Monthly Archives: July 2011

“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?

Oh, I had no idea. None. Witness my friend Amanda Thomsen of the very disturbing blog Kiss My Aster and her fascination with building gardening robots. I can’t help but think that I’ve seen this movie before, with the same soundtrack:

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.

Have a Great Weekend

And now a bit more greenhouse music:

Contest: Last call on the Joey Boxes

Just a friendly note: the Joey Box contest ends tomorrow, and there’s still technically time to get one in. You like to receive odd things in the mail, don’t you?

Presented without context

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.”

“Absolutely. It would be great…”


“…it would be wonderful…”


“…it would be a perfect…”


“It would be a perfect enclosure for a crocodile monitor.”

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.

“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

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.

384 days and counting

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.

Have a great weekend

Because the weather can always be worse:

A VERY good question

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?

Mr. Hanky visits the Triffid Ranch

Spend more than a few weeks studying carnivorous plants, and you see that the situations and boundaries get a bit flexible. Plants in general really don’t care where they get their nitrogen and phosphorus, and many carnivores don’t care if their prey was a bit predigested first. Sarracenia and Heliamphora are already famous for their tendency to attract frogs that live inside the pitchers, snagging incoming prey and using the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The genus Nepenthes, though, goes above and beyond in its coprophiliac habits, regularly attracting tree shrews and rats with nutritious secretions produced along the pitcher lid. In an adaptation that provides a regular supply of guano, Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata makes a home for bats from its traps. You even have the Asian frog Microhyla nepenthicola living and breeding in Nepenthes ampullaria pitchers, with the frogs and their tadpoles taking advantage of a reasonably safe environment, and the plant taking advantage of their various wastes.

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?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Thoughts about the impending Borders liquidation: now I know how Hunter S. Thompson felt when Richard Nixon died.

“In sunken Okeefenokee, dead Utricularia waits dreaming.”

It shouldn’t be any surprise to friends and cohorts that I’m distantly related to Howard Phillips Lovecraft on my mother’s side. At the very least, my urge to grow gills and spend the summer at the bottom of a swimming pool can then be attributed to the Innsmouth Look and not to allergies. It also shouldn’t be any surprise to friends and cohorts that I’m very pleased that Grandpa Theobald’s cultural heritage continues to spread far and wide. Considering the number of Lovecraftian cultivar names for Utricularia by way of Dr. Barry Rice, it just means I’ve got to get on the stick and start naming cultivars for one of my most influential literary role models. I think the world needs “Xolotl Zapata” and “Pablo Redondo” Pinguicula cultivars.

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?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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.

Ripe luffa

Ripe luffa

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.

Dried luffas

Dried luffas

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.

Luffa ensemble

Luffa ensemble

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
  • Grubby clothes
  • 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

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.

Peeled luffa

Peeled luffa

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.

Post-peeled luffas

Post-peeled luffas

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?

Contest: The Saga of the Joey Box Continues

Just as a friendly reminder, the Joey Box contest is still open, and you still have 14 days to enter. Look at it as getting an item in the mail that isn’t accumulations of school supplies.

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

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 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.

Sliced Cthulhufruit

Sliced Cthulhufruit

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

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

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.

Boiling Cthulhufruit

Boiling Cthulhufruit

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.

Sugared Cthulhufruit

Sugared Cthulhufruit

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

The Czarina with Cthulfruit candy

Any questions? See, Allison, this is ALL YOUR FAULT.

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

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

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.

All book images herein © 2010 Timber Press Inc. These books may or may not still be in print at this time; refer to the main Timber Press site for more information.

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

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 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

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

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

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 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

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

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.

Bagged carnivore

Bagged carnivore

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?

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 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:

The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato

The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato

The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. Ten Speed Press, 1998, 320pp.

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

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Biology and Cultivation by By Wilhelm Barthlott, Stefan Porembski, Rüdiger Seine, and Inge Theisen, and translated by Michael Ashdown. Timber Press, 2007, 224pp.

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.

Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack

Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack

Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack. MIT Press, 2000, 240pp.

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

Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson

Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson. McDonald & Woodward, 2006, 320pp.

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.

Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice

Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice

Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice. Timber Press, 2006, 224pp.

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 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

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.

Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”

Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.

The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.

Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.

And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…

WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.

Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.

Bonsai candidate after training

Bonsai candidate after training

After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.

New bonsai pot with screen

New bonsai pot with screen

At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.

Pepper in its new pot

Pepper in its new pot

Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.

Props to the bonsai

Props to the bonsai

As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.

The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.

Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.

Observations: “Well, Bless Your Heart: The Carnivorous Creations Story”

Many lively and exotic cultures have terms that have completely different meanings based on the tone used when saying them. Texas, having a particularly exotic culture, is rightly famous for one phrase having multiple meanings based on tone, and some are so subtle that only lifetime residents catch the implied insult or putdown. The phrase “Bless your heart” may be an honest term of affection for a particularly thoughtful action or comment. If referring to an honest mistake or misunderstanding, “bless your heart” is the polite equivalent of “you loveable dingbat”. Other meanings, dictated by the tone used, range from “That’s another mess for me to clean up” to “what the hell is wrong with you?” to “You IDIOT”. As rampant and blatant use of profanity is considered vulgar in some circles of Texas society, a well-placed “bless your heart” is sufficiently acidic as to peel off tooth enamel in big floppy strips, and if the pronoun ever switches to “its” , this is the Texas equivalent of “that person is dead to me.”

This flexibility allows the term to be used quite often whenever the subject of the DuneCraft Carnivorous Creations carnivorous plant terrarium kit comes up. When kids ask me about how to get their kits up and going, I’m understandably sympathetic to their situation and try my absolute best to help out. When adults tell me that they’re thinking about getting one for a child who wants a Venus flytrap for Christmas, I wince and try to inform them of the implications of their purchase. And then there are the people who smugly tell me that they’re going to raise hordes of carnivores out of that one kit, and I blatantly steal from the author Harlan Ellison and his description of the guy who walks into a Mexican or Thai restaurant and assures everyone that “there’s no pepper too hot for me to eat.” Namely, “let them try, heh heh heh.”

Carnivorous Creations box

Carnivorous Creations box

While variations appear under different brand names (for instance, the Toys ‘R’ Us chain sells a setup with drastically different packaging, the sets are essentially the same. Each one features a high-domed terrarium with heavily-Photoshopped clusters of various carnivores, and the claims “Grow Over 10 Varieties of Carnivorous Plants!” and “Actually Eats Insects”, or some variation thereof, appear on the box in bright, lively text. The kit itself includes a terrarium base and “growing dome”, a bag of sphagnum moss/sand potting medium, a packet of carnivorous plant seeds, a small bag of blue gravel, three “bog buddy” plastic reptile and amphibian replicas, stickers to go on the outside of the terrarium base, and an instruction guide. Technically, it’s possible to grow a collection of carnivores from this kit, if you follow the instructions to the letter, and keep them alive for years. It’s the reality that’s slightly off.

Carnivorous Creations contents

Carnivorous Creations contents

Now, the problem with this kit, and in fact any kit that offers carnivorous plant seeds with promises of growing “bug-eating plants,” is that they technically offer the opportunity to do so. If you follow the instructions, and if you keep your terrarium in optimal conditions for carnivorous plant growth, and if you have a lot of patience, it’s possible to grow a batch of carnivores from a kit. The rub is in offering the optimal conditions for growth, and a lot of these factors are ones over which the fine folks at DuneCraft have absolutely no control. This is why I use “bless their hearts” to describe these kits than more earthy terms.

The first thing to consider, and something which most experienced carnivorous plant enthusiasts will note right off the bat, is that carnivores are, without fail, extremely slow-growing plants. One of the reasons why carnivores haven’t taken over every botanical niche on the planet is because the plants can use captured solar energy to produce the enzymes necessary for digesting animal prey, or they can use it for rapid growth, but usually not both. Almost all of the world’s known carnivores live in areas with extremely depleted soils, and their traps give them a strategic advantage in surviving in areas where other plants have an extremely hard time. The traps are also a curse, because the energy spent on growing them, producing attractants such as nectar, and producing digestive enzymes is that much less energy that can be used to outgrow competing plants. If the conditions in the growing area change, such as seeing a sudden influx of fertilizer, the carnivores have a decided disadvantage against grasses, trees, and other local plants, and they usually die off. (In areas where the local environment is regularly exposed to brushfires, such as in the Florida panhandle or native Venus flytrap habitat in North Carolina, the seeds from those dying plants will remain dormant in the soil until a brushfire burns off all of the competition.)

So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that seedlings are going to take a very long time to reach a decent size, and that time is aggravated by the size of the seeds. Most carnivore seeds are extremely small, meaning that they don’t have the stored reserves of energy found in, say, acorns or pumpkin seeds. Because the resultant seedling is equally small at germination, it is less likely to survive if local conditions change too much. Too little light for two to three days, and an entire batch of newly germinated seedlings can die and rot with almost no notice. Even if other conditions don’t pose a risk, one of the reasons why most commercially raised carnivores are propagated via sterile tissue propagation techniques instead of via seeds is that a full-grown Venus flytrap can be grown via cloning within months, while the same process by seed can take anywhere between three to five years. And you read that correctly: YEARS. This, more than any other reason, is why most experts recommend purchasing fully-grown carnivorous plants instead of messing about with seeds.

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag

Another factor that isn’t considered, and that DuneCraft has absolutely no control over, is how that boxed kit was stored before its purchase. Take a look at the bottom of the box, and note the date on the “Packed for” sticker. Carnivorous plant seeds generally have a very high risk of failing to germinate after being in storage, and experts point out that if they can’t be planted within a few months, they should be stored in refrigeration to keep them viable. The “Germ. Rate” entry notes that DuneCraft had each batch of seeds tested for viability, and the result states how many actually germinated out of the test sample. The problem is that between the time the seeds were packed and the time the kit was purchased, the kit was probably stored in one of any number of warehouses without air conditioning, as well as being shipped in trucks and shipping containers in the same condition. Keep the seeds in temperatures above 107 degrees F (40 degrees C) long enough, and the likelihood of any of them germinating drops to the rate of World Series wins for the Chicago Cubs. The less time elapsed between the seed test date and the date of purchase, the better.

That said, one peeve with these kits that can be brought up with DuneCraft is the variety of carnivore seeds in the kits. For instance, Sarracenia pitcher plants generally do with much soggier conditions than Venus flytraps, so it makes much more sense to raise those plants separately. Since the seeds are all in one packet, then this is extremely difficult if nearly impossible. Worse, the packs include seeds from the cobra plant, Darlingtonia, which are extremely difficult even for professionals to raise from seed. (Truth be told, considering the temperature and dormancy requirements required for Darlingtonia, getting any seedlings to survive for more than a year qualifies as a minor miracle. For those who can supply the specialized conditions for these plants, purchasing fully grown plants grown from divisions is the sane option.)

The last thing to consider is that carnivores generally need a LOT of light, and the seedlings aren’t exempt from this. As noted elsewhere, human eyes are very good at lying about the actual number of photons reaching an available area, and most sunny windows are still too shady for anything other than certain adult carnivores. The light could be augmented with artificial illumination, but that comes with the equal risk of overheating the seedlings.

Now, let’s us say that you received one of these kits from a well-meaning relative for a birthday gift, or as a holiday present from a co-worker who knows that you’re “into plants”. It’s perfectly possible to use everything in a typical Carnivorous Creations kit, again, under the right conditions.

Firstly, try potting the seeds in an growing medium environment more amenable for success. Spread them out over three to four ProletariPots, and repot them in individual pots after their first year. With fresh seed, and full sun, the Sarracenia in the seed mix should grow to a size where they can capture their own prey within two to three years, with the sundews growing to maximum size much more quickly. If the seeds are too old and they don’t germinate, well, one of the benefits of joining the International Carnivorous Plant Society is having access to the ICPS seed bank, where fresh seed for most available species is available at a very reasonable price.

Likewise, the terrarium base and the humidity dome are pretty cool, but they aren’t going to work for plants that can grow up to a meter tall. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t be used for starting other plants, such as tomatoes or peppers, in the middle of winter when the need for green is particularly strong. If the terrarium absolutely has to have a carnivorous plant in it, consider one of the few varieties that thrive on lower light levels than most, such as the sundew Drosera adelae, and augment the available light with a compact fluorescent fixture of at least 23 watts. Don’t use incandescent bulbs, as the heat will cook the plant and melt the terrarium.

While the Carnivorous Creations growing kit isn’t perfect, it’s possible to get some good results with it, with a bit of improvisation. Just don’t get me started on the “Gothic Garden” kit.

Projects: “The ProletariPot”

Back in 2007, horticulturalist and indoor plant specialist Bob Hyland offered instructions for converting a standard 2-liter soda bottle into a sub-irrigation planter he called a Volksplanter. While his design was very ingenious, I needed to do a few modifications to optimize its use for carnivorous plants. I jokingly called it a “ProletariPot” as an inside gag dedicated to the British comedian Alexei Sayle, and the ProletariPot has proven itself to be an excellent replacement for standard plastic pots. Besides being extremely cheap to manufacture, the ProletariPot encourages deep root systems, conserves water, and facilitates easy cleaning and reuse. Most of the Texas Triffid Ranch’s carnivores are raised in ProletariPots, with deep-rooting plants such as Venus flytraps particularly enjoying the improved drainage. With a bit of modification, or a return to Mr. Hyland’s original design, a ProletariPot could be used for propagation, overwintering, dormancy chilling, seed starting, or any other need that potentially requires an inexpensive container.

The list of materials

A raw ProletariPot in its natural state

A raw ProletariPot in its natural state

Making a ProletariPot requires at least one washed 2-liter soda bottle with cap, a sharp knife or pair of scissors, and an awl or other sharp pointy thing suitable for making holes in plastic. (If you’re doing a lot of them, a drill fitted with at least a 1/4″ bit will make things very quick.) If an awl is unavailable, and I find that the awl in most Swiss Army knives is perfect for the job, then a hammer and a large nail will work just as well. Optionally, a black Sharpie marker is handy but not absolutely necessary. Each ProletariPot will also require a cup of horticulture grade perlite, and the soil mix of your choice.

Although it’s a love-hate relationship, this is my favorite: Pepsi Max. No calories, decent flavor, and enough guanara extract to raise the dead. The Elixir of Life for anybody working in a tech job with lots of overtime and not enough sleep.

The first step in preparation of the bottle is to strip it. With the knife or scissors, cut the label off the bottle. For best results, use bottles with plastic labels that can be peeled off, as paper labels glued by their entirety to the bottle will dull your blades.

Peeling the label

Peeling the label

Degloving the bottle

Degloving the bottle

After discarding the label, it’s time to poke a hole in the cap for drainage. You have the option of removing the cap and punching a hole with a hammer and nail, but I’ve found that using a Swiss Army knife’s awl produces a perfectly sized hole for our needs. (Again, with lots of bottles, you’re better off using a drill.) When doing it this way, make sure that the cap is securely affixed to the bottle, so that the air pressure inside the bottle keeps the bottle from collapsing.

Punching a hole in the cap

Punching a hole in the cap

After punching the hole, replace the cap if you removed it, and make sure that it’s on the bottle as securely as it can. Squeeze the bottle to force out the air inside.

Squeezing the bottle

Squeezing the bottle

Pick a place on the bottle about one-third up the side from the base and cut across the bottle with the knife or scissors.

Cutting the bottle

Cutting the bottle.

The idea is to cut the bottle at such a point where the top of the bottle can be nested inside the base, with the cap in the bottom. You want to cut the base high enough that the edge of the base will support the weight of the rest of the ProletariPot and the top doesn’t pivot on the cap, but not so high that the cap doesn’t rest on the bottom.

Proper nesting of top and base

Proper nesting of top and base

At this point, the basic pot is ready, but still requires soil and plants. If you want to label the ProletariPot, particularly if you plan to use it for starting seeds,do so now with the black Sharpie.

Adding soil
At this point, the Proletaripot is ready for use, and all that’s necessary is an appropriate growing medium. First, though, add a cup of horticulture-grade perlite to the bottom: this will allow drainage while also allowing capillary action to draw up moisture from the bottom of the pot. I find that pouring the perlite is improved by using a Rubbermaid pitcher to pour it, as the plastic will trap excess dusts without spreading them in the air. You do NOT want to breathe perlite dust, so use a mask and try to do this outdoors if possible.

Pouring perlite

Pouring perlite

Next, add the soil mix of your choice. My preferred mix for carnivores is a 50/50 blend of pool filter sand and shredded sphagnum peat, with enough water to give it the consistency of a good mud pie.

Filling a ProletariPot with soil mix

Filling a ProletariPot with soil mix

Add the plant of your choice, add more soil mix to fill the space between the plant and the walls of the ProletariPot, and water it well. Within about a minute, you’ll see water collecting in the base of the ProletariPot, and this will act as the pot’s reservoir.

Single pots get the job done, but anyone with a dedicated collection of plants may need a way to store the pots while still allowing air circulation between them. Interestingly, most soda bottlers developed a perfect solution, if it’s available to you.

ProletariPot and carrier

ProletariPot and carrier

Now, a quick warning and notice. The bottler carrier shown above was being thrown out by a local liquor store, and any retailer who carries 2-liter soda bottles will probably have more in the back or behind the building. Depending upon local law, taking these without permission may constitute theft. For instance, Texas law makes the unauthorized collection or possession of plastic milk crates a prosecutable offense. While bottle carriers aren’t as versatile as milk crates, many distributors return the carriers to a soda bottler for a deposit, and unauthorized harvesting of carriers may be prosecuted. If all else fails, ASK FIRST: if a retailer gives permission to clean through a stock of carriers, it’s usually because they were being thrown away.

While bottle carriers help assist with supporting ProletariPots, they aren’t necessary, as the base is already designed to help a bottle heavier and more unstable than the final project stand upright in pantries and refrigerators. So long as you aren’t worried about aesthetics, the new pots can be used indoor or outdoors, and can be modified further, such as becoming the core of a macrame pot hanger. In the meantime, try one for propagation and another for seed germination, and enjoy the results.

Observations: “Avoiding All Puns Involving Light”

Okay, so your Venus flytrap or pitcher plant is having problems. You’ve looked at the growing mix in its pot, making sure that the sphagnum moss and silica sand are in the right proportions and not contaminated with green moss or anything else that might cause its untimely death. You’ve done the same thing with the water, making sure that you’re using either distilled or rain water if your local municipal water is too mineral laden. (You also already know that boiling tap water won’t get rid of dissolved minerals unless you’re running a still.) Even so, the plant is either declining, either growing long and lanky or pale, or it’s dying. You’ve checked the pH of the soil mix, you’ve checked on drainage if the plant doesn’t like sitting in water, and you’ve checked over and over for possible fertilizer contamination. So what else?

Well, have you looked at the light? I didn’t think so.

It’s funny that the most important aspect that distinguishes plants from animals or fungi, the ability to take water, carbon dioxide, and light and turn them into stored energy via photosynthesis, is also the aspect that gets neglected the most because it doesn’t occur to anyone that it may be a problem. Too little light, and the plant can’t produce enough sugars for growth. Too much light, and its leaves burn. Most indoor house plants originate from deep forests and jungles, mostly because they survive and thrive in the marginal light found in most houses and offices. However, even they have problems with too little light, which helps explain why the chrysanthemum or Spathophyllum in the back corner of the office hasn’t bloomed once in the five years since it was given as a “Get Well Soon” present.

Unfortunately, with the possible exception of the Australian lance-leafed sundew Drosera adelae, there’s really no such thing as a truly indoor carnivorous plant. Each and every variety requires a tremendous amount of light, in order to expedite growth, digestion, and even coloration. Give a Venus flytrap an insufficient amount of light, and it can’t digest trapped prey, causing the prey to rot and kill the leaf or sometimes the entire plant. Sarracenia pitcher plants, when deprived of light, can’t produce the nectar and coloration necessary to attract wasps and other common prey. Cut the light off enough, and a typical Sarracenia produces purely photosynthetic leaves, called phyllodia, in lieu of traps because getting enough light for survival is more important than snagging the nitrogen and potassium necessary for growth or reproduction. Sundews are even nice enough to let growers know if they’re getting enough light: the mucilage used to snare prey requires a lot of sugars, and that sugar production requires a lot of light. The best gauge of a happy sundew is a sundew covered with plenty of “dew” on its tentacles.

If it’s this easy to make sure that a carnivore gets enough light, then why do so many carnivores die from a lack thereof? I’ve run into so many people that tell me that their plants got “plenty of light” before it died, and they forget one very important fact: their eyes are lying to them.

The human eye is an exquisite sensory organ, the culmination of approximately 600 million years of evolution. It can register a wide range of color wavelengths, it can be used for closeup and long-distance viewing with a minimum amount of adjustment (just try to use a magnifying glass as a telescope in a matter of seconds), and it can adjust to both bright light and near-darkness with equal alacrity. That’s, of course, the problem: because the eye’s evolution was dictated by its need for such rapid adjustment, what seems to be adequate illumination for navigation or even reading isn’t the same as what’s necessary to keep a plant alive.

To demonstrate the deceptive nature of eyeballing light levels, it’s necessary to buy or borrow a standard light meter. This can be a professional photographer’s model, or it can be a horticultural light meter. The horticultural supplier Worm’s Way sells a variety of light meters of varying accuracy, including a solar-powered gauge that retails for about $30 US. I use this model for checking on light levels in my greenhouse, as well as for light levels in windows. It’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.

The first thing to do, after getting the light meter, is to get an idea of its upper range. In most circumstances, the best thing to do is stand outside on a good sunny day and note the reading. Since clouds, haze, dust storms, and obstacles such as trees and buildings interfere with that light, having an idea of the perfect conditions give a baseline for your further tests. By way of example, most carnivores thrive in open spaces such as bogs in areas where scrub and trees are burned off in regular grass fires, and they generally either disappear or go dormant if the scrub becomes too thick to allow sufficient light to hit the bog.

Now that you know what your gauge gives you when exposed to unfiltered and unobstructed daylight, let’s look at the areas where your plants are growing. One of the reasons why standard plate glass is used for windows, other than its cheapness compared to plastic, is because it allows approximately 90 percent of light hitting its surface to pass through without being absorbed or deflected. The polycarbonate used for most greenhouses these days transmits about 80 percent of that light, and it yellows and darkens over the years as it’s exposed to high levels of sunlight, so it’s not as efficient as glass. It gets used, though, because it’s a lot lighter than glass, it’s much less dangerous to move and position, and it’s more likely to absorb or deflect the impact of wayward rocks, baseballs, hailstones, and small firearms without shattering or exploding.

This is also considering that the glass or polycarbonate is clean, new, and unsullied. Experienced greenhouse managers know that too much light can be just as bad as not enough, and Texas gardeners understand that a judicious amount of shade can sometimes be the only thing that gets a collection of plants through the summer. This includes shade cloth being strung over the greenhouse, applying whitewash or thinned latex paint that washes off throughout the growing season, or even planting annual vining plants such as morning glories or moonflowers to provide shade until the first serious frost. Any shading that helps cut the heat in a greenhouse is also going to cut the amount of visible light available to plants inside, so the varieties of carnivore that don’t go dormant in the height of summer, such as most butterworts and bladderworts, may have to be grown indoors if the outside temperatures get above 96° F (34° C) for too much of the growing season.

Okay, you say, you’ll just grow your plants indoors next to windows. It’s time to pull out the light meter again, and measure light both throughout the day and at varying distances from the window. Sure, the light coming through the east window is enough for reading or watching television, but remember that almost all carnivores need the equivalent of full daylight for at least six hours per day, every day. Whip out the light meter and measure the difference between the light available right against the window and the light available at the couch or chair in which you do most of your activities in that particular room. Unless you’re the sort to light everything with multitudes of halogen bulbs, I’d bet that what’s suitable for general indoor human activities is a slow death sentence for your plants.

When we get into indoor lighting, then the light meter gets its greatest workout. Most of the indoor growing guides that recommend that the lights remain only a few centimeters above the growing plants aren’t saying this for grins and giggles, as the light intensity drastically decreases upon distance from the light source. This is why almost nobody recommends using incandescent “grow bulbs” any more, because they throw off so much heat along with their pathetic amounts of visible light that any plant underneath them bakes or parboils at the distance where they receive enough light to make a difference. (To a much lesser extent, this can happen with fluorescent bulbs and tubes, as the ballast throws off enough light that some can be a fire hazard in certain circumstances.) Serious indoor growers use halogen or sodium lamps to supply their plants with suitable light, but those usually come with metal cases with ventilation ducting to vent heat away from the plants. As of this writing, many of those high-intensity halogen or sodium bulbs are being replaced with LED arrays that supply the light without the heat, and for a significant energy savings as well.

When testing indoor lighting, it’s not just enough to test the light intensity at varying distances from the light source, but at varying times. Besides the lack of heat and the lowered electricity costs inherent in using LED lights, LED lighting’s greatest advantage is that the individual light-emitting diodes still produce the same light intensity over years of use. This isn’t true with fluorescent lighting. While standard fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent bulbs are great for plant lighting, being cheap, energy efficient, and easy to replace, most have an effective lifespan of about eight months to a year. When I say “effective lifespan”, I mean that while the tube or bulb continues to emit light, it’s too low for any plant’s benefit. Unfortunately, as I noted about our eyes’ ability to lie to us, we don’t see the gradual decline, but the light meter never lies.

To give an example, I have to share a story about my good friend Cheryl LeBeau, who lives in Connecticut. She recently started raising American anoles (Anolis carolinensis), which live and thrive in roughly the same conditions as most North American carnivorous plants. One night, she called me asking for serious advice, as her two anoles were dying and a third lizard in the enclosure was not far behind them. I asked about heat and humidity, and she had exquisite control of both. I asked about food and water, and discovered that they were well-fed and well-hydrated, and vitamin and mineral supplements in their water wasn’t making a difference. Cheryl was fond of these lizards, and didn’t want them to die, so I kept asking further questions about their husbandry. Finally, after having eliminated everything else, I asked “What sort of light do you have?”

She related that she was using a fluorescent fixture with a bulb that emitted additional ultraviolet light for reptile health.

“When was the last time you changed the bulb?”

“Oh, about a year ago.”

“That’s your problem.”

“But how could it be the light? The bulb is still working.”

See, Cheryl’s eyes were lying to her, and they were telling her that the light off that old tube was still adequate even as the lizards were telling her it wasn’t. Two days later, she was able to purchase a new tube for her enclosure’s light fixture, and the lizards jumped back to good health so rapidly that she’s still amazed at the difference. She didn’t mean to let things get so far, and she was working with the best tools and information available to her about her lighting. Unfortunately, she wasn’t informed that she needed to change those tubes on an annual basis, and her lizards almost died because nobody thought to inform her until she asked me.

This, incidentally, is why I just replaced all of the lights in my indoor propagation tanks, which use both sunlight from a west window and 20-watt fluorescent tubes. These don’t have to be expensive UVB and UVA tubes designed for reptiles or for saltwater fishtanks: standard tubes sold at hardware and home improvement stores as “plant lights” get the job done, and they can be mixed with the typical cool white tubes to save money. With compact fluorescents, try not to use any bulbs rated higher than 23 watts if they’re going to be used in enclosed areas such as a terrarium because of potential heat buildup. (A handy money-saving tip: considering that full-spectrum CF bulbs are still a bit expensive, they can still be used for standard illumination, such as in hallways or on front porches, long after they’re no longer suitable for plant growth.) Other than that, just measure the light produced by a new bulb or tube with your handy light meter, and check the light every month. When the light produced drops below 50 percent of its original output, switch out bulbs or tubes and notice how rapidly the plants bounce back.

Now, it’s not absolutely necessary to buy a light meter. I’m sure that your eyes are up for noting increases and decreases in ambient light. Considering the cost of your carnivorous plants, though, do you feel particularly lucky?

Observations: “Putting the Plants To Bed For The Season”

Most temperate carnivorous plants, those growing in areas with distinctive seasons, go through two distinctive phases of growth throughout the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, they generally emerge, bloom, and start throwing off their first traps in March and April, and keep growing until summer. In particularly hot areas, they go into a summer torpor when the temperature gets above 98° F (37° C) and generally stay that way until the summer heat breaks. Here in Texas, October and November bring on a whole new explosion of growth. Sarracenia pitcher plants explode with traps with brighter colors than seen through the rest of the year. Venus flytraps throw off more and larger traps. Sundews go positively hazy with the amount of mucilage their tentacles secrete. Even butterworts get fat, wide, and expansive.

It’s just a shame that none of this lasts.

Right about the end of October, anyone who’s purchased a pitcher plant or flytrap for Halloween is coming to a sad realization: they won’t be able to enjoy their plants’ company for too much longer. (Well, that’s if the purchaser lives in the Northern Hemisphere. Australian, Argentine, and Aotearoan carnivorous plant enthusiasts are seeing their plants first bloom around then, but then they’ll have the same disappointment in April.) That display of color and form is a last gasp for the season, an attempt to capture a few last insects before going dormant.

To understand why temperate carnivores go dormant, let’s take a look at the situations under which most of them live. The common factor with almost all carnivores is that they’re extremely slow-growing compared to other plants in their native habitats. Carnivorous plants don’t choose to capture and digest insects and other small prey to be perverse: they capture prey for what nitrogen and phosphorus they can get, which gives them a strategic advantage in areas where other plants can’t get enough of both elements for survival. The traps take a lot of energy to grow, and young traps on seedling carnivores usually aren’t effective at capturing much of anything. A typical flytrap, for instance, might need as much as three years to grow to a decent size. Tropical carnivores can do this by growing all year around, but away from the equator, winter gets in the way.

To get a good idea of the general weather conditions faced by most temperate carnivores, let’s take a look at those conditions in northern Florida. The area around Tallahassee and Panama City is one of the richest carnivore habitats on the planet, with at least five species of Sarracenia, five species of sundew, four of butterwort, and eight of bladderwort, and even a possible relict population of Venus flytraps in Apalachicola National Park south of Tallahassee. By the end of October, the weather tends to slide from the usual “balmy” to downright chilly, and the area is already catching its first serious frosts and sub-freezing weather by the end of November. The Florida Panhandle doesn’t get much snow, but it’s been known to get a few centimeters from time to time, and it definitely gets cold enough that local plants need a strategy to survive the admittedly short winter.

Now, that’s northern Florida, with the warm Gulf of Mexico nearby to buffer temperature extremes. Most species of Sarracenia range further north, into Georgia, and the Venus flytrap is native to the northern portion of North Carolina. Several species of sundews may be found further north than this, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris can be found ranging into northern Europe and Canada. (I’ve personally observed P. vulgaris near the summits of mountains in the Canadian Rockies, so I can attest to their being some of the toughest carnivores I’ve ever encountered.) Even the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, ranges from the Gulf of Mexico up the east coast of North America into Newfoundland and Labrador (where it’s the provincial flower), and west into Michigan and Ontario. Considering that these carnivores don’t grow quickly enough to produce seed and die before winter arrives, how do they survive to spring?

Well, they do so by building up reserves during the growing season and then shutting down before the frosts can cause too much damage. With pitcher plants, the plants stop growing new traps and produce purely photosynthetic leaves called phyllodia, which continue to catch as much light as is available until they die off from frost. Aquatic bladderworts produce bulbs called turions, which sink into the mud and wait out the winter. Both butterworts and sundews die back to nodules right at the soil line, just in time to be covered with leaves or snow. For the rest of the winter, they sit back, and wait.

Finally, when temperatures start to rise at the beginning of spring, the plants start to stir. With pitcher plants, in order to prevent the capture of potential pollinators, the awakening plants take the last of their reserves and use the energy to grow bloom spikes. This is carefully timed, so that the blooms are already pollinated by the time the first traps start to grow. With sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts, they also produce bloom spikes, but their blooms attract a completely different variety of pollinator than they attract prey. While the leaves of butterworts and sundews snag fungus gnats and mosquitoes, the blooms draw moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Either way, the flowers receive pollen, and the plant returns to capturing prey in order to have the energy to produce a full complement of seeds.

Now that you understand the basics of dormancy, it’s a matter of understanding the whys. When a carnivore goes into dormancy, it should go into a complete dormancy. Any ongoing growth during the winter is at the expense of spring blooms, and if the plant doesn’t have enough energy left after blooming, it may die. The conventional wisdom for raising Venus flytraps is to snip bloom spikes before the flowers open, which makes sense with a newly purchased plant: it never had the opportunity to collect enough starches and nitrogen to stand a chance. If given a good summer with plenty of light and a suitable rest, it should be ready for blooming the next spring, but an inadequate dormancy, or no opportunity for dormancy at all, and the poor plant is running on fumes.

During the spring of 2008, I had a firsthand experience with the stresses facing a carnivore with an inadequate dormancy. I had a beautiful Sarracenia purpurea pitcher plant rescued from a home improvement center the autumn before, and I let it sit outside and die back over the winter. Come spring, it produced one gigantic bloom and about three pitchers, and then it died a month later without warning. Attempting to reproduce and grow at the same time, it couldn’t do either.

Enough with the warnings. For those who live in temperate climates, setting up dormancy is easy. Simply leave the plant outdoors starting at the beginning of autumn, so the plant slips into its rest based on light and temperature. In areas where the local winter temperatures go well below freezing, they’ll need some protection, and plants in bog gardens need to be mulched well to insulate them. For plants in pots, put them in an unheated area such as a garage or shed, or at the very least on the southern side of a house or wall to protect them from the northern wind, and cover with a plant blanket if necessary. After this, check them regularly to make sure that they’re properly watered, but otherwise leave them alone.

Thanks to the wonders of modern transport, many carnivores appear in markets where they’d never survive in the wild. In places where the winter temperatures never get to freezing, much less below it, it’s necessary to simulate a good solid winter. In this case, remove the plant from its garden bed or pot, gently remove the soil from its roots, and wrap the roots with long-fibered sphagnum moss soaked in rainwater or distilled water. Wrap the moss with plastic cling film, cut back the plant to its central leaves with sterilized clippers, put the whole plant in a plastic bag, and put it into a refrigerator. DO NOT PUT THE PLANT INTO A FREEZER, no matter what. For those with the option, try to use a refrigerator reserved solely for use for plants, if only to prevent contamination of food with sphagnum moss. If not, at least mark the bag with the date in which it should be removed from the fridge.

And when should you take your plants out into the light? It honestly depends upon the area, the species of carnivore, and the temperatures during dormancy, but I stick to a hard and fast rule based on American holidays. I always put my carnivores into full dormancy the weekend of American Thanksgiving, the last Thursday of November, after allowing the plants to acclimate to lessened sunlight and lowered temperatures. Other than making sure that they don’t dry out over the winter, I don’t touch them until St. Patrick’s Day, on March 17. In Texas, the threat of killing frost is generally past by then, and pitcher plants and sundews promptly start blooming shortly thereafter.

With a bit of preparation and a bit of skill, there’s no reason why a temperate carnivorous plant can’t live and thrive for years so long as it gets its annual winter slumber. If you can deal with not being able to gaze upon its beauty before spring, the resultant explosion of blooms and traps is worth the wait.

Observations: “The Perfect Starter Carnivore”

One of the biggest hesitations by beginners on raising carnivorous plants, as with orchids, is that they’re presumably hard to keep and easy to kill. In some ways, they’re correct, but it has to do with the varieties being sold. Just as the reptiles sold by pet shops as “beginner pets” are invariably some of the hardest to care for (nobody needs a red-eared slider or a green iguana as their first herp, and any pet dealer who gives a beginner a box turtle or a baby boa constrictor or Burmese python should be shot in the face), most of the carnivores offered for sale really aren’t suitable for beginners. Venus flytraps are intended as impulse purchases, but they tend to be rather fussy about their growing conditions, and one good soak with municipal water that’s overly mineral-laden will send them to the compost heap before you realize what’s happened. (Here in Dallas, where our municipal water is best described as “crunchy”, watering with rainwater or distilled water is the only way to keep them alive.) All of your North American pitcher plants get too big, need too much light, and require enough growing space that keeping them in small containers isn’t a good idea for a beginner. Bladderworts are beautiful, especially the various terrestrial varieties, but you aren’t going to see them capture prey without a microscope. Asian pitcher plants need lots of room. Butterworts have possibilities, but they also tend to be susceptible to nematode attacks, and they have real problems with low humidity. And while I’m proud to show off the Darlingtonia cobra lilies I grew from seed five years ago, I’m also smart enough to know that I’m incredibly lucky: any mature cobra lily I’ve purchased, no matter the source, has died on me in a matter of days or weeks.

Even if you follow the books, and I have as extensive a library of books on carnivores as anybody else in the field, you’ll note that beginners need a reasonably easy plant to start with. Since precious few people live in a place where they can just put a carnivore into the ground and expect it to grow, it’s up to the grower to provide the proper conditions of light, heat, humidity, and soil. That’s why I recommend sundews, and one sundew in particular, for beginners to get a feel for working with a carnivore.

The genus Drosera, which includes all of the true sundews, is the most cosmopolitan of all of the carnivores, being found on every continent but Antarctica. Drosera was studied by Charles Darwin from native populations in England, and the tribe has plenty of specializations necessary for growing in less-than-optimal climes. For instance, the tuberous sundews of Australia live in areas extremely susceptible to fire in the summer, so they produce large tubers (which sometimes look like tomatoes) and go dormant during the summer, only returning to activity once the autumn rains return. You have giant sundews in Florida big enough to capture grasshoppers, and tiny sundews that produce sprouts (called gemmae) that are actually spring-flung from the mother plant when they reach a certain size. However, all of them have a series of characteristics that distinguish them from other plants: they all have distinctive hairs that secrete mucilage from their tips that snag prey, and those hairs (known officially as “tentacles”) have the capacity to move in order to further ensnare prey and press the prey against the leaf. From there, specialized glands on the leaf surface produce enzymes to digest the prey: some even have enough mobility to twist or wrap their leaves around larger prey, mostly to increase the amount of leaf surface area available for digestion. Other carnivores, such as Byblis and Drosophyllum, may also ensnare prey, but they don’t have that touch of mobility.

(As an aside, the famed Venus flytrap is a member of the same family, as all it really is is a highly specialized sundew that no longer produces mucilage. With some varieties of sundew, you can see similar leaves that give important clues as to how Dionea‘s traps originally evolved. Just to let you know.)

Anyway, while sundews are a good start for an incipient carnivore gardener, many are still not quite perfect. Most sundews from areas with distinctive seasons need a dormancy period in either winter or summer,and preventing the sundew from going dormant, as with most carnivores, will lead to its death. This means that anyone wanting to set up a small terrarium for work or home has no choice but to leave the terrarium outside during the winter or take out the plant and put it in the refrigerator for three months, and what good is a terrarium you can use only nine months out of the year? Others, such as the Cape sundews of South Africa, are incredibly fecund in their abilities to self-pollinate, to the point where they fill a terrarium full of seeds and seedlings, and they require a bit of headroom to grow to their greatest potential. That’s why I recommend one sundew, Drosera adelae of Australia, as a first plant for the beginning carnivore enthusiast.

As I write this, I have a carnivore terrarium on my desk: it’s a little two-liter glass cookie jar with an adjacent 23-watt compact fluorescent light. That light won’t produce enough light for a lot of carnivores (Venus flytraps, for instance, usually request more light), but little D. adelae thrives on it. You know it’s happy when its tentacles turn red and each one has a nice fat glob of mucilage on the end: that mucilage requires a lot of energy to produce, so it’s a great indicator of light levels in the terrarium. In fact, adelae doesn’t much like direct sun, and it tends to die back if it gets too much light. It’s ridiculously easy to get established, as each stem will throw off long grey moldy-looking roots (the “mold” is actually the root hairs, and the hairs can be impressively long and bushy) at any opportunity, and new plants emerge from the roots on a constant basis. Best of all, as opposed to the Cape sundews, having to trim flower stems is not necessary, as adelae only produces flowers when conditions are just right. A few wingless fruit flies or ants every month sprinkles onto its leaves, and it and its sprouts will grow for years.

Now, if you’re asking about outdoor or at least open-air carnivores, that’s a different story, and one for a different time. However, if you’re looking for a gift for a child who might have problems with a flytrap, or if you feel that you don’t have enough confidence to keep a carnivore alive, take a look at an adelae.

If you’re coming in late…

It’s been an interesting weekend. Among other things, I discovered on Friday that I’m no longer the gardening columnist for Gothic Beauty magazine. After twenty-odd years, it had to have been the most passive-aggressive firing I’ve received this side of the “You’d better not quit, or I’ll fire you” treatment I received at Science Fiction Eye. Apparently publisher Steven Holiday thinks that he owns the rights to everything published in his magazine in perpetuity (given as a friendly warning to anybody who wants to contribute in the future), and took umbrage at my reprinting my old columns on the Triffid Ranch site. His way of dealing with it was to fire me, and then let me know about it when I queried about the column in the new issue. I’d get upset about that presumption, but I figure the impending collapse of Borders Group will take care of the problem for me. Besides, I should have learned my lesson a decade ago that it’s a sucker’s game to spend more money on buying up copies of a magazine for promotion purposes than what you make by writing for it, because it’s almost never appreciated.

Anyway, that shall be all that’s said about that. I’ve been labeled “difficult” before, and by magazines that are now nothing but trivia questions. And so it goes.

The practical upshot to this is that the main Triffid Ranch site has a new update. In particular, the old Projects & Observations section, which really only made sense if the site didn’t have a blog, is pretty much gone, with the exception of the LOLPlants subsection. The old articles will be put up here over the next few days, and then it’s back to new content. It honestly makes more sense, and it gives more reasons for regular updates. It may also be time to rewrite and revise it anyway, so that it’s more relevant. Again, so it goes.

Observations: “How To Take The ‘Carnivore’ Out Of ‘Carnivorous Plant'”

The fact that most carnivorous plants eat insects and other animals is only part of the reason why they offer such a fascination. The real reason, the same exact reason why orchids and cycads and bamboos offer similar pleasure, is that they have such diverse survival strategies and adaptations. Flowers, leaves, root systems: one of the reasons why Venus flytraps come off as quaint or even a little vulgar to serious carnivorous plant enthusiasts is because they’re actually a little dull compared to the subtleties and spectacles among others in the general category.

Three years back, I had dinner with Rick Wyatt, a very old friend I hadn’t seen in close to a decade, and he wondered about the ethics of keeping carnivores by vegetarians and vegans. He was gradually weaning himself from animal-based foods after a serious reevaluation of his life, and I had nothing but respect for his reasons as to doing so. Thanks to popular media portrayals of carnivores, he had an impression of my plants eating huge hunks of vertebrate, and while he had no problem with my new passion, as we’d both met when I was still writing and knew how miserable I was back then, he had concerns.

It turns out that he’s not the only one. Several friends of mine have cut out all but vegetative-based foods from their diets, either for ethical or medical concerns, and they also have concerns with feeding live or dead animals to any plants they might purchase in the future. Others have worries about prey animals getting loose in the house. Still others just don’t want to have to feed their plants if the plants aren’t able to catch prey on their own. All of these are perfectly valid and reasonable objections, and absolutely none of them prevent dedicated vegans from keeping carnivorous plants. It’s just a matter of selection.

The first aspect to consider when picking such a plant is that many absolutely require animal prey for their survival. All carnivores gather and process their prey because they otherwise won’t survive without the nutrients, or if they do, they’ll only survive instead of thrive. Almost all live in marginal environments where they face little to no competition from other plants, and their option to getting the few extra nitrogen and potassium atoms they need is to imitate animals. They aren’t doing this to be perverse; they’re doing this so they can live in areas that won’t be overrun with trees and grasses.

After that, the options are wide open. The first, and most obvious, is that carnivores don’t have to catch animals if they have other sources of nitrogen and potassium. An old trick with show plants is to fertilize them with orchid fertilizer, diluted to one-quarter the normal strength used for most orchids, and sprayed on the leaves as a foliar feed. Some dedicated Venus flytrap owners apply liquid fertilizer to each leaf with a Q-Tip, but this trick generally doesn’t work well with sundews. It honestly depends upon the plants in question, and fertilizing options should be researched before doing so.

Now, if you have issues with using chemical fertilizers, and I’m one of those, we still have options other than using standard organic fertilizers. We can choose carnivores that are only carnivorous in one phase of their life cycle. Australian triggerplants are an excellent choice in this regard: they live in the same conditions as sundews and other carnivores, but only become carnivorous themselves when they bloom. The rest of the time, they’re as carnivorous as a jade plant.

Another option? Terrestrial bladderworts feed upon nematodes and other microscopic soil organisms, and produce fascinating or spectacular flowers (such as with the Utricularia sandersoni shown above). The bladders themselves are invisible to the human eye without uprooting the plant, and they’re taking advantage of one of the most common life forms on the planet. They’re still carnivores, but they’re not openly eating animals.

Utricularia sandersonii

Utricularia sandersonii

If one’s aversion to animal byproducts is ethical, we still have plenty of possibilities. For instance, the butterworts (including the Pinguicula vulgaris shown here) normally catch fungus gnats and the occasional mosquito on their adhesive-covered leaves. However, recent research suggests that they get a significant amount of their nitrogen through the year from capturing and digesting pollen from other plants. (By way of example, the P. vulgaris below was photographed in the Canadian Rockies just outside of Canmore, Alberta, where pollen from pine trees is a major source of nitrogen for both plants and insects.) We at the Triffid Ranch are just starting experiments with longterm care of butterworts solely with pollen, but occasional very gentle sprinklings of pollen, whether previously gathered by bees or by hand-gathering straight from the plant, are confirmed to be beneficial.

Pinguicula vulgaris

The last option, and one of the most intriguing, involves the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea. As with this one coming out of winter dormancy, the old traps and new both have large populations of rotifers and other microscopic organisms living within, and studies at Florida State University suggest that the habitats created by the pitcher plants work so well for the rotifers that they produce more nitrogen than what the plant needs. Considering that this notes that purple pitchers don’t actually require animal prey, instead subsisting on dead rotifers and bacteria, this may help explain why the purple pitcher has a range from Texas up the Eastern US into Newfoundland and Labrador. (In fact, the purple pitcher is the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador for just that reason.) At this point, carnivory turns into symbiosis, as the pitchers become homes for many other life forms, and their shed skins and waste become food for the rotifers and for the plant.

Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia purpurea

With these options, those with objections to consuming or processing animals can still keep carnivorous plants, and keep them healthy as well. It’s all a matter of options, and offering them the conditions under which they best survive. Everything else is negotiable.

Have a great weekend

A shoutout for friends

One of the reasons why I have so much fun in horticultural endeavours is due to the character of the people involved in them. Oh, and I’d like to introduce you to some real characters. Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest, located just outside of Portland, Oregon, are inspirations the likes of which you can’t imagine, and I want to be just like them when I grow up. Really. Okay, maybe I don’t need Jacob’s addiction to Voodoo Doughnut, but that’s because I’m more of a Red Hot & Blue kind of guy. (DON’T JUDGE ME. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your birthday with $75 in wet ribs and a George Romero movie marathon. Nothing.)

Anyway, Sarracenia Northwest is closed to the public for most of the year, but Jacob and Jeff host two open houses per year. The latest one is this weekend, with a second set on the weekend of September 10. If you happen to be in the vicinity of Portland this weekend, or if you’re looking for a good excuse for a road trip, buy your tickets now, and see why I’m so painfully jealous of their location. The only way I’m ever going to grow Darlingtonia plants outdoors is in a refrigerated greenhouse, grumble grumble…

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The Czarina regularly complains that I pull her leg so often that, after nearly nine years of marriage, she walks in circles. The problem is that while I am rather fond of rushing up to her with a new dictionary to tell her that her picture is in it next to the word “credulous,” most of my tales are true. If one of the best signs of having an interesting life is having interesting stories to tell in Valhalla, I’m going to keep Odin and Thor laughing their heads off. I could tell them how I’ve managed to scare the hell out of most of my childhood role models (including Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Johnny Rotten) without intending to do so. I didn’t scare the hell out of Harlan Ellison until after he was asked to relate his story of being fired from Walt Disney Studios (in the commissary at lunch, he suggested the idea of a Disney animated porn film), and I topped it with my tale of getting an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. There was the incredible bendy squirrel story. There was the story of joking about Elvis Presley living in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming (where he took potshots on the small-arms range with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, flew ultralights with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and taught charm school classes with Sid Vicious and G.G. Allin), only to have a crazy woman calling up late one Sunday asking for directions to Sheepdip. There’s even the horrible saga of exactly how I know that savannah monitor urine looks exactly like crack cocaine.

The Czarina used to doubt these stories, thinking that I was yanking her chain. She knows better now.

Among these tales, there’s the best one: how I was born not far from Hell. This isn’t a metaphor for what a horrible kid I was, nor is it a friendly warning to parents about how they should keep their children away from a diet of palaeontology and sarcastic humor or face the consequences. I mean every last word: I spent just short of the first ten years of my life next to Hell. I’ve just never been there, and I suspect I’m not going there any time soon, either.

Those too young to remember the great Texas heatwave of 1980 wouldn’t have any reason to know this, but one of the only things that got many of us through that blasting nightmare of a summer was a bit of humor. Most of that involved a remarkably effective series of advertisements for Lone Star Beer. Well, “effective” in that we could always associate Lone Star with giant armadillos, but not necessarily effective in getting people to buy the stuff. Sometimes an ad campaign can be too effective.

The other entertainment? Calling up the receptionist in City Hall in Hell, Michigan and asking if indeed it was true that Texas was hotter than Hell. Much like my being subjected to Little Shop of Horrors quotes, it was probably funny the first eighty times or so. That’s probably when the receptionist started quoting General Phil Sheridan, the governor of Texas during Reconstruction: “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” (Spoken by a man who’d lived through a couple of summers in Austin, no doubt.)

The funny thing is that, while I was born less than an hour’s drive from Hell, I never saw the place while I lived there. Oh, I could tell you all about Dinosaur Gardens up in Ossineke or the turtle derby in Paw Paw, or even about the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason. (With the last, right after it made the National Register of Historic Places, it had a bit of a scandal after someone dumped marijuana seeds into the flowerbeds, and a civic-minded courthouse employee encouraged the growth of “such a beautiful plant.”) Although it was recommended to me quite often throughout my childhood and adolescence, though, I never went to Hell, much to my later regret.

Since the Czarina is a native Dallasite, I’ve seen all of her old childhood haunts, and we’ve made vague noises about heading up to Michigan for a week’s vacation, just so I can see mine one last time. I just have no interest in moving there. We could be the absolute last tipping point, ensuring that there was no more room in Hell. When that happens, it’d be just like Dallas, so why leave?

“And now on Handyman’s Corner, we’re gonna reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that anybody reading this reads Greenhouse Product News magazine, unless you’re running your own commercial nursery. For those who do, GPN is a free trade publication that offers US and international subscriptions, covering new developments in propagation and distribution for greenhouse operators. And for everybody else, it’s one of the magazines I read cover-to-cover when I get each issue.

Okay, so you’re figuring “Yeah, but you’ll read anything.” That’s all too true: when left without sufficient reading material, I’ve been known to memorize guides for wallpaper application and removal. (The summer of 1976 is one I don’t want to repeat, EVER.) However, you won’t believe some of the interesting stuff you’ll come across in an issue. Case in point, I just received the July 2011 issue Saturday, and immediately glommed onto the subhead cover story “Can Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnats?” Sadly, the article isn’t online yet, so let me give a synopsis for the fungus-gnat-impaired.

Every spring, I get calls from friends, cohorts, and co-workers at the Day Job, getting frantic about little black bugs that fly errratically around flowerpots and other soil-bearing containers. I explain, over and over, that these are fungus gnats. The most common genus in my vicinity, Bradysia, is completely harmless to humans, even if they are annoying. The grubs are pests when they eat the roots of potted plants, but the whole life cycle is so rapid that they’re rarely a pest for more than two or three weeks. In my case, I don’t complain, because the fungus gnats start up in my greenhouse right about the time all of my temperate sundews and butterworts come out of dormancy. Set out a few Pinguicula primulflora, which attract fungus gnats like a “FREE BEER” sign attracts fratboys, and the butterworts feed exceedingly well.

What’s a minor annoyance in a small greenhouse, though, can be a major disaster in a commercial operation, especially when the little vermin feed on particularly delicate roots of plants that can’t handle the attention. Commercial operations have many different ways to control fungus gnat onslaughts, and one of the more intriguing involved using fabric softener dryer sheets to repel them.

Want to know why I love GPN? It’s because the article starts “In fact, Bounce original brand fabric softener dryer sheets have been promoted to repel mosquitoes and ‘gnats’ in some magazines; however, there is no quantitative data to substantiate such claims.” The four authors (Raymond A. Cloyd, Karen A. Marley, Richard A. Larson, and Bari Arieli) then supply the quantitative data. Contrary to a lot of claims about homespun garden cures (*coughSuperThrivecough*), this apparently really works in laboratory experiments.

According to the paper, one of the major volatile constituents in the dryer sheets is a monoterpene alcohol called linalool, which is also used in cosmetics, apparently is the active ingredient in the fungus gnat repellent. Interestingly, the citrosa plant Pelagornium citrosum, commonly hyped as a mosquito repellent with only a small amount of data to back up those claims, is loaded with linalool.

Now, this leads to all sorts of interesting possibilities. The first is that enterprising young horticulture students should consider further research into linalool as a fungus gnat repellent, and possibly develop an improved delivery system over fabric softener sheets. The second is possibly a further evaluation of linalool as a mosquito repellent. The best one, though, is that when co-workers start nuhdzing about fungus gnats every spring, I’m going to their pots with a teddy bear and scream “The fungus gnats will die before my eyes, and they’ll know – THEY’LL KNOW – that it is I, Baron Snuggles, who encompasses their doom!” That should take care of the problem once and for all. (Hey, it worked when they were bugging me about dog’s vomit slime mold in their flowerbeds.)

Have a great weekend

A particularly appropriate song, considering that the heat and the pollen count are both going to be insane this weekend:

Contest: The Saga of the Joey Box

The addiction started half my life ago, when I was a beginning film critic for a long-forgotten science fiction magazine at the end of the Eighties. I started up a friendship with one Joey Shea, better known as “Joey Zone,” a fellow contributor and general troublemaker, and he and his lovely wife Cheryl LeBeau rapidly became People To Talk To. Shortly after we first made our acquaintance, I received a big package from Joey. It was full of band fliers, old horror magazines, toys, and other New England exotica, with a little note reading “The best thing about moving is that you can give away crap and people think you’re such a generous bastard.” I still have that note in my files somewhere, along with most of the items in that big envelope. I promptly put together a comparable box of Dallas ephemera and dropped it off in the mail.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d received my first Joey Box. I’d also sent my first one, and the tradition stuck.

I don’t want to get into a “when I was your age” tirade, but there was a weird fire to the world during the zine period between 1984 and 1999. Any number of people discovered that publishing their own magazines was a lot easier than they’d been led to believe, and they further discovered that a market existed for their publications. The end result was a lot of bush-league rivalries, drama, tears, screaming, and attempted homicide. It was a wonderful time to be alive, especially when you’d meet people via one zine or another and they’d send you a huge box of stuff in the hopes of convincing you their home town was the best in the world. You’d then reciprocate with a huge box, and your friends and their friends would fight like Romero zombies over who got the best stuff left over.

Now, Joey and Cheryl are up in Connecticut, so they had access to club schedules, movie promos, and demo tapes from all over New England. I couldn’t match the variety, but I could match the volume. Dallas was a great place at that time for all sorts of promo materials, and the Joey Boxes only got bigger once I started working for a local weekly called The Met in 1994. By 2000, they were getting a bit ridiculous, as one had to be split into three separate boxes because the one was too heavy for UPS. I kept waiting for the notice that Joey had broken both of his femurs trying to pick up the latest box, or that Cheryl would call in tears because Joey was dead from zine poisoning.

In recent years, I’ve had to cut back on the size of Joey Boxes, mostly because so much promo material is online instead. Nobody puts three weeks of effort into a band poster any more when they can just start up a new page on Facebook. It’s the same situation with Joey, and not just because he quit zine illustration for a library science degree a few years back. We still keep up the tradition, though, and we try our best to keep it going.

So now it’s time to expand the Joey Box concept. I can’t guarantee you’ll need a forklift to get it inside the house, but it should make things interesting.

So here’s the contest. I have five separate packages awaiting the winners. Each one contains Triffid Ranch stickers and buttons. Each one also contains at least one issue of Gothic Beauty magazine, containing my gardening column, or the May 2011 issue of Reptiles with my article on carnivorous plants in herp vivaria. Each one will contain a gardening book out of my collection (I’m phasing out the book selection I used to carry at Triffid Ranch shows, so this is your gain). Other than that, each one will be different in its contents. Best of all, all are sealed up beforehand and selected randomly, so I won’t know which one is going where.

Now here’s your shot. Send an old-fashioned postcard or envelope to the contact address for the Triffid Ranch, with your name and mailing address. Out of the postcards received by July 30, 2011, five participants will each receive a randomly selected Joey Box. This is open to everyone on the planet, so don’t worry about not being able to play because you don’t live in the States. (In fact, I’m reserving an additional Joey Box for the person with the most interesting mailing address, so if you know someone at an Antarctic research base, send the addy.) Many may enter, and all will receive Triffid Ranch buttons and stickers for their efforts. And for those worried about their addresses used for spurious purposes, here’s the privacy policy.

As always, feel free to pass this on to friends and neighbors. Half of the fun of something like this is the sharing.

EDIT: For those on Facebook, you have the option of another contest entirely for a Joey Box via the Triffid Ranch page. Look at it as Christmas in July, with Jack Skellington driving the sleigh.

“We were somewhere outside of San Marcos, on the edge of hill country, when the botany began to take hold.”

I’ve reached a point in some of my researches that I’ve realized the only way I’ll read a book covering my questions that I’ll have to write it myself. (Not that this is going to happen any time soon. I still have to get the unyielding horror of my old writing days behind me.) Barring that, it’s time to talk to the real experts. I had no idea that the Upchurch Paleobotany Lab at Texas State University existed until today, but it gives me the first really good excuse to visit San Marcos, Texas since the Wimberley Hillacious bike races ended in the Nineties. When the heat lets up, say during the horrors of Texas-OU Weekend, I may need to head down there and pick a few brains about prehistoric garden design.


We still have seven months until the next North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, but the Triffid Ranch may join the long and exalted list of vendors at future DFW Lone Star Reptile Expos. This, of course, means that a road trip to this weekend’s show is necessary. Besides, any excuse to hang out with fellow reptile enthusiasts is a good one.

And for the record, no, I’m not getting a crocodile monitor on this trip. It’s not even because I fear the Czarina’s fearsome, unnaturally sharp and venomous elbows. It’s just that I learned one lesson a very long time ago: if your life starts resembling a GWAR video, it’s getting a bit too exciting.

Time for a bit of head explodey

I’m a big fan of living miniature gardens, even if my ideas tend to go a bit…dark. Now, it’s easy to go dark, but I also enjoy adding a bit of natural history to the mix. This is why I have ambitions for a couple of new penjing projects. Dinosaurs can be impressive, but how many people design miniature gardens around the creatures of the Burgess Shale, especially as a way to keep garden gnomes under control?

Review: Eastern BioPlastics 4-inch horticulture pots

(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.)

It all started innocently enough. The main newsfeed at Yahoo! tends to run all sorts of blue-sky notices and proposals on potential inventions and products, and I was intrigued by one that told the story of a company that promised to augment recycled plastics with chicken feathers for horticultural materials. That’s how I came across Eastern BioPlastics and its new horticulture containers.

It’s pretty easy to assume that the old Scot frugality struck again, and I only thought of the reuse of chicken feathers as something besides pillow stuffing and cattle feed. (Honest to Elvis, chicken feathers are used as filler for cattle feed, along with all sorts of other detritus. It’s a statement on the inefficiency of the bovine digestive system that only about 2 to 4 percent of a typical steer’s food intake goes toward body weight.) If you’ve ever had to pluck your own chickens for any reason, you can understand the horror, the horror, of one chicken’s output. The idea of encasing all of that in plastic takes care of a trauma nearly thirty years old.

What’s interesting about the process, though, is that the Eastern BioPlastics process doesn’t just chop up feathers and mix it with plastic to make the final product. Instead, it extracts the keratin, the natural polymer behind feathers, rhinoceros horns, and human fingernails, and mixes it at a 30/70 ratio with recycled horticultural plastics. Reading that, a thousand years of Riddells howled in glee.

The real proof of the pumpkin is in the squeezing, as a fellow countryman once said, and abstract discussion of the merits of these horticultural containers only goes so far without a test sample. That’s why I wrote to Eastern BioPlastics and put in an order. A case of 4-inch pots, equalling 240 of them, costs $24 US. Combine that with approximately $20 for shipping and handling, and my $44 got me a pretty damn impressive box full of pots.

The thing to consider with these pots are that they’re THICK. Specifically, they’re extremely thick-walled, which is a major asset as far as I’m concerned. I’ve gotten sick and tired of pots thin enough that they practically melt and deform off the heat from my breath. In Texas sun, this is not an abstract issue, as vacuum-formed containers won’t last for long under a typical summer assault from our daystar. This isn’t an issue with the Eastern BioPlastics pots, as I’ve had pots in full day and afternoon sun for the last two months that still look almost new.

Cosmetics aside, the real test is in strength and flexibility. In this case, these pots beat out just about every 4-inch pot I’ve come across before now. They won’t handle my standing on them, but that’s because I weigh 100 kilos. Squish them hard enough, and they will crack. However, since I need them to be filled with moist long-fiber sphagnum moss for Nepenthes propagation, I’m perfectly happy with their available strength.

At this point, I’m getting ready for a major Nepenthes repotting effort, so I’ll probably go through about half of my current stock of EBP pots before the end of next weekend. After that, I’m getting ready for a major hot pepper propagation effort, and that should take care of the rest. At that time, I’m definitely willing to pay a little extra for the bioplastics pots. As soon as EPB starts offering larger containers, such as hanging baskets and one-gallon propagation containers, I’m ordering without hesitation, and if EPB starts offering propagation trays with the same qualities, I’ll put in an order right now. As soon as EPB works out a method to use a larger quantity of keratin in its products, I guarantee you that my departed paternal ancestors will wave their claymores in salute. And so it goes.

July through October, in the heat

I know it doesn’t help, but I speak from experience. Earth hasn’t been launched into the sun, so things WILL cool off in the Northern Hemisphere. They’ll even cool off in Texas, as heretical the idea may seem. True, we won’t be down to temperatures conducive for carbon-based life for another three months, but it’s something. In the meantime, you can either complain about the heat, or you can sit down, take a nice deep breath of granite vapor, and think about something else.

Now, you could do something to distract yourself, such as watch a nice, tranquil art movie in an air-conditioned theater. Considering the source, though, you have plenty of options for gardening opportunities that don’t directly involve being withered into dust by the big yellow hurty thing in the sky. For instance:

Get in some reading. After you’ve come inside after a hard day at work, and slogged through the pools of molten concrete in front of the door, there’s a lot to be said about doing something that requires you to move nothing but your eyes. With that consideration, I could be self-serving and mention that Gothic Beauty magazine now offers digital subscriptions, and the print subscriptions are ridiculously cheap for the value. However, I’ll also point out that a lot of unorthodox publications tie directly to summer gardening, such as the article on natural vivarium substrates in the current issue of Reptiles magazine. And if your brain is frying in your skull, get into the shade and put in a few orders with Timber Press‘s extensive collection of horticulture books. That should cool you for a while.

Consider something smaller. One word: bonsai. A few more: penjing and Hon Non Bo. When you find yourself feeling like a character in Ray Bradbury’s story “Frost and Fire,” it may be time to reevaluate going outdoors to garden. In that case, consider talking to the folks at Dallas Bonsai Garden for tools and equipment, or peruse the Bonsai Bark blog for ideas. If you’re looking for something more encapsulated, there’s no reason why you can’t consider vivaria, either. (To friends in Massachusetts for various onerous reasons this coming weekend, I’d tell you to head out to Black Jungle Terrarium Supply in Turner Falls and stock up on vivarium goodies, but the whole Black Jungle crew will be at the New York Metro Reptile Expo in White Plains at that time. Do NOT let that stop you. I’ll be at the DFW Lone Star Reptile Expo in Arlington for the same reason.)

Get an early start on the fall season. While the summers are brutal, one of the best things about living in Texas is that the autumns go on forever. I’m only slightly exaggerating, as I’ve gleefully harvested tomatoes and Swiss chard out of my own garden for Christmas dinner, and most citrus, ranging from oranges to Cthulhufruit, isn’t ripe until the end of November. That’s why, when the heat threatens your sanity, start making plans for autumn and winter right now. Considering how well Capsicum peppers work as container plants brought indoors before the frosts start, take a look at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and run that Mastercard dry. (I currently have a back growing area loaded with NuMex Halloween peppers that are getting big enough to demand UN membership, and Arioch help me when the Bhut Jolokias start bearing fruit.

Combining all of the above. And what’s wrong with Capsicum pepper bonsai? Add in a suitable recipe for jalapeno poppers, and you won’t be worrying about the heat outdoors. Instead, you’ll wonder about what happened to the time when New Year’s Eve hits and you’re up to your armpits in fresh potting mix.

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead

About the only way to improve upon this weekend’s Discover Dinosaurs event at the Museum of Nature & Science here in Dallas would be to offer a matching Beer & Bones event, and that’s just discussing the prehistoric gardens activities. It wouldn’t be all that hard to set up a seminar discussing serious landscaping options with Wollemi pines and other Cretaceous flora survivors. Maybe next time, eh?

Have a great weekend

And now you know why, when I’m out in the front yard digging up nutsedge with my hori-hori knife, friends yell “Sap and stolons for my lord Arioch!” I definitely have the hair for it.

March of the triggerplants

A little side-mention: the second issue of the Triggerplant Journal, the official publication of the International Triggerplant Society, is now online on the main Web site. This may be the weekend I take photos of my Stylidium debile and S. graminifolium: the latter isn’t blooming, as compared to the neon pink detonation in the planters from the former, but it should explode next spring.

“Civil behavior must be rewarded, Captain, or else there’s no use for it.”

You have to love the Internet. Fifteen years ago, most people had never heard of the famed corpse flower Amorphophallus titanum, and advance notice on one blooming in captivity usually arrived after the bloom had shriveled and collapsed. Now, the biggest surprise is how many A. titanum specimens are in captivity in the United States alone. I somehow have this image of corpse flower groupies, traveling the country in old Volkswagen Microbuses like Grateful Dead fans, somehow scraping together enough money to make it to the next blooming before it’s gone.

Anyway, the latest news on A. titanum doesn’t involve a bloom, but rather a companion. The Houston Museum of Natural Science just saw its corpse flower “Lois” bloom, and the Museum just received a donation of a new plant, just starting to sprout. Apparently the new plant needs a name, so the Museum opened up a naming competion. The prize for the winning entry is the usual “bragging rights,” as well as a museum membership and a private tour with the Museum’s horticulturalists.

My only disappointment so far is that some of the suggested names are good and dark, but not good and dark enough. C’mon: “Morticia” and “Wednesday” are okay, but we’re talking about a beast with the common name “corpse flower”. What’s wrong with “Bub”?