How to Grow Tropical Pinguiculas, the Fungus Gnat Eaters of the Plant World

Despite the visual similarities to rosette succulents, Pinguiculas are not common succulents!

They are plants that have the unique ability to:

  • capture and digest their own prey
  • and thrive when their pots are sitting in a bowl of water

Pinguiculas catch prey by coating their leaves in a shimmering, sticky goo that attracts and traps unsuspecting insects.

Many houseplant collectors love these plants because one of the pests that are attracted to Pinguiculas is fungus gnats!!

It is not uncommon for people to seek out Pinguiculas specifically to help with controlling the gnat population in their homes.

I was one of the houseplant collectors who purchased a Pinguicula to experiment with different ways to capture fungus gnats, but I’ve developed a love for these little plants that has grown far beyond their ability to catch very annoying fungus gnats.

Pinguicula’s common names are butterworts and Pings. Its three names (Pinguicula, butterworts, and Pings) will be used interchangeably throughout the article.

This post is going to focus on Mexican butterworts, which are the easiest Pings to grow as a houseplant and the variety that I have the most experience with.

Table of Contents

Do Pinguiculas make a good houseplant?

Yes! Pinguiculas do have a couple of specific needs that a grower must be aware of to have success with these plants, but the requirements aren’t hard to meet once you know what they are.

Pinguiculas can be grown successfully on sunny windowsills and provide a rewarding experience with carnivorous plants.

Many carnivorous growers describe Mexican Pinguiculas as easier to grow than Venus Fly Traps, despite the fact that butterworts aren’t as easy to find.

I would agree with this sentiment!

Pings also attract and catch lots of houseplant pests, like aphids and fungus gnats, making them a wonderful addition to anyone’s collection!

Check out all the gnats in the photo below – it’s disgusting and awesome at the same time!

The Discovery of Pinguiculas

These little carnivores were discovered in the late 1800s by someone who noticed that bugs seemed to get trapped on the leaves. They reported their findings to Charles Darwin (who adored carnivorous plants).

Darwin studied the plant and confirmed that it was indeed a newly discovered genus of carnivorous plants!

Pinguicula’s name means “little greasy one” in Latin because of the sticky substance that covers their leaf surfaces.

These cute little meat-eaters developed the ability to catch and digest prey because of the nutrient-starved environment they grow in.

Photo by Dennis Barthel, Source

The Mexican Pinguicula or butterwort comprises the majority of Pinguiculas kept as houseplants. That is because they have fewer care requirements than the temperate species of Pings.

Mexican Pings can be found growing on rocks, tree trunks, and in forests across Mexico.

The temperate Pinguiculas can be found in many places around the world. These pings have more specialized care requirements regarding temperature and dormancy periods than Mexican pings.

Because of these specialized requirements, I decided to focus this article (and my personal collection) on caring for the tropical/Mexican variety.

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Pinguiculas’ Growth Habit in the Wild

Pings grow in rosettes generally maxing out at 2 to 6 inches in diameter.

However, there are larger Pinguiculas out there, like Pinguicula gigantea, that can grow to the size of a dinner plate! Check out the picture below!

Pinguiculas are known to produce beautiful, colorful little flowers that emerge on long stems atop the plant. Some people enjoying growing them for their flowers.

The blooms can range from pink and purple to white and yellow to varying shades of red

The tropical or Mexican butterworts are the most diverse and colorful of Pinguiculas.

These pings can be found growing in many places, from hot, wet areas to tree branches to somehow growing right next to succulent, desert plants.

Pinguicula moranensis, Photographed by Daniel Juarez Santiago, Oaxaca, Mexico, iNaturalist, Source

The climate in this region cycles between hot, wet periods and warm, dry periods.

During the dry season, many tropical pings do something remarkable: they shed their succulent leaves which require additional moisture to maintain and replace them with tight rosettes of succulent leaves that store water to help the plant stay alive until the wet season returns.

The succulent stage of tropical pinguiculas is no longer carnivorous, but new carnivorous leaves will return again when the seasons shift.

See the photo below where the butterworts on the left are transitioning into their succulent phase while the butterworts on the upper righthand corner are still in their wet season stage.

In the two photos below, you can see Pinguicula cyclosecta in its wet season, carnivorous growth (first photo) and in its succulent stage (second photo).

It’s hard to believe these are the same plant, but they are!


How to Care for Pinguiculas

There are a few care requirements for Pinguiculas that differ from most other houseplants.

Once you know these care requirements, Pinguiculas become quite easy to care for.

Pinguicula Need RODI or Distilled Water (the most important aspect of their care)

Carnivorous plants, like butterworts, require distilled or RODI water.

Because these plants have adapted to living in areas with nutrient-poor substrates, the leaves and roots aren’t equipped to handle any nutrients (including those dissolved in our tap water) and will suffer root and leaf burn very easily.

If you are familiar with houseplant care, you may know that prayer plants (like Calathea, Maranta, etcetera) also do best when using distilled water. But there is a drastic difference between prayer plants and carnivorous plants.

While prayer plants are sensitive to the nutrients in our water and will develop spots on their leaves from it, they will continue to grow and do fairly well even when watered with unfiltered tap water in most cases.

Carnivorous plants, on the other hand, will die from the nutrients in our water.

I have dealt with this firsthand. The first 2 butterworts I purchased died at a rapid pace because of my ignorance regarding its water needs.

Distilled water is water that is heated and the steam is collected. The steam doesn’t carry the nutrients in the water, which is how the nutrients are filtered out.

RODI Water is water filtered through a Reverse Osmosis Deionization unit, which is basically a multiple-stage filtering unit to remove nutrients from the water source. These units can be installed directly into your water line and despite their fancy name are not large or difficult to install.

Here are 4 options to help provide carnivorous plants with distilled or RODI water requirements:

Option #1 Buy distilled water at a grocery store for a pretty low cost.

I can buy mine locally for about 99 cents per gallon or less. One gallon of distilled water will last a long time if you only have a few plants.

Option #2 Buy a Zero Pitcher which produces nearly nutrient-free water

This pitcher is recommended by California Carnivores as a wonderful, low-cost option for filtering your water at home.

I just picked one of these up to try with my carnivorous plants and will report back what I find.

Option #3 Invest in a RODI machine that creates RODI water from your tap.

This machine is installed directly into the water line going into your sink. It passes the water through multiple filtering stages to produce 0 nutrient water.

This is a larger investment but is more automated and more capable of producing large quantities of water than the other options.

You do need to buy replacement filters. They typically need to be replaced about once every 6 months, but mileage may vary depending on how much water your filter each month.

I use an AquaFX RODI unit like the one below. I installed mine to be able to make 0 nutrient water for my reef aquarium. Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to the nutrients in our water, just as carnivorous plants are.

Option #4 Try using the water directly from your tap and see what happens

There are some places around the world where the water from the tap is clean enough to grow carnivorous plants without any additional filtering.

I do not live in one of those places and I’m not sure how many of us do, but if you think you might be located in a place with great water it might be worth a shot!

If you do want to try your tap water, buy a cheap plant and see how it does for a few months before deciding whether your test was successful!

How to Water Pinguiculas

The easiest way to water pinguiculas is to sit them in bowls or trays of water and let the substrate wick the water up to the plant.

However, you can also water from the top like you would most houseplants and keep the substrate evenly moist. The important part is to prevent tropical Pings from drying out all the way.

They can tolerate a drier period when in dormancy, but still do not want to be dry for an extended period of time.

Pinguicula Substrate requirements

Mexican butterworts want a well-draining, gritty mix.

There are lots of opinions about what the actual ingredients and proportions should be.

You could do equal organic parts peat moss (organic with no added nutrients), perlite, pumice, and silica sand. Or a million other recipes.

You could look up the substrate mix growers use in your area or in similar areas and replicate that yourself.

There are also lots of carnivorous plant growers that sell their own mix.

I’ve been using the substrate mix for butterworts from Curious Plant for a long time now and have had a lot of success with it. Their mix contains no peat moss at all and is solely perlite, vermiculite, and silica sand.

This particular mix doesn’t hold water for long, so it’s very important to be on top of watering or these plants will end up too dry and suffering.

Here’s a link to Curious Plant’s substrate

California Carnivores also sells a carnivorous plant mix that retains water for longer periods of time.

Here’s a link to California Carnivores’ mix

Pinguicula Light requirements

Pinguiculas are used to receiving a lot of light throughout the day. Place them on a windowsill where they will receive at least a few hours of direct sun each day or grow them under grow lights.

I’ve been growing mine under grow lights for a long time now, but just recently moved a couple to an East-facing window to see how they do. I’ll report back after I’ve been growing them there for some time.

What Kind of Pot to Use with Pinguiculas

Most pots can work just fine provided Pings are getting the constant moisture they need.

I grow mine in little plastic pots with plenty of drainage holes and sit them in trays of water.

However, people can and do plant them in decorative ceramic pots and other pot types with success.

The only pot type I would not recommend is terracotta, because it wicks moisture away from the substrate. While this quality makes terracotta great for a lot of plants, it isn’t great for a plant that wants to stay pretty wet most of the time.

How to Fertilize Pinguiculas

Fertilizer is another highly debated topic for butterworts.

They are extremely sensitive to nutrients so while they need some nutrients, they only want a tiny amount. Too much fertilizer can cause irreparable damage and possibly plant loss.

I personally use an organic cactus fertilizer at an extremely diluted rate (less than a quarter of the recommended dose on the bottle) and lightly spray the plants about once per month when actively growing in the carnivorous stage.

My preferred cactus fertilizer is Espoma Organics Cactus and Succulent fertilizer.

Other people have purchased flightless fruit flies or caught bugs around the house to feed the plant live food.

Others use different types of commercially available fertilizers like MaxSea or Schultz Cactus Fertilizer.

Still others have purchased dried bloodworms or fish flake food. A tiny piece of fish food can be placed on one leaf once per month. I’ve never tried this so I have no idea how successful it is.

If your plant is catching fungus gnats or other insects without any effort from you, no fertilizer may be needed.

Do Pings Need Humidity?

I have never amended the humidity for my carnivorous plants and they are growing successfully. I think they would be more affected by humidity if I wasn’t keeping the plants well-hydrated.

I’m sure these plants would benefit from some humidity, but they seem to do just fine without it for me.

What do we need to do for Pinguicula Dormancy?

The best advice I’ve heard about dormancy for pings is to let the ping decide what it wants.

If the pinguicula begins to go into dormancy by growing succulent leaves in place of its carnivorous leaves, then follow the plant’s lead and care for it as a dormant plant.

If it doesn’t show signs of going dormant, proceed as usual.

When pinguiculas enter their dormant or succulent phase, they can be allowed to dry out a bit more. Instead of keeping the tray of water topped off consistently, the tray might go dry and stay dry for a couple of days before adding more.

Essentially, you can just be a little more negligent with your care and withhold fertilizer altogether.

How do you Propagate Pings?

When a pinguicula is in its succulent, dormant stage, leaves can be removed by gently tugging on the leaf.

This leaf (called a leaf pulling) can be placed on normal Pinguicula substrate kept slightly moist to root exactly as you would with a rosette succulent leaf (where the leaf roots first and then produces a baby plant).

Leaves can also be rooted on moist paper towel or moist spagnum moss in a plastic leftover container to retain humidity moisture.

Here’s a picture of some leaf pullings that are rooted and growing baby plants on moist paper towel:

Bonus: One over-the-top growing method for pinguiculas that I absolutely love!!

I found this video on Pinguiculas that was technically about fertilizing them, but what I took away from the video was something else entirely.

The grower is growing their pings (and a couple of sundews) on a large piece of pumice stone sitting in a shallow dish of water.

Look at how absolutely gorgeous this setup is. It reminds me of a coral-covered rock in the ocean.

This setup is definitely a goal for me to try in the near future!

If you want to learn more about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, I highly recommend checking out the book The Savage Garden, created by the owner of California Carnivores. It has wonderful information about many different carnivorous plants, where they were found, and how to grow them.

A Note on Product Links in This Post

I am not affiliated with or sponsored by California Carnivores or Curious Plants. I just enjoy them as companies & carnivorous plant growers and feel confident that I can refer people to each of these growers for quality products and advice.

The Amazon links included in this article are affiliate links. This means that the cost of the products is NOT affected by my affiliation with Amazon, but if you purchase the products using the links provided I may make a small amount for referring you. All proceeds are used to fund research and content for this blog. Thank you 🙂


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