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Cultivating 101- The Basics Of Growing Nepenthes

This is required reading for anyone who is new to growing Nepenthes, or anyone who has tried unsuccessfully. This section will not tell you how to grow Nepenthes, it is meant to get you into the proper mindset to grow them.


Growing any plant is easy if you can duplicate the environment it grows in naturally. Since it is impossible for us to recreate Mt. Kinabalu in our back yard, recreating the environment in some sort of growing area must be done. Understanding what conditions each species grows well in is what we shoot for, so that we know what we need to recreate. Understanding that different Nepenthes species can be found growing very different environmental conditions from each other is your first step to understanding that each one has specific needs. Many of these plants have similar needs, so you'll be able to grow them side by side.  Som especies can not be grown side by side, and doing so will find that one species thrives while the other declines and finally dies.

You'll hear me group Nepenthes together as "lowland", "intermediate", "highland", and "ultra-highland."  These are the basic groupings for temperature requirements. Although there are a few species that do not like cool temperatures below 50 degrees, most species will tolerate them. Even the lowland species. The reason I don't have an ultra-lowlander category is because it is not difficult to keep the temperatures above 50 degrees for most people, but it can be very difficult to keep daytime temperatures in the 70-80 degree range, and nighttime temps down to 50 degrees. That's why there is an ultra-highlander classification.  The plants in the ultra-highlander class are very unforgiving if they dont receive a substantial night time temperature drop, or if the day temps become hot. 

And now, from the home office somewhere in the unexplored sections of Borneo, we bring you the top 12 list. This is the list of DO NOTS; things you should not do when attempting to grow Nepenthes, especially as you start out.  By following the ideas in this list, you will get off to a better start in growing Nepenthes.

  1. Do not start off trying to grow an N. rajah, N. villosa, or any other ultra highland plant species. Trust me, you won't end up with a giant rat killing rajah pitcher anytime soon. Start with simple to grow plants such as N. khasiana, N. ventricosa, N. alata, N.truncata, N. gracilis, and N. rafflesiana, etc. Master these, then move on to more difficult plants. 
  2. Do not ask questions from another grower without at least making some effort on your part of learning the basics of growing. Now, this might seem a bit harsh, but basically you want to be considerate and do as much research as you can on the basics. For example, don't ask general questions like is an N. rafflesiana a highland or lowland. This makes it seem to others that you are too lazy to do your own research. To some degree, I am almost a little hesistant to give advice to such a person, for fear that they are missing a lot of information they should also have. Many of us have been bitten after answering such simple questions, as the person asking ends up pulmetting us with further basic questions that is readily found with a few mouse clicks on the internet. After all, that's partly what this site is all about, allowing you to do your own research.  Don't get me wrong, there are no dumb questions. If you honestly do not understand a point after researching, no matter how basic it is, most people have no problems helping you out. Your ability to grow these plants is greatly enhanced when you actively research yourself. My point here is that you should not sit back and ask questions. Get off your butt and research. With that being said, I am always willing to answer questions from people attempting to grow these plants. Like I said, there are no dumb questions (and hopefully no dumb answers), but use this site as much as possible to get up to speed. Then fire away with the questions.
  3. Do not take answers to your questions from other growers as the gospel truth. I have seen some answers on the CP listserve and other forums that made me wonder if the person answering has even tried to grow Nepenthes. Indeed, some people will answer questions with their general knowledge, even though they don't grow the plants. That in of itself is ok, as long as the person answering makes it aware that they are not answering based upon experience.
  4. Do not assume because someone can grow a plant in one part of the USA or world that you can grow the same plant as easily in another. Places such as northern California and Denver, Colorado are excellent places to grow highland and ultra highland Nepenthes. Places such as Memphis, TN and Miami, Florida are not unless you invest in some serious cooling equipment. 
  5. Do not order a plant if you have not studied its cultivation requirements first. You could quickly kill the plant from improper conditions. More probable, you will have a sickly looking plant that doesn't pitcher or produces butt ugly pitchers. I don't think there is a well grown Nepenthes species that could be considered butt ugly, so if yours looks butt ugly, it's probably due to improper growing. Don't kill or maim a $50 or $150 plant because you haven't properly planned for its requirements. At least 50 of the most common species are fairly well documented as to how to grow them, and I include detailed instructions for most species on this site. Find out what they require first, or take a pass on species that you're not able to duplicate the environment for. There is no shame in waiting to grow a species until you think you can handle it. There's a LOT of other species you can try first, which are very easy to grow, some of which can quickly produce mammal eating pitchers.
  6. Do not order plants until you have a chamber, soil, and pots ready. In order words, don't wait for the plants to arrive before you start getting your butt in gear. The day the plants arrive is not the day you need to go to Home Depot and buy the materials to make a grow chamber for them. Nepenthes are usually very durable, but some are highly traumatized with travel and transplanting. Making sure you have everything ready to go when the plants arrive makes the experience much more enjoyable for you, as well as the plants.
  7. Do not use your tap water unless you know it is safe for Nepenthes. Tap water that measures above 100ppm is too hard for long term watering. You would either have to transplant into fresh soil every 6 months or a year, or find a source of water that is much purer, such as collecting rain water or buying a reverse osmosis unit. Chlorine levels above 5ppm may also be too high. In this case you could leave your tap water standing in an open container for 48 hours, which will cause the chlorine to evaporate out of the water.
  8. Do not assume your tap water can not be used. There are many places in this country where tap water can be used readily to water your plants. Find out your water's quality from your water company. Here in Memphis, TN, in the eastern part of the county where I live the water is only 25ppm, and I have used it extensively for 30 years. The western part of the county receives their water supply from a second aquifer, which is not as deep as ours. Their water has a level of 125ppm, making it marginal for use. The main point is don't invest in expensive reverse osmosis units if it's not necessary. Your water quality report is usually readily available from your supplier. Nepenthes are some of the most forgiving CP plants as far as water quality is concerned, so don't think that your water isn't going to be acceptable to them. There's a good chance it will.
  9. Do not place a lot of trust in cultivation instructions for a plant that is dated. There have been several books on cultivation written over the past 25 or so years. Adrian Slack's books are now quite old, but are still very popular. However, some of the information is dated. While Slack's books are recommended reading, check on current cultivation tips as well. Peter D'Amato's "The Savage Garden" in mandatory reading. I am not aware of any books that have been dedicated to the cultivation of Nepenthes, although one is sorely needed.
  10. Do not handle the plants very often. There are two types of love in this world; there's the physical "touchy feely" show of affection, and there is the stand back and proclaim your love to the world kind of love. Nepenthes are not touchy feely kinds of objects. They like to be left alone. They dont mind you standing back a few feet and proclaiming your love for them at the top of your voice, but handling them in an excessive way does not make them happy. Leave them alone and let them grow, otherwise you'll put undue stress on the vine trunks and roots. In the men are from mars, women are from venus scenario, nepenthes come from mars. 
  11. Do not grow plants that will exceed your growing space anytime soon. A small Nepenthes bicalcarata can be 3 feet in diameter in less than a year, and can grow to be 6 feet or more in diameter over time. It will outgrow a small aquarium in months.  Some Nepenthes grow at a wicked rate. Attempting to grow gracilis or tobaica in a small terrarium or aquarium will prove to be a lesson in constant pruning, but that can be acceptable. But just be aware that a 6" N. bicalcarate or ampullaria can outgrow a 20 gallon terrarium in a matter of weeks.
  12. Do not get upset if a plant dies. It happens to all of us at times, even if your doing things right. Learn from the experience and try to determine if you did something wrong.

This list isn't meant to keep you from growing any plant. I just want you to have realistic expectations. The good news is that many of the Nepenthes species are some of the easiest CP in the word to grow, and since they dont need a winter dormancy, they can look good all year long.

But dont start off with species that are difficult for the new grower. Trying to grow an N. rajah if you haven't mastered the very easy species will just frustrate you to where you might give up on all species. Don't think that you have to have a rajah. Most Nepenthes produce pitchers that can be very large, and some easier species can possibly get larger than rajah. N. rajah is a rather slow grower as well. If you can take an easy species like truncata or rafflesiana, and grow a pitcher to 14", you will be hooked on Nepenthes for some time to come. By the way, it is quite easy to grow a N. truncata pitcher to 14" under the right conditions.


Pop Quiz
Let's try your hand at a pop quiz to see if you have the mindset yet to attempt to grow Nepenthes:

1. Nepenthes grow naturally
         a. in a lowland swamp where parts of the plant can be submerged under water
         b. in a hot steamy jungle
         c. on a mountanside where the nightly temperatures can plummet significantly

Ok, now think of the answer.

Ready? The answer is, all of them, and in even more conditions than I list. Some Nepenthes species  grow submerged in swamps, others grow in dark steamy jungles, others grow on a mountains at elevations so great that the temperatures can drop to near freezing at night. You can't rely upon a multiple choice question to give you the answer. You need to know that there are many types of conditions they grow under. Classifying Nepenthes as jungle plants is wrong. Classifying them as mountain plants is wrong. Certain species are tropical jungle plants, and some are ultrahighland mountain plants. You can not apply the natural conditions of one plant to that of another. Two different species can grow in conditions as different as night and day. Each species has its own growing requirements. Fortunately, all can basically be grown within four temperature categories.



2. You can grow Nepenthes using the tray method, in which pots of nepenthes are placed on top of a tray of water or on a bed of wet sphagnum sphagnum.
            a. True
            b. False

For those of you who said False, congratulations. You have been doing some reading. But unfortunately, you'd be wrong. The answer is True. I have grown Nepenthes using the tray method for years, and I have read where other growers like Andreas Wistuba has used a similar setup.  Now before you go killing your nepenthes plants by keeping them overly wet, you must first understand how it is done and why it works. We'll get to that in following cultivating sections. Right now, I just want to change your mindset.



3. Lowland Nepenthes can be killed if the temperatures drop below 50 degrees farenheit.
            a. True
            b. Flase

Ok, I threw this question in here to see if you would group all lowlanders together. Some, like ampullaria, will not be as happy as they would if they were much warmer. Plants like truncata will grow slower, but have proved to be unaffected by the cold. Some, such as reinwardtiana, grow naturally from the always warm sea level, to 2100 meters which is in the elevation range of N. rajah. Some lowland species must be warm all the time, whereas others grow naturally in highland conditions as well. Species like bicalcarata and danseri can be killed with temperatures drops down to 50, but most species can tolerate it.



4. Nepenthes mirabilis can be found growing submerged in a swamp naturally, so I can also grow it like this in cultivation.
          a. True
          b. False

As long as the type of N. mirabilis you are growing comes from a swamp, then you could grow them in this manner . Duplicating how it grows in this condition isn't easy, and it may only grow submerged for a period of time. The biggest issue to realize is that there are many different types, forms, and varieties of N. mirabilis. Indeed, it has the largest natural distribution of any other Nepenthes species. But you will not succeed in growing a form that has an elevation restricted in the highlands in a lowland swamp condition. Some forms of N. mirabilis grow in a rather dry condition naturally. Just because we have grouped similar plants under the same species name does not mean the different forms will "conform" to similar growing conditions.



5. Plants in cultivation do not grow as large as they do in the wild.
         a. True
         b. False

If you furnish the right growing environment, these plants can probably grow larger than they do in the wild, where they face competition from other plants and some pests. In the wild, they are usually growing in ideal conditions, but with competition. The closer you can match these conditions, the larger they will get.


Alright, enough of the quiz. It wasn't meant to be scored, only to change your mindset about how to grow Nepenthes. Each Nepenthes species, even down to the form, type, and subspecies level, can be very different in what they require to grow well.  After all, who's to say that we as mere mortals have classified them correctly in the first place? The next step is to get the fundamentals down. Then we will have to examine each species of Nepenthes and determine the best way to grow them.