10 Weird but Pretty Carnivorous Plants that Eat Bugs

Bug caught in a red sundew plant.
jonathanfilskov-photography/Getty Images

Carnivorous plants that eat bugs or other small creatures may seem a little alien and sinister, but it's wise to remember that they evolved this talent in order to survive. These plants are often native to bogs, heaths, or swamps—environments that are known for having bad, nutrient-deficient soils. In some cases, eating bugs or other small creatures is just about the only way for a plant to survive.

As a coping mechanism, these plants evolved strategies to add meat to their diets rather than the normal method—drawing nutrients from the soil. The result of these adaptations can be a plant that is, by conventional standards, rather weird-looking. Here are 10 strange and interesting carnivorous plants.

Caution

While many carnivorous plants have an extremely interesting appearance and sometimes very pretty flowers, be aware that they are often very temperamental plants to grow, requiring very exact growing conditions. It certainly will give you bragging rights to successfully grow pitcher plants or cobra lilies, but these aren't specimens well suited for gardeners who like easy-care plants.

  • 01 of 10

    Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica)

    Cobra lilies hooded and reared up like cobra snakes.
    SoopySue / Getty Images

    Cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), which also goes by the name of California pitcher plant, is closely related to the other carnivorous pitcher plants in the Sarraceniaceae family. The most common of the common names was coined because the flower resembles the head of a cobra snake prepared to strike. These weird good-looks make these it fun to grow cobra lily for the sheer novelty.

    The mechanism by which pitcher plants kill insects is to hold water in a specialized leaf structure shaped like a pitcher. Small downward pointing hairs prevent the insect from escaping. Once trapped, it drowns and is broken down into organic components by means of enzyme or bacterial action.

    Native to southern Oregon and Northern California, the cobra lily can grow to as much as 39 inches tall. This is quite a difficult plant to grow in cultivation; it's best to simply appreciate it when you spot the plant while hiking in a native area along bogs and stream banks.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 6-9
    • Color Varieties: Flowers are yellow to purplish green
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Gravelly, boggy soil saturated with cold water
  • 02 of 10

    Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

    Northern pitcher plant flowers.
    mountainberryphoto / Getty Images

    There are a number of carnivorous pitcher plants native to North America. Most are native to the Southeast, but an exception is Sarracenia pupurea, commonly known as purple pitcher plant, which is native to the eastern seaboard and Great Lakes region. One subspecies, (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea), is native to the North-Central U.S. from New Jersey north to Canada. The nodding pitchers on this cold-hardy plant grow 6 to 8 inches long and are quite attractive. The southern subspecies, Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa, is native to the eastern seaboard south of New Jersey into Georgia.

    This is another plant that is very tricky to grow, requiring just-right soil conditions. It is most often grown in specialized bog gardens.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3-6 (depending on subspecies).
    • Color Varieties: Flowers are red; pitchers are greenish
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Boggy, acidic
  • 03 of 10

    Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)

    Yellow pitcher plant.
    AlessandroZocc / Getty Images

    The pitcher plant is so-called because its modified leaf structure is shaped like a vessel to hold and pour liquid. In the case of Sarracenia flava, the pitcher is yellow in color, blooming in April to May on plants that grow 1 to 3 feet high in sandy, boggy areas in the Southeast U.S. The mechanism for killing insects varies depending on the type of pitcher plant, but Peter D'Amato, in The Savage Garden, notes that yellow pitcher plants use a chemical known a coniine to bring trapped insects to their end.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 6-8
    • Color Varieties: Flowers are yellow; pitchers are medium green
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Boggy, humusy, acidic
  • 04 of 10

    White Trumpet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)

    Pitcher and flower of white pitcher plant.
    cturtletrax / Getty Images

    Many find white trumpet pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) the prettiest of the carnivorous plants. Native to the Southeast, these pitchers can have stunning, dark veins in a pattern that stands out nicely against the ​pure white background. The plant grows 1 to 3 feet tall and blooms in April and May. This particular pitcher plant is fairly easy to grow in a small water garden.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 7-9
    • Color Varieties: Pitchers are white with dark veins; flowers are red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Boggy, humusy, acidic
    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Tropical Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes spp.)

    Nepenthes plants in hanging pots with their pitchers hanging down.
    Noppamon / Getty Images

    In addition to the North American species, there are also tropical pitcher plants hailing mainly from lands that border the Indian Ocean. Many are woody vines, and these may be the weirdest of all the carnivorous plants. Their pitchers hang down, reminding you of the powder horn that hung down off Daniel Boone's shoulder.

    The Nepenthes genus contains more than 150 species, some so large (N. rajah and N. rafflesiana) that small mammals, lizards, and birds have been trapped in them. Some common selections for indoor cultivation include Nepenthes x alata, N. x copelandii, N. fusca, and N. sanguinea. These are plants usually grown by enthusiasts, not casual gardeners.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 10-11; usually grown in greenhouses
    • Color Varieties: Depends on species
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade (depends on species)
    • Soil Needs: Sphagnum moss in pots is the usual growing medium
  • 06 of 10

    Sun Pitcher Plant (Heliamphora spp.)

    Pitcher of sun pitcher plant.
    TomekD76 / Getty Images

    The genus Heliamphora contains more than 20 species native to South America, known collectively as sun pitcher plants. Like the species from the Nepenthes and Sarracenia genera, these plants have evolved modified leaf structures with a pitcher-like shape that holds water to drown insects. Although at least one produces enzymes that digest insects, most rely on simple bacterial action to break down organic material into nutrients that the plant can ingest. The length of the pitcher structure can range from 6 to 16 inches long, depending on species.

    These are among the most difficult of all the pitcher plants to grow in cultivation. Precise temperatures and very high humidity levels must be maintained in order for them to survive.

    • USDA Growing Zones: Varies by species; most are tropicals (zones10-11)
    • Color Varieties: Depends on species
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade (depends by species)
    • Soil Needs: Usually grown in sphagnum moss as potted plants
  • 07 of 10

    Western Australian Pitcher Plant (Cephalotus follicularis)

    Western Australian pitcher plants growing in ground.
    Manassiri / Getty Images

    Western Australian pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) is among the smallest of the pitcher plants, with pitchers that are just 1 to 11/2 inches long. But the stripes on the pitchers make them very pretty. The 'Eden Black' cultivar is dark enough to qualify as that rarest of the rare—a black plant.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Green to dark purple pitchers; indistinct flowers are whitish
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Usually grown is sphagnum moss as a potted plant
  • 08 of 10

    Sundew (Drosera spp.)

    Bug caught in a red sundew plant.
    jonathanfilskov-photography / Getty Images

    Sundews (Drosera spp.) are pretty plants that get their common name from the shimmering of the sticky secretions that cover the hairs protruding from leaves.These hairs (technically called trichomes) and their secretions are what trap the insects. The trichomes also secrete enzymes that break down the bodies of insects, making the nutrients available to be absorbed through the leaves. Unlike the many pitcher plants, which trap passively, sundews respond actively to touch; the hair-like tentacles literally reach out for the insect once any contact is sensed. In some species, the leaves themselves will then curl up to engulf the insect.

    Sundews of various types are native to every continent except Antarctica. They range from extremely tiny plants no larger than a penny, to species the size of small bushes. The species most commonly sold in nurseries include D. capensis, (Cape sundew, zones 9-11), D. aliciae (Alice sundew, zones 6-8) and D. spatulata (spoon-leaved sundew, zones 8-10).

    • USDA Growing Zones: 6-11 (depends on species)
    • Color Varieties: Flower color varies by species; leaf rosettes are generally reddish
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade (depends on species)
    • Soil Needs: Usually grown in a mixture of peat, sand, and perlite (carnivorous plant soil mix)
    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

    Fly caught in a Venus flytrap plant.
    marcouliana / Getty Images

    Probably more people are familiar with Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) than with any of the other carnivorous plants. Not only are they commonly sold as houseplants, but they have also appeared (in exaggerated forms) in numerous science fiction movies, including Little Shop of Horrors

    While many carnivorous plants trap insects passively—just lying in wait for them— Venus flytraps are different. The trapping mechanism actively moves. An insect is lured in by nectar, then once it is inside the modified leaf structure and touches trigger hairs, the trap is sprung—the "jaws" close down and the insect can't get out. The mechanism is quite complex, since the hairs need to be touched twice in close succession for the plant to assure itself that the prey is real. In a flash, the jaws snap shut around the insect and digestion begins.

    Native to just one small area in the Carolinas, the typical Venus flytrap measures about 6 inches high and wide, with a trap about 1 inch long, though larger cultivars have been developed for commercial sale.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5-8 (requires winter protection in zone 5-6)
    • Color Varieties: Indistinct flowers are white
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Boggy, humusy, acidic
  • 10 of 10

    Bladderworts (Utricularia spp.)

    Carnivorous bladderwort plant with lavender flower.
    shihina / Getty Images

    A last category of carnivorous plants has the most complicated and ingenious trapping mechanism. Comprising more than 200 species, the plants in the Utricularia genus are aquatic or terrestrial wetland plants that actually suck water in by means of an elastic bean-shaped bladder that snaps open when trigger hairs are touched by some tiny creature, such as a daphnia (water flea).The sudden opening of the empty bladder draws in water and whatever unfortunate creature is present, much the way a syringe draws in liquid when the plunger is drawn back. The plant then slowly squeezes the water back out through filtering membranes. The tiny creature is trapped inside, where digestive fluids break it down.

    There are both terrestrial and aquatic forms of Utricularia, with species found on every continent except Antarctica. Terrestrial species tend to be smaller and to eat tinier prey, such as protozoa. The aquatic types perform the service of eating mosquito larvae, among other prey.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 11 (depends on species)
    • Color Varieties: Yellow, blue, purple (depends on species)
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade (depends on species)
    • Soil Needs: Boggy or aquatic conditions