How to Grow Heliamphora in New England
by Emmi Kurosawa
The Genus Heliamphora (AKA Sun Pitcher) consists of 23 species (as of March 2015), and is endemic to the Tepui mountains of South America. Most species are found in Venezuela, and some species extend its range to Brazil and Guyana. They live in a wet, cool, yet sunny environment. The key to successfully cultivating Heliamphora is to mimic these conditions.
I have found it’s best to use cypress bark mulch as your main potting media, and then dress this with sphagnum moss on top. Cypress bark has a natural anti fungal property that resists fungal growth and rotting. It creates air pockets to provide oxygen to the roots while keeping the roots wet at the same time. Cypress bark is available online as well as in farm stores such as Agway (not every Agway carries them, so call before you go). The sphagnum moss dressing on top provides humidity and is also a good indicator of the existing humidity level. It will become dry when the humidity is low, telling you that water is needed. Ideally, you should try to use live sphagnum moss as it is said to have antifungal properties and a better appearance, but non-living moss is still beneficial.
As required by most carnivorous plants, use rainwater, RO water or distilled water exclusively. Carnivorous plants like Heliamphora grow in nutrient-poor acidic soil. Higher pH, minerals and fertilizers can kill them. Collect rain water if you can, otherwise use distilled water is readily available at low cost in the spring water section of your local supermarket. Make sure to grab “distilled” water, as spring water contains minerals. Keep the potting media wet at all times, but not water-logged. If you use cypress bark as the main media, you can keep some water at the bottom of the terrarium (tray method). However, it’s best if you can provide your plants with a period of no water at the bottom from time to time, to let the roots breathe better (be careful not to dry up the roots if you do this, as cypress bark can dry up easily).
It is recommended to grow Heliamphora in a contained environment such as a terrarium, fish tank or greenhouse. This way, it is easier to maintain the high humidity required for these plants to thrive.
I strongly discourage the use of incandescent light bulbs that generate heat, as these can easily overheat the contained terrarium environment. I have been most successful using T5 fluorescent bulbs. I found LED lights relatively more expensive, and tricky to find the right strength to keep Heliamphora happy. Having said that, some people have been successful using LED lights. From my experience, it is recommended to use grow lights to achieve the best results (color, growth, flowering, and proliferation). However, dedicated grow lights can be expensive. I have been successful with a full spectrum desk lamp placed 1-2 inches above the terrarium, which kept the Heliamphora every bit as happy as when I used the expensive grow lights. The general aquarium lights for plants may not be sufficient to bring out the best of these plants. In my experience, they can thrive under these lights, but the color may become dull and the leaves thin and weak, with poor nectar spoon development.
In general, if you provide light that is too intense, the leaves become an orangish green color, and can even get brown around the edges. The most beautiful state of Heliamphora to me is when the leaves are a pistachio green with well developed, bright red nectar spoons, and bright red around top edges of the leaves. I try to adjust the lighting conditions to achieve these colorations. You may want to adjust yours to achieve the color and morphology that suits your preferences.
In general, Heliamphora like cool and steady temperatures. An ideal temperature would be in the 70’s (F). 80’s are OK, but not ideal. When it hits the 90’s and above, the plants will show sign of stress, heat shock, and eventually die. In New England, the months of May-August (especially July!) can be challenging, because the temperature can easily reach at 90’s and above. To prevent heat shock, keep them in an air conditioned room or basement where the temperature can be kept lower during these months. You could even use a water chiller to circulate cool water to keep the temperature down, but water chillers can be expensive.
There is no need to provide temperature drops at night, unlike some of highlander Nepenthes species. Keep some rain (or distilled) water in each pitcher, and don’t worry about overflowing. The pitchers have their own natural drainage system that will maintain the ideal water level. This is important because most Heliamphora do not produce digestive enzymes (except H. tatei), and instead rely on bacterial/fungal decomposition of food in the rainwater in the pitchers. Hence, keeping water in the pitchers helps with nutrient delivery as well as with keeping the humidity up.
Keep at least 50% humidity. 60% and above is ideal. If you keep them in a terrarium or a fish tank with some water at the bottom, this can be easily achieved. During the winter months, keeping the humidity at 60% can be challenging even if you use the closed terrarium. If this is the case, you can achieve it by using smaller terrariums, creating a waterfall, or adding a humidifier inside the terrarium.
As long as you provide enough lights, it is generally not necessary to fertilize Heliamphora. However, they love it if you feed them and will grow and propagate much faster. Do NOT fertilize them through the roots as this can kill the plants. I have been successful feeding with a fish food like Betta Bites, putting a few pellets into each pitcher every month. Do not overfeed them as this can cause fungus problems. Plants grow even faster if you apply fertilizers such as Maxsea in each pitcher. Maxsea contains nutrients that are readily absorbable by the plant, omitting the time for decomposition of the fish food into nutrients. Some nurseries and hydroponic stores carry these products. You can also find them online.