Monthly Archives: June 2011

Things To Do In Fort Worth When You’re Dead

This is a special weekend in North America, and it should be celebrated in an appropriate fashion. July 1 is Canada Day, and is usually celebrated around here by calling up Canadian friends and singing them the National Anthem in French. (Of course, this is the alternate universe National Anthem, the one sung in the South Park movie by Terrance and Philip that should have won the 2000 “Best Original Song” Oscar. It’s because I love them to death, and because I know, being of Canadian ancestry myself, that getting them angry enough to skin me is the only way to get them to visit.) The subsequent Monday, of course, is celebrated in the US as the name of a really, really lousy alien invasion movie from fifteen years ago. I won’t bring up Texas Independence Day, because our 175th anniversary was last March, but we usually save the fun for July anyway. It’s too cold for barbecue and iced tea at the beginning of March anyway.

So. This weekend is also a special one, because it’s one of those incredibly rare days where the Czarina doesn’t have to work on Saturday. Who’s up for combining Canadian, American, and Texan sensibilities and attending the Science Saturday open house at the brand new Botanical Research Institute of Texas building in Fort Worth? Just replace the cactus with Mounties, and it’ll be just like being in Calgary.

Call in the burn squad

I don’t make a huge deal of my Scottish heritage, no matter how badly the Czarina wants to see me in a kilt. (She’s Welsh: it can’t be helped.) One aspect of my paternal ancestry, though, leads to a lot of trouble. Namely, the fact that you have no idea, no idea, of what the word “frugality” means if you’re not of the blood. I remember reading a book review in the Eighties that started out describing how the reviewer’s grandmother could stretch out a Thanksgiving turkey until she was trying, in mid-July, to figure out how to make turkey-flavored Jell-O from the bones. My first response was “Are we related?” This frugality should be celebrated, not mocked: I mean, how many other civilizations on the planet could look around at available resources and say “We have fresh water, peat, rye, and a big load of copper. What can we do with this?

(Now, I say this about my father’s side of the family. My mother’s is even better, as she came from classic Irish/German/Cherokee stock. I’m glad I don’t let old family and country rivalries affect my life, because otherwise I’d get a big stick and beat the crap out of myself.)

North Texas tends to bring out a lot of that, because it’s not like we have a lot out here. The trees are small. We don’t have big metal deposits. The soil is some of the richest on the planet, but only after it’s been worked for decades to break up the clay we lovingly call “black gumbo”. The two things we have to excess are both products of the yellow hurty thing in the sky that stays above the horizon for eighty days at a stretch this time of the year. Namely, a lot of sun and a lot of wind.

Capturing the wind is relatively easy, because the only time it stops blasting out of the south is during those few moments we laughingly call “winter” and it blasts out of the north. More and more wind turbines are going up to take advantage of our surplus. Since we literally have 300 or more sunny days per year, now it’s time to scoop up a bit of sun, and use it for good instead of for skin cancer and powdery automobile paint.

Now, two things to take into account. I have a good friend in the UK who’s well-known for her propensity to get into trouble, to the point where she has a List. Specifically, this is entitled “Things Arkady Is Not Allowed To Do,” and one of the top ten entries is “Anything suggested by Paul Riddell.” It’s like these people know me or something. That’s the first, and the second is that I’m a horrible enabler. I like to tell people that my little brother Eric is still the only five-year-old I’ve ever met who knew how to make black powder, and I innocently whistle when he points out that his seven-year-old older brother was the one who gave him the recipe. If Arkady and I were ever to meet in real life, well, I hope everyone’s prepared for the next few years when Earth gets blasted out of its orbit and goes wandering through interstellar space. (Another entry in Arkady’s List is “Anything that makes her giggle for more than 15 seconds.” A few minutes hanging around with me, and she’ll be giggling for years.)

And why do I bring this up? It’s because I’ve discovered that I have a need, a deep horrible primeval need, for a Fresnel lens. A big Fresnel lens. Even better, I discovered folks in Fort Worth that manufacture Fresnel lenses.

Now, I’m not going to say a word about what I have in mind, other than that it should be a very interesting heating system for the greenhouse in the winter, and a very important tool during that period when we pass from “spring” to “My daily commute requires me to swim through pools of molten concrete”. I promise, though, that if it doesn’t work, you’ll never know. That’s the good side to the shock of tossing Earth into the void between galaxies.

Now THAT’s garden sculpture!

My friend Chris Blakeley in Seattle just shared a little posting on the steel artwork of Andrew Chase. Specifically, of Mr. Chase’s tyrannosaur sculptures.

Oh, dear. I can hear the Czarina telling me “Where are we going to put it?” Naturally, the answer is “Out in the front yard. Add a tank and a Dalek, and we’ve got a life-sized Rowan Atkinson nativity set.”

Uh oh

After a few years of living in Dallas, you become a bit blase about shopping malls. Back in the Eighties, famed Chicago columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La,” and he was nearly tarred and feathered. I note that the best documentary about life in Dallas was directed by George Romero…not so much.

Anyway, it should be interesting to see the latest confluence of shopping mall sensibilities and horticulture, brought to you by the folks behind Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, becoming our second big tourist attraction. (You know, besides that little accident a few years back.) Namely, Terrain. Time for me to talk to the folks at Panoptikon, Dallas’s best goth club, about offering an antidote to “put a bird on it” before it gets here.

Prehistoric gardens

Five years ago next month, my in-laws were in the middle of a massive and thorough house renovation, so they considered “stay at home and watch as the air conditioning went blasting through the holes in outside walls and through the missing floorboards, or go someplace with more amenable weather.” To their credit, they decided that this was the perfect time to go to Canada. Banff, Alberta, specifically. Considering that at that point I hadn’t been in Canada in 30 years, and even then only to Ontario, I certainly wasn’t going to argue about a family expedition. That is, until we got into the rental car and the Czarina suddenly panicked about on which side of the road Canadians drive.

(Now you have to understand that I love the Czarina in the way I love oxygen, a steady supply of drinkable water, and the ability to pull off a really good fart joke when being chased by mobsters, ninjas, and dinosaurs. However, telling her that the Oxford Dictionary definition of “credulous” has her picture next to it works every time. A perfect example was when the whole extended clan went on a jaunt through the trails in Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, and we passed what once was the hinge to a gate, still attached to a tree. It looked like a spigot attached to the tree, so the Czarina asked about its purpose. “It’s for gathering pine syrup,” I said. “Canadians only use pine syrup on their pancakes. They save that maple crap for Americans who aren’t smart enough to know better.” I had her going for a full ten minutes until she saw me fighting laughter, and then OH MY GOD THE BEATINGS, as Jeff Somers would say.)

I don’t want to intimate that I don’t love the Czarina’s family. Anything but. It’s just that usually their idea of fun is a bit different than ours. While everyone else wanted to go white-water rafting, we were loading the car for a sidetrip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. After arriving in Calgary before driving to Banff, the car rental clerk asked our plans for our vacation, and when I brought up the word “Drumheller”, this poor Newfoundland girl just shuddered. “It’s so FLAT.” I simply responded “In other words, just like North Texas.” And it is. The only realy difference between Calgary and Fort Worth is that the latter has a surplus of cactus and a drought of Mounties, and the only way we were absolutely sure we hadn’t teleported to West Texas on our way to Drumheller was noting that all of the highway signs listed kilometers instead of miles.

Anyway, the Royal Tyrrell Museum actually managed to exceed its reputation in the US. Its Burgess Shale exhibit was the next best thing to seeing the actual formation, and its dinosaur collection is simply incredible. (This includes the life-sized Albertosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus models out in front. With the latter, I couldn’t resist a Steve Irwin pose, and I’m glad I wasn’t deported.) The most intriguing draw, though, was the spectacular Cretaceous Garden. In particular, one glass wall looks over the Drumheller badlands, giving a particularly poignant comparison between the conditions 90 million years ago and now.

Not that the Cretaceous Garden is the only one of its type, even on the continent. For instance, the Zilker Botanical Garden in Austin has the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, similarly planted with flora comparable to that in the area during the Cretaceous. I just wonder, though, what would it take to set up a similar garden here in Dallas?

Have a great weekend

“Hi! I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is ‘self-publishing’.”

Every once in a while, I feel the urge to write another book. Never mind that my previous three got more positive reviews than sales: instead of wasting my time with science fiction and essays therein, I was going to focus solely on horticulture. When this happens, I usually ask the Czarina for help, and four or five good stout cracks to the skull with a cricket bat relieves the pressure on my brain that causes these delusions.

It’s not that I don’t have a good viable subject. It’s also not as if I wouldn’t have an editor and publisher whom I trust like the big brother I never had: Warren Lapine has already offered to publish anything on the subject I care to offer him. It’s just, well, that the way the publishing business is going right now, there’s a little metaphor about micturating down a rodent burrow that keeps coming to mind.

Case in point, here’s the only link from you’ll ever see on this blog, on a subject that definitely deserves better coverage and consideration. I’m not even going to include the title or author’s name, because the last thing the author needs is the ego boost from seeing the listing in Google. (Just read the reviews and the excerpt.) Instead, I’m just going to sit back and collect notes, and wait until the situation with big-box bookstores, publishers, and distributors shakes itself out a bit. After all, if this is the competition, I want to wait until the stink dissipates a bit.

Review: Terrarium Craft by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant

(A bit of context. This blog will feature regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Terrarium Craft: Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant, photographs by Kate Baldwin.
ISBN-10: 1604692340
ISBN-13: 9781604692341
Published: Timber Press (OR), 05/01/2011
Pages: 195
Language: English

You’d think that after years of working as a book, music, and film critic, I’d learn not to freak out over first impressions. Don’t read advance reviews. Don’t listen to samples before you hear the whole album. Most importantly, in Nyarlathotep’s name, don’t flip through a book and expect to get a good impression of the content from that view. When I received my copy of Terrarium Craft, I made that mistake.

As an aside, after the last seven years of serious horticultural research, I’ve come to one absolute. Namely, any book with the Timber Press conifer on its spine is worth buying. The serious reference volumes are worth every last penny, and I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for and purchasing the out-of-print volumes, especially those on orchids and conifers. Even the more ethereal volumes are must-haves, and I suspect that at least a quarter of my horticultural library now consists of Timber Press releases. As I like to point out to the folks working there, I see at least one volume every six months that invokes my horticultural theme song.

For about five minutes, I forgot all about this as I flipped through Terrarium Craft on my way to work. I swear to you that my first response was “What the hell is this put-a-bird-on-it gibberish? Deer antlers? Fluorite crystals with bladderworts? Venus flytraps in votive glasses? What happened?” I suddenly wished I had good hard research on whether hallucinogens could pass via the placenta from mother to child, and wondered exactly what my mom was up to 45 years ago.

Thankfully for all involved, I didn’t take this as a sign that someone spiked my Albuterol with ketamine. I did the sane thing and actually read the whole book. Cover to cover. In the process, I had a bit of a revelation.

The problem, of course, lay with the fact that while the rest of living sculpture and design, for lack of a better term, kept advancing into the 21st century, terrarium design still remains trapped in 1975. When I first started out, I picked up a lot of terrarium construction guides, and most of them were published in what G.B. “Doonesbury” Trudeau called “a kidney stone of a decade.” Those who do not remember the Seventies and its terrifying insistence upon homemade junque are condemned to repeat it. Those who do also remember such a proliferation of mediocre crafts that by 1981, “handmade” was almost a profanity. The backlash against depressingly banal handmade clothes, toys, and gifts was so extreme that by the time I left high school, that jacket or that backpack had BEST come from a store that had lots and lots of the exact same thing. (You think I’m kidding. Maybe it had to do with life in North Texas during the oil boom, but wearing a handmade sweater or scarf to school after Christmas was taken as meaning “Oh, your parents were too poor to buy you real presents.”)

For a very long time, “terrariums” were just as much a term laden with sneers as “macrame”. Nearly 150 years of laudable tradition in Wardian cases and fern enclosures, wiped out by maybe five years of mayonnaise jars and little purple elf figures. Vivaria for reptiles and amphibians took off and expanded well beyond their origins. Penjing came into its own in the West, to be met by saikei from Japan and Hòn Non Bô from Vietnam. The popular view of terraria, though? Lucite domes on shag carpet with funky guitar riffs coming out of the quadrophonic stereo, like the set design for an episode of Space: 1999.

That’s why I had my initial freakout, and then I read the whole book. As a guide for beginners, it’s remarkably complete. About the only thing it suffers from is a distressing tendency seen in many contemporary books, exacerbated by Martha Stewart, not to offer general guides on particular effects and designs, but exact step-by-step instructions for exact copies of the displayed arrangements. Many of the arrangements themselves are a bit too twee for my own tastes, and many of the open-glass containers stretch the very limit of the term “terrarium”. For someone who never saw the original terrarium boom of the Seventies, though, it offers a lot of possibilities.

I have to admit that this one will never supplant my favorite terrarium book, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide, by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt. I’ll also admit that Successful Terrariums is now over 36 years old, and the days of getting away with black-and-white photos and sepia illustrations in a hardcover book died along with disco. I’ll even note that with the last four decades of improvements in construction materials and lighting systems, additional knowledge of suitable plants and their needs, and techniques learned from improved botanical garden and zoo displays, now is a perfect time for a book that expands upon this base. It’s definitely high time for a volume that offers additional possibilities for more advanced terrarium and vivarium builders. With a bit of luck, Timber Press will be the publisher of that book, too.

I get by with a little help from my friends

I count myself insanely lucky to have the interesting crowd of friends and acquaintances that I do, and I try my best to return the favor for their not putting me into a burlap sack and tossing me into a river. That’s why I’m making a quick shoutout to St. Johns Booksellers in northeast Portland, Oregon. St. Johns Books is celebrating its sixth birthday on June 25. Nena and Adam, the owners, are old and dear friends, and I’ve already donated my extensive palaeontological library toward expanding the store’s science section. If you can make it to the store, buy mass quantities, and clear out that palaeo section. If you can’t, may I tempt you with an online purchase of the new Timber Press book Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Kenneth Michael Cameron? Or, worse, a chrestomathy of utter gibberish and vile by a justifiably obscure crank?

“I could lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”

Longtime readers of my Gothic Beauty gardening columns might already know of my fascination of and respect for the strategies and tactics of exoparasitic wasps. The common analogy comparing the life cycle of the typical hunting wasp to the title creature in Alien, while accurate, is also very simplistic. Using the ladybug exoparasite Dinocampus coccinellae as an example, pray that hunting wasps never see chordates as possible hosts.

Last call for the next Triffid Ranch lecture

We’re looking at a pretty good chance for desperately needed rain tonight and tomorrow. With luck, tomorrow should be dribbly, drizzly, and potentially torrential. What better weather, then, to come out to the Seagoville Public Library for a lecture on raising carnivorous plants in North Texas?


Lots of interesting bits of information this day, so hang on:

Numero uno, the recent television interviews have scared quite a few online friends who’ve never heard my voice before now. Apparently, I don’t sound thuggish enough. To make matters worse, the Czarina and I are now being compared more often than before to a certain fictional power couple:

Personally, I’m extremely insulted. My eyebrows are white, not red. Besides, although the Czarina looks really good in a pillbox hat, her voice is much deeper than this. (And that sound you just heard was of the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheathes, drooling venom on the floor.)

Numero two-o, never knock serendipity. At the same time that Tillamook reminds us all that it’s National Vanilla Milkshake Day, I got into quite the interesting discussion with an Armenian co-worker at the Day Job about vanilla versus mesquite flavorings. She knew as much about the historic uses of mesquite as most of my fellow Americans, which began and ended with using mesquite wood for meat smoking. With that in mind, it’s time to drag out the ice cream maker, pick up a bottle of mesquite bean syrup, and try mesquite ice cream as an alternative to vanilla. (The plan, in a few years, is to have enough greenhouse space to grow a Vanilla tahitiensis orchid for my own personal use. If you’ve ever seen the stunning V. tahitiensis on display at Gunter’s Orchids in Richardson, you’ll understand why this is such a tall order. Much like a Vanda orchid, Vanilla is a vining indeterminate orchid, and those vines grow to be as big around as a man’s leg. When someone asks about buying one from Gunter’s, the crew asks “How many feet do you want?”, and cuts off a suitable segment for home rooting.)

Numero three-o, you know you’re charting odd terrain when Popular Science magazine gets involved in the discussion of the hottest pepper in the world. Personally, as addicted as I am to hot peppers, I just remember when the 2011 ZestFest ran in Irving last January, and the publisher of Chili Pepper magazine had to be hospitalized for a reaction to too much Bhut Jolokia. It’s a tough call as to whether having a quote from one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century on your crematory urn is a compliment or an insult.

The Triffid Ranch in the news – Update

Remember when I promised a link to the recent Lone Star Adventures interview? It’s now online. And why won’t people tell me beforehand that I sound like Fran Drescher on helium?

New experiments, from South Africa to Texas

I use one particular phrase to describe my life these days: “I love living in the future.” I was already a correspondence junkie back then, but I’d have never guessed twenty years ago how many interesting folks I’d know from all over the world. Canada, Australia, England, New Zealand, Russia, Armenia, China…if someone offered me the chance to go back to 1991 and had the power to do so, I’d just smile and nod until the schlub turned his back, and then I’d beat him to death with a beanbag chair. (Now, if this opportunity were to stand on a hilltop some 150 million years back to watch the asteroid strike that produced the Tycho crater on the moon, I’d take him up on it. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.)

One of those interesting friends is Nerine Dorman from South Africa. Although best known throughout the world for her fiction, she and her husband are South African flora enthusiasts, and she forgets more about South African Euphorbia species in her sleep than I’d learn in a month of Sundays. One of these days, if money and time allow for significant travel, I want to stop by and say hello, and follow her and her husband for the next few days as they showed off local flora. I probably wouldn’t say a word the entire time, except to ask questions while taking frantic notes.

Many other friends describe my enthusiasm for sharing information with such words as “enabler” and and “pusher” and “damn you for making me empty my bank account.” In Nerine’s case, I can say the same thing about her. She introduced me to Silverhill Seeds in Cape Town, which in turn introduced me to what may become my nemesis or my salvation. That plant is Roridula gorgonias.

Both species in the Roridula genus are native to South Africa, thriving in remarkably similar conditions to those of Texas. Superficially, they resemble sticky-leaved carnivorous plants such as sundews and rainbow plants, but they don’t secrete mucilage such as these or dewy pines. Instead, the tips of their leaf threads produce resin. Mucilage allows the transfer of nutrients and digestive enzymes, but resin can’t, so naturalists thought for a century that any insects caught by Roridula were only incidental captures. Technically, since it also didn’t produce any digestive enzymes, Roridula doesn’t technically qualify as a carnivore, as it can’t digest and absorb any nutrients from captured prey.

The reality revealed itself relatively recently. Both species of Roridula have channels in their leaves, and both have unique species of assassin bug that live among the foliage. In the wild, the assassin bugs converge on captured prey in the Roridula leaves, having the ability to pass through the threads without sticking to the resin. They drain the prey, and then later defecate on the leaves. Those channels mentioned earlier trap the feces and allow the plant to absorb the nitrogen and phosphorus within, thereby making it a carnivore by proxy. That is, depending upon the expert you consult, and the discussion of Roridula‘s carnivory is quite the active subject within carnivorous plant circles.

Well, it’s time for the Triffid Ranch to jump into the fray. A fresh batch of seeds of R. gorgonias went into the greenhouse for germination, and since Roridula apparently loves the two things Texas summers have in abundance, heat and sun, I’m keeping close tabs on if and when they germinate. In three years or so, well, R. gorgonias should make a spectacular addition to lectures on odd plants, when these seedlings are full-sized. And until I can get to Cape Town and thank Nerine personally, I’ll have to settle for photos if this little experiment works out.

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

As far as exotic nightlife is concerned, Dallas will never be mistaken for New York or London. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Although we’re still best-known, generally speaking, for nightclubs and restaurants making it exceedingly easy for the local fratboys to get violently drunk, we have enough little surprises that the rest of us don’t vacate the area for more esoteric climes. We save those for ourselves, and tell the fratboys and hipsters that Neenah, Wisconsin is the new big thing. If we don’t, they’re overrun in cargo pants and Cory Doctorow birth control glasses before you know it.

Another way to avoid the horseface-and-fedora set is to add a good dollop of science to the mix. Dallas has a surprisingly strong set of museums, considering how much neglect they received through the Eighties and Nineties, and the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park is one of those little surprises. The main exhibition areas in Fair Park will be replaced with a brand new museum in Victory Park in 2013, but the existing facilities will be used and loved until then.

Hence, the new Beer & Bones nights, the most recent of which was last Thursday. Originally done as an experiment, based on the continued success of Late Nights at the Dallas Museum of Art, Beer & Bones opens up the museum to a new crowd that usually has to work during normal museum hours. This last Thursday, the theme involved tie-ins to the Museum’s Chinasaurs exhibition, including demonstrations on the chemistry behind fireworks and Michael Cook’s always-fascinating discussions on silkworm raising and silk production. This includes a cash bar and complimentary snacks (including some of the best peanut butter cookies I’ve had in years), and a very enthusiastic and friendly crew of provosts to assist with questions about the exhibits.

Just to give advance word, the next Beer & Bones night is September 16. Please do not ask if this will include a Triffid Ranch demonstration and rodeo, because that’s up to them. What I will say is that no matter what, I’m grabbing as many friends as I can for the September 16 show. I didn’t realize how badly I needed an event like this until it was over, and I suspect a lot of people within the Metroplex are going to feel the same way. Now cue the Consortium of Genius soundtrack.

The Triffid Ranch in the news

My father-in-law is a man of few frivolous words. He’s a man of quick wit and sly humor, but he doesn’t waste his gifts. That’s why the Czarina and I didn’t know who was more surprised when he called this evening to let me know that KDFW, our local Fox affiliate, was running a segment on the Triffid Ranch for the Lone Star Adventures segment of the evening’s newscast. When it’s online, I’ll give everyone a yell.

Have a great weekend

“Something’s wrong with Jack”

Back in the fall of 1993, I took a date to see the premiere of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Although I was still trying to get the taste of Tim Burton’s Batman out of my mouth, I was willing to give Nightmare a fair chance. The film is justified for its reputation for turning millions of embryonic goths over to the dark(er) side, but since I was goth back when the term referred to Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, it simply cemented my attitude that a little bit of Halloween in my Christmas was a very good thing. (Trust me: Rowan Atkinson isn’t the only one who adds Daleks and dinosaurs to his nativity set.)

Anyway, I didn’t quite go willingly, as my very old friend Joey Shea kept pushing me in the back, telling me “Don’t worry about the candiru! The water’s fine!” After I discovered that maybe I shouldn’t walk to his house in Connecticut and talk him to death, we compared notes on the movie. The one absolute full-stop plot hole? Not one kid, NOT ONE, who received Jack Skellington’s presents didn’t prefer it to Santa’s intended replacements. Considering that I belonged to a generation that lusted after some of the darkest and most horrific toys ever to haunt Toys “R” Us ordering managers (from Creepy Crawlers to Prehistoric Scenes model kits to the Alien 18-inch action figure), I could picture the outtakes from Nightmare featuring one kid weeping “Puh-LEEEEEEEEEZE, Santa! Don’t take away my cuddly Cthulhu!”

I think that’s what bugs me the most about the idea behind the new HGTV reality series My Yard Goes Disney. Might it be time to start a gardening show that commissions Hans Rudi Giger, Jhonen Vasquez, and Steve Bissette to offer a few alternatives?

Introducing Echinocactus texensis

Thanks to popular impressions spread worldwide, visitors to Dallas are always surprised at the lack of cactus in the area. Aside from particularly lucky and rare clumps of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) in areas with exceptional drainage, this isn’t a particularly friendly area for succulents other than parslane and moss roses. If you see a stand of cactus in someone’s front yard in the Dallas area, that’s because the owners spent an inordinate amount of time and effort in setting up the right bed with the right amount of drainage. This is a little less necessary in Fort Worth, but you’re still looking at local soils that are far too clayey and local rainfalls a little too high for them to grow just anywhere.

If you want to see cactus in the wild in Texas, you’ll have to go west. Well west of Fort Worth, at least. You can also head south toward Austin and San Antonio, but the really interesting cactus kin the state are found in Big Bend National Park. Don’t forget other parts of the state, because you may be delightfully surprised by what’s out there, when, and why.

For instance, my parents-in-law own a ranch in West Texas, fairly close to the town of Mineral Wells. As the picture below demonstrates, it’s rather scrubby chaparall. The area gets a surprising amount of rain through the year, as most of the big storms that hit Dallas and Fort Worth start in this general area, but the limestone beds that make up half of the local strata are sufficiently fractured that water just drains through. The sandstone that makes up the other half is extremely porous, so between the two, rainfall runs straight down to the Brazos River. Enough, just enough, is trapped in local clay pans that many trees and other plants can survive the brutal summers. It’s just enough to support mesquite, Western cedar, and scrub grasses.

A quick shot of the ranch

The grasses in question can get fairly high, and as such do a very good job of concealing one of the easternmost species of barrel cactus in the US. In fact, sometimes that grass does too good a job.

This is Echinocactus texensis, native range from West Texas into eastern Arizona and well south into Chihuahua, Mexico, which goes by common names such as “pincushion cactus” and “Devil’s footstool”. Its most common name, though, is “horsecrippler,” for two reasons. The first is because of this cactus’s tendency to grow best in flat, clayey plains that produce prime horse forage. The other involves those spines. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice that each rosette, or areola, of spines consists of six small spines and one large downward-pointing spine. In lush times, the cactus’s flesh is full of water, and the big defensive spines point downward to protect it from being rooted up by cattle or pigs. When things start drying out in the summer, though, the cactus’s body starts to collapse like a deflating soccer ball. When it does, those big spines gradually point upward. Speaking from personal experience, they’re sharp and strong enough to punch through the sole of a standard-issue Army boot and through a motorcycle tire, and they can very easily leave an inattentive horse temporarily or permanently lame.

I’ll get to the fruit in a minute, but they illustrate why these can be a danger to people and pets at times. These fruit generally ripen around the end of May, and that’s about the only way the cactus can be spotted easily in the wild. The rest of the year, they grow as far down in the soil as they can, and in high enough grass, they’re nearly impossible to see until you’re right on top of them.

The other time E. texensis is easily spotted is when it blooms in early spring. The flowers open at sunrise, and stay open until dusk. Both the cactus and its blooms are highly UV-reflective, so the blooms attract very enthusiastic bees, wasps, ants, and other pollinators. Like all cactus, horsecripplers are not self-fertile, so they require at least one other blooming horsecrippler in the vicinity in order to set fruit.

Now, back to that fruit. Another common name for this cactus throughout its range is “candy cactus,” because its fruit was gathered by early settlers, juiced, and boiled down to make candy and syrup. Those who have never had prickly pear or dragonfruit will be disappointed with the first taste of fresh horsecrippler fruit, as it has an extremely delicate and subtle flavor. The remnants of the bloom are also extremely spiky, so it takes some finesse to remove the fruit when ripe. In the wild, the fruit grow to about the size of a gumball, but captive plants can produce ones the size of a ping-pong ball without hesitation. Seeing as how the black seeds are both large and numerous, the best way to enjoy the fruit is to swallow the pulp, seeds and all. (Trying to remove the seeds without a juicer is folly, and they really don’t hurt you.) This seems to work very well for the coyotes, pigs, and skunks that readily devour the fruit, and these animals spread seeds in their feces to new locations.

In captive culture, the only disappointment with E. texensis is its extremely slow growth rate. Based on observations on horsecripplers growing on gravel berms and other manmade areas, most seem to need at least 30 to 40 years before they reach a moderate size, and large specimens may be well over 100 to 200 years old. Considering that they can survive ground soil temperatures well in excess of 160 degrees F (71 C), slow growth is a fair trade. Their only real threat comes from the occasional deep freezes that hit Texas, such as the bad freeze we had last February. Horsecripplers can handle subfreezing temperatures for a few days, but any situation where they would be exposed to temperatures below 20 degrees F (-7 C) for more than a day requires that they be brought indoors for shelter.

As for captive growing requirements, horsecripplers aren’t particular about soil mix (standard potting mixes work well, and perlite or Growstones in the bottom is highly recommended), but they HAVE to have suitable drainage. Terracotta pots or plastic pots work well, so long as these don’t have bottom trays that allow the pot to collect water. In the wild, the clay is so thick and tough that horsecripplers usually only put out a small taproot about the size of a carrot. In captivity, they rapidly put out a thick and extensive root clump, which sometimes adhere to the inside of terracotta pots. Seeing as how they really need to be repotted only once every few years, though, that’s a minor issue. Fertilizing is, likewise, quite easy, and I use bat guano once per month, one cup per twenty gallons (70.7 liters) of water, during the growing season.

Other than that, the only absolute requirement for happy propagation of E. texensis is sun. Lots of sun. Lots of burning, blinding, peel-the-skin-off-the-backs-of-your-eyeballs sun. For this reason, when people tell me that they can’t keep plants alive because they live in apartments with those horrible windswept balconies, I tell them “Let me introduce you to my friend over here.”

A lot of this knowledge was learned with literal bloodshed, as a whole line of horsecripplers from the ranch are now Kareds. While my father-in-law is very protective of the critters on the ranch both fauna and flora, he acknowledged that ones growing near the residential area on the ranch were potentially dangerous to children and pets. Rather than simply stripping them out, I volunteered to move and propagate them, and they’ve turned out to be surprisingly easy and friendly to keep in captivity. In fact, the only reason why they don’t show up more often in propagation is due to their incredibly slow growth. Just wear gloves when repotting, and they may outlive you.

Unbeknownst to us, the ranch had one last surprise in my cactus rescue. At the edge of a gully was a particularly odd fellow, looking as if it was diseased or tumorous. It was literally at the edge of the gully, where one good winter or spring storm would wash it into the gully and to its death. Getting it home, it became surprisingly comfortable with captive life, rapidly spreading out its roots and blooming this spring.

Davros the cristate horsecrippler

Ryan Kitko helpfully identified the cactus’s condition. Cristate or crested cactus are relatively common, if nearly impossible to replicate, and this one was a very rare cristate form of E. texensis. Ryan related that the last paper on a cristate form was published in 1936, but I discovered a couple of cactus nurseries that had examples of their own.

In any case, this one had been in that little clearing for years, and possibly centuries, as its growth is even slower than other members of its species. Between its age and its appearance, only one name was appropriate: “Davros“.

This year, Davros the cactus actually bloomed three times, and all of the fruit ripened. Although most cristate cacti can’t produce viable seed, it may be time to see if this is true with this beast.

Road Trip

Okay, so last week’s Black Jungle Terrarium Supply open house is over, but that doesn’t mean that this summer is bereft of other carnivorous plant nursery events. For instance, many readers may be familiar with the carnivorous plant nursery California Carnivores thanks to Peter D’Amato’s exemplary reference book The Savage Garden, but did you know that California Carnivores is hosting its annual pot-luck party pigfest on July 23?

A little bit earlier, and further up the Pacific coast, we have the early summer open house at Sarracenia Northwest, just east of Portland, Oregon. This open house is scheduled for July 16 and 17, with a second set on September 10 and 11. The crew at Sarracenia Northwest is always good for a great presentation and exemplary plants, so you might as well plan a vacation over that week and hit both events. Just make sure that your 18-foot truck’s axles can handle the weight of the plants you’ll be bringing home.

And in much smaller but equally important events, the Triffid Ranch is getting in on the game as well. I’ll be at the Seagoville Public Library in Seagoville, Texas (just east of Dallas) on June 21 as part of its summer reading program. Considering how badly Texas’s public libraries are being stretched in the current budget cuts, this is purely a pro bono event, and anybody with questions can and should attend. See you then?

The Triffid Ranch in the news

For those in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, a quick heads-up. CBS DFW is running a short segment on the Triffid Ranch during its 4:00 newscast today, and it may run later. Either way, when the segment is available online, I’ll let everyone know.

EDIT: It’s now online. Why does nobody tell me that I sound like Fran Drescher on helium?

Another book on the “Must Read” pile

For all intents and purposes, summer has been here in the Dallas area for the last two weeks. (It’s even worse out west: my best friend and I went to Cross Plains for Robert E. Howard Days on Saturday, and I can state with a bit of expertise that the current drought is the worst that area has seen since “Two-Gun Bob” Howard was still alive.) The National Weather Service has started two weeks early with its vague promises of rain in two weeks, and those rains never arrive. I use a 35-gallon (132.48 liter) evaporative system in my greenhouse to keep things relatively cool and humid, and it’s one-third empty by the end of each day. People are filling old tires with gasoline, lighting them, and putting them around their necks to cool down. Oh, and writers have their brains so stricken by the heat that they go into mad rationalizations and exaggerations, in a defensive measure worthy of a protagonist in an H.P. Lovecraft story, to fend off the true horror. Namely, we only have another three months of this before there’s so much as a chance of the heat breaking.

You don’t have to be insane to live in Texas, but a summer here will drive you to it. It’s a good thing that the well water in West Texas has so much lithium carbonate in it, because otherwise we’d all be chopping each other into pate with chainsaws by about, oh, mid-July. In my case, I think the African lungfish Protopterus has the right idea.

The one good thing about the unrelenting baking? It makes Texas very, VERY Capsicum pepper-friendly. Now, the various legends about eating large quantities of Capsicum peppers to adapt to the summer heat may be apocryphal or exaggerated, but one thing’s for certain. Namely, the plants themselves LOVE these conditions. Keep them in enough water to fend off wilting, and they’ll grow big enough to ask for UN membership before you know it. Before you know it, you’re an addict.

Addiction to growing peppers isn’t necessarily connected to an addiction to eating them, but both types of addicts enable each other. After a while, the names roll lovingly off the tongue, as they’re burning holes through the muscles in it. You find yourself perusing the Chile Pepper Institute catalog in the middle of the night. Strange charges show up on the credit card, and trips to the local hydroponics shop are planned secretly while spouses and family are gone. You keep telling yourself “Just one more set of Black Pearls, and I’m done,” but the serious pepper addict knows that these are just lies. Worse, that addict finds other addicts at work, at the garden center, and in various restaurants that don’t show up on Google searches. “Dude, all I’ve got are serrenos. If I were holding Bhut Jolokias, I’d tell you.”

Now, if you’re smart, you’ll pay attention to the 25-year-old adage “Never trust a junkie.” For those who like messing with the wild side, I’d like to point out that Michael J. Hultquist’s book Jalapeno Madness: Jalapeno Recipes Galore is a great source of recipes for that gateway drug of peppers, the mighty jalapeno. Start with a few of these beauties, and before you know it, you won’t be happy without a daily hit that peels the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips. (I once had a foodie acquaintance who tried bragging about his tolerance to sriracha sauce, and I just squeezed a line onto my finger and brushed my teeth with it. I speak from experience on this.) When you have Capsicum in your life, who needs anything illegal?

Have a great weekend

I suspect this is what’s going on in the greenhouse right now, and It. Will. Stop.

Road trip

There are times where I enjoy the intersection between different parts of my life. I had a beaut this week with the Cornwall-based The Eden Project. For those not familiar with it, the Eden Project is a huge series of artificial biomes and tended gardens in an abandoned clay mine. Cornwall is already famous for its horticulture, as the warm waters of the Gulf Stream keep the area much warmer than it would be due to latitude alone. Combine a climate already predisposed for growing plants more typical of Florida than of England with geodesic “pillow” domes to allow true tropicals to thrive, and you have…wonders.

Now, it’s not surprising that many Americans have seen the Eden Project but not known what it was. It’s apparently quite popular as a location for shooting television shows and movies, and the best-known example seen in the US redressed one of the domes as a biosphere on Mars:

Well, that’s part of the draw. The other was what surprised me. On the Day Job, I work with a gaggle of serious music junkies, and they politely listen to my discussions on horticulture while smiling and nodding, but I might as well have been showing a dog a card trick. However, mention that the famed band The Flaming Lips is playing a show there on June 30, and I swear I heard their ears perk up. Suddenly, everyone’s joking “Yeah, we should have a training seminar in Cornwall at the end of the month, right?” (And considering lead singer Wayne Coyne’s last movie, the locale is strangely appropriate.)

Let’s see. Exotic wildlife, both fauna and flora. Live music. Strawberries and loquats. Oh, and they’re hiring. Should I put the pontoons on my bicycle and head out now, or should I stop by the house to leave the Czarina a note and let her know I may be gone for a while?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

About last weekend. Last weekend’s intended show imploded for a lot of reasons, the least of which being a lack of time and a surplus of obligations just before the show. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m actually allowed to tell the Czarina “no” every year or so, and on questions other than “You wouldn’t get upset if I had a torrid affair with Adam Sandler, would you?” (Not that there’s any worry. She’s a Rik Mayall kind of girl.) The weekend before the show, a family function was announced, and my “veto due to business” power was disabled. Picture Superman under a red sun, or Green Lantern sprayed with yellow paint. It was a horrible thing, and the Czarina felt terrible about it when she saw the perfect storm hit last weekend. Oh, the tears. Oh, the sobbing. She didn’t even say anything about the big snot bubble that kept coming in and out of my nose like a frog throat sac during breeding season, but she had to ask “Is that mascara that’s running down your face, or have you been eating charcoal again?”

The problem, as she’s willing to admit, is my mother-in-law. Don’t let her classic Texas belle exterior fool you. The Czarina learned every spine-smashing, femur-splitting, skull-popping trick she knows from her mother. If the “Hell’s Grannies” leather jacket doesn’t tip you off, it’s the racing flames and the “Gas, Grass, or Ass: Nobody Rides For Free” bumper sticker on her walker. She asks “Wouldn’t you like to get together with the family?”, and people who don’t know any better think this is a question.

(In this case, my mother-in-law has a lot in common with my maternal grandmother. My grandmother was famous for needing a hip replacement after falling off a barstool…while beating the hell out of a biker…who tried to steal her cigarettes. It’s not hard to picture her and Bill Hicks rolling archangels for spare Malboros and raiding Hell every month or so for Zippo replacements.)

The physical damage isn’t what worries me. My mother-in-law is a master of what the grandkids call “the Nonna look”. It goes beyond the evil eye, and beyond laser eyeballs. It’s the optical equivalent of the brown note. I’ve caught it at partial power, and, well, I used to be able to brush my eyebrows over the back of my head. Used to.

Hence, to stem the scheduling issues, I’m going to have a very friendly chat with my beloved mother-in-law about upcoming shows. If my head isn’t spontaneously turned into an aerosol, I’ll report back.

Have a great weekend

If I don’t see you all at North Haven Gardens this Saturday, should I blame the fact that it’s tomato season?

The Triffid Ranch in the news

Aside from the adventures with the allergy clinic, today was also a day for the plants to show off. Mike Kinney of KTVT, our local CBS affiliate, was kind enough to come out from Fort Worth to capture the Triffid Ranch in all of its dubious glory. He has a thing for interesting characters in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, so the segment should run sometime next week and appear on the Web shortly afterward. Details will follow.

“I’m a Time Lord, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.”

Expect quite a few photos in the next few days, as the camera was loaded with wonders and it’s time to share. In the meantime, here’s a little interlude from last March, where Canada’s greatest superhero came to Dallas to autograph duct tape and make Canadian expats and descendants strangely homesick.

"If the Sontarans don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy."

"If the Sontarans don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy."

The guy on the left is Martin Meier, a very old and very dear friend who manages to keep me out of trouble just by suggesting it. He didn’t have to tell me not to ask about sonic screwdrivers: the look on his face said everything I needed to know.

You know, something just occurred to me. If Bill Bailey can get his very own Nepenthes cultivar, then what’s to stop someone from developing the “Red Green” cultivar of the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Although spring won’t officially end for another three weeks, you wouldn’t know it in North Texas. Summer has been here since the last weekend, and we have only two absolutes between now and October:

First, comments about needing pontoons to swim through pools of molten concrete will seem perfectly reasonable, especially by early August.

Second, every grocery store, convenience store, and restaurant will be FULL of people, the vast majority of which being native Texans, who will honk “It’s HOT” at anybody passing within a kilometer of their location. They honestly seem surprised, as if July and August in our fair land should be met with blizzards of dry ice snow or rains of liquid methane. (Texas and Saturn’s moon Titan both begin with the letter “T”, so I can understand the confusion.) Be very careful of any grocery store that sells breakfast, because you’ll be surrounded by people with no other jobs during the day than to impersonate a pterosaur rookery.

I have to admit that I’m not as bothered by the impromptu weather forecast than I am with the reality that the forecast doesn’t change for nearly five months. Repeating this to anybody who’s already been out in it, especially someone who has to work in it, is a little bit like being a parrot taught nothing but profanities. It’s funny the first 87 times, but then the squawker starts wondering why the recipient is starting to check on the price of barbecue sauce for poultry.

Anyway, one of the other absolutes of life in Dallas hit on a personal note. It’s no surprise that Dallas’s air is, shall we say, not so fresh? Crud from Houston, crud from Austin, crud from the cement kilns in Midlothian, and then our own homegrown aerosol filth. By mid-June, anybody but the worst sort of iron-lunged super-mutants is incapacitated or at least stunned by our area’s prodigious output of native allergens. Offices sound like tuberculosis wards. Homes bear drifts of used Kleenex and takeout containers, mostly because most sufferers would rather do a charitable impersonation of Ernest Hemingway’s last moments than deal with the additional heat of a fully-operational kitchen. Combine a sudden and drastic increase in relative humidity with what is now somewhere between polymer and mud, and the best description of Dallas air is “too thick to breathe, too thick to waterski on.”

The plants love it. I peek out the window in the morning, and I sympathize with Bill Paxton’s character in the Eighties film Near Dark doing the same thing.

Anyway, the past few weeks have been particularly bad as far as an inability to breathe at night was concerned, so it was time for an emergency visit to a local asthma and allergy specialist last week. We discovered all sorts of interesting things about my lung capacity and lack thereof when exposed to Dallas’s allergens, but it only got worse today. Today was time for a full allergy test, which for those unfamiliar with this special form of abuse, involves marking up one’s back with a grid, adding pinpricks of individual potential allergens, and then viewing the results. This usually takes about 18 minutes, and I knew the nurse’s screaming at the 8-minute mark couldn’t be good.

The prognosis? When exposed to certain constants of Dallas’s ecosystem, I’d best watch out for Kurt Russell and a flamethrower. Most summer weeds such as ragweed and pigweed? Right off the scale. Same with every type of grass pollen common to the area. The molds Alternaria tenuis and Pullularia pullulans? The pinprick tests left me with lumps. I didn’t know if I was growing arms or breasts out of my back.

The upshot is that while I joke about how the plants are trying to kill me, it’s a bit closer to reality. Pretty much every outdoor activity in Texas is a potential threat, including my greatest love. Mowing the lawn, tearing apart the compost pile, repotting pitcher plants…I feel like a jeweler who’s discovered he’s allergic to metal.

Will this stop me? Nope. A full regimen of allergy shots means having to carry around an Epi-Pen for the first few weeks, but it beats the alternative of getting gills and spending my summers on the bottom of a swimming pool. Besides, I know someone else who chose between allergies and obsessions, and I understand how he feels.