Carnivorous plants are undoubtedly one of the coolest things to add to a terrarium.
Exotic, vibrant, deadly… these wonders have always captured our imaginations (almost as well as they do their prey). Even Darwin had a soft spot for them.
Though when it comes to the carnivorous plant terrarium, things get a little tricky.
Sure, terrariums can provide many of the things that these insect-munching plants need to thrive, but they also require some nuanced setup and care. After all, these aren’t your typical terrarium plants…
In this guide, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about building a thriving carnivorous kingdom. From the best plants (and the worst), to their unique substrate and care requirements.
Welcome to the jungle!
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- Carnivorous Plant Terrarium – DIY Overview
- Best Carnivorous Plants for Terrariums
- Carnivorous Plants to Avoid
- Key Carnivorous Plant Terrarium Layers
- Carnivorous Plant Terrarium Lighting
- Now It's Your Turn
Carnivorous Plant Terrarium – DIY Overview
Honestly, building a carnivorous plant terrarium is an entirely different school of thought than your typical tropical terrarium.
Let’s get that out of the way early.
These exotic beauties are weird, wonderful, and very particular. Did you think caring for plants that feed on insects would be any other way?
They take a lot of thought and consideration, both in their execution and care. But for intrepid explorers such as ourselves, they’re a real treasure when you get it right.
So before we get started on this wild alien plant ride, let’s cover a few essential considerations.
1. Not All Carnivorous Plants Are Created Equal
There are lots of different types of carnivorous plants.
Boasting a wide variety of sticky hairs, alluring tubes, and spiky traps – these plants have it all.
Though besides the fact that they all eat insects, perhaps the only thing they all share is the boggy conditions from which they came. In fact, it’s the acidic soil with super low nutrients (nitrogen in particular) that’s driven these plants to search for… other sources of nutrition.
This diversity means that different plants would need very different terrarium conditions.
Tropical species like Sundews and the Pitcher Plants are an excellent fit for the classic hot and humid terrarium conditions. Still, temperate plants like Sarracenia or the Venus Flytrap are terribly suited for this (more on plant choices later).
2. Carnivorous Plant Terrariums Require Very Specific Care
Effectively recreating that low-nutrient boggy environment is just one aspect of carnivorous plant care.
For starters, they commonly require much more light (and probably more moisture) than a typical terrarium plant. So you’re unlikely to be able to pair these up easily with your go-to tropical species.
Not to mention, they’re very picky about water purity.
It’s reverse-osmosis water, distilled water, or rainwater only, I’m afraid. Depending on where you’re from, tap water (and even bottled drinking water) can cause a costly mineral buildup and burn the roots.
3. Your Container Choice Dictates Your Feeding Options
Interestingly, insects are optional for carnivorous plants.
It’s preferred, but they can still get their energy just as typical plants would.
So they can often manage just fine in the right closed terrarium setting, but you’ll need an open container if you want your plants to be able to attract their food (unless you’re directly supplying them, of course).
Though, an open terrarium is at odds with its high moisture and humidity requirements. What I’m saying is that there are potentially some technical challenges to overcome here. Lots to consider!
Next, we’ll touch on some of the best carnivorous plants for terrariums.
Best Carnivorous Plants for Terrariums
These plants are at least suited to the hot and humid conditions of a tropical terrarium, but they still have their unique wants and needs.
You’ll undoubtedly have to cater your terrarium setup accordingly.
Famed for their sticky hairs and named for the glistening droplets they produce, Drosera are amongst the largest and most diverse group of carnivorous plants.
They’re so full of texture and vibrant color!
Plus, it helps that many of them tend to be on the smaller side, making them a lot more manageable for terrarium projects.
Hailing from both temperate and tropical regions around the world, sundews are amongst the easiest to keep (provided you pick the suitable tropical species).
Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes and Cephalotus)
With their unmistakable hanging “pitfall traps” and long fleshy tubes, pitcher plants really do add some exotic flair to a terrarium.
Nepenthes are amongst the most common, and these can be a good fit for terrariums as they’re more like a typical epiphyte. Liking lots of moisture and humidity (but also excellent drainage).
Though, these can get BIG, so they’re really only suited for the full tank-style terrarium/vivarium builds.
Alternatively, Cephalotus follicularis is another outside choice.
The Australian Pitcher Plant is the only one of its genus, but it’s nice and small, so it’s pretty versatile. Apparently, they do go dormant in the wild, but growers believe they don’t need it in cultivation.
Butterworts look like little carnivorous succulents with their fleshy rosette foliage. Though the leaves are typically relatively small, the bright neon hues make them really stand out.
It’s the unique buttery residue on the leaf that gives them their name and their cunning insect trap. Too tasty to insects to resist (in more ways than one).
Their small stature makes them a versatile choice and an excellent fit for desktop projects.
Plus, these tropical plants are arguably the easiest of all the carnivorous terrarium plants. They’re happiest in boggy conditions and don’t have any crazy extra requirements.
They also bloom with pretty delicate flowers; what’s not to love?
Bladderworts can also work, but they tend to be primarily aquatic species.
Carnivorous Plants to Avoid
Okay, it’s not that these types of plants are impossible to grow in a terrarium; it’s just that the benefits don’t really outweigh the challenges.
These temperate plants are better off just planted up in a pot, and you’ve got to bend over backward to make it work in a terrarium. It kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Plus, they both go dormant in Winter (which is a nice way of saying they die entirely off).
Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)
Despite being the most famous of the plants on this list, it’s arguably the least suitable for terrarium life.
They don’t care for humidity or warm temperatures, and they ultimately die off in the winter regardless.
Yes, they’re cool, but they’re seemingly not the most fruitful species to grow by any means. That being said, we do have a guide on How to Make a Venus Flytrap Terrarium should you want to give it a try (and learn from our mistakes).
American Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia and Darlingtonia)
These are a kind of temperate pitcher plant, also known as the “Trumpet Pitchers.”
As the name suggests, these can grow super tall. They can also grow pretty fast, neither of which are not ideal characteristics for terrarium plants.
To be fair, the Cobra Plant is on the smaller side, but it’s still not a good fit.
Key Carnivorous Plant Terrarium Layers
Despite carnivorous plants being bog plants at heart, they won’t thrive if they’re fully waterlogged with saturated wet soil.
Just like any plant, the roots still need to be able to breathe.
So creating a drainage layer is recommended here. Somewhere for the excess water to drain into if you get overzealous with your watering. No judgement here.
For these sensitive plants, it’s essential to choose an inert material to fill your drainage layer. Otherwise, you might have minerals leaching into the water, ultimately harming your plants.
Opting for something like lava rock is a great idea. It’s lightweight and super porous, so it’ll help oxygenate the area. The larger chunks are suitable for your hardscape too!
Carnivorous Plant Terrarium Soil / Substrate
For healthy plants, we have to make sure that the soil is completely inert and devoid of nutrients.
Which still sounds like a crazy ask for any horticultural endeavor, but there it is. This isn’t your typical set of terrarium layers.
Peat moss is commonly used as a base for carnivorous plant soil because it’s excellent at holding moisture and comes with very low nutrient levels. Sadly, it’s also a super unsustainable material, so it’s not something I like to use in my builds.
I typically use coco coir in my regular terrarium builds as an alternative, and according to growers in this online forum, it’s suitable for carnivorous plants too. But you have to be extra careful to wash it thoroughly beforehand to remove any residual minerals.
Sphagnum moss is another common addition that helps maximize water retention.
Mike King from UK-based Shropshire Sarracenias finds success with the following peat-free mix: “One part perlite, one part fine or coarse Cornish grit and two parts fine-milled bark.” (As mentioned in The Guardian).
I appreciate that Cornish grit is not available to everyone, but thankfully it’s simple silica grit. So horticultural sand or any kind of silica sand should be just as good.
Carnivorous Plant Terrarium Lighting
Honestly, carnivorous plants need a tonne of daily light.
Even a window that gets a lot of direct light may not be enough to keep every plant happy (especially the larger plants). Of course, it will vary by the different species, but the best solution is through artificial lighting.
With a LED grow light, you can closely control the amount of light and energy they receive without compromise. You’ll likely need to have them on a 12-hour cycle for healthy plant growth.
Now It’s Your Turn
So, this has been a whistle-stop tour of the world of carnivorous plant terrariums.
Are you feeling up to the challenge?
Share your experience in the comments!