Daily Archives: May 12, 2011

“You solved the box! We came! Now you must come back with us!”

Most carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a particular El Dorado specimen that they dream of raising. It might be the corkscrew plant Genlisea. With others, it’s the South African sundew impersonator Roridula, with its symbiotic ambush bugs and resinous droplets. The one that everyone talks about, in tones usually reserved for telling the priest at church that his fly is open, is the Sulawesi pitcher plant Nepenthes hamata.

This isn’t just because the plant is notoriously hard to keep in propagation, as it cannot handle excessively high temperatures or fluctuations in humidity. No, it’s because of its pitchers. Nepenthes first grow a set of lower pitchers, usually adapted to snagging ground-based or poorly flying prey. After a time, the plant starts to vine around vertical supports, and the pitchers, known imaginatively as “upper pitchers,” are usually wildly different in appearance and shape from the lower pitchers. In most cases, as experts have noted, if the lower and upper pitchers were discovered separately, botanists would have every reason to believe that they came from separate species, and in fact many species described in the Victorian period were declared nomen dubiam when the parent plant was identified.

And such is the case with Nepenthes hamata. All Nepenthes have a distinct lip or peristome along the mouth of the pitcher, and some can bear all sorts of flares, ruffles, and ridges. N. hamata‘s lower pitchers look a bit gruesome, as if someone welded a bandsaw blade to the peristome. The upper pitchers, though, are a true nightmare, being covered with sharp inward-curving hooks, and I tend to describe them to Nepenthes beginners as “resembling a condom designed by Clive Barker”.

Anyway. My friends at Sarracenia Northwest already make sure that the song I’m usually humming in the greenhouse is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”. They now have N. hamata specimens for sale. Really…never mind the track marks…I can quit at any time…

(I’d also like to add that Doug Bradley, the actor best known for playing the Pinhead Cenobite in the Hellraiser films, is a regular guest at Texas Frightmare Weekend. Sadly, he only browses for a few moments at the Triffid Ranch booth before moving on: I think the plants scare him.)


My wife and confidante Caroline and I have been married for nearly nine years, and she’s put up with an inordinate amount of grief from me over the intervening decade. Best known for her exemplary jewelry, she’s also known throughout the online community as “the Czarina”. (The nickname came from when I was teaching her how to play chess shortly after we married, when she reminded me of the character in Fritz Leiber’s famed chess ghost story “Midnight by the Morphy Watch”.) She’s marginally taller than I am, at a full six feet, so I’ve joked for years about how she’s popped me in the top of the head so often with her elbows that I can use the dent as a candleholder. Further mythmaking ensued, with my relating how I can tell she’s less than happy when her elbows slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor. It’s to the point when people meet her for the first time, they don’t ask “Where are you from?” or “May I see your jewelry?” They always, ALWAYS ask “May I see your elbows?”

This drives her mad. So does the observation that our marriage could be described as particularly deranged fan-fiction involving the romantic exploits of Delenn and GIR.

This doesn’t mean that I avoid behavior that annoys her. In fact, the best image most friends and general spectators have of us in public involves me lying on the ground in a fetal ball, paralytic with laughter, while she kicks me in the ribs and screams “What the HELL is WRONG with you? HUH? What is WRONG with you?” (This was first instigated when my best friend asked if we were planning to have kids, and I pointed out that any children of mine would be at the school science fair with the project “How Does Brundlefly Eat?” She apparently had issues with my joking about this at dinner.) She often paraphrases Bill Cosby when she asks me if it’s impossible for me to sleep at night without a good beating.

And so it goes into discussion of pets. We already have two cats: one is smart enough to be working on his Ph.D thesis and the other is so dumb he trips on the carpet pattern, and our carpet is a uniform blue-grey. “That’s not enough,” I say, so she asks me what would, in my deranged little world, make a good pet.

“A crocodile monitor, naturally. Preferably one trained to eat the squirrels in the back yard.”

Personally, I don’t see why she has such an issue with a crocodile monitor. We’re only talking about a three-meter-long lizard with a potentially venomous bite, that climbs trees to snag prey as heavy as it is, and whose indigenous names in New Guinea invariably translate to “demon” for its habit of hunting hunters. I can’t figure it out. I mean, how could you say “no” to this cute widdle face?

Crocodile monitor profile

Essential reading

I’m no longer amazed at the strange perambulations made in my life over the last ten years: all I can do is hang on. A case in point was my exposure to triggerplants. An online friend was discussing the possible carnivory of Australian triggerplants, and I naturally assumed, with the typical arrogance of a beginning carnivore keeper, that he was referring to hammer orchids instead. Out of nowhere, a friend of my friend both gently cleaned my clock on my ignorance and gave me the opportunity to rectify my attitude. That, friends, is why my growing space is completely overloaded with one of the most fascinating plant genera I’ve ever come across.

Later postings will go into more detail on triggerplants and how well they do in Texas (ridiculously well, as I’ve discovered), but now I send you in the direction of my friend Ryan Kitko and his blog Cunabulum. You ever meet someone who makes you wake up in the morning glad to have made his acquaintance, and who always surprises you with new lines of inquiry? Yeah, that’s what friendship with Ryan is like. You could read about his researches and passions, or you could meet him at next year’s International Carnivorous Plant Society conference and ask him yourself.

You never hear the one that gets you

The Triffid Ranch faces a lot of threats at various times from flora and fauna. The same soil mixes that work so well for carnivorous plants are also prime habitats for clover, so Saturday mornings are spent plucking clover from the propagation pots before the clover goes to seed. Tent caterpillars and green looper caterpillars love the taste of young Nepenthes leaves. While I don’t mind the ongoing Mediterranean gecko/orbweaver spider war in the greenhouse resembling a community theater rendition of Babylon 5, that can’t be said for the black widow spiders that camp out underneath greenhouse benches. Termites and Amanita mushrooms and ants and mosquitoes: they’re all part of the terrain. I don’t even mind the mourning doves out hooting their heads off at dawn, because they make great breakfast for the neighborhood red-tailed and Harris’s hawks and bedtime snacks for great horned owls.

The wildlife component I actively enjoy are the opossums, and we have a regular visitor in “Harold,” named after the nephew of Canada’s greatest superhero. As befitting the US’s only indigenous marsupial, Harold hides out during the day in an undisclosed location, but waddles across the lawn at night to check out the greenhouse and everything in the vicinity. He’s not destructive, though, and he’s welcome even when he leaves calling cards large enough to be seen via surveillance satellite. (As my best friend is fond of quoting, “That beast shits like a man.”) In return, he goes after a lot of bugs and other critters, and he does enough work around here that I’m worried that the Texas Workforce Commission will tag me for not paying his Unemployment insurance premium.

The wildlife welcome, though, isn’t open to one animal: the squirrel. I’ve had a loathing for tree-rats since 1998, when I lived in a house with two gigantic and prolific pecan trees. They were incredibly prolific before the tree-rats stripping the trees of anything remotely edible, and squirrels have the charming habit of partially eating nuts, dropping them, and grabbing another. This meant that every available surface was covered with pecan shells and hulls, which stained concrete and left glass-sharp shell shards underfoot.

Problem is, tree-rats get into everything, and they don’t even have the charms of real rats. Norway rats have high intelligence, long-term memories, and adaptability, while squirrels have nothing other than a prodigious breeding cycle to keep them from becoming extinct. Sometimes it’s the arcing buzz of a tree-rat connecting with a live electrical line, causing a brownout or blackout in the neighborhood that requires you to reset every electric clock in the house. Sometimes it’s the “do you MIND?” expression as one cleans his testicles on the hood of your car in the morning. The aspect of tree-rat behavior that really affects me, though, is their automatic assumption that every pot and planter in the area is full of cached nuts. Apparently dragonfruit cactus and Venus flytrap seedlings smell like a veritable Smaug’s hoard of acorns and other nuts, so I come home from the Day Job to find uprooted and tossed flytraps everywhere.

Hav-A-Hart traps don’t work, because of a combination of utter stupidity and tripwire reflexes. I don’t want to use poisons, because they’d also take out any scavengers of their corpses, from cats to crows to Harris’s hawks. Electric fences are both impractical and a waste of time. They breed faster than standard predators can thin them out, and the Czarina absolutely refuses to allow me to chain up a crocodile monitor to oversee the Sarracenia beds. Hence, I suspect that the rat-sniper from Moscow may have the right idea. Crouching on the back porch with a $3500 air-rifle fitted with a laser sight…and the last thing the squirrel hears is a hearty yell of “Hey! Tree-Rat! SMILE!”

Oh, I’m in trouble

I’d never advocate or endorse warehouse hijacking. Likewise, I feel for Dan Aykroyd after the recent Crystal Head Vodka heist took some 21,000 bottles of the stuff. HowEVER, Dan, if it turns out that most of it is drunk before the FBI and ATF get hold of the perps, want to work out a deal to sell the empty bottles? They make really good sundew terraria, after all…

Stretching the limits of an art form

I’m sure that many bonsai enthusiasts might be less than enthusiastic about Nick Letz’s, erm, interesting bonsai and penjing arrangements. Some may even be offended at his mixtures of flora and nontraditional pots, or his inclusion of sculptures. Me, I’m blown away, because I’ve been dreaming and creating similar arrangements with carnivores for years. This is the point where we see the evolution of an art form, where traditionalists will scream about how this is inappropriate or sinister, and the new practitioners end up themselves becoming part of the established order as they’re gradually accepted. Count me in as on the side of the Robert Bakkers and John Lydons.