Cape sundews (Drosera capensis) are probably the best carnivorous plants for absolute beginners. They are big, colourful, and easy to maintain. All they need is bright light, soft water, and a balance between warm summers and cool winters.
Sundews use sticky blobs on their leaves to capture small animals, particularly insects. As it tries to escape, the prey animal bumps into more sticky blobs, and so becomes further entrapped. Cape sundews further secure their meals by slowly curling their leaves up, wrapping up the prey animal before starting to digest it.
Mature Cape sundews have leaves that are typically 4-6 inches in length. These leaves are long and narrow, and can be green, red, or some shade in between. Each plant will have dozens of leaves arranged in a whorl around a slightly woody stem. There are numerous cultivars that differ from one another in size, colour and leaf shape.
In common with virtually all carnivorous plants, Cape sundews come from acidic bogs where the water is very soft. It is very important that they are watered with very soft, mineral-free water. Rainwater is the cheapest and easiest way to satisfy this requirement, but failing that, deionised or distilled water will work too.
Note that mineral water, bottled drinking water, and water from a domestic water softener cannot be used.
Potted Cape sundews will come in small pots containing a mixture of peat and sand. It’s important that the peat is kept constantly wet at all times. To do this, stand the pot in a planter, and keep the planter filled with at least an inch of rainwater. Take special care to top up the water regularly in dry climates where the rate of water loss will be fastest.
A happy, well-watered Cape sundew will be covered with hundreds of rather large glistening blobs; if your Cape sundew isn’t looking as sticky as it should, check it’s adequately watered.
Cape sundews need bright light. A sunny windowsill will do, but if your climate allows it, putting Cape sundews outdoors for the summer will make a huge difference to them in terms of vigour and colour.
Cape sundews come from South Africa, and the ideal climate for them would be similar to what they experience in the wild. Hot summers are tolerated well, provided they are kept wet.
They are tolerant of brief exposure to frost and even snow, but if such conditions persist for more than a couple of days Cape sundews are best brought indoors for the winter. Wintertime temperatures around 50 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal. Since they don’t grow much in winter, any reasonably bright windowsill in an unheated room should suit them just fine.
One of the best things about Cape sundews is the ease with which they can be grown from seed. Plants reach maturity within 3-4 years, and once mature send up several long stalks covered with purple flowers throughout spring and summer.
The plants are self-fertile, which means that the seeds produced can be used to produce another generation of plants. Indeed, some carnivorous plant collectors consider Cape sundews a pest because seeds from these plants will fall into the pots of other plants, allowing Cape sundews to colonise a collection rather like a weed!
To grow from seed, simply wait until the petals have died and dried up. Put a piece of paper underneath the flower, and every day, shake the flower a little. When the seeds are ready, they’ll fall out onto the paper. They look like very small brown hooks. You can also buy Cape sundew seeds very inexpensively.
Whichever way you get the seeds, all you need do is scatter them onto a pot with a wet 50/50 mix of peat and silver (silica) sand. Keep the soil wet, and after a while, the seeds should germinate. This can take anywhere up to three months depending on the temperature.
Cape sundew seedlings grow extremely quickly by carnivorous plant standards. Within a year the leaves should be an inch or so in length, and by the second year three times that size. Like most carnivorous plants, Cape sundews live a long time, and happy plants will be gracing your home for 10 years or more!