Daily Archives: August 2, 2011

Tell it to the bees

Tapdancing around the elephant: the Triffid Ranch has become quite the wildlife refuge as of late. The Czarina fills up hummingbird feeders in the evening and they’re half-empty within 24 hours, thanks to the (at least) three species of hummingbird visiting them as a regular foodsource. The Mediterranean geckos move inside the greenhouse in the evenings in search of water, and wait for their prey to follow suit. I figure that the anoles will take over the greenhouse during the day, especially when they see the new mister I put inside. I’ve even seen hints that Harold the possum sneaks inside for a quick drink of water, because he won’t close the greenhouse door. And then we have the bees.

Local honeybees scrambling for water

Somewhere within a kilometer of the main Sarracenia growing space is a hive of honeybees. I don’t know if they’re from a wild hive, or if a neighbor decided to domesticate a swarm. I’m not particularly worried, either, because they’ve done a spectacular job of visiting every last bee-pollinated flower in the area. It’s just that you can tell how hot it is based on how many bees are collecting in the pots: most evenings, anywhere between 75 and 100 bees can be found at any given time, and they may be even more prominent during the height of the day.

More honeybees

You may be asking about why they’re visiting pots instead of open water sources of all sorts, and you’d get several answers. The first is that bee tongues are very good at drawing up liquids via capillary action, and that capillary action works just as well in very moist peat as in a bowl of water. The second is that they can draw up that water without worrying about drowning or being snatched by an aquatic predator. The third? Well, it’s that this area is reasonably permanent, and bees are creatures of habit. Sure, they might be attracted to overflow from lawn sprinklers or condensation from car air conditioners, but those are temporary sources that are usually only available for short times during the day. The pots, though, will be there all day long.

Back in the mid-Eighties, my father and I kept bees in our back yard in Flower Mound, and we made a point of setting out a birdbath and keeping it full at all times during the height of the summer. The reason is that while gatherer bees may be collecting water to keep the rest of the hive hydrated, it’s also to keep the hive cool. When things get too hot inside the hive, you’ll see workers at the entrance, frantically fanning their wings to force hot air out of the hive. If the temperatures don’t go down, gatherers return with stomachs full of water, which they regurgitate on the floor of the hive. Between the fanning and the evaporation of that water, this is usually enough to keep internal temperatures stable until after dark. This requires both a lot of water and a steady source, hence the birdbath. On bad days, they could drain it in six hours.

That said, I think it’s time to set out a couple of shallow trays for the bees. They’re working hard enough as it is, and I definitely want to encourage them to come back once the fall growing season starts.

Introducing Proboscidea louisianica

As with any standard garden, 2011 had such promise for the Triffid Ranch. As with any standard garden, 2011 proceeded to make fools of us. We’re not losing whole crops out here the way West and Central Texas are, but that’s mostly because I had the opportunity to invest in a near-tripling of the previous rainwater cache, and that’s the only reason why half the plants aren’t dead. Many of the experiments were utter failures, and others survived for a short time before collapsing in the freeze in February or the early stages of the June drought. Not all has been a failure.

Surprisingly, the biggest success this summer wasn’t in the usual contenders. It’s been a banner year for exotic Capsicum peppers (including surprising successes with Bhut Jolokias, still considered one of the world’s hottest), and I’m getting ready to start more in preparation for this autumn. The real surprise, though, was with a species I was told was extremely hard to start: Proboscidea louisianica, also known as the unicorn plant or the devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica, the devil's claw

As Stewart McPherson notes in his book Carnivorous Plants and Their Habits, Volume 2, Proboscidea is problematic. In many ways, it appears to be carnivorous, as it attracts and captures various small insects on the bottoms of its leaves. However, nobody has found evidence either of actual digestive enzymes being produced by the plant, or of an animal proxy (as with the South African plant Roridula that does the digesting in the plant’s stead. McPherson notes that the leaves and stems secrete a considerable amount of mucilage, with an odor that attracts mosquitoes and fungus gnats. I’ve also noted that under UV light, the leaves have a very high fluorescence: even more so, in fact, than its blooms. P. louisianica may not be a full carnivore, but it’s definitely leaning that way.

Anyway, after being warned repeatedly by such authorities as Peter D’Amato that getting Proboscidea seeds to germinate was very difficult, I looked on with my usual hubris, said “Let me give it a shot,” and ordered a package from the International Carnivorous Plant Society seed bank. Due to weather fluctuations and prior commitments, I wasn’t able to sow them until the end of May, and I suspect that a consistent soil temperature of above 75 degrees F (23.88 degrees C) for at least thirty days is a major factor. Next winter, I plan to experiment with heat pads intended for sprouting tomatoes and peppers, in order to remove the possibility of light influencing germination.

The plants themselves were stunted somewhat by the dryness, but 14 out of 16 seeds sprouted, with 12 plants alive today. Throughout May and June, they produced large numbers of pink, yellow, and white flowers, which bore markings resembling a mouth with teeth. These were exceedingly popular with both bees and wasps, with both jostling each other for pollen. By the beginning of July, the first fruit formed, which helped explain the common name “unicorn plant”. The pods look much like okra pods, but with a long, thin extension at least as long as the rest of the pod. As they matured, they split from the tips of the extensions, explaining the other common name: devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica seed pods

A quick note to anybody interested in CGI effects for film or video: I’ve been joking all summer that devil’s claw pods look more like an early ship design proposal for the Nineties science fiction show Babylon 5 than anything floral in origin. Have fun.

Devil's claw seed pod

Most articles on Proboscidea suggest that the seed pods evolved to take advantage of Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths and ground sloths, for seed distribution. It’s easy to understand why. Most devil’s claw seed pods have two prongs, but occasionally they’ll show four. At the tip of each prong is a very strong and very sharp claw, which have no problems with snagging on fur, hair, clothing, and bare skin. Even though the direct evidence is lacking, the surmisal appears to be sound, as these dried seed pods are ridiculously strong as well, and could drop off kilometers away from where they were picked up by an inattentive mammoth.

Devil's claw interior

The interior of the seed pod, though, is just as interesting. Each pod noted so far has four seeds that hang very loosely on the inside of the pod. Those tend to break free with the slightest jostle, such as from the removal of a pod from the plant stem, and scatter on the ground immediately underneath. (If you’re trying to collect seed from your own plants, I highly recommend putting a plastic bag around the seed pod before trying to remove it.) The others, as shown in this photo, remain locked inside for a time, and are gradually shaken free. As McPherson suggests, this not only allows the plant to drop seed in a known area amenable for Proboscidea growth, but also to take it far beyond its original range. This helps explain why Proboscidea ranges throughout the southern and southwestern US, into Mexico, and down into South America.

Now, most accounts of Proboscidea note that the unripe seed pods are edible, but I haven’t taken the chance to find out. That may come later: as with tomatoes, Proboscidea seems to die back slightly in extreme heat, but produces buds that expand later when growing conditions are more suitable. This fall, I’ll get to find out if this hypothesis is accurate. More details will follow as the year continues.