How to Take Care of a Sundew Correctly

taking care of a sundew correctly

I’ve been interested in carnivorous plants for a long time, and I decided to adopt my very own sundew. These plants are unique and can be difficult to care for, so I wanted to share what I learned about caring for a sundew.

How to take care of a sundew? Proper care of a sundew can vary based on its natural climate, but they all need standard carnivorous plant soil, constant moisture, and a small insect to eat a few times a month. 

Before you jump in, however, you should answer a few key questions to get to know your sundew. Then we’ll explore the proper care and feeding of your special plant.

What Kind of Sundew Do I Have?

There are approximately 152 species of the genus “Drosera”, commonly known as the sundew.

Types of sundews are classified according to the environment they are used to, as well as some physical characteristics. In this list, I will outline the different kinds of sundews, and you’ll want to find out which one you have, as it will affect how to care for it properly.

  • Temperate Sundews: North American and European species. In the dormant winter period, their flowers “die” back into a tight cluster of unfurled leaves.
  • Subtropical Sundews: under constant conditions, these plants grow year-round.
  • Pygmy Sundews: Australian in origin. They’re very small, and have dense hairs in the center of their crown.
  • Tuberous Sundews: Also from Australia. They grow a tuber beneath the soil (think potato) which they shrink into during extremely dry summers, and re-emerge in the autumn. Some even form climbing stems.
  • Petiolaris Complex Sundews: Australia again. They need constant warmth and sometimes wet conditions, although they grow surfaces to condense dew during the drier months. They look like a ball of pipe cleaners with fuzzy heads.

Now that you know which type of sundew you have, you can properly prepare its environment.

How Much Light Does a Sundew Need?

Across sundew species, they need sunlight. Most species thrive in direct sunlight and need nothing more than for you to set them outside, if you’re in a warm climate.

However, too much sunlight can burn the plants. You never want to put them in full shade, but some plants might benefit from partial sunlight.

Keep them in direct sunlight for several hours during the day and then transition them to filtered light for the rest of the day. You can accomplish this by setting them outside and partially covering them with a screen that lets a lot of light through, but not all.

Another simple solution is to place them in front of a large window that lets a lot of sun in, and pulling the window shade down after a few hours of direct sunlight. Make sure the window shade still lets in light. It should only be lightly filtered out.

Can I Use Artificial Light On My Sundew?

Yes, and some sundew experts even recommend using a plant light such as this one instead of natural sunlight, as it gives you more control of the amount of light your sundew will receive.

Use lights with a minimum of 40 watts output. Place the lights around a foot above your plant. Keep an eye on your plant’s growth. If you’re not satisfied with the rate, move the lights closer.

You’ll want to have an electrical timer- your plant only wants as much light as it would get during daylight hours. Fourteen hours of artificial light will do the trick.

Why Does My Sundew Need So Much Light?

The prey the sundew traps only provides them with nutrients to supplement their poor soil conditions. They do not receive energy from the bugs they digest.

Like many plants, the best source of energy is sunlight, so make sure your plant is getting enough, but not getting burnt.

What Climate Does My Sundew Need?

Once you’ve made sure your sundew is getting plenty of light, the primary concerns for growing a sundew are temperature and moisture, the elements of climate. Most of the time, their natural soil is nutrient deficient, so your soil recipe is not the most important part of their care (but we’ll talk about getting the perfect mix next).

For each kind of sundew, we’ll list out the proper temperature and moisture level.

  • Temperate Sundews: Warm and moist. During dormancy, the plant should be kept drier, but keep the soil evenly moist. 
  • Subtropical Sundews: Keep these plants wet and warm year-round, with no season changes. 
  • Pygmy Sundews: Warm and moist year-round.
  • Tuberous Sundews: Mostly warm and moist, but they need an extremely dry “summer” period, where they retreat into their tuber. 
  • Petiolaris Complex Sundews: Keep them warm and wet year-round, although during the summer they tend to adapt to lower levels of moisture. 

As you can see, most sundews love warm, moist soil with great lighting, but a few sundews have special seasonal concerns based on their environment. Make sure you get to know your sundew’s species and their natural habitat and accomodate what they’d see in the wild.

What Soil is Best?

Although a sundew thrives naturally in nutrient-deficient soil, you can still create the best possible soil mixture to encourage its growth and longevity.

Like most carnivorous plants, the sundew grows best in a mix of peat moss, perlite or sand. Use four parts peat moss to one part perlite or sand. Tuberous types and most other Australian species prefer sand, but the others will be happy with perlite.

Never use potting soil, compost, or fertilizer. These types of soils are too thick and will kill your plant.

When using store-bought peat moss, double check it has not been fortified with fertilizers! Miracle-Gro peat moss, for instance, has this problem.

How Should I Arrange My Sundew?

Once you’ve found a location with good light and proper temperature, we need to insure the sundew is in a controllably moist environment.

The “tray method” is a great way to arrange your sundew and control their water intake.

  1. Select an area for your plant out of reach of children or animals. 
  2. Ensure the area has good lighting, natural or not.
  3. Set out plastic sterilite containers of your desired size.
  4. Pot your sundew in a planter. 
  5. Place the potted sundew inside the plastic container and fill with water.

Be careful with the amount of water. Plants that require mostly dry climates should only have about a quarter inch, while plants that prefer moisture should have a full inch of water. For plants that prefer wet climates, go halfway up the pot.

Be careful to watch your plants response to its environment. Err on the side of more water, except for dry climate plants.

What Kind of Water is Best for My Sundew?

Sundews need mineral-free water. You can use tap water if you’re sure it has less than 50 parts per million in dissolved minerals.

If you’re not confident in your tap water, filter it first, or be safe and use distilled bottled water. This guarantees a good water environment for your sundew.

What Should I Feed My Sundew?

If your sundew is outdoors and not in a cage or greenhouse, they’ll catch their own food and require no feeding. They only need to feed a few times a month and can easily accomplish this on their own, naturally.

If your sundew is inside or in a terrarium, simply supplement their diet with a wingless fruit fly or other small insect around two times a month. They aren’t picky eaters.

How Does its Feeding Process Work?

Your sundew has tentacles with two types of glands that aid in capture and digestion. One gland secretes sweet mucus (attractive, I know) to draw in insects seeking sugar. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for your sundew, the bug is trapped by the same mucus that drew them in.

The stickiness is strong as quicksand, and the more the bug struggles, the more exhausted it becomes. Within fifteen minutes, it dies from exhaustion or the mucus suffocates them.

Not pretty, but effective. Then the sundew secretes enzymes to dissolve the prey into a nutrient slushie. Then the bug-smoothie is absorbed through the leaves of the plant.

How Do the Tentacles Move?

That’s right. A sundews tentacles can move to react to stimuli and trap prey. The tentacles will all move towards the center of the leaf so it can bring the prey near all of the tentacles, sticking it to the sundew faster and making digestion quicker as well.

This is a process called “thigmonasty”, which is any movement response from plants or fungi as a result of being touched. Sundews are not the only plants that do this, but they are special for how rapidly they respond and how sensitive they are to touch.

Experiments as far back as Charles Darwin’s in his book Insectivorous Plants showed that the sundew responds to the lightest of touches. Even the footsteps of a gnat will cause the tentacles to bend. 

The fastest tentacles in the fastest breeds of sundew are called “snap tentacles,” because they can “snap” in a matter of tenths of seconds.

Do Sundews Ever Trap Things That Aren’t Food?

Actually, sundews are difficult to trick. If the matter does not contain nutrition, after the leaf begins to curl to trap the item, the sundew will recognize it’s not a nutritious bug, and reject it.

It then repels the item from the plant with a flip of its tentacles, releasing it from the mucus.

How Does a Sundew Reproduce? 

Many sundews are self-fertile, and will both produce seeds and pollinate their own seeds without any help from you. However, if you want to encourage germination, follow these instructions. If you don’t want germination, avoid these conditions!

  • Temperate species: colder and damper conditions than usual
  • Tuberous species: hot, dry period (summer) followed by a cool, moist period (winter)
  • Other species: provide extra moisture or light

Other sundews will reproduce if their roots come close to the surface of the soil or if older leaves touch the ground, sprouting plantlets.

Like many plants in your home garden, you can propagate the sundew by taking healthy cuttings from any section of the plant. Simply plant these in the same soil recipe as you planted your adult sundew.

Watch out! The sundew reproduces easily and its seedlings or plant cuttings thrive quickly and often. Seeds can be gathered if your plant germinated by gently shaking the flower over a cup and then keeping the seeds in a cool, moist place or disposing of them.

Is a Sundew Dangerous for Humans or Animals Besides Insects?

The sundew itself is not toxic, but eating too much can cause stomach irritation or even gastritis.

This means if you have animals around the house that like to nibble on anything or everything, keep the sundew in a higher place or in a room out of their reach. A house pet could have serious pain or injury if they were to eat the plant.

Ingestion of the plant will only cause a stomachache in humans if you eat too much, unless you’re pregnant. If you’re pregnant, do not take even a nibble. The most active ingredient, plumbagin, has cytotoxic effects and will harm your fetus.

What Does Cytotoxic Mean?

It’s a fancy word for a chemical that is toxic to living cells. Your sundew is a carnivorous plant, and the liquids on its surface are meant to kill and digest bugs. But usually this only means indigestion if you happen to eat the sundew’s tentacles.

For a fetus, it would be life-threatening.

My recommendation would be to not eat the sundew, unless carefully advised by an expert in their medicinal benefits.

Do Sundews Carry Any Parasites?

Sundews in the wild can carry parasites, but unless you live in the same area as the wild sundews are growing, there’s little likelihood your carnivorous house plant is a carrier.

However, if you’re nervous about your plant being a carrier, check with your source and see if the plant was harvested wild. If it wasn’t, your sundew is clean, and if it is wild in origin and possibly a carrier, simply do not eat the sundew or drink the water it is in, and you won’t see any negative effects from the parasite.

Why Would Anyone Want to Eat a Sundew?

Historically, small doses of the sundew plant have been considered to have many benefits. None of these have ever been proved in clinical medical trials, but natural medicine practitioners might still consider sundew a good ingredient for the following ailments.

  • Whooping cough
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma
  • Tuberculous
  • Aphrodisiac (nothing about bugs dissolving in goo makes me think of romance, but that’s just me)
  • Heart pain
  • Sunburn
  • Toothache
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Preventing freckles (I personally like freckles)

Extracts for medicines are made using the roots, flowers, and fruit-like capsules of the plant.

Native sundew species are protected in Europe and North America, so medicinal sundew is usually cultivated privately or imported from areas that do not have environmental protections for the plant.

Does Anyone Eat a Sundew for Non-Medicinal Purposes?

Tuberous sundews native to Australia are sometimes eaten as delicacies by aborigines. They can also be used to prepare dyes. The purple or yellow dye made by sundews was used even in the Scottish Highlands.

Sundew liquor has been prepared since the 14th century, and is made from fresh leaves and still drunk today.

Are Sundews Endangered?

Regardless of recent conservation efforts, many species of sundew are critically endangered.

The primary threat to sundews in the wild is habitat loss, but there’s also been a severe decline in wild sundews due to harvesting and sale. Check with your sundew source and make sure they are not inappropriately harvesting endangered sundews from the wild.

Mostly, sundews lose their habitats due to farming, oil and gas extraction, mining, dredging, and quarrying. Human population is also growing and encroaching on the sundews usual turf.

Since the sundew can be anywhere between a few inches and four feet tall, it’s not an imposing presence, and easily removed when construction is clearing an area.

Medical Research on Sundew Goo

The mucus on the sundew’s tentacles fuses with live mammal cells. Researchers can’t collect the sundew goo, because the amounts are too small and its properties deteriorates as soon as you separate it from the plant.

Researchers have, however, synthesized a gel very similar to what the sundew secretes, which has been found to promote wound healing and could even help with tissue regeneration.

All thanks to the sticky sundew!

Signs Your Sundew is Struggling

No Dew on Your Sundew

Sundews need the dew of their namesake, which I’ve been referring to as their bug-catching mucus, to grab insects and get nutrients.

There are four possible factors to inspect that might be keeping your sundew from secreting dew.

  1. Light: If your tentacles are not red and the whole plant is turning green, provide more light.
  2. Temperature: Lower the temperature to keep the dew from evaporating too quickly.
  3. Humidity: Higher humidity will keep the dew from evaporating, so move your sundew to a more moist area. 
  4. Air movement: In conjunction with high humidity, adding air movement can discourage fungus and insects. Without humidity, this can do more harm than good though, and will evaporate your dew. 

Modify these four factors over several days as noted above until your sundew is producing a satisfactory amount of secretion. And for more information see our other aticle reasons there is no dew on your sundew.

Leaf Deformation

Sometimes leaves come out looking a little bit wonky (we’ve all had those days), and in the cases of natural leaf deformation, you have nothing to worry about. Your sundew will straighten itself out in a few days.

If three or more leaves grow out deformed in a row and your plant appears to be declining (losing its dew or its beautiful red color, or shrinking or shriveling out of season), then you need to take action.

If the deformation becomes a pattern, it’s either due to environmental factors or insect damage. Can you see insects on your sundew or positioned in the soil, ready to eat younger roots? Prevent insects from harming your sundews with these simple steps.

  1. Dry your pots out between waterings, giving insects less chance to thrive in the soil.
  2. Provide more light for your sundew. A light-starved plant has a harder time combatting insect infestations.
  3. Increase air circulation, as bugs are associated with stagnant conditions. Make sure to increase your humidity as you do this, or you might dry out your plant.

If insects are not the problem, vary your lighting, temperature, humidity, and air conditions, as I described in the previous section, “No Dew on Your Sundew”.

A Black Substance on the Sundew’s Crown

If not only your sundew’s leaves are deformed, but there is a black buildup growing at the center of your plant, you have many options. This buildup is due to humic acids and other solubles being deposited in the center of your plant.

The following five solutions could all work for your plant. Try each one individually and then move onto the next if it’s not successful.

  1. Rub the affected area with a moist, warm cloth to remove the buildup.
  2. Top-water the soil for a long time to flush out the acids. Alternatively, rinse your peat.
  3. Change your soil to a lower ratio of peat. Or switch it out for sphagnum.
  4. Lower the moisture level.
  5. Adjust the usual variables of light, temperature, ambient humidity, and air movement. 

Any of these five solutions will help your plant, but do it fast. Even though there’s no way to prevent this buildup from occurring, if you leave it alone, it will choke and harm your plant.

Wilting, Curling, and Browning, AKA “Root Rot”

Root rot can have many causes, mainly due to an overabundance of water. Temperatures may also have cooled too much for your plant, or the light intensity may have decreased, providing it with less energy than it needs.

To solve this problem, follow any of the suggestions I’ve listed here.

  1. Put your sundew into a taller pot, elevating roots away from the tray water.
  2. Replace your perlite with sand to improve drainage in the soil.
  3. Dry the water tray out before you fill it up again. Don’t let your sundew dry up while you let the tray dry, though.
  4. Give your sundew a longer day. Change your timer from 14 hours to 15 hours of light, if you’re using artificial light. If you’re using natural light, you might add more direct sun exposure, or switch to artificial light.
  5. Increase air circulation. 

Try any or all of these solutions to help your plant, but be careful not to dry it out. Watch your plant’s soil and make sure it stays moist throughout these changes.

Heat Stress

You can tell a sundew is experiencing heat stress when it loses its dew, the leaves turn yellow or a gross pink, and the very tips of the leaves start browning.

Younger sundews are particularly susceptible to this problem, as they do not have the strong root systems older sundews do. As your sundew ages, this shouldn’t be a problem.

To combat heat stress, follow these instructions.

  • If your sundew is an outdoor plant, bring your sundew inside, where you can control its environment more closely.
  • Lower the temperature.
  • Increase humidity.
  • Add sphagnum moss to your soil mixture, which has been known to cool down plants. 

If you move your plant to an easily controlled artificial environment, fixing heat stress is easy. Just watch for the signs so you can catch it early on.

I Need More Help With My Sick Plant!

There are several carnivorous plant forums that can answer your questions. Visit any of the following forums to speak with experienced growers: Terraforums.comGarden.org, or Carnivorous Plant UK

To make sure your inquiry gets the answers you need, include the following information in your post.

  • Identify your plant as the “Drosera capnesis”, which is the species name for sundews.
  • A picture of your plant that includes the problem
  • How long you’ve had the plant
  • Where you’re located (What city? What state? It’ll help people figure out your climate conditions)
  • Description of growing conditions. Don’t be shy here. Tell them everything you can about your plant’s environment.

Giving that information to the friendly folks at the forum should have your sundews back in tip-top-fly-munching shape in no time!

How Long Can My Sundew Live?

A sundew can live up to fifty years, although that’s the maximum lifespan ever recorded. If you care for your sundew correctly, you will have a beautiful, insect-eating plant companion for decades to come.

Sundews can be an interesting plant to care for, and their hardiness makes them easy to manage. Keep an eye on their moisture, lighting, and temperature, and they’ll be shining brightly for you every day.