What type of plant is a mean, green, fungus-gnat-eating machine and makes the perfect orchid or houseplant companion? A butterwort AKA a ‘ping’ AKA Pinguicula! These carnivorous plants are a must-have for anyone who loves flowers, hates bugs, and already has a good grasp on plant care. They’re an easy plant to grow provided you give them pure water (low salt/mineral content of less than 20ppms) and if they’re happy they’ll flower once or twice a year.
Photo of NOID Pinguicula in bloom – Spring 2020
About Pinguiculas / Pings
Pings come from Mexico and central America where they grow on mossy limestone rocks and exposed outcrops. They grow best in high humidity and moderately-bright light; however, despite what you might read, they can thrive at lower humidity provided you keep their roots consistently moist. Their natural habitat also follows an annual wet and dry season, so many of the species have distinct growth and dormancy cycles—but I have generally found their care through both periods is the same year round.
Photo of butterworts growing in nature
Butterwort Care – Growing Pings as Houseplants
Potting Media: There are a few choices for potting media:
- Peatmoss blend with perlite (or sand) – about 50/50 ratio. If using a peatmoss blend, the plants can be watered on a regular basis, watering as the peatmoss approaches dryness but never letting it become bone dry.
- Pure Sphagnum – I have even seen people just use pure sphagnum moss (though this may stay too wet or too acidic for some species of ping). The pot can sit in a shallow try of water, but should be allowed to dry out every 3-4 weeks for a short period to ensure oxygenation of the root zone. With the peatmoss and sphagnum options, the roots and plant stay moist longer because those media hold more water than rock — this may be a better choice for growers in dry climates.
- Orchid media (my choice) – a blend of bark, pumice and perlite in the lower half of the pot and a top-layer of sphagnum moss. If using the orchid bark or rock options, the pots can sit constantly in a shallow tray of water.
Photo of layered butterwort potting mix – top half sphagnum; bottom half orchid media
- Live moss + rock-blend for a “natural look” – using stones like turface, limestone, granite, pumice and perlite the grower can create a natural scape similar to where the pings grow in nature. Live moss can be placed with tweasers and if conditions are right, it should grow along with the pings. Pings can either be placed directly on the rock or on the live moss. Note: The pot must sit in a tray of water at all times in order to keep the rocks moist and you may need to be more diligent in offering high humidity (50%+). Rock will dry quickly and if too dry could set the plant back.
Mini Ping Community Pot with turface, pumice, perlite, and live moss
I have tried all options and have had the best results using sphagnum moss on top of the orchid mix—I like that the plant sits in water and I only need to water every 3-4 weeks. However, my preference/success with this media is likely related to my climate and conditions (low humidity) so if you can, test different options for your conditions before choosing “the one.” All said and done, I have been able to grow pings in all methods. The key is to keep their roots moist and not to let them dry out too much.
Humidity: many sites say pings need high humidity. Even though I have tons of orchids and aroids, the humidity in my place is awful (averaging 18-45%), but my pings do fine. I have found that as long as you can give the plants good light and keep their roots moist, then low humidity isn’t a major problem. I have even grown mini species pings and seedlings in my low humidity…so my *opinion* is that humidity really isn’t a huge deal—provided you don’t let the plants dry out too hard.
Water: Don’t use tap water. Like most carnivorous plants, pings do best with pure water that isn’t going to burn the roots or cause issues as the water evaporates. If your water is high in minerals, those salts can/will concentrate over time as you water and the water evaporates—this can lead to conditions that pings just aren’t able to mitigate. For my plants, I use bottled water (Aquafina or SmartWater)—but any brand that has less than 20ppms should work fine. Typically, water bottles will say the total ppms (which means parts per million or 1mg per 1L of water) and as close to 0 you can get is ideal. Distilled or RO water will also work—it’s pure water without minerals.
The “pure water” exception: some Mexican pings specifically (typically the smaller type) come from limestone habitats. Limestone is an alkaline rock which is made up of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3). Some pings seem to suffer if their water is too pure and they don’t have access to some calcium. I suspect this is a result of their adaptation to survive in soils that have a lot of calcium—and as such they rely a bit on that calcium to grow well. To remedy this, you might want to add a small amount of oyster shell or eggshells to your potting media if you have found pings don’t seem to grow well for you. You really don’t need much at all (less than 1/16th of a tsp in a small pot), just a light application to help offer some additional calcium. You should still continue using distilled or bottled water.
To be transparent, I don’t put limestone or eggshells in the pots of my plants; our tap water is very alkaline, so 2-3 times per year, I add about 1/4 ratio of tap water to bottled water and that adds the calcium I believe the plants need. Oyster shells and eggshells are common amendments with orchids from limestone regions (such as phrag kovachii) which is why I recommend that.
Light: Pings do well with moderately-bright light. Near an East or west window where they get direct sun for the early or late hours of the day. Direct sun in mid-day may be too hot and could scorch the leaves.
They also do very well under LED grow lights where the light intensity is more consistent throughout the day. If you’re using LED lights – opt for about 18-24w of LED light per square foot at about 12″ from the light. If the plants are closer to the light, opt for lower wattage (12-18w); and if they’re further, opt for higher wattage because you’ll lose light intensity to dispersion.
Seasonality & Leaf Changes: Pings can be seasonal and depending on the type, yours may go through seasonal changes which are queued by photoperiod (how long the daylight hours are). In the winter when the days are slightly shorter and cooler, the leaves may get smaller and more succulent (and they may stop catching bugs). In the summer when the days are longer, the leaves will get bigger, fuller, and produce more dew for catching insects. If you’re growing under artificial lights, it’s good to adjust your light hours to match your seasonal variation slightly (on for 10h in the winter and on for 14h in the summer). Doing this will help your plant follow it’s circadian rhythm and annual changes.
Some people cut back watering during dormancy—because my humidity is so low, it’s not an option. As I mentioned above, I treat them the same year round and the pot sits in a shallow tray of water at all times.
Feeding Pings: Don’t use fertilizers – opt for bugs. If you don’t have a fungus gnat problem like I clearly do, then good for you! You can still generally get away with not having to feed your plant. Pings will feed off tiny soil insects (like mites, springtails, etc) and things that are naturally already in your pots—this is why they make good companions for people who already have a lot of plants!
Butterwort eating fungus gnats
There are three ways to propagate butterworts: by vegetative cloning with “leaf pullings”, by division, or by seed. All three are fairly easy to do; however, leaf pullings tend to grow a little faster than seedlings and divisions should only be taken in late spring after flowering is complete and the plants have naturally split into multiple new rosettes. Be aware: seed-produced plants will have more variability than the cloned leaf pullings (which would be identical to the parent plant they came from).
When pings are very happy and established, they will flower in the spring and at the same time, with the new buds, the rosette will split into 2 or more new rosettes. After flowering is done, and as the rosettes start to produce their own set of leaves, you can simply unpot and divide them. I have learned the hard way that if you do this too early…you can pull all the leaves off a rosette and not divide the plant at all. It may be better to use a sharp knife and cut the pup away from the main mother but make sure it’s big enough to do so. These divisions will be clones of the parent plant and will be identical to your original butterwort.
Photo of multi-growth rosette
Leaf Pullings – Ping Clones
If you’ve ever propagated succulents via leaf pullings, this is exactly the same process. The best time to take a leaf pulling from your ping is at the end of their dormancy, just before or as new leaves are being produced for the growing season. The leaves will be succulent and easy to detach. That said, if your plant is healthy and established, you should be able to take pullings anytime of year.
To propagate from a leaf pulling: Take an old leaf from the outter-edge of the rosette, pull it down and away from the plant so that it snaps off (as close to the base as possible). Place the leaf sticky-side up on the surface of the potting media and leave it until a new plant grows which is large enough to sustain itself. That’s it – then you can grow it out and share with friends.
Photo of butterwort propagation – leaf pullings
Growing Pinguicula from Seed
Sometimes getting a leaf-pulling isn’t an option and you need to go to the source—seeds—or you want to try growing seedlings from your own plants. Growing pings from seed is a bit more laborious, but it’s pretty similar to growing the adults—barring a few specific care adjustments you’ll need to make because the plants are super tiny.
How to sow ping seeds: I like to use those plastic cherry-tomato containers that have some side and bottom slots, but are clear and allow for both light and air to move through the box. The semi-enclosed nature of the box allows the humidity to build in the box, but it keeps the plants dry. Place a 1-2″ layer of sphagnum moss on the bottom layer. Then take add an additional 1/4″ of chopped sphagnum and place it on top. To get chopped sphagnum, bundle regular sphagnum in your hand and use scissors to cut 1/4-1/2″ sections of the moss into a bowl. This finer layer of sphagnum on top helps keep your tiny seeds closer to the surface and prevents you from losing a bunch of the seeds down between the large chunks of moss. Once the moss is placed, sprinkle the seeds evenly on the top. Close the lid and put the tomato container under bright light (LEDs are good for this).
Seedling Development – Click photo to see slideshow on Instagram
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#butterwort update: seedlings are coming along – big enough to eat fungus gnats now. Lol. They’re growing in a tomato produce box in sphagnum moss. Big enough now, that I leave the lid open 24/7 to keep the airflow high. Cute, eh? Photos of the reverse progress included • • • • #pinguicula #pinguiculaagnata #mexicanbutterwort #mexicanpinguicula #carnivorousplants #carnivorousplantsofinstagram #carnivorousplant #bugcatcher #plant #plantpropagation #seedlings #seedling #plantsofinstagram #plantcollection #plantaddiction
Seedling Care: You’ll want to keep the moss moist at all times. You can let it sit in a shallow tray of water, but if you do this, you should let the water dry and moss approach dryness about once every 2-3 week. This will reduce the chance of fungus and bacteria and generally seems to be better for the seedlings. If the moss is dry or needs watering, always bottom water as water droplets on the leaves can quickly lead to rot and kill the small/fragile seedlings.
It takes the seedlings a week or two to germinate and I haven’t found that feeding them is necessary. Once they are about 1/4-1/2″ across, you can start potting them on their own – take a few out at a time and make sure you’re able to grow them well before you just repot all of them. You can also pot them together and grow them in a community pot.
How to Pollinate Pinguicula Flowers
Pings have pretty neat looking flowers, but if it’s your first time seeing one, you might have a hard time figuring out where the pollen or stigma are (the stigma is the spot where the pollen needs to be placed in order to fertilize the ovary and make seeds). I’ll include a photo to illustrate the process but here are the basic steps:
- Pull the flower apart (grasp the top two petals and the bottom three petals separately and slowly pull). Expose the reproductive bits. Sorry, I know it’s sad to hurt the flower—do this gently, as you don’t want to pull the reproductive parts off the plant.
- Get a toothpick and color the tip with a sharpie so you can see the pollen. Let the marker on the toothpick dry before using.
- Look at the flower and you’ll see a little flat thing with two little hook-like hangy things below it. The flat part is the stigmatic surface, and directly underneath it is where the pollen is. You’ll need to take the toothpick, gently lift the stigma and put the toothpick inside like you’re scooping a mini treasure out of a tiny treasure box.
Photo showing butterwort pollination
- Your toothpick should have some light white or yellow dusting on it now—that’s the pollen. Take that and paint the top of the “treasure box” (the stigma) with the pollen.
- That’s it – you’re done. If successful your seed pod should begin swelling within a few days; the pod will be mature around 30 days later, and as soon as you see it start to brown, be ready for it to split open and start spilling seeds.
Like orchids and other plants, you can hybridize Pinguicula—this means you can take two different species and cross them, resulting in progeny that have a blend of traits from either parent.
Keeping hybrid records: If you’re going to go down this path, make sure you tag and track the parent information for the seeds/seedlings you create.This will allow others to know what your plant is (and then possibly also make other hybrids with your plants). When writing the tag for a hybrid, the seed-bearing parent goes first and the father (pollen donor) goes second. So for example if we made a hybrid of Ping moranensis and ehlersiae (where moranensis was the seed parent), then we’d write, “Pinguicula moranensis x ehlersiae” on the tag (and on the seed pack if we’re sending them to other people).
I don’t mean to sound bossy – it just helps in the future so that someone doesn’t have to write, “NOID Ping” on their tag.
Popular Ping Types
- Pinguicula moranensis ‘G’
- Pinguicula agnata ‘True Blue’
- Pinguicula gigantea
- Pinguicula grandiflora
Popular Mini or Mexican Pings
- Pinguicula laueana
- Pinguicula ehlersiae
- Pinguicula esseriana
- Pinguicula jaumavensis
- Pinguicula immaculata
- Pinguicula kondoi
More Photos of my Butterworts
New Mini Ping Collection from @bradsgreenhouse
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Pretty stoked that my order from @bradsgreenhouse arrived today! Mostly mini #mexicanpinguicula – I’ve peppered them in with the #pinguicula seedling tray I started last year. Excited to see this bug graveyard fill in this year 💀🦟 🏷 #pinguiculalaueana (red flower) #pinguiculaehlersiae (Pink leaf) #pinguiculaesseriana (pink leaf) #pinguiculajaumavensis (tiny pink) #pinguiculaimmaculata (super mini) #pinguiculakondoi #utricularia nelumbifolia x reniformis #heliamphora minor #cephalotus triffid park red #carnivorousplants #carnivorousplantsofinstagram #bugeater
Ping kondoi (Spring 2020)
Pinguicula agnata ‘True Blue’