Insectivorous Plants,1842
Venus Flytrap Basics
Venus flytraps are almost extinct in their native environment. They continue to thrive on window sills, in domestic gardens, and in greenhouses all across the globe, but there are conservation efforts underway to save the flytrap in the wild.
Its scientific name is Dionaea muscipula and it comes from the boggy areas that span the coast of North and South Carolina. It takes in very few nutrients through its roots and instead needs to trap prey within its leaves. So it thrives in moist soil and needs access to insects and spiders.
What is a Venus flytrap's natural cycle?
They grow during the summer and fall, go dormant in the winter, then bloom in the spring. Many people mistake their dormancy for death, but it is a natural and healthy part of the plant's cycle. The flower, however, might kill the plant. Learn more below.
How do I care for a Venus flytrap?
If you want to keep a Venus flytrap at home, especially if you want it to thrive indoors, you'll need to understand what it needs in order to recreate an environment that mimics what it gets in the wild. Read on to learn all the things you'll need to know to keep this fascinating plant happy and healthy.
How Does a Venus Flytrap Work?
Those things that look like toothy mouths are actually the plant's leaves. Each leaf (or trap) has two sides (or lobes) that produce a sweet-smelling stuff that attracts insects. Each lobe is also edged with cilia and has trigger hairs on its inner surface. The cilia and hairs serve two different purposes: when something touches the trigger hair, it's a signal to the plant to close the leaf, and when the leaf is closed, the cilia prevent the prey from getting out.
What are a Venus flytrap's hairs and cilia for?
Those little teeth–called cilia—interlock and prevent prey from wriggling out and escaping, and the trigger hairs are the secret weapon of the Venus flytraps' success. How it works:
- When an insect lands on a trap and touches two or more of those trigger hairs, the jaw-like leaf snaps closed.
- Next, the cilia interlock and the trap gets tighter and tighter. It takes several minutes for the leaf to form an airtight seal.
- Next, the chamber is flooded with digestive juices that draw nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) from the meal. The plant will digest the softer, more tender parts of the insect and "spit" some undigestible parts out.
- The trap will remain closed for anywhere between 5 to 12 days while it digests. When it's done, the plant will simply re-open the leaf, and anything that's left over simply falls out.
The prey are generally small insects, though flytraps have been known to trap larger victims. Anything that exceeds the size of the leaf and prevents the flytrap from closing properly will attract bacteria. Unfortunately, this can kill the leaf.
To learn more about how a Venus flytrap's digestive system works, read How does the Venus flytrap digest flies?
Will the fly trap die if it closes by mistake?
Before they know better, people often poke or tickle the trap just to watch it close. It usually takes about a day for the trap to reopen. However, if a trap is tripped like this many times, it may never open again, even of it's empty. This reduces the plant's ability to get the nutrition it needs. But even if it has nothing to digest, the leaf will still be able to act like a leaf, photosynthesizing energy for the plant, so don't trim anything away unless it's dead and black.
Feeding Venus Flytraps: Everything You Need to Know
Do I need to fertilize my Venus flytrap?
Definitely not! Never use fertilizer. This plant is used to poor, acidic soil so it gets its nutrients other ways (see below). A Venus flytrap (VFT) gets the nutrition it needs from insects, and it takes it in via its leaves, not its soil. Fertilizer might kill it.
How should I feed my Venus flytrap?
If your flytrap is growing indoors, you can hand-feed it insects. (If you're feeling squeamish, use tweezers.) If it's outdoors, it will be able to "hunt" for insects on its own.
Do I really need to hand-feed a Venus flytrap?
A Venus flytrap (VFT) can go a month or two without eating, and even indoors, a plant will be able to catch the occasional insect. So no, you probably don't really need to feed it often, but it's fun, and the plant will appreciate your efforts if you do it right.
What kind of prey or insects does a Venus flytrap like to eat?
It likes crickets, ants, spiders, flies and other flying insects, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, millipedes, sow bugs, and slugs. Don't feed it soft earthworms, just the ones with stiff exoskeletons, like mealworms. The trick is to only feed your VFT an insect that is a third the size of its trap. In other words, don't feed it anything too large for it to close its trap around. The bigger the plant = the bigger the trap = the bigger the bug you can feed it.
Can I feed it dead bugs or insects?
Yes, you can, although it prefers live food: You may have to stimulate the cilia on the leaf to get it to close.
Can I feed my Venus flytrap anything else besides live (or dead) bugs?
Many VFT owners feed their young plants or seedlings fish food: betta fish pellets, dried bloodworms, or mealworms. First, rehydrate by soaking, then crush the food and place it on the leaf, then stimulate the leaf's cilia to get it to close. As soon as the plant is big enough, you should switch to live insects.
Can a Venus flytrap survive without eating bugs?
Although they do get nutrition from insects, VFTs also get things they need from sun, air, water, and soil. If they don't get their insect snacks they may continue to survive, but they certainly won't thrive. A vegetarian Venus flytrap will be much smaller, weaker, and sicker than its carnivorous counterpart, and more likely die.
Why doesn't my Venus flytrap's trap or "mouth" close on the bug?
The trap is actually the plant's leaf, which has tiny trigger hairs (or cilia) along its edges. When an insect crawls or lands on the leaf, the plant only knows to close if something triggers the cilia. Usually, more than one cilia needs to be touched in order to trigger the leaf to close. Try tickling the cilia gently to trigger the closing reflex.
Should I feed my Venus flytrap meat?
No, don't feed your VFT hamburger, chicken, or any other human food. Although it is technically a carnivore, it's really an insectivore, and it wants live insects.
How often should I feed a Venus flytrap?
Once a week, feed two of a plant's traps. Don’t do it more than once a week, and don't feed more than two of the traps. Don't overfeed!
When should I feed it?
Any time of day is fine, but it's very important to avoid feeding your VFT during its dormant period.
Why is my Venus flytrap not eating?
If your plant's traps no longer snap shut, it could be that your plant is going dormant, sick, or dying.
What to Do If a Venus Flytrap Looks Dead
Why is my Venus flytrap turning black?
It's normal for the individual traps to turn black and die, but if the whole plant is turning black and dead-looking, it might be one of these issues:
- Dormancy. During the coldest, darkest part of the year, it's normal for plants to go dormant. Continue caring for your plant and wait until spring.
- Overcrowding. It's possible that your plant has outgrown its container. Repot if necessary.
- Improper soil. If you've recently repotted, perhaps you used the wrong type of soil. A mixture of sand and sphagnum peat moss— from a half-and-half ratio to one third sand and two thirds moss—works best.
- Fertilizer. VFTs do not like fertilizer. If you accidentally forget, you might be able to save the plant by immediately repotting in fresh soil.
- Too much (or not enough) water. A VFT wants moist soil, but if its roots get too waterlogged, they might start to rot.
- Temperature. If a VFT freezes, it may turn black.
- Flowering. You'd think a flower was a good sign, but putting up a flower can really sap all a VFT's strength—so much so that they sometimes don't survive. Better to nip those flowers in the bud.
How can I tell if my Venus flytrap is dormant?
It's hard to tell for sure if your flytrap is dormant, sick, or dying. Suddenly, near the start of the cold season, you'll notice that your plant has stopped thriving as it was, but the only way to find out what's wrong is to wait and continue caring gently for your plant. During the winter, you'll notice less evaporation, so you'll reduce your watering schedule to two or three times a month. Don't try to feed it.
If your plant is dormant, it will revive when the sun returns and the weather gets warmer. It it's dead, obviously, it will just keep getting more dead-looking.
Do Venus flytraps have to go dormant?
Yes. Dormancy is a natural and important cycle for the plant, sort of like hibernation for a bear. If it doesn't get to rest, it might die. During dormancy, the plant will still need lots of light, but less water.
What if I don't want my plant to go dormant?
If a Venus flytrap doesn't get its dormant period (maybe you're using grow lights, for example), you can expect it to die within a couple of years.
Why are the fly traps turning black and dying?
The lifespan of each individual trap on a Venus flytrap is about three months, during which it might catch from one to four insects. So you'll notice a continuous natural cycle of death and new growth for those traps. As long as you continue to see new green growth replacing the old traps, it's all normal.
If the trap tried to shut on a too-big insect and couldn't completely close, this may expose the trap to bacteria, which may turn the leaves and traps black.
How to Care for Venus Flytraps
- They prefer a glazed ceramic or plastic pot (not an unglazed clay one) with plenty of holes for drainage and a little dish to catch the overflow of water.
- They love wet, boggy conditions, so give them lots of distilled water or rainwater (not tap water!).
- It's a myth that Venus flytraps want to stand in a dish full of water all the time. Don't let them soak too long or their roots will rot. Their soil should be damp but not waterlogged and soggy.
- They don't like regular potting soil. A mixture one third sand two thirds sphagnum peat moss works best. Add more sand if you want, but not less. By the way, they also want deep soil—6 inches or more—for their long-reaching roots.
- They want lots of sun: 12 hours of indirect sunlight, and at least 4 hours of direct sun per day. They can't get too much sun during their growing period!
- During their dormant period, however, they will need less water and sunlight. Dormancy should last from at least 10 weeks to 5 months at most.
- When outdoors, Venus flytraps don't need any help hunting for insects, but if they're indoors, you'll need to feed them small insects or spiders.
- As they outgrow their pots, they'll need to be repotted. VFTs don't grow very large, so this won't happen often.
- Don't prod or poke the flytraps, since this causes them to close and eventually die. It takes a lot of energy to grow those flytraps, and the plant will need them to get nutrition from insects. You can prune dead or dying flytraps, though.
- If you see a flower, pick it off immediately, since the flowering process sucks up a lot of the plant's energy and vigor.
Caring for Venus flytraps is relatively straightforward. This strangely alluring plant isn’t as complicated as many realize.
Other Things Venus Flytraps Need to Survive
Watering a Venus Flytrap
What kind of water should I use?
When watering a VFT, use either distilled or collected rainwater.
However, if you keep your flytrap in a terrarium, regularly spraying with tap water is fine.
Why can't I use tap water?
Flytraps are sensitive to the chemicals that are found in tap water, you may harm your plant.
How much water does a Venus flytrap need?
A Venus flytraps's soil should be damp. It doesn't want to sit in standing water, and it doesn't want to dry out between waterings, either. Sit the pot atop a saucer/drip tray that contains some small pebbles or gravel. The stones will prevent the base of the pot from being constantly submerged in water.
How often should I water?
How often you water depends on the planter's size and material. Large glazed or plastic pots retain their water longer, but small ones dry out more quickly. Before the soil gets dry, add enough water to saturate it again, then let it dry to the point of being slightly damp before watering again.
Note: During dormancy, your plant will need much less water. You may only need to water two or three times a month, depending on the weather, humidity, and the size of the pot.
Light and Sun Requirements
Venus flytraps need around four hours of direct sunlight per day, minimum. They want as much indirect sun as they can get during the day.
A mixture one third sand two thirds sphagnum peat moss works best. A little perlite mixed in with the peat moss can work, too. Add more sand if you want, but not less. Make sure not to use any soil with added fertilizers.
For most of the year, a VFT should be kept in a relatively constant temperature of around 70° to 95°F (21° to 35°C). During the winter, it can survive temperatures down to 40°F (5°C).
Removing Dead Traps and Leaves
You will need to remove any leaves that die off. This is perfectly normal, however if you leave them on, the rotted leaves will affect the rest of the plant and you will risk losing the whole plant.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will my Venus flytrap live?
If properly cared for, a plant can live up to 20 years.
Do I need a terrarium for my Venus flytrap?
No, you do not need a terrarium, for several reasons:
- These plants don't come from jungles. A glass enclosure will create an environment that is too warm, too wet, and too humid for your plant.
- Your plant needs good drainage, but a terrarium likely has no holes, which will subject the roots to rot and mineral buildup.
- The trapped heat will interfere with the plant's natural dormancy cycle.
- Your plant will have access to even fewer insects.
How big will my Venus flytrap get?
Venus flytraps don't grow very large. Even in the best conditions, with the best care, it will likely grow to only 13 cm (5") wide. An individual leaf trap might grow to about 3 cm (1") long.
What happens if I put my finger in a Venus flytrap?
If you trigger two cilia or more, the trap will likely close. Nothing will happen to your finger, but you'll probably hurt the plant. If a trap is tripped like this too often, it may never open again. This reduces the plant's ability to get the nutrition it needs and wastes the energy it took to grow the trap. Don't do it.
What if I want my Venus flytrap to be a vegetarian like me? (Or: Eeeew! I don't want to fiddle with insects.)
The plant needs specific nutrients, ones it can only get from its natural diet. Your plant will be smaller, weaker, and sicker, and more likely die if you don't give it what it needs. Maybe a carnivorous plant is not the best choice for you.
What if my flytrap grows a flower?
When it first starts, a flower looks like a plain stalk growing up from the middle of the plant. If you see this, snip if off immediately, as it will unnecessarily sap your plant's strength.
Should I use miracle grow?
No. Don't use any fertilizers on your Venus flytrap, as this will likely kill it.
How to Catch Food for Your Venus Flytrap
Quick Flytrap Tips
- Only use distilled or collected rain water.
- Don’t overwater.
- If indoors, feed it insects, but no more than two per month.
- It needs least 4 hours of direct sunlight per day.
- Make sure to give your Venus flytrap a break during its dormant period.
- Remove dead leaves during the winter.
- Don’t be tempted to ‘spring’ the flytrap. Don't touch or poke the "mouth"!
Although it is easy to kill a Venus flytrap, many thrive. If you observe all the tips on this list, your flytrap should start to thrive by its third season.
Remember: Too much handling, overfeeding, and watering, and you’ll end up with a doomed plant on your hands.