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Carnivorous plants to take down insect pests
My houseplant collection is ever-expanding. Pots of cacti jostle for space on the windowsills of my tiny flat with scented tropical herbs like lemongrass, kaffir limes and curry leaves. That’s before we get on to the gardenias, little eucalypts and a collection of hanging air plants that is frankly getting out of hand.
If, like me, you are a houseplant addict, you might have noticed that little pests can be a real pain – surprisingly more so than in the great outdoors. Once these pests get into the confined spaces of a greenhouse, conservatory or living room they are shielded from the predators of the wider world and in the coddled conditions of year-round warmth their numbers can explode. Scale insects, whitefly and the dreaded red spider mite have all caused me headaches, sapping the life out of my indoor jungle and causing yellowing, mottled leaves and sticky resinous secretions. The latter are a nightmare to keep wiping up (let’s hope my landlord isn’t reading).
This year I’m employing a new strategy picked up from my colleagues at Kew to help my collection fight back: a genus of carnivorous plants called Pinguicula, more commonly known as the butterworts. These attractive houseplants have specially adapted structures on the surface of their emerald green leaves that emit tiny droplets of mucilage, giving them a glossy sheen.
Attracted to the potential water source, insects land on their surface and when they do so the plants show their true colours. In reaction to the vibrations from the struggling insect the plants churn out yet more of the secretion, ensnaring them like living flypaper. Finally, digestive enzymes break down the bodies of the unsuspecting creatures, which the plants use as a source of minerals that the soils in their native habitat of South and Central America lack.
The best bit? Unlike the hazard-tape-yellow sticky paper traps you buy in garden centres, these plants also happen to be stunningly beautiful, with showy pink and red flowers erupting from their apple-green rosettes of leaves. They won’t get stuck to pets, clothes or kids that swipe past, and mine have so far not only proved really effective at catching whitefly, they’ve mopped up the fungus gnats that can damage seedlings and cuttings.
They have even (unexpectedly) ensnared the clothes moths that seem resistant to everything else I’ve tried. All they ask for in return is a sunny, warm spot and regular dousing with soft water. I use the distilled water you get for ironing, but if you don’t live in a hard water area, tap water will do.
And since they’re sold in the house- plant section of any garden centre, There’s no reason why you shouldn’t add one to your collection.