Icepocalypse 2021: The Aftermath

Back in the beginning of 1972, almost the whole of the state of Michigan was hit with subsequent ice storms that shut down significant portions of the state. What was odd was that they kept hitting hard enough to cut power and phone service, at the same time every day for most of a week. Kids were back home from school, most adults were home from work, and just as everyone made plans to sit down for dinner and listen to the wind raging on the other side of the windows, everything went dark. Again. Those with fireplaces made sure after two days of this to have the fire lit and ready to go, and those who didn’t, including my father, made plans to put one in as soon as possible. Being just short of six, my biggest concern at the time was our 9-inch black-and-white television and its ability to keep up its main job as cultural center during the blackouts, and the storms had the preternatural ability of cutting power right at the same moment that our NBC affiliate started running its regular afternoon rerun of Star Trek. In fact, that issue became so pronounced that by the end, the station manager of that TV station came on to announce that he and his crew had done everything they could to keep broadcasting but the storms had defeated them, and he was on the air just to let his viewership know that they were going to try one more time. Maybe it’s southern Michigan and maybe it’s a week of horrendous storms that left everything covered with flowing ice, but I’m pretty sure that the cheers in that little house when the end credits ran were multiplied across the greater Lansing/Jackson/Flint area.

After the last two weeks, I know exactly how that station manager felt. Come to think of it, I think I’m the same age he was at that time.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of noting that now that the Dallas area is going back to its presumably normal weather, and we’re reasonably sure not to get another week of Last Week until the end of November, the February Multi-Holiday Carnivorous Plant Tour scheduled for February 14 is still on for February 28. Okay, so Valentine’s Day, the beginning of Chinese New Year, and Fat Tuesday are over and done, but last week hit the reset button, and my birthday is still on for February 30. Besides, it’s time to debut several new enclosures, and this will be one of the last indoor tours before we start outdoor shows in April, so we welcome you to give it another shot. The current weather forecast predicts rain for the whole weekend, but we can do rain. Let’s hope we don’t have to do this level of snow and ice for a long, long time.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #23

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #23: “Fungus Gnats and Dryer Sheets: A Case of News Churn”

Originally published January 22, 2021.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon. Right at the moment in the North Texas area, the air is too dry inside and too cold outside for them to get going, but they’re waiting. By the end of February, they’ll flitter in your peripheral vision, and by March 15, they’ll be flying up your nose with every breath. Yes, it’s almost fungus gnat season.

That’s when the calls, the Facebook posts, and the general chat queries start. Many never use the term “fungus gnat,” instead describing them as “the little black bugs that fly like they’re drunk.” Sometimes, they note that the explosion came from a new potted plant, or a neglected one in an office that was suddenly watered along with the rest. Others only notice them when they show up close, flying in their erratic manner into eyes, nostrils, and open mouths. Still others only note how many dead bugs they find on windowsills, underneath aquarium lights, inside light fixtures, and along kitchen counters. From all of these, the flow chart paths all converge on one square: “How do I control them?”

For the most part, those encountering fungus gnats have no interest in the backstory: what most assume is one species is actually about six families of insect, all adapted to consuming fungi and occasionally algae. The flying adults are usually the only sign of an issue, but they’re nothing but packages to move genomes to new concentrations of fungus. Adults lay eggs on and in soil and substrates with a significant collection of fungus and then eventually die, and the eggs hatch into larvae that chow down on fungus filaments. (At this point, it should be noted that if you’re looking for mushrooms in a philodendron pot as a sign of fungus, you’ll generally only see those mushrooms when conditions are right for fungus to spread spores for reproduction. If conditions aren’t right to encourage mushrooms, or what are better described as “fruiting bodies,” you won’t see most fungi growth in a pot without a microscope or easy access to DNA sequencing gear.) Those larvae also feed on root tips of some plants: whether they do this deliberately or because the roots have a mycorrhizal relationship with the fungi is something for which I have yet to find an answer. Likewise, when the larvae metamorphose into adults, those adults take and transmit spores from other fungus, including the fungus responsible for “damping off” disease. Office dwellers hate them, houseplant enthusiasts hate them, greenhouse workers hate them, and you don’t even want to know what hydroponics enthusiasts think about them and the distantly related “drain gnats.”

This is the point where carnivorous plant people enter, or get dragged into, the game. Venus flytraps can’t waste their time with fungus gnats, but they’re enthusiastically consumed by all four types of pitcher plants if the gnats fly into the pitchers, they’re equally eagerly consumed by sundews and other sticky-hair trap plants, and they’re a major nitrogen source for butterworts. In fact, whether in cultivation or the wild, it’s hard to find a butterwort that isn’t covered with dead and trapped fungus gnats in varying states of digestion. The good news is that butterworts and fungus gnats go together like rum and Coke (or so I hear: I can’t drink), and butterworts have no problems with entrapping and converting those tiny chunks of protein into leaves, blooms, and seeds. But will butterworts or other carnivorous plants CONTROL them?

The reality, as anybody familiar with integrated pest management will tell you, is that while carnivores will gather up an excess of fungus gnats, setting out a sundew or butterwort next to your office Spathophyllum won’t do much to stop the problem. They’ll work so long as adults are out and flying, but they don’t do a thing about larvae living inside pots or the dirt just outside the door, and those eventually grow up and start the cycle anew. It’s not as if gardeners and houseplant growers haven’t tried, and the suggestions, ranging from spreading powdered cinnamon to spraying diluted hydrogen peroxide, can be found everywhere. The vast majority of those, though, are purely anecdotal, and usually assume effectiveness because the adults die off instead of doing anything to the larvae. The overwhelming majority of pesticide sprays have the same problem, and the user has the additional issue of those sprays killing everything from lacewings to lizards that catch the overspray. So what to do?

Well, I have a solution, one tested by experts, that’s remarkably effective. It affects fungus gnats only, and won’t injure or kill beneficial insects. It’s remarkably cost-effective, easy to apply, and available in grocery and department stores everywhere. No vile chemical smell, no dealing with insect corpses, and it won’t accidentally kill wild or domesticated animals if they get into it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most readers already have some of this in your houses right now

You’re going to laugh.

I mean it. You’re going to laugh.

No, really. You’re going to laugh.

Okay, the secret is standard dryer sheets. 

See? I told you that you were going to laugh.

For the last two decades, commercial greenhouse operators related how putting down dryer sheets atop pots and trays kept down fungus gnat populations, but everything was anecdotal. In 2011, though, Greenhouse Product News published the first paper testing the effectiveness of dryer sheets on fungus gnats, and found…guess what, it works. (Sadly, this paper still isn’t available online, so no links, but please feel free to contact GPN for copies.) This was followed up three years later by Michigan State University, and both discovered that dryer sheets contained a compound called linalool, which was remarkably effective at repelling adult fungus gnats. The GPN paper also noted the presence of an aromatic compound that may prevent fungus gnat larvae from completing their metamorphosis from pupa to adult. Even better, this didn’t require huge amounts of material to get the desired effect.

On a purely anecdotal level, I can say that I had exceptional success with dryer sheets in a particularly tough environment. For those that remember the old Triffid Ranch gallery at Valley View Center, that mall had an absolutely horrendous problem with fungus gnats starting at the end of February and going until the middle of June, then starting again through October to the middle of November. Most of it was due to the various potted plants throughout the mall, which were haphazardly watered and cared for and probably hadn’t been repotted since the original owners of the mall abandoned their investment in the 2000s. The current owner wasn’t interested in any significant expenditure to deal with them, so fellow gallery owners had to grin (with clenched lips to keep the little monsters out) and bear it. Getting a roll of generic dryer sheets was the easy part: the real fun was hitting every last planter in the mall, including the mostly-hidden ones in the movie theater on the upper level, with at least one dryer sheet, and then switching them out once a week. Since the life expectancy of an adult fungus gnat is only a few days (I’m not sure if this is because of a lack of energy reserves or if their wings abrade from friction against the air and wear out enough that they can’t remain airborne), I figured that we’d start seeing positive results within ten days. We started seeing a drastic decrease in fungus gnats in about three days, to the point where I stopped applying dryer sheets in two weeks. When we had outbreaks later in the year, out came the dryer sheet roll, and they also were gone within a few days.

The reason I found this particularly interesting is bifold. The dryer sheet control technique has been around for decades, with hard science to back it up for one decade, and yet nobody outside of the commercial greenhouse trade seems to know about it. At plant shows and events, everyone is surprised at such an effective method. Friends keeping reptiles and amphibians, especially chameleon and tree frog enthusiasts, are even more surprised. Obviously, this is something that needs a larger audience: as with using carnivorous plants, it won’t control every insect that comes within the vicinity (this means “don’t cover your front yard with dryer sheets to keep the bugs away,” because we lost that war about 400 million years ago), but it should definitely help take the edge off for those with especial issues with fungus gnat maintenance. Even better, if this news takes off, then it’ll keep rolling around in news feeds and chat rooms (a phenomenon known as “news churn”) and become self-perpetuating, and when someone new to the field starts asking “So what do you do?”, everyone chirps in “Well, you KNOW…”

Other News

Friends and cohorts approving of the Delenn/GIR dynamic in Caroline’s and my marriage are passing on word about the death of actress Mira Furlan, and we join in the mourning. We met her once at one of Caroline’s jewelry shows in Galveston seven years ago, and we both pass our condolences, as inadequate as they are, to her family and friends.

Shameless Plugs

The definition these days of a Sissyphean task is “producing scientifically accurate dinosaur figures,” mostly because the goalposts seem to change every few days. That said, the crew at Creative Beast manages the nearly impossible: capturing the thrill of the 1970s Prehistoric Scenes model kit line from Aurora while pushing the edges of current theory on dinosaur appearance and behavior, and at a reasonable price. For lots of personal reasons dating back 40 years, a mountain accessory pack featuring the small predator Troodon had to come home, where it will remain as accurate as current research will allow. Sadly, that might be a few weeks, but that’s palaeontology.

Recommended Reading

A couple of chapters into The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore, and it’s easy to understand why Salvador Dali famously flooded the art market with autographed reproductions of his paintings to give palpitations to the art collector community. It also explains why so many people tell artists “Oh, your work is so INEXPENSIVE! You should charge a lot more!”, before wandering off without buying anything. And so it goes.

Music

Growing up a ridiculous distance from civilization meant missing out on a lot of music, and thankfully streaming services offer the same chance to catch up on bands that couldn’t afford radio station payola to get airplay the way cable allowed movie enthusiasts to catch up on films that you’d never have seen at the local two-screen. This causes deep dives down rabbit holes for acts that somehow never turned up over the years, and this month’s deep dive is the Dead Milkmen. A few months of their work in regular rotation, and jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, you’ll never look at a burrow owl in the same way again.

Have a Safe Weekend

As of this writing, the Dallas area should be thawing out from this week’s deep freeze, and hopefully the rest of Texas as well. For the first time in decades, we get the experience of seeing the lost, the misplaced, and the discarded as they’re revealed by the melt. That’s the problem with thaws: you never know what was hiding under the snow and ice.

State of the Gallery: February 2021

This WAS going to be a boring little missive about the state of the Texas Triffid Ranch, with maybe a few comments on getting through the past year unscathed and making plans for the rest of 2021. Sprinkle on a few snide comments about the plants and their inability to even faster, and cover with a sigh that we were probably going to see an early Sarracenia blooming season because of the quiet winter. You know, like last year. Say what you want about 2020, but last winter was as gentle as moleskin sandals and half as cold. Seriously: all through January and February, the only concern? Rain. We barely got to freezing temperatures in the Dallas area, and by the time of the NARBC spring show at the end of February, the winter coats, barely touched, went back into the closet barely used.

For those three people who were trapped in a pocket universe for the last week and were so isolated from outside information that you flipped coins as to entertaining yourselves with readings from The Wit of Gardner Dozois or just jamming burning caltrops into your eyes, last week started out about as well as you’d expect, meteorologically speaking. The upcoming forecast suggested that things could get colder over the weekend, with a chance of snow, but residents know that this could go any number of ways. Yes, we could have seen snow, but we also could have seen sunny skies and jogging shorts temperatures. Even by midweek, we had reason to worry, but this was leavened by the understanding that we were reasonably prepared for what was coming. Yes, a stockup on groceries was prudent, and so was filling up the car’s gas tank. Make sure the pets were inside. Cover the outside faucets and bring in plants that couldn’t handle two days of freezing weather. We did all that. If anything, the ongoing shift to working from home made things easier, because this way everything didn’t stop dead once the roads turned into skating rinks. Bring home the laptop, check the home wifi connection, and plan to stay inside and off the roads until the snow and ice dripped away. If you did have a control freak of a manager who insisted that you had to come into the office, the idea was to stay away from iced-over bridges and follow the lead of the sand trucks that were already making plans to hit the slickest spots in the area.

After all, we’d had major cold waves before. December 1983 was so cold that Galveston Harbor froze over, but we got through that. February 1985 was when police throughout Texas discovered that the state didn’t have a law banning the use of snowmobiles on roads and freeways, an oversight that was quickly rectified by the Texas Legislature. December 1989 had especial significance for me, as we hit our coldest temperature in recorded history on the day I transported a movie poster-sized sheet of glass on foot, sliding on ice down a hill toward my apartment, for a present for my then-girlfriend, only to have it crack inside the apartment from thermal stress. Our greatest snowfall since the Pleistocene in February 2010 was as close to a weather disaster as we’d had in Dallas since the 1909 flood, as trees never before exposed to heavy snowfall disintegrated and exploded under the weight of a foot of the best snowball snow we’d ever seen. We were ready, though, right? Trees were pruned, sand reserves were allocated, and everyone carried around little pocket computers that could give them immediate information on everything from traffic routes to where to call to report power outages. We were good to go, right?

Right?

The plan, pre-snow, was to open the gallery for a joint Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year open house on February 14, and that plan stayed true until the first snow started on the 13th. By midday that Saturday, the temperature dropped enough that the safety of attendees coming in from Fort Worth and Denton was at risk, so the Carnivorous Plant Tour was rescheduled for February 28 and everything else would resume after the snow melted off. The gallery heaters were working and working well, the automation for plant lights and foggers went off without any issue, and everyone had been informed about the change, so the doors closed on Saturday night, with everyone reasonably sure that everything would be up and running by Tuesday at the latest. That was the idea, anyway.

Record cold, we were prepared for. Snow, we were prepared for. Nobody was prepared, though, for these combined with an electrical grid run by incompetents for greedheads, with no plans for winterizing because Texas (lack of) regulations didn’t require them. The power first went out on Monday morning at about 2:30, and at first it was the gentle hope that “okay, the power is out for a bit, but it’ll come back on.” Hours later, we were firsthand playtesters of James Burke’s technology trap warnings, where the power came on for about three hours and then cut out again. Then it stayed off, just in time for the Dallas area to come neck-and-neck with its all-time record low temperature. After that, more snow.

Compared to many in the area, we were lucky: as temperatures inside the house dipped toward freezing, friends who had just reestablished power invited us to stay there and to bring the cats. That worked until about 2:30 Wednesday morning, when the power cut out over there, combined with cell phone towers losing power because their emergency generators were running out of fuel. We all evacuated that house, we took the cats back home, and finally saw power come back late Wednesday evening.

The upshot is that the gallery and the plants are in good health, even after four days without power. Between being sandwiched between two other locales and my weatherproofing the rear exit, everything inside the gallery came through without problems by the time power was restored on Wednesday evening. (Using a generator wasn’t an option because of a lack of exhaust options, and propane heaters have a little problem with carbon monoxide buildup indoors that really isn’t good for anybody checking up on them.) The outdoor plants in winter dormancy, such as the Sarracenia pitcher plants and the Venus flytraps, are going to take a lot longer to come out of dormancy after this, but there’s hope that everything will come through without major problems.

The really funny part about all of this, in classic gallows fashion, is that from a precipitation standpoint, you’ll barely know this happened by next week. Already the people behind the outages that hit almost the entire state are either blaming wind and solar generators or screaming “But what about…”, and they have the advantage of most of the state going back to February-normal temperatures by next Monday and everyone forgetting by Wednesday. The snow has turned into slush, and the slush will eventually melt into the storm drains, and our biggest hope right now is that we get some regular rain to wash all of that road sand off the streets before it turns Dallas into another Dust Bowl. (Trust me: the road dust after our big ice storm in 1996 made people mistake Dallas for Phoenix.) As far as the gallery is concerned, we got through, but I’m definitely looking at potential battery backups to keep lights and heat going, if only for a few additional hours if this happens again. The week-long power outage after the Dallas area was hit by tornadoes in 2018 should have been a sufficient warning.

After this week, any other gallery discussion is best relegated to “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Now it’s time to get back to work.

Reschedule: moving the Carnivorous Plant Tour to February 28

The closer to Sunday we get, the worse the weather promises to get, and it’s not getting better all week. Because everyones’ lives are much more important than any open house, we’re rescheduling the Carnivorous plant Tour for Sunday, February 28, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and cancelling all appointments until after things thaw. In the meantime, stay inside and stay warm, and we’ll catch you all when it’s safe to go on Dallas roads without a snowmobile.

Have a Safe Weekend

The weather forecast for this coming Sunday keeps bouncing back and forth between “bitterly cold but reasonably clear” and “SET THE HOUSE AFIRE BEFORE YOU’RE BURIED ALIVE IN SNOW,” so Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour is still on for the moment. (I really feel for the number of Dallas outdoor events scheduled months ago on the reasonable presumption that this month would replicate February 2019, where even day drinkers in search of wine samples wouldn’t want to venture out.) This may change as the National Weather Service refines its predictions, so keep checking back for potential cancellations.

Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour: Update

For those in the general Dallas-Fort Worth area, you already know the score. For everybody else, as happens to be a long-running tradition with Triffid Ranch events, Sunday’s Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year Carnivorous Plant Tour coincides with what threatens to be not only one of the coldest temperatures in Dallas recorded history, but possibly (if predictions hold) the coldest temperature experienced in this area since the Early Pleistocene. Of COURSE it will be.

As of this moment, barring the threatened snowfall on late Sunday night and Monday morning hitting 12 hours earlier than predicted, we’re still gunning for the Plant Tour on Sunday. Yes, it’ll be cold, but we have heaters and plant lamps, and we might have hot chocolate, too. If you don’t feel safe making the trip, or if your return threatens to cross the incoming snow and ice, you’re under no obligation to attend. If you do, though, we’ll see you on Sunday. Until then, stay safe and stay warm.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

As part of efforts to make 2021 better than 2020, the efforts begin this week to clean up the computer desktop, which was taking on disturbing parallels to fiction. This entails cleaning up lots of redundant folders, removing applications that shut down back in 2014, and trying to get something laughably close to a decent image archive. Lots and lots of oddities turned up, including the below weirdness on Buddha’s Hand citrons, so keep an eye open for images that nobody has seen since the Aughts, and maybe we should be thankful for that. Anyway, enjoy.

Have a Safe Weekend

No Triffid Ranch events this weekend, but keep a place in the calendar for the joint Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year Carnivorous Plant tour on February 14, running from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. And now, music.

Personal Interlude: The Blizzards of New Jersey

A pictorial based on necessary training for the Day Job: almost without fail, I always plan travel that coincides with one meteorological menace or another. This time, it was headed for the East Coast of the US just in time for a massive snowstorm that ran a full four days. As the plane arrived in Philadelphia, the first flakes started coming down, and by the time I got situated for the night, it was coming down fast and furious.

Perspective: One of the reasons why this funky little gallery wasn’t named “Michigan Triffid Ranch” is because Texas isn’t my birthplace but it is my home. Most of that comes from living through other blizzards, including the Chicago Blizzard of 1979. The last time I spent more than two days in snow (by the time you’re sick of Dallas snow, it’s already melted away) was 35 years ago, and those months of minus-40 weather were a big reason for moving back to Texas for the first time. The last significant snow of any sort was Dallas’s famed blizzard of 2010, where we broke all records for snowfall within a 24-hour period. Right now, as I write this, Dallas faces a cold front next week that might actually drop temperatures below freezing. However, the odds of snowfall are passing small, even if there’s precedent.

As far as the future is concerned, everything depends on more than just a drastic COVID-19 control, but the idea is to return for further training, preferably when winter is over. It’s also been a very long time since I’ve been anyplace with significant autumn color (Dallas has its moments, but it’s all pastels compared to New England), and sharing photos of that wonder is definitely on the agenda.

Have a Safe Weekend

And things get interesting for February: for Day Job-related reasons, the Triffid Ranch relocates to New Jersey for the next week, meaning that appointment availability resumes on February 7. With luck, COVID-19 vaccines and better weather later in the year might lead to a side-wander through the Pine Barrens, but for now, it’s going to be all-business…and scoping out gonzo bookstores and curio shops for better times. And so it goes.

State of the Gallery: January 2021

It’s hard not to start every State of the Gallery update with “Well,” but “Well.” January, as it has for the last decade, always has surprises. For perspective, it was four years ago that we got the notice that Valley View Center was coming down in a month and we and every other gallery owner and operator had to pack up and move. Four years later, Valley View is still standing, and so is the Texas Triffid Ranch. (Interestingly, we had tentative plans to move from Valley View to the Collin Creek Mall in Plano in 2016, and Collin Creek is in the final stages of demolition in preparation for the same live/shop open mall that Valley View was supposed to become by the beginning of 2019.) Makes you think.

For those who haven’t been indulging in the winter carnivore cleanup season, things may appear nice and quiet, but that’s because of plans for spring. Among many other developments, it’s time to spread word about the Triffid Ranch enclosure rental program, for businesses, medical and dental professionals, teachers, and anybody else wanting short-term commitments for carnivorous plant ambience. This is in addition to getting started for the new commission season, which already promises to slurp up what I laughingly call “discretionary personal time.” We should all have such problems.

As far as events are concerned, we’re going slowly and carefully, especially since efforts at COVID-19 vaccination in most of Texas are best described in British comedy metaphors. Since January’s Carnivorous Plant Tour went swimmingly in both attendance and sanitation protocols, we’re going to try again on Sunday, February 14 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm for a joint Lunar New Year/St. Valentine’s Day plant tour, with plans for showing a whole new collection of carnivore enclosures at the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo in Fair Park on March 27. It’s also time to restart the virtual events, definitely starting in February, for those who don’t have the opportunity to come to Dallas at this time.

And speaking of COVID-19, it’s time to crack out the bleach wipes and the extra masks, as the new day job is requiring a road trip. Specifically, I’ll be in New Jersey, right on the other side of the river from Philadelphia, for the first week in February, so appointments have to be delayed until afterwards. While the usual run of bookstore and curio shop ransacking is decidedly unsafe right now, the idea is to be able to meet folks in the area, with appropriate social distancing, and even talk to a couple of carnivore breeders in the area about new surprises for 2021. At least, that’s the idea: I haven’t been above the Mason-Dixon Line in January since 1997, and I’ve been far enough away from places where the air hurts my face in January that I might spend the whole time looking for a nice bonfire to crawl into. We’ll see what happens.

Finally, a hint on new enclosures: since nobody has said we aren’t having Texas Frightmare Weekend at the end of April/beginning of May, the plan is to have several new enclosures debut there and at the Oddities & Curiosities Expos in Dallas and Austin this year. Keep an eye out for the big one for Frightmare: let’s just say that building it around a Nepenthes diabolica will be particularly appropriate. See you soon.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Bonus Round

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

If you’ve been following the crowd and cleaning up your Sarracenia pitcher plants, there’s an added bonus for keeping them outside through their growing season. Just like animals, carnivorous plants have to deal with the byproducts of digestion: namely, everything that doesn’t digest, which includes shells, fat bodies, stomach contents, and the occasional wristwatch. With carnivores with beartrap or sticky traps, such as Venus flytraps, sundews, and butterworts, those leftovers are left to be washed off during the next rain, and many take advantage of those remains as bait to attract new prey. (This is why some of the most common prey items in Venus flytraps tend to be spiders: jumping and crab spiders look at the empty shells of flies and other insects as an opportunity for an easy meal, and set off the same trigger hairs responsible for that now-empty insect shell being there in the first place.) With all four of the genera commonly listed as “pitcher plants,” though, instead of developing an anus or other way to flush those parts out of a trap, the plant instead just grows new traps, and the old, prey-filled traps shrivel up and die, to be replaced by new ones. Careful cutting of a dead pitcher reveals valuable information about what kinds of prey the plant attracted while the trap was still alive…if you know how to read it.

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Plastic tub or tray (go for something with reasonably high walls)
  • Tub liner (plastic or paper)
  • Spray bottle filled with water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Forceps
  • Long pin or dissection probe
  • Glass container (test tube or small jar) for holding trap contents
  • A good light source
  • Magnifying glass or dissecting microscope

As to where to get the pitchers in the first place, these tend to be available on Sarracenia undergoing winter dormancy, usually broken by wind or snow, and usually get clipped off as part of a winter cleanup. Since these are going to get tossed into the compost pile anyway, they’re perfect for our nefarious purposes. You can determine the presence of interesting contents in multiple ways: holes in the side of the pitcher from wind, weather, or bird foraging reveal insect contents, or you can fold back the pitcher lid and look inside. Alternately, you can just cut open every pitcher you get to see what’s inside, but be warned that animals ranging from spiders to tree frogs may be attempting to hibernate, at least for a little while, inside of a particular pitcher, and it’s good form to give them a chance to escape before tearing up their winter homes.

A very good way to tell if a pitcher has a significant collection of prey is to look for dead patches, sometimes called “bee burn,” on the pitcher walls. Bee burn can be caused by multiple factors, but it always involves the plant collecting too much prey for it to digest all at once. Look at it as plant indigestion. In this case, the bee burn comes from an especially dry October, where Dallas humidity was so low that the plant simply couldn’t draw up enough water in its pitcher to break down everything, but the trap itself continued working at maximum efficiency. The bad news is that this surplus of material eventually killed the trap walls, leaving that distinctive burn. The good news is that we KNOW that the trap will be full of all sorts of interesting things.

To start, you’re going to need a decent work space and proper tools. As far as the workspace is concerned, do so inside of a plastic tub, a Sterilite container, or something else with reasonably high walls. In the process of cutting open pitchers, things WILL fall out, and you want them enclosed so they don’t end up on the floor or in your lap. In addition, you’ll probably want some kind of liner or barrier both for contrast and to pick up trap contents from the tub before you start work: plastic sheeting works well, but my personal favorite is baking parchment. (Separation layer for epoxy work, quick-and-dirty paint palette, bug part consolidator: is there anything baking parchment can’t do?)

Another thing to consider is exactly how…erm, gooey you want your trap contents to be. Especially after a stout rain, those trap contents can be rather saturated, and it’s not a bad idea after trimming them off to let them sit somewhere where they can drain a bit. Even after, the contents remain quite waterlogged for a while, so setting pitchers in front of a fan or heating vent or on a sunny windowsill for a few days isn’t a bad option. This also gives a chance for opportunists such as ants or spiders to find somewhere else to go.

Once you have your container and liner ready, it’s time to start work. Get out a pair of sharp scissors, preferably with narrow blades, and cut off the lid end of the pitcher. This isn’t just to make the rest of the trap easier to work with, but also because scissor blades have a tendency to get caught on the edge of the pitcher lip when cutting further. Set it aside, look at it from the insect’s POV, use it as an all-organic finger puppet: the possibilities are endless.

At this point, check the placement of where the layer of trap contents starts, and prepare to start cutting to free it. From this end, this may not be all that interesting, but sometimes interesting insects get caught in the pitcher after the official end of the growing season, and now is the time to make sure you don’t have something like a paper wasp or honeybee that’s still alive and peeved at its situation.

From the end of the cut pitcher, slowly and carefully cut lengthwide along the pitcher. Taking it slow and easy works for multiple reasons: you’re less likely to damage something particularly significant or interesting, you’ll be able to feel tension on the blade as you’re cutting, and you’re less likely to put tension on the pitcher and fling those contents in your face and all over your best clothes. (I guess I should have said “don’t wear your best clothes while cutting up dead pitcher plant pitchers,” shouldn’t I?)

Just because it’s shown this way doesn’t mean you should do it this way: make another cut on the other side so that your trap’s contents fall onto your liner and don’t go flying. If your pitcher plant had a good year, you’ll have quite the bolus of insect parts, as well as the occasional bones from small vertebrates such as frogs or geckos. (Both frogs and geckos are especially good at getting out of a Sarracenia pitcher, so any bones probably come from ones dying of other causes.) If that pile is completely dry, it’ll probably adhere and make chunks, and those can be broken up by gently spraying the chunk with a little water and then separating the parts as the lump softens.

One thing that becomes very obvious when looking at pitcher contents that while Sarracenia are opportunists, many tend to capture one type of prey than others. For instance, red pitcher plants (Sarracenia rubra) and their hybrids tend to catch a disproportionate number of ants. These pitchers in this exercise are from hybrids of white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla), and S. leucophylla is especially good at attracting and capturing nocturnal insects such as moths and click beetles. This trap caught a lot of moths, as is obvious by the number of wings still recognizable as such.

At this juncture, you have several options. If you have further plans for the evening, slide these parts into a test tube or glass jar to save them for later. (If your parts are still gooey, put the test tube or jar in a refrigerator so the parts don’t grow mold.) Alternately, if you’re ready to get going, take a pair of forceps, a dissecting probe, and whatever magnifying option suits your fancy and separate and sort the assembled parts. With a bit of entomology knowledge, you’ll soon recognize legs, digging limbs, and elytra (the carapace atop a beetle’s back to protect the wings and conserve moisture) and be able to gauge how many insects a typical pitcher plant captures over a growing season.

And to quote Canada’s answer to Doctor Who, “it really is just that easy.” It’s just like taking apart an owl pellet, but with considerably less owl vomit. If you don’t have any trimmed pitchers this year, well, that’s just something to look forward to doing the next time you’re cleaning up your Sarracenia.

The Aftermath: Carnivorous Plants In January 2021

After a much-needed gap to reorganize and restock, the first Carnivorous Plant Tour of 2021 ran on January 24. Of course, it’s not a Triffid Ranch event without torrential rains and thunderstorms, including what was either very early-for-the-season hail or an attempt at sleet, but that didn’t affect the enthusiasm of those daring the storms to do their worst.

In other developments, this gave a great opportunity for visitors to see the full gallery before individual enclosures go out for rental in February. With more enclosures going out, it’s time to make more, and it may be time for a sale of established enclosures in February in order to make room for new works.

For those who missed the fun, the next Carnivorous Plant Tour is a joint Valentine’s Day and Lunar New Year celebration on February 14, running from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and outdoor shows should start up again at the end of March, coinciding with the return of the Dallas Oddities and Curiosities Expo on March 27. With luck, we won’t get flooded out for the next Plant Tour, the way we nearly did last year, but as usual the weather makes no promises.

Have a Safe Weekend

The holidays are long-over, and everyone is craving a touch of green, so it’s time for the January Carnivorous Plant Tour: Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Best of all, for regular visitors, expect a few surprises. It IS 2021, after all.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #22

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #22: “The New Normal”

This time of the year, most newsletters of this sort are talking about winding things down, spending time with family, and “wishing you and yours” in the hopes that the impending new Gregorian Calendar year won’t be worse than the one we’re currently escaping. While I understand the reasoning behind being silent so the beast won’t hear you (a reason why I haven’t been to a blowout New Year’s Eve party since the end of 2001; well, that and an inability to drink), and the need to stay silent on future plans so the gods don’t laugh and point, let’s talk instead about strategy, so the gods are laughing and pointing at where you were and not where you are.

At the beginning of 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was clear. The end of a 4 1/2-year job contract with a company I loathed gave a perfect opportunity to strike out and turn the gallery into a full-time affair. The plan was to alternate between regular open houses and events both inside and outside the Dallas area, with the intention of regular visits to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and even New Orleans. The science fiction and media conventions in which the Triffid Ranch started were hitting what many of us were calling “Peak Con,” a regular phase in the fandom life cycle where too many groups started too many conventions, right at the time when their most dedicated attendees were having to skip cons every weekend to focus on career and family. However, a slew of new art-related events were opening up at that same time, and so the idea was to go through 2020 by staying really busy, getting out to potential visitors, and seeing where things went next. That whole plan blew up shortly after show season got going, when I pulled into Austin for last March’s NosferatuFest just in time to hear the announcement that the big SXSW arts and tech festival was being cancelled due to COVID-19. That’s when you pivot.

And pivot the Triffid Ranch did. As plenty of social and political analysts have noted in the last few weeks, COVID-19 didn’t crash everything directly, but widened fissures that were already there. That was definitely true for the conventions and events that were a Triffid Ranch mainstay. For instance, the science fiction convention circuit went through some massive convulsions: the big media conventions that had taken most of the oxygen over the last 15 years suddenly discovered that virtual conventions didn’t work that well for them, and the same was even more true for the increasingly inbred regional cons that kept plugging along only because the attendees had been going for decades and didn’t want to break their run. Conversely, several new virtual cons started specifically because they were tired of gatekeeping both social and financial, and proved that a huge audience existed for their interests well outside of the previously recognized fandom. Maker culture, costumers, writer’s workshops, stage makeup artists…suddenly they’re realizing that they never needed to be restricted by the dynamics of old-school conventions, which were essentially unchanged since the 1930s, and we’ll be seeing the aftershocks of this for decades.

Now, it’s great that so many people are able to benefit from the shift to online events, but that doesn’t work that well for those with physical items for sale. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed on social media with friends and strangers doing their best Jay Sherman impersonations in the hopes of reaching an audience, and many are now realizing that the old “Do you have a business card?” was a way of saying “I like this, but I don’t want to buy it now, and I want to disengage without a scene.” While virtual marketplaces and virtual dealer’s rooms might offer an alternative, there’s always the issue with customers wanting to see an item in person, the joys of shipping and handling, and the reality that there’s a huge difference between someone hyping up an item they just discovered on Instagram versus actually paying for it. And with items such as Triffid Ranch enclosures, where shipping costs are often higher than the cost of the enclosure and with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be destroyed once it left the post office, it’s just simply not an option.

The good news is that things will probably change in 2021, and not just because of the promise of effective COVID-19 vaccines. The reality is that just as how things didn’t return to the old normal after the 1918-19 flu pandemic, they won’t be returning after COVID-19 is a nasty memory. Too much has changed, too many old habits are broken forever, and too many new ones established, and the trick now is getting people into new ones. While I don’t pretend to be anything approximating a prophet on how events in the 2020s will run, I can safely say that these might be A future:

Lots of outdoor events. Outdoor events get to balance between the tribulations of weather (particularly in Texas, where sudden tornadoes and hailstorms are a very legitimate concern through most of the year) versus customers feeling safer. This will only continue after COVID-19 vaccine use has gone as far as it can: the pandemic has only accentuated knowledge of the limitations of most air conditioning and circulation systems, especially with the number of patrons refusing to follow basic mask safety.

Lots of smaller events. Even before the pandemic, big art shows and events had the limitation of crowds so big that precious few people could get to vendor booths to see what they had, much less purchase anything. Likewise, really big shows had the limitation of people leaving one booth “so I can see what else is here,” and by the time they were finished, being too tired to want to purchase anything. Based on anecdotes from customers coming by last summer’s Porch Sales, I suspect that the big move will be toward smaller events of two to 10 vendors at any one location, and attendees traveling to the ones that most intrigue them.

Lots of careful selection. As overused and misused as the word “curation” was over the last decade, making a thoughtful analysis of who is offering what will be what gets most events going through the 2020s. This doesn’t just include making sure that, say, T-shirt vendors don’t overwhelm every other vendor at an event. A vendor may have a truly unique inventory without competition at a show (*cough*), but if that same vendor is at every last show in a 100-kilometer radius, that both diminishes the vendor’s brand and the shows’ brand. This goes double for events attached to a holiday or regional tradition, where it’s oh-so-easy to overwhelm vendors and customers with sheer volume.

Much more community. Finally, the biggest shakeout is going to be in creating and maintaining events where the vendors and the customers are looked at as much more than a source of revenue. This works all ways, with vendors offering exclusives for particular customers and events, customers dragging friends and cohorts to shows just so they can see, and events that highlight vendors as attractions in their own right and not just as a way to pay for big-name stars. Some existing venues, such as Texas Frightmare Weekend, are going to become business case studies on how creating real community is an unquantifiable but essential part of running and maintaining large events. Just as how it’s much harder to maintain a 10-gallon aquarium in the long run than a 100-gallon, the successful small events are going to have to work harder at it, but the returns will more than make up for the effort.

Is this a roundabout way of saying that the Triffid Ranch has plans of its own for 2021? Maaaaaybe. The important part is to borrow a quote, “We all hang together, or we all hang separately,” and stick with it.

Other News

In carnivorous plant news, some may remember last summer’s experiments with studying carnivorous plant fluorescence with a grad student’s budget, and Dylan Sheng at Plano Carnivorous Plants has taken that work to exciting new levels. In particular, he was photographing Heliamphora pitcher plant fluorescence, and even noting that some species had nectar that fluoresced as well. His work had great confirmation with a new paper by Michal R. Volos on Heliamphora fluorescence in situ, helping to demonstrate that this happens with wild and captive plants. Suffice to say, keep an eye on Dylan’s future research: he’s someone to watch within the carnivorous plant community, and I’m very proud to call him a friend.

Shameless Plugs

Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend earlier, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Loyd and Sue Cryer of Frightmare are now running their own horror-related storefront, Frightmare Collectibles, featuring a grand collection of autographed photos, DVDs, VHS tapes, and assorted weirdnesses gathered from around the world. Remember the mention above about outside Triffid Ranch events? Loyd and Sue recently hosted their first outdoor event by their location in Justin, Texas, and while it was far too cold this time to bring out plants, expect to see carnivores at future events once things start to warm up in spring.

Recommended Reading

Now that the holidays are nearly over, it’s time to get back to the construction side of the gallery and get to work on new enclosures, and the various books from Rinaldi Studio Press on model kit weathering and detailing are essential inspirations for those. Michael Rinaldi has spent the last few years not only mastering new weathering techniques but putting everything he can into books that focus on one single kit and show how those techniques can be applied elsewhere. While they last, I highly recommend snagging his single model volume Fish Submarine, if only for ideas and atmosphere for other artistic pursuits.

Music

The late 1990s weren’t a good time for rock music in the States, but Powerman 5000’s combination of heavy riffs with science fiction themes was a wonderful respite from the overwhelming majority of whiner rock bands from 1995 to 2000, all of which seemed required to have at least one song with the theme “Mommy Won’t Let Me Buy Heroin With Her Credit Card.” One of the statements on the general worthlessness of terrestrial radio over the last 25 years is that not only is the band still together and still producing albums, but those new albums are so much more alternative than what’s being played as such over the air. Speaking from experience, not only can you do much worse than rock out to “V Is for Vampire” when starting work at a new day job, but it’s great for keeping pace on a bike commute to the same.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 3

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

And now we get to the heart of the matter. A lot of wonderful things can be said about North American pitcher plants, but that list of complimentary adjectives will never include “petite.” No matter the species and no matter the hybrid, give a Sarracenia good light, rainwater or distilled water, and enough room for its roots to spread, and it’ll eventually take over. For those working on large container gardens, this is a feature, not a bug, but eventually one plant becomes a bunch, and that bunch becomes a wave heading to the sea. Combine that with even the best potting mix eventually breaking down and compacting, and sooner or later, you’ll have to thin and repot.

That foul Year of Our Lord 2020 doesn’t qualify for many positive adjectives, but it was a pretty good year for growing Sarracenia outside. We only had a few days where the temperatures went above blood temperature, we had enough sudden summer cloudbursts to take the edge off the worst of the summer, and the only period all year where humidity dropped to “Dallas normal” (that is, consistently below 30 percent) was in October. The previous winter was just cold enough to give everything a good winter dormancy, and as is typical for North Texas, we weren’t running out of bugs. This meant a lot of growth among the Sarracenia pools, to the point where you could look at one pot and refuse to believe that the plant had ever been cleaned up in its life.

That, though, was the situation for the Sarracenia hybrid above: by January 2021, all of the traps that survived winter 2020 were all dead, the majority of pitchers and phyllodia from spring were dead or dying, and the fall pitchers were still going strong. In addition, Sarracenia grow from rhizomes that spread gradually and put up new growing points, and this one had rhizomes that were shoving up against the sides of its plastic pot and threatening to rupture it. This plant was now a series of plants, and they all needed a combination of haircut, pedicure, and house refinishing, and January is the best time to do this.

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Plastic tub or tray (go for something with reasonably high walls)
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Sharp garden knife
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps

In addition, should your plant be as rootbound and as overgrown as this, you’ll also need a copious supply of your preferred Sarracenia potting mix (usually one part sphagnum peat to one part sharp sand), a suitable supply of plastic or glazed ceramic pots, a bucket full of rainwater or distilled water, and a place to keep your new repotted plants. IMPORTANT WARNING: be very careful about the peat and sand you are using. Do not, under any circumstances, use peat moss that has added fertilizers: most carnivores cannot handle most standard fertilizers, as the fertilizers will burn the roots off. Likewise, when purchasing sand, test a sample by putting a handful into a cup and adding vinegar or another weak acid. If it fizzes, don’t use it, because the sand is too contaminated with limestone or other alkalis for use.

While this may look like a hopeless case, 90 percent of the work can be done with your fingers, with or without gloves as is your preference. Most of the dead pitchers and phyllodia shown here will come loose with a gentle tug, so rake through the mess at the top of the pot with fingers and pull it all to the side. While you’re at it, watch for new growing points, such as the one above that’s threatening to make a break for freedom, and clip off any dead pitchers that are hanging onto those growing points instead of pulling them. The odds are pretty good that the pitcher stem is stronger than the rhizome, and you don’t want to snap the rhizome or uproot the whole plant. Finally, clip back any pitchers and phyllodia that are still green at the base, just to remove the dead, brown portion. (You can trim the whole pitcher, but since Sarracenia use whatever live leaves survive the winter to store up reserves for spring, the more green you leave, the better the chance the plant has of having larger and more copious blooms.)

Now, this is a LOT better than it was, but the pot is still distended from multiple rhizome incursions, and the whole collective could use some foot space. It’s time for it to come out and get split up.

With most plastic propagation pots, removal is easy: grab the pitchers with one hand, hold the pot with the other, and pull up until the root ball slides free. Be careful not to pull TOO hard, or you’ll tear up the plant before the roots work free. If the roots won’t come free, dig out a portion of soil (watching out for roots), flex the pot if possible, or even soak the whole thing, pot and all, in a bucket of rainwater until the soil is loose enough to come free. When it comes free, watch for the whole root ball breaking up and making a mess, and especially watch for critters that planned to spend the winter among the roots. This root ball dislodged a slug and several (harmless to humans) spiders, but once I accidentally disturbed a queen paper wasp that was buried in a pot while waiting for spring, and she wasn’t happy in the slightest.

At this point, dedicated students of the obvious may note that this project was done in a white plastic tub, and a potting tub or other wide container with reasonably high walls is very highly recommended at this point. This isn’t just to catch slugs and spiders, but to catch the wet peat that’s otherwise going to go everywhere. Lay your Sarracenia root ball in the bottom of that tub, note where rhizomes were pressing against the now-removed pot, and gently start pulling plants apart. Most will come free right away: if the root ball is too entangled, soak it in that bucket of rainwater for a couple of minutes, and then try again. It’s not necessary to break up big rhizomes, but if you absolutely have to, clean your garden knife (you read the list of recommended tools above, didn’t you?) with isopropyl alcohol and cut between growing points. Don’t go serial killer on the rhizomes: a rhizome about the width of your fist is a good size.

Next, we’re going to repot all of our freshly separated Sarracenia, which means being ready for repotting at least 24 hours earlier. That’s the minimum amount of time you’ll need to hydrate dry sphagnum peat moss: if it’s dried out, water poured on top will just run down without being absorbed by the peat, and letting that water soak in takes time. Put your mix in a bucket or other container, add a good amount of water, and LEAVE IT ALONE for at least 12 hours. By the time you’re ready, you’ll need a mix that’s about the consistency of a good mud pie. (If you use a peat/sand mix, stir it up well because all of the sand will have settled to the bottom if the mix has too much water.) If and when the potting mix is ready, get your pots ready, and put a good handful of wet mix in the bottom of each pot. With one hand, hold the plant upright, making sure that the crown of the plant (where the roots meet the leaves) is above the edge of the pot, and gently pack in potting mix with the other. Compact it just enough to remove big air voids, which should just burp out if the potting mix is wet enough, and set it aside (with something underneath it to catch any water leaking out of the bottom or off the sides) to work on the next.

The photo above only shows part of the final harvest: that one pot of Sarracenia yielded 10 pots of new plants. They all went back outside to continue their dormancy, and we’ll find out how well the surgery went when things warm up. Now go clean up: dump the plant parts and old sphagnum in the compost pile, pour the bucket water into the pile as well (don’t use it to water other Sarracenia, to minimize the risk of disease), clean your tools well, and look on a job well done. And just think: with a large collection of Sarracenia, this was just ONE pot, and now you have to do the same thing for five…or ten…or one hundred…

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 2

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

Anyone raising North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia) in North Texas has to deal with two absolutes: our wildly variable humidity and the dessicating south wind that only lets up when it’s replaced by the dessicating north wind in winter. That wildly variable humidity and precipitation is why locals will see both prickly pear cactus and pine trees in various spots in Dallas, but neither particularly thrive here. Many Sarracenia species and hybrids adjust to the lower humidity, so long as they get proper light and water, but a couple require additional protection.

Of all of the species of Sarracenia in cultivation, the hooded pitcher plant, Sarracenia minor, is the most temperamental when grown in North Texas. S. minor has a relatively small range through southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, and it much prefers humidity at all times in excess of 80 percent. Because of that, raising them outside under a direct sun usually doesn’t work out well without additional protection, especially of the base and roots. Out here, if you can’t raise them in a greenhouse or in a high-humidity microclimate that shelters them from prevailing winds, S. minor can be raised in tall glass vases, as the humid air stays around the plant’s base while excess heat escapes out the top. The important thing to consider is keeping S. minor extremely moist, especially and particularly during its winter dormancy, as it tends to go into shock if it dries out.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

For this sort of container, cleanup is much the same as for other Sarracenia, but take special care not to disrupt the crown of the plant by pushing pitchers out of the way. Clip off anything brown, trim back pitchers and phyllodia with brown ends, and clip off flower scapes while you’re at it. Pull any weeds, with forceps if necessary, and check for insect pests hiding along the stems, After that, give the glass a good cleaning both inside and out (always remember to spray glass cleaner on the cloth or paper towel to be used, not directly on the glass), check the soil inside and add water if it needs moisture, and return the container to its original location. Now, we wait for spring.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 1

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

And now we get to the most labor-intensive carnivores, as January marks the perfect time to clean them up for spring. North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.), as carnivores best raised outside, should be quite dormant by now if you’re raising them in the Northern Hemisphere, and Dallas’s mild winters don’t determine that dormancy so much as the short days. As of the middle of January, we still have two months where temperatures and precipitation can fluctuate all over the place: we could have springlike temperatures between now and the end of April, or we could get hit with a week of subfreezing temps and repeated sleet storms. Either way, Sarracenia sleep through it all, only starting to produce bloom buds around mid-March (I tell locals “wait until St. Patrick’s Day”) and new traps in April after the blooms have been pollinated. (Most of the insects most likely to gather Sarracenia pollen are the fully revived plants’ prey the rest of the year, so the overwhelming majority produce their traps well after blooming. The only serious exception is the yellow pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava, which tends to bloom early and produce big traps when other species are just opening their blooms. That antisocial tendency continues: most Sarracenia blooms smell sweet, but S. flava blooms are best described on a range between “cat pee” and “eau de anime convention,” and the fragrance, if you can call it that, can be overpowering in close quarters.)

In this example, we’re looking at a Sarracenia “Scarlet Belle,” a hybrid of S. leucophylla and S. psittacina, and a great example of the variation in Sarracenia leaf morphology. In the center are the last traps of autumn, sprouting when temperatures in Dallas went from “skinnydipping in a lead smelter” to “actually not half bad,” and those pitchers are particularly brightly colored in order to attract available prey before all of the insects in the area die or go dormant themselves. On the outer edge are the remnants of last spring’s growth, with some of these being survivors from the previous year. In between are leaves with tiny or nonexistent traps and a big wide ala or “wing” growing from the underside. These leaves are called phyllodia, and Sarracenia usually grow them in summer, when it’s too hot to do more than photosynthesize. North American pitcher plants also grow phyllodia in late fall, and for the same reason: to capture as much light as possible over the winter in order to have plenty of stored energy in spring for growth and blooming. If all you have are phyllodia, that’s usually a sign that your pitcher plant is being kept somewhere far too dry, with too little light, or both.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

The first thing we’re going to do with this cleanup is remove or trim dead and dying leaves. Many older traps will just pull free with a gentle tug: if it doesn’t come free with a gentle tug, don’t yank harder to get it free. Sarracenia have deeper and stronger roots than, say, Venus flytraps, but relatively fresh leaves can still be stronger than the roots, and you don’t want to rip the plant apart by being overly enthusiastic. If it pulls free right away, go that way, but otherwise cut it free. With everything, remember “if it’s brown, it can go,”, because dead leaves won’t magically become green again in spring. Feel free to trim back pitchers and phyllodia with dead ends, but try not to cut into still-living portions if you can help it.

With the dead detritus cleared out and dumped in the compost pile, take a look at the still-living pitchers and phyllodia and look for pests. Slugs regularly hide among and within dead pitchers, and scale insects will grow between the main pitcher and the ala, die during the winter, and spread fresh hatchlings from their cases in spring. Scale can be treated with neem oil, either sprayed or applied gently with a cotton swab. Other than that, look for anything else that might be off and keep notes to check on these over the rest of the winter.

Since your pitcher plants should be outside, this means that outside seeds can get into the pot, whether by wind, by animals, or by interesting seed dispersal mechanisms. One of the most common is clover of all sorts, as clover does very well in the low-nitrogen soils of bog plants. Here in Dallas, we have two major aggravations besides clover: cottonwood seedlings, which sprout pretty much anywhere so long as they have access to water, and violets, which take over in the colder part of the year. Cottonwoods have to come out no matter what time of the year it may be, but violets tend to burn back in summer, making it very hard to tell how bad an infestation can be until winter and early spring. Violets are more annoying than anything else, so removing them from your outdoor carnivores isn’t an absolute necessity: considering how fast cottonwood trees grow, you want to remove those as quickly as possible.

No matter when you conduct your Sarracenia cleanup, plan a followup sometime in February to look over everything with fresh eyes. Traps or phyllodia that weren’t dead in January may be dead in February, and overlooked weed seedlings should be just big enough to be noticed in a month, especially if temperatures didn’t go well below freezing. While you’re at it, schedule another followup for the beginning to middle of March, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see little nodules on stalks, looking like a snail’s eye, growing from the center of the plant. Leave those alone, and they should rise up, droop, and spread their petals within the next month or so. And the cycle continues.

To be continued…

Have a Safe Weekend

Advance warning: the first Triffid Ranch Carnivorous Plant Tour of 2021 begins at 10:00 am on January 24, and runs until 4:00 pm. We now return to our scheduled musical programming.