August 29, 2011

Monster Malaysian Monkey-Eating Vine !

Nepenthes rajah
one of the largest of all pitcher vines
courtesy of the Colorado Carnivorous Plant Society

Well..... not really. I am sure that there were headlines to this effect perhaps a century ago in Victorian England. The truth is, as is so often the case, much more tame. The Asian Pitcher vines of the genus Nepenthes have fired up plant growers' imaginations for 200 years. Most of the species are curious or odd, but some are downright impressive. One of the newest species is named after famed explorer and celebrity Sir David Attenborough, and boasts an amazing pitcher large enough to "eat" a rat or mouse. In several cases, vertebrate bones have been found in the pitchers of Nepenthes vines, but likely the bones belonged to a small rodent, not anything as large as a monkey. One report long ago stated that tarsier bones had been found in a pitcher, which was promptly translated to "primate", and thence onward to "monkey".

The pitchers passively trap insects, frogs, and anything else that drowns in the liquid pooled up in the bottom of the traps. The rim of the pitcher as well as the inside walls of the pitcher are extremely smooth and slippery, allowing any curious creature to easily fall into the Pool of Death.  

N. ventricosa 'Red'
widely available in retail garden centers

Nepenthes attenboroughii
not widely available anywhere

In the last decade. several plant tissue culture companies have released varieties of pitcher vines which growers have produced for the retail gardening market. Although they are robust varieties of pitcher vines,  most of them will fail slowly over a few years' time due to poor water quality and rotted potting mix. The vines are really quite easy to grow once they get good quality water and an open, orchid-style potting mix. The vines need ample water, but great aeration at the roots. Hanging pots or baskets are the usual ways to grow these plants, since the vines can get many meters long. The vines are often trained on a trellis or wound around the plant hanger to allow maximum light exposure to the vine leaves. Usually the domain of public garden conservatories or advanced collectors, the vines can grow well wherever orchids can be grown well.     

N. bicalcarata 'Red'
with soft "fangs"

Nepenthes with giant 
"commodious pitcher" 

If you have a great well-water source of acid, calcium-free water, these plants are easy and fun to grow. Unlike the "real" pitcher plants, the flowers on these vines are inconspicuous. The pitchers on these modified leaves are the real reason for the show. The plants don't need to be fertilized very much, but if you do, go very lightly at 1/10 the normal strength of usual houseplant fertilizing. The plants like direct sunlight in the morning, high humidity and warm temperatures. Dry, cold wind will usually spell doom for the vines, and they won't likely recover as will the terrestrial pitchers. If you want to grow something interesting, and have the conditions for them, Nepenthes are always a good conversation pieces. Just keep pets away from them...........     

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

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