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It is no wonder why these plants are becoming more popular as houseplants, even though they are a challenge for many indoor gardeners; Charles Darwin himself fell in love with these plants, calling these plants “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” (1)
“Rather than being eaten by herbivores, these plants have evolved a bewildering away of adaptations to attract, capture, kill, and digest animal prey—usually insects—and then to use the digested and absorbed nutrients to enhance the plant’s growth and development.”
The Etymology of the Flytrap’s Name
The origin of this plant’s name is historically lewd, though it is well-hidden for publicity’s sake.
Most who have heard about the comfortable version of the plant’s origin know that it was named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love, symbolizing the beauty it holds in its milk-white flowers. ‘Flytrap’ is an obvious choice, for its insectivorous habits.
In fact, this origin of the Venus Flytrap’s name was a later addition from naturalist John Ellis, who wrote the story as a part of the London Magazine. (2)
“[…] and from the beautiful appearance of it’s milk-white flowers, and the elegance of its leaves, thought it well-deserved one of the names of the goddess of Beauty, and therefore called it Dionaea.”
The Genus name, Dionaea, commonly refers to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, Venus’ Grecian counterpart, and muscipula has two meanings in Latin. The first is for “mousetrap” when derived from “mus” meaning “mouse” and “decipula” meaning “trap”. The second meaning for muscipula in Latin is “flytrap”, which was later added to the common name.
Other common names for the Venus Flytrap are Tippitiwitchet, which is no longer in popular use, and Meadow clam.
Where Do Venus Flytraps Grow?
The flytrap thrives in areas that receive mild winters with little canopy cover and nutrient-poor yet damp or wet soil. The only place this plant is native to in the world is within the United States, on the coastal bogs of North and South Carolina.
More specifically, the Dionaea species appears to only grow natively in a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, NC among the bogs. While the native range might have once been larger, the flytrap is struggling to survive among human development. It has since been naturalized in Florida as well.
The flytrap’s natural habitat does not fare well for long-term viability, and from the 1950s and 2019, it is estimated that the total population has reduced by 93%.
Most wild flytraps grow to a size of 6-7 inches in diameter, with each trap measuring up to an inch and a half wide. Most plants will grow 5-6 stems with hinged, lobe-like leaves acting as the insectivorous traps.
Indoor, potted flytraps will typically be smaller than outdoor free-range plants which are allowed to grow in acidic, nutrient-poor soil. Some Venus flytraps will appear bushier or wider, yet this is typically due to root division and is home to several plants, or “pups” from the mother plant.
The Venus flytrap is internationally listed as a vulnerable plant species, and it is currently under consideration for federal listing on the United States’ endangered species list.
The top factors contributing to its vulnerability are overharvesting by collectors, habitat destruction as its slim natural climate is developed, and fire suppression activities. Natural fires are an important part of the survival of the flytrap species as these fires prevent competition and canopy covering from forming.
Poaching is an issue that threatens the survival of the wild Dionaea species that in 2014 it was punishable by up to 25 months in prison and moved to a felony-class offense.
How Does the Venus Flytrap Work?
The Venus flytrap is a highly advanced member of the botanical world. It utilizes the biomechanics of an internal timer, a tripwire system, and electrical impulses that allow it to move rapidly before the prey can escape.
- Trap Formation
First, the traps form on the plant, and as the lobes open, it secrets a sticky, sweet nectar that attracts insects. Some varieties of Dionaea utilize a bright red pigmentation to additionally attract insects. The cilia, or hair, on the outside of the lobes act as an interlocking cage to keep the prey wedged between the closed lobes once the trap is sprung.
- Trap Triggering
Each lobe has small trigger hairs on the inside which function as tripwires for the unsuspecting prey. For the trap to be triggered, these tiny hairs must be touched twice within 20 seconds.
Any longer than 20 seconds and the trap will not close as it may be an insect that is too large for the trap or another non-nutritive factor such as a strong breeze. Fascinatingly, this also implies that plants have an innate sense of memory, even if it is short-term.
The movement in the flytrap is fast, triggered through electrical impulses along the outer cell wall of the trap. These electrical impulses rapidly expand the cells along the cell wall and lengthen the lobes, forcing the trap closed. Traps can shut in as little as one-tenth of a second. Proper water distribution is imperative to keep these traps operating quickly and if the plant is sickly, traps can take much longer to close.
- Prey Digestion
The prey, struggling to escape within the cilia-locked prison, will continue to stimulate the trigger hairs on the inside of the lobes. This response causes the flytrap to seal the trap closed and secret digestive enzymes that consume the soft tissues of the insect over several days.
Typically, it takes a flytrap 4-10 days to fully digest an insect.
- Trap Resetting
Once the flytrap has properly digested its meal, it will reopen, revealing an exoskeleton or husk that remains of the once-living insect. This may attract other insects, or it will simply blow out of the trap with a strong gust of wind. Traps may only consume a limited number of meals before the trap dies back, however, a healthy plant will continue to develop new traps constantly.
Evolution of the Venus Flytrap’s Carnivory
The Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula is related to several other carnivorous – or insectivorous – plants that rely on traps to capture prey and digest it over time to provide for nutrients the plant is unable to get from the soil. But, how did these plants develop the taste for insect flesh in the first place?
Scientists have found that the answer lies in a duplication of a gene that is typically reserved for the roots and helps the root system absorb nutrients through the soil. (3)
“We identified an early whole-genome duplication in the family as source for carnivory-associated genes. Recruitment of genes to the trap from the root especially was a major mechanism in the evolution of carnivory, supported by family-specific duplications.”
Can a Venus Flytrap Survive Without Bugs?
If a flytrap does not eat, then it may go dormant or die. Flytraps do not need regular meals; at most, each trap can only catch insects 1-4 times on average, and the flytrap only needs to eat once every month, or every other month.
A flytrap cannot survive without bugs or other insects in its entirety, as it derives nutrients from the bugs that the soil lacks, yet it can survive for a relatively long time without bugs.
Are Venus Fly Trap Plants Dangerous?
Dionaea is not a dangerous plant. Movies may have given carnivorous plants a bad rep, but experiments have shown that letting a flytrap snap shut on your finger will do little harm. The digestive juices the plant excretes take over ten hours to digest a small bug, and it will do little more than making your finger feel sensitive for a time.
Likewise, experimenting on your own flytrap like this is a bad idea, as the flytrap cannot consume anything that is not an insect. Forcing it to close on your finger, or inanimate objects can kill the plant.
How to Grow the Venus Flytrap
The Venus Flytrap is one of the easiest carnivorous plants to care for, though experience with houseplants is recommended as this plant can knock even experienced indoor gardeners on their pots with its unique needs. Carnivory changes its fertilizer needs, for example, making it grow better in nutrient-poor soils with periodic feeding.
When caring for the Venus Flytrap, it is always recommended to read up on its care requirements first.
The Venus Flytrap also undergoes a period of dormancy in the winter when it requires less daylight and cooler temperatures to properly overwinter.
This plant also thrives best in homemade, nutrient-poor soil made of equal parts sphagnum moss and sand. Any fertilizer, lime, or other additives will make life difficult for the flytrap and potentially kill it.
For best results, keep the plant in high humidity, full sunlight, and nutrient-poor, acidic soil. Flytraps prefer to keep their roots wet as well, so water frequently from the bottom, or to the side of the plant if it is kept in a terrarium.
Venus Flytraps can also be grown outdoors in some climates, at which point they will not require manual feeding as they can capture the insects themselves.
Toxicity of Venus Flytraps
Fortunately, unlike many other houseplants, Dionaea is not known to be toxic to people or pets. Cats, dogs, birds, reptiles, and children alike are safe from these plants, even if a curious finger or paw finds its way into a trap or two.
While flytraps are not toxic, it may still be beneficial to keep the plant out of reach from these elements as the trap closing too many times will kill the trap, and potentially result in the death of the plant if it is unable to get enough nutrition.
How Hard is it to Keep a Venus Flytrap Alive?
If you know the care requirements of your flytrap and maintain the right level of humidity, sunlight, and temperature throughout the year to accommodate for its growing and dormancy seasons – and let’s not forget feeding the Venus Flytrap – keeping one of these plants alive is easy.
These are, however, still not beginner houseplants. They are best cared for by houseplant owners who have a little experience caring for different kinds of plants and understand the signs when a plant’s needs aren’t being met. The understanding of how a plant reacts to a lack of water or sunlight is essential to owning a flytrap, making them seem like a difficult choice to beginner houseplant keepers.
What Do You Feed Your Flytrap?
Learning how to feed your Venus Flytrap can be a difficult task for the queasy gardener. Dionaea, or any carnivorous plant, is not for the faint of heart. While the good-natured plant keeper can find bugs that are freshly dead rather than killing the bug themselves, the Venus Flytrap prefers a live meal. This plant will require several feedings per month while it is actively growing.
Many growers who had these unique plants as kids may remember feeding it cooked hamburger meat. This is also likely the reason why the flytrap never lasted long in that home. Feeding anything to the Venus Flytrap that is not insect meat will kill it.
Venus Flytraps must be fed small insects, such as flies, ants, mealworms, bloodworms, spiders, and slugs. (4)
“Only 13 species were found both in a trap and on a flower. And of nine potential pollinators in that group, none was trapped in high numbers.”
Do Venus Flytraps Flower?
Yes, Venus Flytraps do produce flowers every year since they are perennial angiosperms. Flowers are produced every spring once the flytrap exits winter dormancy.
The flowers are beautiful five-petaled white flowers with stark, grey venation. The stalks grow as tall as one foot in length and immediately release pollen once the flowers are open. After a few weeks, the flower will produce black, shiny seeds if the flower is allowed to be pollinated.
Most growers prune the flowers when it begins to grow because if it is not given a chance to pollinate, it will put more energy into growing traps to make it through the rest of the year.
Where to Get a Venus Flytrap
Venus flytraps are available on Amazon, and they may be available at your local nursery or greenhouse. Because plants are difficult to ship, expect to pay shipping no matter where you purchase the plant from.
While some may be nervous ordering a plant online, most sellers offer a live-on-arrival guarantee, meaning that they will do their best to ensure the plant arrives alive and healthy, but they cannot control the conditions under which is it shipped, so they will refund or replace the item if it is dead on arrival.
Joel’s Carnivorous Plants has over 3,000 reviews with an average rating of four out of five stars. The three-inch pot features a large, actively growing flytrap that is shipped bare-root to prevent too much stress on the plant during transport, and comes with potting moss, a full potting diagram, FAQ sheet, and care sheet.
The Killer Plant Company specializes in carnivorous plants and ships their active-growing flytraps in a three-inch pot with bare-root shipping, same as Joe’s Carnivorous Plants, to ensure the plant does not undergo too much stress during transportation.
This carnivorous plant soil mix from Organic Earth is the perfect mixture of peat moss and perlite, great for keeping Dionaea well-draining but wet enough to keep the proper moisture it likes. This soil also works well for pitcher plants and sundews for the grower who enjoys keeping carnivorous plants of all types. Over 1,000 reviews bring this plant to four and a half stars.
Flytrap Dormancy in Winter
Dionaea muscipula requires a dormancy period after fall, where they die back to a small rosette. This is something the plant naturally senses through photoperiodism, which is the sense of day length.
These rosettes still require plenty of light to remain healthy throughout their dormancy, so they should not be moved to dark or low-light conditions.
The dormant rosette can withstand periods of frost and light freezes, but flytraps grown outdoors should be sheltered from long frosts or snow cover.
The natural dormancy period is a requirement for a flytrap to remain healthy, even if grown indoors. Without this dormancy, the flytrap’s health will suffer in the following year.
The minimum dormancy period is ten weeks, though it can last as long as five months in the wild.
How Venus Flytraps Reproduce
Dionaea can be propagated through seed, but it is much more effective to allow it to reproduce in spring through division.
In the wild, the Venus flytrap reproduces through seed dispersal. It can pollinate either sexually or asexually and the flowers bloom on a long stalk that grows much taller than the traps to prevent the pollinators from accidentally falling prey to the traps. The seeds germinate well in ash and sandy soil, conditions which are common after a natural brush fire, without a dormancy period.
Once the flower is pollinated, small seeds appear. After four-to-six weeks of maturing, these seeds turn black and disperse from the plant, spreading in the environment to create new plants.
Another way the flytrap can reproduce is through division. Once the plant is big enough, the rhizome will begin to split and grow into new plants from the bulbous root underground. The plants only need to be one to two years old to propagate themselves like this.
It is important to note that if a flytrap is being cared for as a houseplant, it is best to snip the flowers back when they grow as the flytrap will devote more energy to the flowers to the detriment of the leaves, and this can kill the plant in an attempt to reproduce if it is unable to support all systems. Likewise, snipping the flowers will help the plant put more energy resources towards developing new and bigger traps.
What Can Kill a Venus Flytrap?
Many things threaten a flytrap’s livelihood, leading many beginner houseplant adopters or impulse-buyers to believe it is a difficult plant to care for. Unfortunately, many of the mistakes that these inexperienced houseplant growers make are contributing factors to what can kill a venus flytrap. The list below clarifies a lot of the common causes of flytrap death.
Additionally, many flytrap owners mistakenly believe that when the plant turns black and dies back to the ground in winter that it is dead, and the plant is removed. In most cases, this is simply the dormancy phase going into effect and the plant is simply resting, placing its energy into root development instead.
- Not eating enough
Without a proper source of nutrition through insects, Venus flytraps can die without taking in any insects, though it is common for indoor flytraps to be able to catch the occasional fly, spider, or other insects. If your flytrap has gone a month or two without catching anything, it should be fed to prevent it from dying. Flytraps thrive when they can digest small insects at least once a month.
- Too much soil nutrition
The Venus flytrap thrives in nutrient-poor, acidic soil. Fertilizing the plant may kill it, as it takes in nutrients from the insects it digests through the leaves, not through the soil.
- Lack of or too much sunlight
Like all other plants, too little to too much sunlight can kill the leaves of the plant. During the growing season, Dionaea needs full sun for 6 hours or longer each day, while sunlight requirements are reduced – though still necessary – throughout the dormant season once the outer leaves fall back.
- Lack of or too much water
Flytraps are used to staying damp, as their native habitat is in the bogs and springs of the Carolinas. Too much water will cause root rot and potentially overwhelm the plant, however, killing it, while too little water will prevent it from being able to transport important nutrients, dehydrating it.
- Too high or too low temperature
As with all plants, if the temperature is too high or too low, exceeding its natural threshold, the flytrap will perish. Plant temperature and soil temperature are different, so be sure to monitor both; for example, keeping the soil cool might be necessary if the pot is near a heat source.
The flytrap does require a period of cold dormancy to thrive, so colder temperatures are required for a few months out of the year.
- Trap closing on food larger than the leaf
The flytrap generally prefers insects that are small enough to be enveloped by the leaves but not large enough to exceed the size of the trap. The flytrap’s cilia are meant to trap the prey and help provide a closed environment that keeps unwanted bacteria away, as excess bacteria can poison the plant and kill it.
- Aaron Ellison, The ‘Most Wonderful Plants in the World’ are also Some of the Most Useful Ones, Oxford University Press, https://blog.oup.com/2018/02/carnivorous-plants-useful-nature/
- John Ellis, The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 37, https://books.google.com/books?id=xPoRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA523#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Gergo Palfalvi, Genomes of the Venus Flytrap and Close Relatives Unveil the Roots of Plant Carnivory, https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)30567-4
- Sarah Zielinkski, Venus Flytraps Tend Not to Eat Their Pollinators, https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/venus-flytraps-tend-not-eat-their-pollinators