How to Grow Cobra Lily

Cobra lilies close up of foliage

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The cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) is a unique and eye-catching plant thanks to its dramatic leaves that resemble the heads of cobra snakes. Its curling leaves rise from the base of the plant and round out into hooded foliage. Along with its almost startling appearance, these carnivorous plants also happen to have voracious appetites and will feed on insects as well as small vertebrates.

Native to California and Oregon, the cobra lily is often found growing in distinct groupings in boggy areas that are devoid of nutrition. Their hooded leaves secrete an aroma that attracts insects and then allows the plant to gather fuel from trapping and digesting their prey. Once inside, it's difficult for insects to escape. The plant will secretes digestive enzymes to help break down the animal matter. Unlike many other pitcher plants, because of their hooded shape, cobra lily plants are not able to collect rainwater to trap prey.

These plants can spread asexually through runners and stolons, and they flower infrequently. The cobra lily is considered to be a true one-of-a-kind plant and possesses an exceptional structure and beauty.

 Botanical Name Darlingtonia californica
Common Name Cobra lily
 Plant Type Carnivorous
 Mature Size Up to 4 feet
 Sun Exposure Full sun
 Soil Type Moist, well-drained
 Soil pH 6-8
 Bloom Time Spring
 Flower Color Red petals
 Hardiness Zones 7-10
 Native Area North America

Cobra Lily Plant Care

Cobra lily plants require warm climates, full sun, and consistently wet and bog-like conditions in order to grow, and this can be difficult to replicate in a home garden. As such, these plants are considered to be difficult to cultivate, particularly outside of their native area. In order to successfully grow Darlingtonia californica in your own garden, the key is mimicking its native conditions as closely as possible.

Light

Cobra lilies will grow best in either full sun or partial shade. They will thrive when the roots are kept cooler than the rest of the plant. In full sun they tend to appear shorter and redder, while in partial shade conditions these plants grow taller and greener. Darlingtonia californica does, however, need a balanced, even light distribution in order to promote vibrant colors on its sepals.

Water

Quite possibly the most crucial element of cobra lily care is water, and these plants are particular about the type they receive. Rainwater is always the best option, but if watering at home you'll want to use spring, distilled, or purified (via reverse osmosis) water. Cobra lilies are sensitive to the chemicals and minerals found in tap water.

These plants also prefer cool water, and some gardeners even place ice cubes on the soil and allow them to melt to add additional moisture and cool the plant's roots. This is particularly important on days when high temperatures soar above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soil

While proper irrigation is important to successfully grow cobra lily plants, the soil also has to be just right. Many gardeners opt for peat moss, perlite, and either lava rock or pumice to help create a soil mixture that allows for some cooling of the root system.

Temperature and Humidity

Though they do require cooler temperatures, humidity levels won't necessarily impact the growth of your cobra lily. However, it's recommended that humidity levels be kept at about 50 percent, which will help prevent the plant from drying out.

Darlingtonia californica will not do well in excessively warm temperatures and prefer locations with cooler temperatures at night (in the 50s or 60s).

Fertilizer

The carnivorous cobra lily plants don't require fertilization as they feed themselves by ingesting insects and other pests.

Propagating Cobra Lily

Propagation can be done by cutting the stolons of these plants, which will produce more surviving buds when compared to seed planting. It also leads to a larger, healthier breed of cobra lily plants.

Seeds can also be used, but they will have to be kept refrigerated until the first quarter of the year (preferably February) and then planted in cold temperatures in sphagnum moss. 

Pruning

The cobra lily doesn't require extensive pruning, but you can cut back dead stems and leaves on an as-needed basis.

Growing in Containers

Since cool temperatures are so important when growing Darlingtonia californica, you should opt for a plant container that is light in color and has proper drainage. Plastic pots, terracotta clay, and glazed ceramics are all acceptable options, as long as the container you choose does not absorb heat.

Article Sources
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  1. Darlingtonia californica. University of California, Berkeley.

  2. Darlingtonia californica. U.S. Fire Service Fire Effects Information System.