Posted onJuly 29, 2011|Comments Off on “I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ myself.”
Back when I started this little trek into horticulture nearly a decade ago, I thought things would settle down a bit. I mean, I know that orchid people are weird (in the Old English meaning of the word) and rose people are even worse, but not everybody could be as fundamentally broken as science fiction people, right?
Okay, that’s a bit cruel, but I have to admit that there’s this odd fascination with gardening robots in science fiction. In reality, too, for that matter. The underlying idea is that while humans should be the ones to do all of the fine-tuning, there’s no reason why you can’t leave robots to do the weeding, pruning, mowing, and other menial tasks. At least, until they rise up and tell humanity to bite their shiny metal asses.
Ah well. As a kid, I made most of my spending money by mowing lawns throughout my neighborhood in obscene summer heat, and I didn’t have a problem with doing the mowing myself. Having a robot on hand to clean up the piles of dog crap that most of my customers let build up, though, would have been perfect. These days, I still wouldn’t complain about a robot that took out the treerats going after the tomato plants, with a bit more precision than the motion-sensitive lawn sprinklers currently available. If it could clean out the gutters while waiting for its next hit, so much the better.
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And now I’m understanding why I see so many of those hexagon tanks from the late Eighties being abandoned at estate and yard sales. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a standard glass top for one of these, without making it yourself?
For further grins and giggles, I’ve discovered that the threat of picking up that glass case offers unlimited entertainment possibilities. It takes a certain demented mind to come up with brand new ways to torment the Czarina, or in my case, a mind wracked with the 24-hour summer flu going around. I come up with all sorts of Lovecraftian takes on destroying one’s sanity when mortally ill (I’m by now notorious for leaving ER techs in helpless laughter while they’re trying to suture me back together), and this one was a beaut.
By yesterday evening, I was feeling lucid and coherent enough to join my parents-in-law for dinner. Naturally, the terms “lucid” and “coherent” are subjects of intense discussion when talking about my train of thought on my better days, and when in this condition, I’d leave Charles Manson shaking his head and muttering “That boy ain’t right.” Also naturally, it’s not a perfect night unless the Czarina bellows “Now, LISTEN, Sparky!” at least once while we’re eating. The cats and I have one thing in common: we cannot sleep at night unless we’ve had a good beating.
We were starting on my mother-in-law’s exemplary pot roast when I broached the subject. “You know, I had a great idea about that case…”
“But it occurred to me…”
“Now there you go, cutting me off, and I haven’t even said ‘How does Brundlefly eat?’ yet. I can get away with saying this: you knew I was like this when you married me.”
*sad, hopeless sigh, as a tiny portion of her soul decided to play Russian roulette with an automatic to save time* “Am I going to regret this?”
“Not at all. I have an idea that would make salvaging that case a sane and reasonable proposition.”
She put her chin on her hand, just waiting for my non-Euclidean logic to justify my being capped in my sleep and buried in the desert somewhere. “Really.”
I will say that Akira Kurosawa would have been amazed and impressed by the Czarina’s economy of movement with a killing blow at that point, and her mother joined in with a glare that would have burned a hole in the wall had it been aimed at the wall instead of between my eyes. Her father just rolled his eyes and told himself “At least he’s better than the last husband,” which really isn’t saying much. The night was rent with screams and the occasional reminder of “Hey, at least I’m not blowing the mortgate money on drugs, right? RIGHT?” Some people just don’t know when they have a better deal than they had a decade ago.
Anyway, if you don’t hear from me by Monday, it’s because the Czarina will have taken the issue with my sneaking down to the hotel to rescue that case under her wing. Four rolls of duct tape are enough to immobilize any human alive, and please don’t ask me how I know this. And I’ll be giggling “And you BELIEVED me?” the whole time? Oh, our tenth anniversary is going to be an absolute blast.
Posted onJuly 28, 2011|Comments Off on “I’m a Time Lord, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.”
Now, I may joke that my life resembles a horrible mashup of select episodes of Doctor Who and The Red Green Show, but there are times where this assessment doesn’t come close to the real story. I may also joke about the Czarina’s exceptionally sharp and venomous elbows, and then she puts them on display. Then, then, I occasionally have an adventure where all of the stories come together at once.
To start off, let me introduce you to my friend Barry Kooda, one of the biggest catalysts in the Dallas music community. Barry’s been an influence on Dallas music for working on 40 years: he’s best-known outside of the city for his work with the Nervebreakers, the band that opened for the Sex Pistols when the Pistols played at the Longhorn Ballroom in 1978, but if he wasn’t in a band, he was influencing other musicians for decades. I’ve known him since 1991, when I moved to the Exposition Park area near downtown, and I can say that I’ve had a tiny influence on him. If you don’t believe me, ask him about the Tyrannosaurus and Ichthyosaurus tattoos on his arms.
Anyway, Barry still keeps everyone updated via Facebook, and he passed along a beaut yesterday. Specifically, he came across a display case being discarded behind a landmark hotel, and sent along a photo:
Barry's display case
Now, you have to understand that I come from a long, extensive line of packrats, and the reason why I enjoyed The Red Green Show when it was running is because it’s funny when it’s fiction. The family joke is that everyone was hoping for another Tim Allen when I was born, and instead they got a Tim Burton. The reality is even more insidious, because the packrat gene just took a new and deadly form. Unwatched, I’m just as likely to produce a real-life “Handyman’s Corner” segment and take it into directions that nobody really wants to see.
So there I was, with the offer of a freestanding case that would be perfect for a permanent Nepenthes display. All for no cost, either. All I had to do was figure out how to get the thing home. With a carefree inattention to reality or the repercussions of my actions unseen since my first marriage, I waited until the Czarina picked me up from The Day Job and asked, gently, “Do you think we could look at a display case tonight?”
Absolutely amazingly, she didn’t pin me to the car seat with her elbows. Even more amazingly, she only said “After we eat.” This plan might work after all.
Well, after getting her dinner, we drove down to the north side of downtown to the hotel, and after a bit of wrangling, found the case. It was a bit, erm, larger than I expected. With the base, it stood at least eight feet tall, meaning that even with dismantling it for moving, there was no way it was going to fit into the car. The Czarina didn’t bother to point this out: she just kept mumbling “No way. No way.”
It’s not that it’s a bad case. The base and the molding are brass, with a stout shower-glass backing on good strong hinges. The top had a lighting system, and the plug is still in place. The base is hollow, meaning that it could be perfect for setting in a sunken container for a bog garden arrangement. Best of all, you see what look like sandblast-etched decorations on the side? Those and the advertising for the presumably long-dead spa that owned this case are all made of contact plastic, so a bit of peeling and a bit of Goo-Gone would clean them up nicely.
The Czarina was helpful and thorough. No threats, no yelling, and no untoward displays of the elbows. She noted that with big pieces of glass like this, merely putting them on the bottom of a flatbed would still risk breakage. Since they probably weren’t pieces of safety glass, that breakage could possibly be catastrophic. Worse, we don’t have any place to put it while I cleaned it up, save in the back yard. The garage is too short. The back porch is too short. The greenhouse is definitely too short. She’s right, she’s always right, why do I keep doing these dumb things?
And then my father’s lineage calls to me, over a thousand years. I really hope that someone else gets this before Sunday. If it’s still there by then, I’m renting a truck.
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It’s been a bit crazy as of late. As the newsfeeds keep noting, the drought in Texas is now comparable to the big drought in the early 1950s. This is particularly significant because my parents-in-law were married in the middle of that, and they have lots of particularly disturbing stories. (Among other things, discovering that the plethora of reservoirs built in North Texas by the Army Corps of Engineers over the last fifty years was the direct result of the water rationing imposed by that drought. It says a lot about how rapidly North Texas grew after the reservoirs were built that they’re not enough any more.) It’s also been particularly brutal to state agriculture, between the heat and the utter lack of moisture. I keep joking about how if it gets any dryer, we’ll all have to walk without rhythm so as not to attract sandworms, and it’s pure gallows humor.
Anyway, it’s a bit quiet around the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to the lack of humidity. The Sarracenia are squeaking by, but they generally stop producing traps once the humidity consistently goes below 50 percent during the day. Flytraps have it even worse: between the heat and the dryness, they tend to shut down, and sometimes come back in the autumn. This year, though, I can’t make any promises, considering that the summer has killed all but two species of triggerplant in the collection, including seedlings from seed given to me by Ryan Kitko. (I’ve become convinced that nothing but nuclear flame can destroy Stylidium debile, as it survives both freezes and ridiculous heat, and keeps coming back after I’m certain that it’s already dead.) The Nepenthes are all in the greenhouse, and said greenhouse is getting fitted with a full mister system tonight so as to keep the humidity high and the temperature (relatively) low. I don’t even want to talk about what happened to the Darlingtonia I raised from seed five years ago.
If there’s any joy in Triffidville, it comes from renewing my membership with the International Carnivorous Plant Society. I could mention the seed bank, which allowed me to learn a ridiculous amount about the growth and habits of the devil’s claw (Proboscidea lousianica). I could mention the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, which is one of the best benefits of joining the ICPS. (I’m now at the point where it’s one of the few print magazines I read from cover to cover any more, and considering my voracious reading appetites, that’s saying something.) I could mention the cultivar registration list, which should prove beyond a shadow that carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a good warped sense of humor. I could, but then I’d have to beat you with a pool noodle, yelling “Join, you scurvy shysters! JOIN!” at the top of my lungs, and that’s no fun in this heat.
I’d also like to pass on the announcement of the 9th International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference in Seekonk, Massachusetts, running from August 11 through the 13th of 2012. The Czarina has already promised that I can go, but only after we make a trip of her choosing before then. (She wants a nice quiet trip to San Francisco, and I only plan to disappear for a day or so while we’re there.) Only 384 days to go, and I understand that my 300-pound Samoan attorney should be out of the shop by then.
Between the Day Job and getting ready for the big plant show at FenCon in September, it’s been a bit crazy around here. (Trust me: you do NOT want to get acrylic polish in certain places, if you know what I mean and I think you do.) That’s why it’s a big deal to note that one Lisa H. of Los Angeles gave me a really, really good idea for a contest. Specifically, she sent a note to me that brought up this question:
My question is “What exactly is the correct term for someone who studies and grows carnivorous plants as an occupation?” I’m thinking it must be something fancier than “horticulturalist”.
Congratulations, Lisa. You just got yourself a Joey Box. Now I’m going to have to come up with a really good, and not at all smartaleck answer. Who’s next?
I bring this up because apparently it’s now the geckos’ turn. I have one Nepenthes that keeps growing faster than all of the other pitcher plants in the greenhouse, and I’ve spooked baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos out of it every time. At first, I thought the geckos were trapped inside, and now I realize they’re taking advantage of the situation. Shelter and quiet: should I offer them tiny magazines and Kindles to keep them occupied, too?
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Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Projects: “If We Had No Crawdad, We Ate Sand”
Almost every guide to the proper care and feeding of carnivorous plants emphasizes, after using rainwater or distilled water, the proper soil mix. All of them tell enthusiasts that using standard potting mix will kill the plants in a matter of days, and many give recipes for a suitable general carnivore potting mix with a suitable acidity for healthy growth. As a general rule, one part sphagnum moss and one part sand is perfect, and some varieties work best with two parts sphagnum moss, one part sand, and one part shredded orchid bark. But what about the quality of all of these?
With the sphagnum moss and the bark, some authorities warn about making sure that these are of high quality. For instance, many retailers sell sphagnum moss with added fertilizer, which will kill your plants, or the sphagnum is cut with green moss, which has the same effect. Coir, which is shredded coconut hull, can be just as dangerous if not properly prepared, as many suppliers use coir that’s been soaked in or exposed to seawater, and the salt will, again, kill most carnivores. The quality of sphagnum moss can be checked by making sure that a bag or bundle specifically reads “PURE SPHAGNUM MOSS” and smelling the bag or bundle, as contaminated sphagnum moss tends to smell like old manure. Even salt-soaked coir can be used if it’s soaked and rinsed with rainwater, and then drained and dried. But how often does anyone check the quality of the sand they’re using?
Check most references on carnivores, and see what they have to say about sand. You’ll get recommendations not to use sea sand, because it might be contaminated with salt. You might get recommendations to use sharp or builder’s sand, which means all-silica sand. But are you sure that you’re using the right sand?
My question comes from personal experience from two years ago. The first thing I do every spring before my plants come out of dormancy is repot them, and the spring of 2006 was no different. My mistake was not to check the composition of that sand, trusting the label “Builder’s sand” on the bag, and that sand led to most of my plants dying before the end of the summer. True, the 2005-2006 drought and the summer’s heat wave contributed to the carnage, but the main cause was the quality of the sand.
The mistake I made was assuming that the sand being offered was pure silica. Pure silica sand is reasonably water-insoluble, which is why it settles into water instead of dissolving. Some will, but usually not enough to make a difference in horticulture. The problem is that most sand offered for sale can be and is contaminated with anything else that happened to be in the in the mix. If the sand was mined in an area that used to be a marine deposit, for instance, it can be full of shells. If the sand came from a river deposit, it may be full of limestone chunks or other carbonate rocks. All of these contaminants are very alkaline, which is enough of a problem to most carnivores save some purple pitchers (Sarracenia purpurea) or the Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum). Anyone who’s mixed acids and alkalis in high school chemistry class has a pretty good idea of what happens when alkaline components of sands encounter highly acid sphagnum moss: the carbon dioxide emitted won’t hurt the plants at all, but the resultant salts will burn their roots.
Now, if you know for an absolute fact that your sand is pure silica, then feel free to use it as you see fit for any carnivore soil mix you choose. However, considering the problems I mentioned before, testing it beforehand is a good option, especially if the sand would otherwise be unusable. Carbonate-contaminated sand can be treated with acid, such as vinegar, to dissolve the carbonates, but it’s generally not worth the cost unless the sand has special colors that need to be preserved. The project at hand requires:
a sample of the suspected sand
a small bottle of common household acid (white vinegar is the easiest to obtain, but ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C, works well, too)
a small container with a sealable cap, such as a single-serving yogurt container or a 35mm film canister
To start, get a handful of the sand and spread it out in your palm. Look for larger particulates within the sand and note the composition. If these pieces appear to be quartz, feldspar, or other components of granite, these bits should be safe. If the larger particulates include bits of limestone, sandstone, or shell, consider how many pieces you find and their size. If the sand contains lots of these chunks, don’t buy it or use it.
Secondly, take a small amount and put it into the container. Soak it down with the acid and watch the reaction. All-silica sand won’t react in the slightest to most household acids, and typical contaminants will spit and hiss a bit. If the sample produces lots of bubbling, particularly a froth, don’t use it, as the sand is far too alkaline to be safe for use with carnivores.
This test won’t work for other potential contaminants: for instance, it won’t test for salts. In that case, the only option is to wash it well with pure water.
If the tested sand is the only available option, and you literally have no other choices as to sources for sand, otherwise unsuitable sand may still be used. The first step is to sift the sand with a wire mesh trainer or riddle to remove large particulates. Afterwards, put the sand into a waterproof container such as a Rubbermaid tray or a plastic bucket and add vinegar or ascorbic acid, stirring repeatedly until the mix stops bubbling. Drain off excess liquid when it stops bubbling and add more acid; keep repeating until you get no further reaction whatsoever. Wash the sand well, and spread it out to dry.
Now, considering the work necessary to make that bad sand usable, see the advantage to using the right sand in the first place? More importantly, are you willing to risk the health of your carnivores on unsuitable sand?
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Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Observations: “You Have the Care Down, and Now It’s the Feeding”
By definition, the main appeal of carnivorous plants lay in their ability to reverse the standard arrangement of who eats whom. Sadly, while serious enthusiasts can appreciate the fluting grace of a Sarracenia leucophylla trap or the dropping allure of its blossoms, all most people care about is that the plant catches and digests insects and other prey. That’s a start, but this is only one of the merits of raising carnivores. This aspect is also what gets most of them killed.
Let’s take a look at the most famous and most abused carnivore of them all, the Venus flytrap. Millions of flytraps are grown every year, thanks to the miracle of sterile tissue propagation. Many of these sell in grocery stores, hardware stores, home improvement centers, and any number of other locales, where they’re generally set up and neglected until they sell. It’s no fault of the proprietors, mostly because nobody bothers to pass on any information on proper care. Even with those nurseries and vendors who take the time to explain the basics of proper water and light, it’s hard to get past the lurid reputation of flytraps and their alleged dietary voraciousness. This means that no matter how many times a salesperson emphasizes the proper feeding of a flytrap, the customer usually rushes home and promptly fills every last trap with captured flies, earwigs, grasshoppers, cats, and chunks of stew meat.
That’s what kills the flytrap.
Much of the problem with working with carnivores of all sorts is trying to rewire people into realizing that pets, livestock, and crops aren’t little humans. The same mindset that causes someone on medication to take double the standard dose because “if a little is good, then more is better” usually leads to overfeeding of dog, lizards, birds, and carnivorous plants. Just because a Nile monitor will eat whenever food is offered doesn’t mean that it should eat a full meal every day, and just because a Venus flytrap has an open trap doesn’t mean it needs to be stuffed with protein. Under most conditions, when left out in the open, flytraps do a perfectly good job at capturing their own prey without assistance,and that means two to ten traps waiting for prey while one processes a recent capture.
The reason why carnivores have such problems with abundance involves their general habitat and environment. All carnivores live in marginal habitats, always lacking in nitrogen and potassium in a form usable by plants. This could be rain forest or jungle that receives incessant precipitation, such as the Nepenthes pitcher plants. For the flytraps, and all of the other carnivores of North America, the main habitat is stressed both by regular rains that wash away nutrients and regular brush fires that sterilize the soil and vaporize compounds containing nitrogen and other volatile gases. Instead of living in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, the way mesquite trees and red clover do, the carnivores catch their nitrogen and potassium on the wing, so to speak. Their prey also bring essential trace elements that also tend to be washed away or destroyed, and all of this gives a carnivore a strategic advantage in survival in habitats where few other plants have a chance.
The other critical aspect of carnivorous plant care involves a suitable amount of light, as discussed elsewhere, because carnivorous plants aren’t catching and digesting prey for energy the way carnivorous animals do. Instead of cracking fats and other compounds in their prey for energy, carnivorous plants utilize light in the same manner as any other plant for the production of sugars and starches, but also to produce the essential enzymes necessary to digest proteins. Many animals chew or tear their prey to increase the surface area of their meals exposed to enzymes in saliva, stomach fluids and bacterial action in the intestines, and many animals such as spiders and venomous snakes inject digestive fluids into their prey, helping to speed the process. Birds and crocodilians can’t chew, so they further grind their food with stones in their gizzards. Not a single carnivorous plant has the ability to chew, so they have to stick with prey small enough to be processed quickly, before it has a chance to rot. Snakes that eat prey too large for their stomachs, or that remain too chilled for proper digestion. ultimately vomit up the remains.
Venus flytraps that catch prey too large to handle can’t puke up their meals, and they can’t move somewhere warmer and brighter to finish digestion, so the trapped prey rots, ultimately killing the trap and sometimes the entire leaf. Since the leaf is still necessary for photosynthesis, if the flytrap’s already only getting a marginal amount of light, that leaf loss may kill the whole plant.
Some carnivores have ways around this situation, but most of those options are distasteful to humans. The cobra plant Darlingtonia produces no enzymes of its own, but it makes a home for both midge larvae and beneficial bacteria that break down trapped prey. Sarracenia and Heliamphora of all sorts provide homes for rotifers, mosquito larvae, and other animals that digest prey by proxy. Animals as large as frogs and spiders regularly raid carnivore traps for large prey and then defecate into the traps, thereby preventing rot and disease while getting a meal, and the huge-trapped Nepenthes bicalcarata even grows homes for predatory ants within its stems, so the ants will dismember and process prey, The most extreme example is the obscure sticky-leafed carnivore Roridula, which has no ability to digest prey on its own. However, it has a symbiotic relationship with at least one species of ambush bug: the plant snags and immobilizes prey, the ambush bugs kill and devour the prey, and the plant’s leaves catch the bug feces and absorb the available nitrogen.
Sadly, the poor Venus flytrap, because it seals its traps shut when catching prey, has no such options. This is why anyone keeping flytraps has to be particularly careful if feeding by hand is necessary. As a general rule, tips for feeding Venus flytraps also apply to other carnivores in cultivation, and they’re remarkably easy.
As tempting as it is to do so, do NOT feed your carnivore as soon as you get it home. You’ve just purchased a new carnivore from the store or via mail order? You might end a long journey with a hearty meal, but that’s the last thing your plant needs before it’s adjusted to its environment. If you want your plant to live, get it situated into its new locale. If it’s going to be an indoor plant, get it potted and into a sunny window or under a suitable plant light. If it’s outdoors, put it into its hanging pot or into the greenhouse. In both cases, leave it alone. Don’t take it to school to show off. Don’t put it in the living room for a couple of days so friends and family can see it. Most importantly, don’t feed it at all until you see new growth, usually in about two weeks to a month, and holding off until a whole new leaf with trap grows from the crown of the plant is even better.
Don’t forcefeed the plant. If you’re in a situation, such as in an office environment, where your plant is unlikely to snag prey and where letting prey loose might encourage harsh words from others, handfeeding is unavoidable. The trick is always to underfeed. Always remember “small prey in small portions” when feeding carnivores. Many will let you know if you’re pushing the limit: sundew and butterwort leaves will blacken and rot if they’re getting too much food, Sarracenia pitchers will grow large brown spots if too much prey is collecting too quickly in their throats, and Nepenthes pitchers will simply shrivel and turn brown. If one trap or leaf shows these signs, then this could be a minor accident, but if all of them start dying, cut back on the food NOW.
Watch the temperature. It’s obvious that carnivores from temperate locales are more resistant to cold than tropicals, and some varieties, such as Darlingtonia and all of the Heliamphora, need much cooler temperatures than others. The two absolutes are that almost all carnivores stop digesting prey below 50° F (10° C), so don’t try to feed carnivores when the average daytime temperature goes below this. With carnivores that need an annual winter dormancy for survival, this restriction is even more important, because feeding a trap or leaf as the poor plant is trying to slip into dormancy is a great way to spread mold and fungus, and both of those could kill the plant before it ever has a chance to revive in spring.
Alternately, even plants that survive in harsh heat (the Lithops stone mimics of South Africa and the saguaro cactus of Arizona are prime examples) shut down photosynthesis when the ambient temperature exceeds 90° F (32° C), and carnivores aren’t exempt from this. Many of Australia’s sundews form tubers during summer, when the heat is too much for active growth, and revive when autumn rains return. Most of the Sarracenia will stop producing traps and produce photosynthetic leaves called phyllodia when the temperatures get too high, and most of Australia’s Stylidium triggerplants wait to produce their carnivorous flower scapes once summer’s heat has broken. Even Venus flytraps exposed to high temperatures will cease to function for as much as a week, as the traps temporarily convert back into standard photosynthetic leaves. If you try to feed your flytrap via a new trap and it won’t accept food, check the temperature and try to lower it if at all possible. For the record, most temperate carnivores can tolerate temperatures up to 100° F (37° C) for a short time, but they don’t like them.
Ask friends and bystanders to leave the traps alone. After about four triggerings, whether or not the trap actually captures prey, Venus flytrap traps stop functioning and become nothing but photosynthetic leaves. This can happen accidentally, if the trap keeps getting set off by prey too small to be trapped or prey too strong to remain inside. In captivity, though, the main cause is from smartalecks who want to demonstrate how the traps operate by tripping them over and over. (This, incidentally, also applies to triggerplant flowers, as they’ll only fire about four or five times before becoming a female flower and becoming nonfunctional.) If you want your flytrap to stay healthy, don’t set off traps to demonstrate their abilities to your Aunt Phil unless you’re adding prey.
Finally, DO NOT FEED YOUR CARNIVOROUS PLANT MEAT, RAW OR COOKED. Yes, the labels on far too many carnivorous plant containers in grocery stores and home improvement centers read “Will even eat hamburger!” This is actually a very sly way to get you to keep buying new carnivores as the previous ones keep dying. Yes, the general definition of a carnivore is an organism that eats meat. Yes, some of the big Nepenthes pitchers can capture and eat vertebrates as big as rats. Humans can also chew and swallow plastic, but a regular diet of Styrofoam is just as lethal to you as hamburger is to your Venus flytrap.
Now, many authoritative guides to raising carnivores give this advice, but almost none give a reason as to why. Most insects are relatively fat-free, gram for gram, compared to large vertebrates, so the carnivores generally don’t need enzymes for digesting fat. When your flytrap catches a ladybug or spider, what fat was in the prey remains on the shell left behind when digestion finishes and the trap opens, where it acts as bait for opportunistic hunters. Now, take a quick look at the fat content of your hamburger meat: even the “ultra-lean” brands are still about seven to ten percent fat, and typical hamburger is closer to 30 percent fat. Go ahead and fry up a batch of the hamburger that you’d serve to your flytrap and note how much grease collects in the pan. A lot more than you expected, eh?
(Now, at this time, you may point out that many large carnivorous plants catch vertebrate prey from time to time. Sarracenia will occasionally catch tree frogs, even if most are ones that died of natural causes and fell into the trap. As discussed before, though, any carnivore big enough to catch even the smallest vertebrates usually has lots of cooperative organisms that don’t have a problem with digesting fats. The Venus flytrap, also as discussed before, doesn’t have that option, so knock off the meat. Stay away even from such fat-free fish foods such as scraped beef heart, and while it’s fun to watch Cape sundews wrapping around little bits of chocolate, ask yourself how often they’d be catching cocoa butterflies in the wild.)
Remember: small prey in small portions, and don’t go crazy. Your flytrap or pitcher plant won’t be able to thank you now, but just wait until it blooms next spring.
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Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Projects: “Bathtub Luffas in a Bathtub Fit For Gin”
In the Northern Hemisphere, the absolute sign of winter is the proliferation of seed catalogs in every gardener’s mailbox. Gardening resources resolutely remain in the early Twentieth Century, and while most seed companies have extensive online resources, the print editions still fill my mail drop by the long ton. This isn’t a complaint, by the way: even the catalogs I can’t use get passed on to friends and coworkers who can, and most end their lives as source material for grade school collages and band flyers.
Many better writers than I have made fun of the inadequacies and creative embellishments found in seed catalogs and on seed packets. At the Triffid Ranch, I often laugh at the catalogs that sell Venus flytrap and pitcher plant seed as if they can be planted in the garden alongside the lettuce and carrots. Likewise, the last time I saw anyone selling saguaro cactus seeds for “easy” propagation of a plant that needs twenty years to grow to a meter in height, I laughed so hard that milk came out my nose. This was especially entertaining because I was drinking Pepsi Max at the time. Some people’s definition of “easy” is another’s of “wanting to hang the copywriter by his/her ankles from a tree branch, get a few cricket bats, and play Viking Piñata for a few hours.” And then you have the minor aggravations, such as the missing step in raising luffa squash.
Luffa squash (Luffa cylindrica), for the uninitiated, is a very versatile squash for many occasions. It grows very quickly in warm climes, so it does wonders for overgrowing ugly fences and other yard eyesores during the summer and fall. The thin vines grow one leaf and three tendrils at each vine junction, so they’re much more likely to grow to great heights on tree bark and other rough-textured surfaces, and the tendrils don’t damage the surface, so they come off readily after the first serious freeze in autumn or winter. (In Dallas, for instance, they generally keep growing all the way until Christmas if given the opportunity.) Luffa leaves don’t have stomata on both sides of the leaf, like pumpkins or summer squash, so they thrive on heat that would kill most other squash. They produce large yellow male flowers that both attract bees and bumblebees and can be stir-fried after they drop from the plant. The squash fruit themselves apparently taste like zucchini, and so long as the roots are in slightly acidic and rich soil, a typical vine will produce dozens over the growing season. (I understand that they can bee cooked or eaten raw like zucchini, but since I simply can’t handle the taste of squash, I haven’t had the courage to find out.)
It’s the mature fruit that gives luffas their main draw, though, and anyone wanting a decent supply has to save a few from the crock put or wok. Instead of decaying into a mushy pulp in winter like most squash, the luffa dries out like a gourd, but without a hard outer shell. Underneath the skin is a lattice framework of fibers, which are much prized as natural scrubbers. These are most famed for their bathtub and shower attributes, especially for those needing serious exfoliation, but they also come in handy for scrubbing nonstick pots without damaging the finish, adding texture paints to walls, or removing algae from fishtanks. Small ones can be used as short-term filters for many liquids, and the big ones can be sliced up and embedded in soaps. It’s quite the versatile little squash, which makes it a particular shame that most seed packets and garden guides leave out one important step in its processing.
To begin, for those wanting to raise luffas, get your seeds, either from luffa-growing enablers or from a commercial seed catalog. Luffa seeds, if kept in the refrigerator, remain viable for as much as five years, so don’t worry about getting them into the ground right away. In fact, you want to wait until outside low temperatures exceed 15.55° C (60° F) and then plant them, because they won’t even think of sprouting before then. Luffas generally tolerate a wide range of soils, but make sure to keep potash and fireplace ashes away from the seedlings or they’ll be permanently stunted for the season. Luffa seeds are best sown directly in their permanent location, as they don’t transplant well, but they’re very vulnerable to attacks from sowbugs until they get their first set of real leaves. I’ve found that sowing the seeds and then dumping large quantities of coffee grounds atop them not only gives them the slight acidity they seem to like, but also gives the sowbugs an alternate food source that keeps them away from the squash until they’re large enough to repel attacks. Other than that, water them regularly, especially in particularly hot weather, and the luffa will start producing its first male flowers within three weeks of sprouting and female flowers about a week later.
For the most part, luffa seem to be reasonably immune to most pests, and they attract hunting wasps to the flowers, which usually take care of caterpillars and other potential pests. For those with gardens in suitable habitat, luffa vines produce excellent habitat for climbing lizards: here in Dallas, one stand of luffa can support a whole harem of anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis), so long as pesticides aren’t used in the area. The lizards hunt, sleep, and bask within the vines, which usually grow thick enough that they offer suitable cover against birds, snakes, and other predators. In return, they clear out sucking insects and other potential threats.
The only serious pest attacking luffas is easily recognized by its long bushy tail, big eyes, and a brain the size of a pea. As the luffa fruit matures, squirrels converge on any luffas they can reach and gnaw through the vine before carrying them off. Since treerats are the antithesis of grace, and since luffas readily grow into trees, this means that the little klutzes get one or two bites out of the squash, lose their grip, and watch it fall two stories or more onto the hardest ground the squirrels can find. As with dropped nuts or peaches, does this mean that the little vermin climb down and eat the dropped luffa so it doesn’t go to waste? Of course not: the monsters instead go for another easily obtained luffa, leaving the dropped one to rot until it’s joined by a few more. (There’s a reason why I consider the term “squirrelly” to be fightin’ words.) Thankfully, luffa vines are thin so as to allow easy reach of thin branches and other precarious locales, so many fruit grow unmolested at the tops of trees before dropping when they’re good and ripe.
Okay, let’s assume that you had a good crop of luffa over the summer, and not all of them ended up in stirfry meals for grateful friends and family. You want a batch of potscrubbers and buttscrubbers, but you want to make sure that they’re at the height of ripeness. What do you do now?
The harvesting of luffa squashes for scrubbing purposes honestly depends upon the growing locale and the length of the season. Pick the luffas too early, and you’re likely to end up with a moldy, rotting mess. Peel them too early, and you’re likely to spend five times as much work cleaning them as you would when they were ready. The problem is telling whether they’re ready.
The absolutely guaranteed way of telling if luffas are ready for harvesting is to wait until they shrivel, brown, and dry out at the end of autumn. This is great in warmer climes, but it’s not practical in, say, Canada. However, the best thing to do is wait as long as possible before a killing frost damages the squash, or until the main plant takes responsibility for cutting off its offspring.
In the above photo, we have a mature luffa. For the sake of what comes next, the left side, with the length of vine still attached, is the tail. The right side, still bearing the scars from where the flower was attached, is the head. The uncleaned fruit will also be referred to as a luffa squash, while “luffa” is reserved solely for the internal structure alone. Remember these, because these become important later.
The easy way to ascertain if a luffa is ripe on the vine is to grab it at the head end and squeeze gently. It should feel like a skin over an empty framework, which is exactly what it should be. If it’s still squishy, or if it feels overly heavy, then it’s probably unripe. If you can help it, leave the luffa on the vine and don’t mess with it for at least another month. If an impending killer frost is on the way, though, then remove it from the vine, leaving about six inches of vine at the end. If the tail end of the luffa is already going brown, particularly at the junction where the tail connects to the vine, then it’s already drying, and is usually ready to be picked at the time. If that junction is still green, then leave that section of vine to assist the squash with its drying. Do NOT, under any circumstances, cut the vine flush with the tail, because you’ll likely set off mold and rot at the cut.
In this picture, you see two ripe and dried luffa squash. The upper one dried out in the upper boughs of a pecan tree all autumn, and the scars on the surface are from where it bumped into tree branches while it was still green. Don’t worry about those scars, because the impacts usually don’t effect the quality of the luffa within. The bottom one was dried after being picked from the vine, and note the spots of mold on the shell. These need to be watched, because small spots of mold usually won’t be a problem. If it’s a big patch, or if it appears to be sinking into the squash, then the mold might be spreading through the body of the squash. Sometimes this is all right, too, but with early-picked luffa squash, this could lead to the whole squash rotting if it’s not dealt with.
As a sidenote, you might have some luffa squash with damage such as cracks or bruises, especially when the local squirrels decide to liberate them and they fall a story or two onto the cold, cold ground. Trying to dry them will just be a waste of time, so open up the squash at the crack or bruise and take a look at the interior. If the interior is hollow or if it shows extensive stringy understructure, go directly to cleaning it. If it’s still relatively solid with a white pulp reminiscent of cucumbers or zucchini, just dump it in the compost pile. It’s too green to develop any understructure, and all it’ll do is turn into a slimy mess if you attempt to save it.
If your luffa squash are already dried, then just put them into a bag or basket and leave them alone until you’re ready to clean them. if they’re still green, then set them in a warm place with good air circulation and let them dry some more. That good air circulation is vital, because if they don’t get it, the squash WILL rot. Not “may”: WILL. I speak from experience, as the only thing worse than cleaning that aforementioned slimy mess out of a laundry room or water heater closet is the smell from that mess. Leave them out on a counter, or put them in a room under a ceiling fan, and leave them alone for a few weeks. Check up on them every couple of days, and watch as they shrink and brown.
At this point, if your luffa vines were in decent soil and had plenty of climbing options, you should have anywhere between one and thirty dried luffa squash ready for cleaning and preparation. For that, you’ll need:
One bathtub or washtub, preferably one needing a good cleaning
One bottle of shampoo (brand doesn’t matter, and sometimes the cheap stuff works best)
One bowl or other container for catching seeds
Goggles or an eyeshield, to keep squash pulp out of your eyes
If your luffas are extremely dried, you’ll note that peeling the skin from the luffa is almost impossible. Greener squash are easier to peel, but they need lots of washing afterwards. Either way, take advantage of the need to clean your bathtub. I have the unfortunate habit of cleaning my tub about the time it starts to resemble a scale model of the Mississippi Delta, so it’s time to fill up the tub about halfway with hot water.
In the interim, if you know anyone who wants to raise luffa squash next season, you’ll have to gather seeds. Break off the end of the head of the squash and hold the end over a container. You’ll hear the seeds rattling, so just keep shaking gently until the seeds stop falling. Always open the squash at the head, because the luffa can sometimes get so narrow that seeds can’t escape out the tail end. Gather up the seeds and put them into bags, or put them into a jar and place them in the refrigerator until spring.
Once this is done, dump your squashes into the bathtub, and let them soak for a while. The reason why you cracked open the head was also to allow water to enter the squash, making the job easier. If you’re particularly industrious, feel free to pour hot water into the opening, but otherwise you’re going to have to wait for a while. (This also applies to luffas picked green, as you’re going to need to wash off the mucilage off the luffa before it’s usable.)
Luffas before soaking
Once the squash has been soaking for a while and the skin is soft, punch your thumb through the skin at the tail, getting it between the luffa and the skin. Work your way up to the head, and peel back the skin. Once it comes free, set it aside for the compost pile and grab another one, because if your luffa plants were remotely productive over the year, you’re going to be busy.
At this point, your tub should be full of peeled luffas. It’ll also be full of seeds, as a lot of seeds were caught up in the luffas and unable to escape until you removed the skins. Don’t worry about them in the slightest, because you’ll have to deal with more.
Disgusting, isn’t it? This is why I recommended using a dirty tub, because you’re going to have to clean it anyway.
Now here comes the important part of the whole cleaning. The dry luffas are going to be full of dried mucilage, which will leave everything they wash with a nice coat of slime if it isn’t cleaned in advance. The green luffas have just as much mucilage, but it’s combined with starches and other compounds that also prevent the luffa from being used for cleaning. Start by grabbing that bottle of shampoo and pouring a good dollop of Aussie, Paul Mitchell, or your brand of choice right on the first luffa. Massage it in, rinse it off in the tub, and do it again. Do it with the next one, and the next, until all of your luffas are nice and sudsy.
Next, put on your goggles or faceshield and grab a luffa by the tail. Picture yourself as Thetis dipping your son Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability and give that luffa the same grip. Next, picture yourself discovering that Achilles is going to dedicate the rest of his life to writing term papers on Firefly and Twilight, and bash the hell out of the luffa against the sides of the tub. Go to town, and don’t worry about the seeds and bits of pulp flying everywhere: that’s why you’re wearing eye protection. When you’re reasonably sure that you’ve removed every seed (and you’ll be able to feel them inside the luffa), scrub the luffa again with shampoo and grab the next one. Repeat the cycle, as Thetis apparently had a lot of kids planning to study Pop Culture in college.
Once you’re done with taking your frustrations out on your luffas, rinse them well, and set one tail-up into the tub drain. Drain the tub, and note how the luffa acts as a filter to prevent seeds from getting into the drain. Most of these seeds are inviable, so you’re within your rights to scoop them out of the tub and dump the whole mess into the compost pile. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spread out the mess where you plan to plant luffas next season, cover them with a good thick layer of coffee grounds and compost, and wait to see if they come up next year. Rinse off the luffas with clear water and set them aside to dry. Feel free to give them away to family and friends, or just settle for using them for cleaning the tub. See, I told you that it needed a good scrub by now.
Now, as with any horticultural advice, these steps may be modified or arranged in any fashion whatsoever, at the discretion of the luffa farmer. You do have to admit, though, that this is still a better guide than those seed guides, right?
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Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Projects: “I can has Cthulhufruit?”
It all started about five years ago. My friend Allison Lonsdale shared a picture online of her attendance at an event in San Diego, and she was wearing a fruit instead of a standard necklace. Well, I thought it was a fruit, but I wasn’t sure: it either looked as if she’d taken a wax lemon and melted it until it threw off long twining drippings off the bottom, or if she’d covered a small octopus with yellow highway lane paint. All I knew was that this thing was about the size of my fist, bright canary yellow, and possessed of tentacles.
Since I feared for her safety with this monstrous pome, I had to ask about its identity. Not surprisingly, I was still at a loss: she said it was a Buddha’s Hand citron, and that she’d picked it up in a San Diego market shortly before taking the picture. This cleared up the picture, slightly, because I knew what a citron was, but it didn’t explain who mutilated a helpless citron such as this. I then went to the Interwebs and the few general reference books available on citrus, and that’s when the mad quest began.
Buddha's Hand citron
To explain, citrons are a relatively uncommonly encountered variety of citrus fruit, mostly because they have little to no pulp. This is why restaurants don’t offer citron juice in their breakfast menus. Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit comparatively have huge reserves of pulp as compared to peel and pith: cut open a citron, and the cross-section suggests a particularly nasty practical joke by someone who really hated lemonade. However, the peel is valuable on its own, as the outer layer, or zest, is exceptionally flavorful and intense. Throughout much of Asia, citrons are grown for their scent and as a flavoring, as they have a distinctive tang that separates them from the standard lemon and lime varieties used for baking and cooking.
The Buddha’s Hand citron tree is not a particularly noteworthy tree without its fruit. As with most citrus, it starts out as a multibranched bush or shrub, producing large, soft leaves with a distinctive petiole and stems with short sharp spines. The blooms are white with purple highlights, with an intoxicating scent that contains none of the underlying bitterness of lemon or orange blossoms. (By the way, the petals are edible and quite tasty, and are best if gathered within minutes of falling from the flower.) However, something happened about 4000 years ago to a citron tree somewhere in China, where it started producing fruit with long protrusions off the bottom. These were cultivated and propagated for centuries, and presumably all existing Buddha’s Hand citrons today are descended from that one mutant tree. Well, I say “presumably” because no reference I could find mentions the existence of Buddha’s Hand seeds, although they might happen from time to time.
And the meaning of the name? Well, according to many resources, the fruit resembles praying hands in its “closed” form, where the tentacles remain bunched tightly at the bottom of the fruit. The “open” form, where the tentacles spread wide like an attacking squid, is the source for the citron’s other nickname: Cthulhufruit, after the most famous character in Providence children’s writer H.P. Lovecraft‘s bedtime stories. Allison’s citrons definitely qualified as Cthulhufruit, as they looked as if they were about to jump off her blouse and attack passersby like the facehuggers in the film Alien, and suggested a “How To Protect Yourself From An Assailant Armed With A Piece of Fresh Fruit” defense course as taught by the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce instead of the Monty Python troupe. At that point, I knew I had to get one.
That issue, as can be expected, was problematic. As with most citrus, citrons produce their fruit only toward the end of the year, and citrons only grow in areas protected from freezes and strong frosts. The trees themselves can be found from time to time in larger nurseries, where I purchased mine: they have problems with sunburn in extreme heat and low humidity, but a Buddha’s Hand in a container does very well in a good sunny area protected from typical Texas wind. Almost every English-language reference book on citrus disdains Buddha’s Hands as a “novelty” or “curiosity” before begrudgingly admitting to their value for zest, and that’s maybe two or three words before badmouthing the effort of getting the zest off each tentacle. Because of this attitude, they almost never show up in standard grocery stores, and even when they do, they only remain for about a week or two before being snapped up by the curious and the gastronomically jaded.
Since my father’s family comes from good stout British/Scottish Catholic stock, where we’re encouraged, to steal from a book review I read years back, to stretch out the Christmas turkey to the point where we’re making turkey-flavored gelatin out of the bones in mid-July, I didn’t want to get a Buddha’s Hand just to get one. If it was to arrive in my home, it had to have a purpose and a meaning, if only to terrify the cats and scare the neighborhood children. Thankfully, the Czarina was going through a collection of very old cookbooks left her by her grandmother, and one book on candies contained a recipe for candied orange and grapefruit peel. These sorts of preserves were rather popular until after the Great Depression, and we figured that making up a batch of candied Cthulhufruit would be an interesting addition to Chinese New Year festivities in the Dallas area. The fruit was in season at the time, so I figured a couple of phone calls would take care of the problem
If I’d known what an aggravation we’d go through to get one, I would have settled for growing my own. For various understandable reasons related to weather problems in California and disease quarantine in Florida, the several Asian groceries in Dallas that would have carried the elusive citrons were empty. I was pointed in the direction of various online sellers, but they were either already sold out or unable to ship to Texas. (As a general rule, while citrus from either Florida or California may be shipped to other states in the US without problems, imports to any citrus-producing state are very carefully watched by the US Department of Agriculture to prevent the spread of disease. With the quarantine of all of Florida by the USDA due to the threat of citrus canker, nobody was going to take a chance on destroying Texas’s multi-billion-dollar crop, as I discovered when I first bought a Buddha’s Hand tree from an online nursery that was smuggling potentially infected trees from Florida suppliers. Having the USDA show up at your front door with a receipt of the purchase and an explanation of why they have to confiscate it just cements the understanding that USDA agents are horribly underpaid for the work they do.) And then there was the situation with local stores selling for the gourmand and chef community. Whoo boy.
Now, I know that both the Whole Foods and Central Market grocery chains have plenty of employees and managers more than willing to assist customers with strange requests and either follow through on getting information or state “Sorry, but we can’t do it.” These individuals are as rare at my local stores as the citrons themselves. Central Market reps repeatedly told me over the phone and in person “We’ll have them in on Tuesday” for a month before I finally gave up, and Whole Foods apparently hires managers too arrogant and abrasive for even Borders Books & Music. I started at the store by my house because it had an empty bin labeled for Buddha’s Hands at the beginning of January, and found that its produce department was best at passing hot potatoes. After two months of coming back in every week because leaving my name and phone number in exchange for a promise to get a response on making a special order never got a followup, I finally got a manager who literally sneered that “they’re out of season this time of the year” and “there’s not that much of a demand for those”, and that he shouldn’t be expected to bother the produce department with such petty requests. It shouldn’t be surprising to discover that he was, indeed, a bookstore managerial reject. A letter to the Whole Foods corporate headquarters got no response on the citrons and probably a promotion for the petty tyrant, and just when I’d given up, a local Kroger store put three on display. The sound heard at the checkout was the shockwave made by my snagging two of them before anyone else could get them out of my hands, and the Czarina and I rushed them home and put them into the refrigerator before they turned back into pumpkins and mice.
The pure, unsullied Cthulhufruit
The next day, we started our little adventure by taking the citrons out of the fridge and slicing them into orange peel-sized segments.
Again, most guides will mention that Buddha’s Hand citrons have little to no pulp, but I still wasn’t expecting a complete lack of pulp. Note the white flesh? That’s nothing but rind. No pulp, no seeds, no nuthin’ but rind. If I’d had to resort to attempting to raise Buddha’s Hands from seed, I would have been more than a bit aggravated if I’d gotten this far and discovered nothing.
More sliced Cthulhufruit
Well, now that it’s been sliced up like a potato destined for a deep fryer, it’s time to take a look at what to do with it. The free taste, so to say, of what Buddha’s Hands are capable of is with a simple candied peel recipe: the Czarina is currently running experiments with other recipes, but those are going to have to wait. Some are so good that they may have to go with her to her grave.
Candied Buddha’s Hand Citron
2 whole Buddha’s Hand citrons, washed and cleaned (approximately one pound)
2 pounds granulated sugar
(optional) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
After removing any bruised or damaged sections, thinly slice the citrons lengthwise. The resultant pieces may be cut in half if necessary. Put the citron pieces into a medium saucepan, cover with cold water, and heat until just before the water boils.
Cthulhufruit in a pot
Most recipes for candied citrus peel recommend that the water be replaced at this time with cold water and repeated at least once for orange or lemon peel, and that the water be allowed to boil for grapefruit. This may be necessary for these citrus, but Buddha’s Hand citrons have a delicate enough flavor that the slices should be given this bath once or maybe twice. More than two heating baths, and much of the essential oils in the rind may be lost.
After the desired number of baths, drain the water, recover with cold water, and return to the stove. Add an equal amount of sugar as fresh fruit used and heat to boiling.
Anyone familiar with making maple syrup will note that the reducing process will take some time, so stir regularly and keep an eye on the froth at the top of the pan. When the froth starts becoming thick, turn down the heat, but continue to boil. In the meantime, prepare a baking sheet by greasing or covering with wax paper, and sprinkle a layer of the remaining sugar on top.
When a drop of the juice inside the pan, when dripped from the spoon, makes a thin cobwebby thread, remove the pan from the heat. Spoon the slices from the pan and place them on the baking sheet. (CAUTION: the citron slices are very hot, and THEY WILL BURN EXPOSED SKIN. Please be careful not to get splashed: I speak from experience.) Sprinkle the remaining sugar liberally over the slices and allow to cool.
Optionally, the remaining sugar may be flavored with vanilla to complement the flavor of the citron. Slowly add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to a small amount of sugar and stir well. Sprinkle this mix atop the cooling slices before applying the rest of the sugar. Makes 1.5 pounds of candied Buddha’s Hand citron. Store in airtight containers.
WARNING: To prevent excessive pilfering by well-meaning but addicted spouses, as shown below, hide remaining candy in an undisclosed location. Give them the remaining sauce for further recipe experiments, and wait for citron season to come again.
The Czarina with Cthulfruit candy
Any questions? See, Allison, this is ALL YOUR FAULT.
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Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Observations: “It’s Always Sad When It Happens To Someone You Know”
It started so innocently.
I mean, I used to be a writer. I knew the dangers of books and publishing lines. I understood that if you bought too many books, you not only didn’t eat that night, but you might not be able to close the hallway door. I’d roomed with people who didn’t grasp that distinction, and who spent their time moving from house to apartment to couch, carrying a box of clothes, a box of essential papers, a cat, and forty boxes of first editions. I’d seen firsthand the horrors of library benefits, estate auctions, and garage sales, and I’d watched people who were once good and close friends who were digging through the detritus at the local Goodwill store, desperately searching for the one volume that would make their lives complete. I used to be sympathetic, but later I became hard and cold about their decisions. I didn’t tell them that they had to become hooked, did I? They made their decisions on their own.
And then I met Timber Press, and all my presumptions about the nature of addiction went straight to hell.
Were I the sort to judge based solely on the covers, Timber Press would have been the girl next door who stopped by after lunch. Tall, pretty without being overly focused solely on looks, and able to run rings in conversation around a room full of Ph.Ds. In other words, just like the woman I married. Strangely, while the Czarina says that she doesn’t have any problems with the other person in my life, she sometimes lingers over the horticulture section of my library, and I can’t tell if she’s glaring in silent jealousy or contemplating an attempt at stealing my mistress from me. Sometimes, I suspect it’s both.
It started nearly nine years ago, when I was first exploring the world of carnivorous plants. Even in these enlightened times, books on carnivores were rare and precious, especially if they were accurate, and I finally tracked down a couple of volumes that are still in my library. From one fell a postcard asking if I wanted a catalog from the publisher, and the name was one with which I was completely unfamiliar. “Timber Press, huh? Well, I can spare a stamp to find out, right?”
This is how the girl next door walked in, said hello, planted a kiss that could snap a redwood in two, and did nasty, horrible, terrible things to me over the rest of the decade. Either the Czarina is going to leave me when she discovers the levels of my infidelity, or she’s planning to leave with her and let me take care of the credit card bills. Either way, I can die secure that I’ll never find any better.
Mountains In The Sea
It started with exotica. I already knew the bare basics of bonsai and penjing, the Chinese art of living scene arrangements. Timber Press set me down the path to ruin by introducing me to Hon Non Bo, the Vietnamese art of rock and plant seascapes. This wasn’t a hack-and-slash guide to how to crank one out in a weekend, like far too many American-published bonsai books. Oh, no. This went into a thumbnail guide of Vietnamese art history, since much of the technique of Hon Non Bo is dependent upon understanding the why and how. Another postcard and another catalog, and Timber Press knew that I’d go to the ends of the earth for another kiss.
(The Czarina just read the preceding over my shoulder, and chuckled slightly, with hints of both passion and wistfulness. I fear that I’m going to wake up alone tomorrow morning, with her clothes packed and my library stripped. I knew that this could happen when I started this affair, but I don’t regret a thing.)
Growing Carnivorous Plants
Then it was back to the carnivores. Most books on carnivorous plants go in one of two directions. Either the book is a simplistic children’s book that sensationalizes the fact that these plants eat animals instead of the other way around, or it’s a dry tome full of charts on enzyme activity and habitat zones that tell precious little about the plant and why it’s important. Many good books fill the gap, but it’s not as if any particular publisher makes a habit of serving the needs of the carnivore enthusiast community. Timber Press, though, offered not just one book. She offered three within the last five years, full of essential information on cultivating obscure forms that few humans had ever seen. One day, she’s going to put out the definitive guide to triggerplants, both Australian forms and the other members of the genus Stylidium, and I’m just going to weep in admiration.
Oh, and did I mention that she loves cooking? Walk into any used bookstore, and you’ll find the shelves creaking with guides on herb gardens, and they’re abandoned on the shelves for a reason. My dear, sweet love shared with me her love of gustatorial delights, from exotic herbs to the difference between blueberries and lingonberries. Oh, she could tell sweet tales of Japanese maples, conifers, and cycads, but all of that was secondary when my body was ravaged with hunger, and she freely inspired all of the muses with one hint of garlic and rosemary. This was about the time I introduced my new love to the Czarina, who for once didn’t scoff at the idea of someone knowing more about fine cuisine than she.
And so it continues. The Czarina may become tolerant of my new mistress, and she may decide to steal her away for herself. Nobody ever said that horticultural reading had to be boring.
Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Projects: “Surviving the Cube”
Now for a subject of some seriousness. We’re going to talk about “The Cube”.
For those in the carnivorous plant business, as well as with more advanced hobbyists, “cubes” refer to the prepackaged carnivores sold in hardware and home improvement stores’ garden sections. The name comes from the use of clear plastic boxes to ship and display plants, usually with three varieties of carnivore with diametrically opposed growing conditions all jammed into the same space. The boxes are an absolutely brilliant way to ship pitcher plants and sundews with a minimum of wasted packing space. Unfortunately, they’re not a good permanent living solution.
Before I start, I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to the cubes on principle. I wouldn’t have been drawn into keeping carnivorous plants had it not been for finding a display stand full of them at a Home Depot while I was buying poplar boards for bookshelves. I still have one Nepenthes hybrid, provenance unknown, that started from one tiny plant purchased from that display stand. When I was first starting as a carnivore evangelist a year later, I was also buying up the severely discounted carnivores, at least the ones that were still alive, and rehabilitating them to give to friends. Again, cubes aren’t a permanent living solution.
The problem with cube carnivores isn’t just that they’re impulse purchases, intended with as much longterm concern for their well-being as anything else sold by the cash register at the local hardware store. It’s not just that they’re usually incredibly stressed plants by the time they’re put on display, and following the recommendation to “keep the top on your plant” usually means that it outgrows its space if it doesn’t cook in direct sun. it’s not just that the collections of flytrap, cobra plant, and lance-leafed sundew will die in a matter of weeks even under the best circumstances unless the plants are separated, and that the “growing tips” on the side of the cube have no information whatsoever on how to do this. It’s that even grocery store orchids come with better information on growing and repotting requirements than a typical cube carnivore does, and that the friendly and helpful people at your local hardware store mean well, but they have next to no correct information on feeding them. (I’ve made lots of friends in the home improvement store garden sections over the years, and I know that they suck up correct information on raising carnivores like sponges if it’s available to them. Unfortunately, Venus flytrap sales volumes are minuscule compared to roses or peach trees, so there’s no incentive from the store manager or the chain’s corporate offices to make sure they have that information.)
It’d be easy for nursery operators to tell customers “Don’t buy cube carnivores,” but I know that it’s not that easy. I think of the number of beginners who are given cubes for their birthdays, or the students who figure that one of those cubes would make a great science fair project. I also understand the urge to collect a few of those cubes when they’re on deep discount and attempt to rescue the plant inside, because I still succumb from time to time. I’m not helping convince the local Lowe’s store manager not to order more, but there’s no reason for the plant to die in order to stick with your principles.
The trick to freeing a carnivore from the cube is to understand what it is and what it needs. Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants are really bad choices for the cubes, as they get far too big far too quickly to last very long, and they often die of shock even if put into optimum conditions right away. Darlingtonia plants generally die even if they’re transplanted right away into those optimal conditions, and they usually only last a few weeks without the root disturbance. Especially if kept inside, there’s simply no way that a Venus flytrap can get enough light for proper growth in a cube, and that’s doubled if the flytrap has bugs or hamburger shoved into every trap. Butterworts and sundews need more air circulation than what’s available in cubes. Ironically enough, many terrestrial bladderworts would do better than most in a cube, so long as the cube doesn’t dry out, but I’ve never seen a bladderwort in a cube, probably because they don’t have obvious above-ground traps to attract buyers. As for other carnivores, they’re either too obscure to draw interest from anyone other than specialists (Byblis), require specialized light or temperature conditions that are almost impossible to replicate easily in a home center greenhouse (Cephalotus), or have trap structures too small to appreciate without a magnifier (Stylidium, Genlisea). The vast majority of cube plants are going to be either flytraps or pitcher plants of one sort, so let’s start with a pitcher plant.
Behold: the cube
Now, let’s look at the problems with this arrangement. Unlike cubes of days past, where the plants were shoved in the bottom amidst a handful of barely damp sphagnum moss, this one at least is in a plastic pot for drainage, but that’s the only good news. This poor Sarracenia has been in this cube for a long time, as demonstrated by the number of leaves jammed up on the top of the container. The condensation gives a good idea of the relative humidity inside of the cube, meaning both that poor air circulation has a good chance of promoting disease and fungus. Worst of all, most of the leaves are winter leaves, known as phyllodia, with tiny or nonexistent traps at the end, which means that the plant hasn’t been getting anywhere near enough light since it was first potted up. It may not die immediately, but it’s going to die soon, which may help explain why this was marked half-off at my local Lowe’s store.
Before cracking open the top, having the right equipment and supplies is vital if the plant is going to survive. These requirements include:
A suitable amount of carnivorous plant potting mix and distilled or rain water
A suitable pot, with sufficient drainage and ability to retail moisture at the same time. (For this exercise, we’re going to use a ProlitariPot for clarity.)
A sharp pair of utility scissors or a sharp knife
A plastic bag large enough to go over the plant and the pot
At least one thin bamboo stake or dowel rod, preferably treated to resist moisture (orchid stakes work best, but chopsticks will work in a pinch)
A indirectly bright windowsill or greenhouse space for recuperation
The top of the cube
The first thing to do is pop open the top and see if the patient is able to be saved. Most cubes are taped shut, on top of being sealed in plastic wrap and pressure-sensitive stickers, partly to keep the cube contents in and keep meddling kids out. Examine the cube to see where the cube opens, and with the scissors or knife, cut open the various adhesives.
The cube opens
In this case, we have what’s probably a Sarracenia hybrid, but it’s hard to tell what kind with the way the traps are stunted and misshapen. As mentioned before, most of the leaves are phyllodia, and it’s going to be a while before it has the chance to grow any proper traps. Just getting the top open, though, is a start, and the way the leaves popped out when it came off gives an idea of how badly it needed the room to grow.
Removing the spacer
Depending upon the nursery that supplied the cube, the plants are held in place with a variety of options, such as plastic film, rubber bands and wires (seen only once, thankfully), and plastic inserts. This one came with a plastic spacer, with two wings that come in contact with the underside of the lid. The pitcher plant comes up through a hole in the spacer, and often grows over it. This spacer needs to be removed very carefully to prevent damage to the crown of the plant. If this requires grasping the leaf bunch to keep them together while pulling them through the spacer hole, do so, because any damage to the leaves in grabbing them is going to be minor compared to scraping and cutting from the sharp edges of the spacer hole.
The spacer removed
If recycling facilities exist in your area for plastics, set the spacer aside for recycling. Otherwise, just throw it away. It won’t be needed again. The same goes for the cube itself, unless your idea of an exciting weekend involves polishing scratches out of Plexiglas.
The still-potted but uncubed plant
The pitcher plant is going to look even worse once it’s removed from the cube, as the traps are too weak for most to stand upright. The good news is that it came out of the cube just in time: the humidity may have been high enough, but note that the soil mix was nearly completely dry.
Bottom of the pot
While the example isn’t the greatest picture ever taken, note the bottom of the pot, and the root growing from the bottom right. This plant was in the cube for a good long time, sopping up available moisture from the bottom as water vapor leaked out the seams in the cube lid. When repotting, try to pull roots like this through the drainage holes without damaging them if at all possible. If the roots are too thick, or if they’re so extensively intertwined that they can’t be separated, use the knife or utility shears to cut them just enough to get them through.
The plant in its old pot
Now it’s time to decant the plant from the shipping pot. In this shot, note the original traps growing when this plant was shipped, especially when compared to the subsequent phyllodia. This plant will make it, but it’s going to need a lot of care.
Without disturbing the root ball, remove the original pot and put the root ball into the new pot, filling the gaps with fresh carnivore growing mix. Water it down well to get the roots rehydrated and to help settle any air pockets. Take the bamboo stake (in this case, a spare orchid stake) and put it in the edge of the pot, with at least 5 centimeters of clearance above the highest trap. Place the plastic bag bottom-side up over the pot and the plant, helping to keep up the level of humidity the plant had in the cube while giving it more air circulation than before.
Finally, here’s the important part. Place the pot, plant, and bag into a well-lit space where it will not be exposed to full sun for no less than two weeks. Repeat: do NOT put the plant in full sun, as it will likely burn until it adapts to life outside the cube. Just leave it alone, making sure to add additional water if absolutely necessary.
At the end of that two weeks, remove the plastic bag and move it into better light. With sundews and Nepenthes pitcher plants, be careful not to give them full sun right away, but good partial sun is perfect while letting them get acclimated. Sarracenia pitchers and Venus flytraps need as much light as they can get. If growing conditions are right and the plant’s time in the cube wasn’t too debilitating, you should see new trap growth within two to three weeks. The existing traps won’t grow further or straighten out, but they’ll act as an essential photosynthetic resource for new traps. As the old traps brown and die off, snip them off, and encourage the new growth to spread up and out. It may take a year, but given decent growing conditions, it won’t be too long before the carnivore that was languishing in its cube is in full form, growing and even blooming.
Again, this isn’t intended to be a slam on the cube plants themselves. However, considering the effort necessary to nurse an ailing cube plant, isn’t it easier to deal directly with a nursery that specializes in carnivores than wrangling with cubes?
Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Observations: “The Essential Books Necessary If You’re Going To Keep Up”
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Internet. For the last seventeen years, it’s kept me entertained, informed me, and even paid the bills. Especially in the last five years or so, it’s been an incredible resource for discovering new advances and classic wonders in the botanical and horticultural world. I now count as close friends many people I never would have met without the old Intertubes, including the friend who introduced me to Buddha’s Hand citrons. The problem is that it’s not enough, especially for carnivorous plants.
This isn’t to say that good, practical information on carnivores isn’t available online. It’s just that as far as horticultural knowledge is concerned, good old-fashioned dead-tree books are still pretty necessary. Until Amazon.com develops a Kindle that can be dragged into the garden, left on a porch table for reference, or propped up next to a potting bench for reference, without worrying about dead batteries or mud all over the screen, books are still the best option. I don’t have a lot of faith in the future of the publishing business as we know it, but books on carnivores are still enough of a niche market that they won’t be supplanted any time soon. Besides, as the Czarina attests, laptops don’t work quite so well for showing off pictures of new species and cultivars to an appreciative but unsuspecting spouse.
The problem is that many books on carnivores are written for the typical fifth-grader working on a report for class back around 1963, not for serious enthusiasts wanting more than a sensationalist view of Venus flytraps. Of the others, I’ve come across painfully inaccurate and potentially catastrophic tips (my personal favorite was the suggestion that minerals could be removed from tap water by boiling it, which is a really good way of killing a pitcher plant or butterwort), obsolete or outdated species descriptions, and growing tips written by individuals whom I suspect might have seen a picture of a flytrap one time about a decade ago. Even so, I still have six books that I use for reference on a constant basis, and if I can’t replace one, it doesn’t get lent to others. In no particular order, these include:
Well over a decade after its publication, The Savage Garden is still the handbook for carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly beginners. It could use an update, especially considering the new carnivores described after it first saw print, but it still gives an excellent overview of proper care and feeding. If your budget is dependent upon buying one book for carnivore care, get this one first.
The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants is an English translation of a German guide, and it works mostly as an academic guide to carnivore range, habitat, and adaptations. It’s still very readable for interesting laypeople, and the spectacular photographs, one of the hallmarks of Timber Press books, offer wonderful views of carnivores not normally seen in cultivation.
If we rise by standing on the shoulders of giants, then Adrian Slack and Charles Darwin deserve credit for creating the carnivorous plant community as we know it today. For those unfamiliar with Slack’s work, he’s generally considered Britain’s greatest living authority on carnivores, and as such has no compunctions about sharing his discoveries on carnivore care with others. While best known for working out the only known way to keep the Portuguese dewy pine Drosophyllum in cultivation, his tips on raising other carnivores are ignored at peril.
Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson
Mr. McPherson was only 23 when he wrote his first book, and because of this, I’m painfully jealous. He literally wrote the book on South American Heliamphora sun pitchers, which makes me even more jealous. He also spent years studying pitcher plants in their native habitats, which only concentrates the jealousy. By the time I build up the expertise to confirm his observations, he’ll probably have four more, equally well-written, books available for purchase, and then I’ll really be jealous.
Members of the International Carnivorous Plant Society may know Dr. Rice as a former editor of the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, and for his Lovecraft-inspired Utricularia cultivar names. He also takes some impressive photographs, both in the wild and in cultivation, and this book is the only one I’ve come across with a thorough view of the aquatic carnivore waterwheel plant Aldrovanda. Besides, it contains exemplary photographs of the only known carnivorous plant fossils, which is worth the price all on its own.
Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski
Triggerplants by Douglas W. Darnowski. Rosenberg Publishing, 2002, 94pp.
This is the book on triggerplants, especially the huge variety in Australia. It’s possible to raise triggerplants without this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I look forward to Dr. Darnowski writing an extensive update based on new discoveries (at the time of its writing, triggerplants were suspected of being carnivorous, a fact that was confirmed in 2006), but this will do until then.
A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World by Gordon Cheers
A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World by Gordon Cheers. Angus & Robertson, 1992, 174pp.
Finally, A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World is a bit out-of-date, and has been out of print for years, but it’s worth tracking down a copy just for its uniquely Australia-centric view of Pacific carnivores. It’s also the only book found so far that gives a good guide to eco-tourism involving carnivores, with handy maps for planning trips to see the main groups of carnivores in situ. Besides, the author obviously had a thing for Nepenthes pitcher plants, because the photos and descriptions of the species and cultivars available at that time are simply incredible.
Well, that’s the list so far. I fully expect this list to change drastically in the next few years, as interest in carnivores continues to grow to levels not seen since the Victorian Era. Not that I’m complaining.
Comments Off on Observations: “The Essential Books Necessary If You’re Going To Keep Up”