Daily Archives: August 1, 2011

Personal interlude

I promised that I wasn’t going to talk about the weather, but I will discuss the general air quality. When I describe Dallas air quality alerts as “Yellow,” “Orange,” “Red,” “Purple,” and “Too Thick To Breathe, Too Thin To Plow,” I’m not kidding. By way of example, here’s a quick photo of the air conditioner filter:

Dallas air filter, after two weeks

I’d like to note that this would be expected after six months of regular air conditioner use. This was after two weeks.

The look from the other side

This right here gives a good idea of what anybody with respiratory problems is trying to work around this summer. This is grass pollen, effluvia from the cement kilns around Midlothian, south of Dallas, and a fair portion of front yards in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin. Even during the famous heat wave of 1980, the air quality wasn’t this bad, and we still have another 45 days or so before we can expect rain.

A tiny bit of advice? Take care of yourself, and not just when you’re outside. It’s getting rather thick out there.

Information, Even If You Don’t Want It

Without fail, whenever I volunteer that I raise carnivorous plants, I get one of two responses, usually one right after the other. The first is, always, “Oh, so have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?”, and I weep that nobody even reads John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids any more. The second, without fail, when I mention that you generally don’t have to feed carnivores if kept correctly, is “Wow! I need one of those! They’ll be great for dealing with the bugs in my house!” And that’s when I killed them, Your Honor.

The reality of keeping carnivorous plants is that they’re not hardened killers of arthropod prey, waiting hungrily for their next victim. Well, they do, but they don’t have the energy to do so more than passively. While they subsist on captured flies, fungus gnats, and anything else they can subdue, carnivorous plants will no more wipe out the wasps attracted to your spilled rum and Coke or the roaches in your sink than they will the relatives who swore they’d call before they came to visit. If they did, then they’d be a lot more popular. Carnivores use all sorts of tricks and lures to attract prey, but they still won’t compensate for your filthy living habits.

That said, I’m still nagged and nuhdzed by cohorts and acquaintances about using carnivores for pest control, and I realized that I do have one surefire way to use carnivores to process at least one household pest. Most summers, the Dallas area is overrun with representatives of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. Contrary to popular presentations of their being fond of linedancing while lassoing runaway cats, the American cockroach, or “palmetto bug” as they’re referred to in these parts, is a critter with precious little to recommend them to anyone but entomologists. The good news about a beast large enough to bear hood ornaments and TireFlys is that they only stay indoors if the conditions are suitably foul for human habitation: in most houses, such as ours, they sneak indoors along pipes and vents, look around for a while in vain for food, and promptly keel over due to dehydration from the indoor air conditioning. They may keel over, but they aren’t necessarily dead: try to pick up one that looks dead, and it’ll usually decide then to crawl up your arm in an effort to convince you that you need to be in the next time zone. That tactic works remarkably well.

Anyway, the Czarina understandably loathes P. americana from her experiences from living next to a Thai restaurant during her first marriage. This means that while she normally has no fear of man, beast, or god, I’m the one she wakes up in the middle of the night to take care of the monster bug. Personally, I can’t blame her, and I’m glad she settles for waking me instead of taking off and nuking the entire site from orbit. These days, her understandable hate any my hobby combine, and it works out well for everyone but the roaches.

Now, to imitate my results, you’ll need a few things. The first is a carnivorous plant big enough to deal with our icky bugs. This is an Asian pitcher plant, species Nepenthes alata, native to the Phillipines. Let’s call him “Bub”.

Nepenthes alata

Being a very fast-growing Nepenthes, “Bub” has a good half-dozen pitchers already established, with more on the way. Nepenthes plants produce two types of traps: lower traps that remain along the ground, and upper traps for when the plant starts to vine and twine up trees and other obstacles, and many species have upper traps so different from lower traps that they’d be mistaken for separate species were they discovered separately. Below is a pristine freshly opened lower trap, noting the distinctive color that marks N. alata as one of my favorites.

New Nepenthes alata trap

Now, we need a bug, and nature always provides. Let’s call him “archy“.

archy the cockroach

Since we don’t want to be overly cruel, and since you don’t want the little darling scuttling up your arm, dispatch “archy” with whatever non-chemical means are at your disposal.

Smith & Wesson beats four aces

“Anyone else have any questions about the way things are going to run around here from now on?”

Now that you’ve subdued “archy”, it’s now a matter of getting “archy” to “Bub”. Oh, you can use your fingers, but considering the various diseases and parasites carried by cockroaches, don’t you want to use tools?


And there he goes…

And in he goes...

If in case “archy” is a bit too large, don’t be afraid to use appropriate tools for the job. “Power tools…to make life easy…”

Power tools

Chainsaws are for wimps.

Bow saw versus roach, roach loses

Be warned that it’s very easy to overfeed carnivorous plants, especially when dealing with ones with Klendathu passports. This trap demonstrates a perfect case of Nepenthes indigestion, seeing as how “archy” was joined by his buddies “N’Grath” and “Truzenzuzex”.

This plant needs Alka-Seltzer

If you get more bugs than your pitcher plant can handle, don’t be afraid to use modern food storage techniques to save a meal for later. Here’s “Samsa” being prepped for next week’s dinner event.

Storing for the winter

Alternately, if you’re feeling particularly daring, feel free to keep your prey animals free-range. Just make sure to use appropriate methods to warn friends and family members as to your intent.

Needing much more cowbell

And see the benefits of your regular feeding? Not only is “Bub” responding so well that he’s producing new traps, but he’s even producing new sprouts from his roots, complete with brand new mosquito-sized traps.

New trap, ready for capture

Finally, remember that the secret of effective use of carnivorous plants for pest control lies with the pest, not the plant. With the right tools, any pest may become plant food. For instance, this pest also woke me up at three in the morning, intent upon nothing but eating, defecating, and shedding all over the place. Let’s call it “Mehitabel”.

Leiber, the famed "Freakbeast"

Hmmmm. I think I’m going to need more freezer bags.

Orchid roulette

Right now, half of the garden centers around are offering severe discounts on their current plants, either to clear out overstock before the worst of the heat hits, or to make room for fall stock. Because there’s not a whole lot to do before September down here, now’s the time to play a game I developed a few years back. The game is “Orchid roulette”, and it’s remarkably cheap and quite a bit of fun.

Anyone spending any time researching commercial horticulture notes that there’s a lot of waste in the trade. You get plants that die or get sick before they’re ready to be sold, and they usually get composted long before they reach market. You get others that get damaged or infested before they’re put out for sale, and they’re usually pulled from sale as soon as it’s noticed. Others, though, outlive their shelf life: Christmas chrysanthemums and rosemary “Christmas trees” get pulled right after the season is over, even though the plants are still good, because nobody wants to buy flowering plants without flowers. And nowhere is this more evident than with orchids.

The game of orchid roulette requires finding a venue that has lots of relatively inexpensive orchids for sale, and waiting until about now, when the big rush for orchids is starting to lapse. At this time, most of these venues will have discount sales on the orchids that have already bloomed and returned to focusing on photosynthesis. They may still have the remnants of their bloom spikes, but the flowers are gone, so take the time to focus on everything else about the plant. Take a look at the shape of the leaves, the form of the pseudobulbs (if the variety has pseudobulbs), the presence or absence of aerial roots, or any other factor about the plant that really attracts your fancy. Once you’ve found one that catches your interest, buy it: when I started doing this, I paid a whole $10 US for my first orchid, and I had absolutely no idea as to what its flowers looked like.

Most commercially sold orchids come with some sort of identification, usually a Latin name and the cultivar name, and you’ll use this afterwards to find out about the basic husbandry of your new orchid. Does it need a bark mix for a potting medium, or is it happy with good old-fashioned dirt? Does it need full or partial sun? Most of your popular groups, such as Cattleya or Dendrobium, have similar care regardless of species, so do a touch of research. In my case, I picked up that $10 orchid and realized that the potting medium was an absolute joke, with it suffocating its roots and preventing it from growing. I repotted it with a standard Cattleya blend of pine bark and charcoal, and it rewarded me with an explosion of roots and two new pseudobulbs. All the time, though, I didn’t know anything about the blooms, and I held off for nearly a year until it started growing bloom spikes.

The best part of orchid roulette is that the incredible variety of cultivars and hybrids means that you have no idea of what you’re going to get as far as blooms are concerned until the next year, and this means that you focus on everything else about the plant beforehand. In my case, I purchased an Iwanagara Apple Blossom ‘Golden Elf’, and it’s currently blooming in my greenhouse as I write this. Oh, the blooms are interesting, if nonscented, but I’m waiting for the blooms to fade so I can repot it. It’s been doing very well in a standard plastic orchid pot, but I managed to find a beautiful tall Chinese orchid pot a few years back, and I want to see instead how well it takes to that pot before next year’s blooming.

And now for the funny

Rules of Garden Club
(with severe apologies to Chuck Palahniuk)
First rule: You do not talk about Garden Club.
Third rule: If someone wimps out or swells up, the garden is over.
Fourth rule: Only one guy to a garden.
Fifth rule: One garden at a time.
Sixth rule: No fertilizers, no hydroponics.
Seventh rule: Growing seasons will go on as long as they have to.
The eighth and final rule: If this is your first time at Garden Club, you have to weed.

Review: Black Plants by Paul Bonine

(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.)

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices For the Garden by Paul Bonine. Timber Press, 2009. 160 pp., $14.95 US. ISBN 978-0-88192-981-2

As with roses or carnivorous plants, plants with black flowers or foliage have a bit of a bad rap in goth gardening. It’s hard to have sympathy for the amateur enamored with the “if I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky” assumptions of having a garden full of black blooms. Problem is, skipping out on all dark plants also limits the palette, and it prevents appreciation of some truly spectacular plants.

In Black Plants, Paul Bonine gives both photos and bare-basic care instructions for some of the more interesting dark plants available to gardeners today. Not all are black: many are a very deep purple or red, but all of them get their distinctive coloration from pigments known as anthocyanins. Many of the “black” varieties aren’t really black: they’re just such deep reds or violets that they appear to be black in dim light. Many, such as most of the varieties of iris listed in this book, only have black highlights or undergrowth, thereby bringing their main color to the forefront. They range from the easily obtained and ready to grow (daylilies of the cultivar “Night Wings”) to the extremely rare and tender (various members of the Dracula genus of orchids) all the way to the edible (the Capsicum pepper “Black Pearl”, with deep black foliage and edible if extremely hot peppers that look like black pearls when unripe). This book is in no way a complete listing of black plants in general cultivation (just a discussion of dark roses would take up two books of this size, and it came out too late to include two new varieties of Sarracenia pitcher plant just recently described), but it’s a grand start.

As a general rule, I tell anybody looking for garden books that they should always look for the Timber Press logo on the spine. I’ve been stating this for so long that friends joke that I should be getting commissions on sales. The truth of the matter, though, is that Timber Press puts out some of the most interesting and thorough books on flora available today, and Black Plants proudly keeps up that tradition. If nothing else, get it for the photos, and use it to daydream a bit during winter when making plans for the next year’s garden. However, if you’re smart, it’ll become inspiration for a garden that uses these rarities to best effect, causing visitors to stop and gasp at just the right time and for the right reasons.

Review: Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

(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.)

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2009. 236 pp., $18.95 US. ISBN 978-1-56512-683-1

Anyone who believes that gardening is a completely safe hobby is completely deluded. While it’s possible to produce a garden where the likelihood of accidental poisoning or injury is at a minimum, this means that it’s also about as dull as stale Wonder bread. Over the last 450 million years or so since the first terrestrial plants dragged themselves away from the oceans, the entire kingdom has found all sorts of interesting methods to maximize its range while preventing excessive sampling and snacking from animal, bacterium, and fungus. You have spores, blooms, and seeds, and you have monstrosities like the cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), which propagate both through seeds and by snagging passing animals with thorn-covered chunks of their branches. Likewise, while many fruits are poisonous to humans, the idea is to discourage mammals from eating those fruits’ seeds while encouraging other animals: both nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense) have the same strategy in tempting birds and repelling mammals, only one will kill most humans and the other (especially if the juice gets on sensitive tissues) merely makes the consumer wish for death.

In her fourth book, Amy Stewart gives a good thumbnail guide to plants we call “wicked” because they don’t meet with human approval. These might include plants used for intoxicants, such as mescal agaves and coca bushes, or with commonly used garden plants with a bad background or with relatives that can be deadly. In the process, she brings up some surprising examples of how little we know about “domesticated” plants: how many are familiar with the severe sunburns that can be aggravated by eating celery, or how soaking chickpeas and cooking kidney beans is essential? Yes, all of the expected perps show up (carnivorous plants, plants traditionally used in poison gardens, and psychedelics), but the real surprises come from discovering, for instance, the number of traditional houseplants that can sicken or kill if eaten or otherwise improperly treated.
The definition of a good garden book is always that it manages to teach the reader at least one new fact or observation, and preferably more than one. So what else can be said about a book that warns about the proper way to dispose of poison ivy (whatever you do, don’t burn it, unless you like that sort of itching and swelling in your lung tissues) or notes the number of ordeal poisons (used to determine innocence or guilt in some cultures) that can still be gathered in the wild?

Weather interlude

For the record, this will be the one and only post on the current weather conditions in North Texas, barring something unusual happening. That is, if we get hit by a hurricane, asteroid strike, or invasion by Kings of Leon fans (all of which qualify as disasters that are an immediate threat to life or sanity), you’ll hear about it. Otherwise, between today and Labor Day, it’ll be nothing but reiterations of the same exact conditions that we get every year between August 1 and about September 15. I’ve already started regressing to the summer of 1987, when I first discovered the perfect response to “It’s HOT!” in August: “YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO!”

Anyway, on to better subjects. Besides taking advantage of the heat to try some experiments with making orchid pots out of old LPs (and experiments with casting glass in slump molds using Fresnel lenses), most activities these days are going toward trying to keep plants, animals, and humans alive and sane over the next 45 days. I will probably fail. (I’m already afraid that I’ve lost my beloved Nepenthes hamata to heat stresses, and it may be particularly brutal on the Sarracenia patch, too.) That doesn’t mean that I won’t stop trying. After all, the hot peppers are thriving in this, and it shouldn’t be all that hard to get more sprouted and to a decent size in time for the big show at FenCon, right?