Daily Archives: August 10, 2011

“No flowers in this town. Only carnivorous plants.”

Okay. We officially have one year until the 2012 International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference, so it’s time to plan, plot, and scheme. Naturally, I’ll be there for the plants, but discovering that the conference will be all of six miles from downtown Providence, Rhode Island offers some possibilities. Besides the fact that a side trip to Black Jungle Terrarium Supply (which, by the way, is hosting a greenhouse open house this Saturday) is in order, it’s time to make a pilgrimage to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence to visit a distant relative. After all, it’s about time that the Czarina knows what sort of family she married into.

More background is always a good thing

By now, thanks to the wonder of what I call “news churn,” just about everyone on the planet not obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s wedding has heard about the bird-eating Nepenthes in the UK. The Sun ran with it, the BBC ran with it, and surprisingly the Central Somerset Gazette has the only reasonably complete account of the situation. This is how I know I have friends who love me: I had literally dozens of well-intentioned friends E-mailing and calling me to let me know about the BBC article. I’ve also literally had to bite my tongue in one case to keep from yelling “YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO!”

Now, what’s really illuminating about this story isn’t that a blue tit was caught in a pitcher plant. Carnivorous plants capturing vertebrates is rare, but it occasionally happens. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter featured a cover a while back of a Venus flytrap with a baby anole caught in its trap, with only rear legs and tail hanging outside. Sundews are very good at catching newly metamorphosed frogs, and the protocarnivore Roridula has been documented capturing small birds. The widest range of vertebrate carnivory, though, is with the Nepenthes pitcher plants, ranging from frogs to lizards to rodents and even (anecdotally) baby monkeys.

I want to add, at this point, that many of these presumed cases of carnivory are probably accidental. Frog skeletons occasionally show up in Sarracenia and Nepenthes traps, but those are probably frogs using the traps as handy hunting sites that died of natural causes. The rodents found in particularly big Nepenthes were probably attracted by the traps’ fluid as something to drink, and this blue tit was probably trying to steal prey out of the trap when it found itself stuck inside. The surprise isn’t that the plant could catch a bird, but that the bird was so unlucky as to get caught in this situation.

If anything, this story demonstrates what happens when carnivores get prey too big for them to digest before it rots. Carnivores generally have no way to chew or otherwise process larger prey, and many species take advantage of animals that either remove large dead items or take over the job of digestion. In America, you have green tree frogs that camp inside of Sarracenia pitchers, snagging really large prey attracted to the plant and then defecating inside the pitchers: the plants don’t care about the source of nitrogen they’re receiving. In South America, Heliamphora pitchers work well as campgrounds for indigenous frogs as well. Spiders and other arthropod predators have no problem with snagging large prey, and one species, Misumenops nepenthicola, lives inside the pitchers and has special adaptations for dealing with the pitcher fluid.

The other aspect of the story that’s neglected involves Nigel Hewitt-Cooper, who’s already understandably respected for his plants. I first heard about him not just because of his gold medals for entries at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but because of his position as councillor of Croscombe and Pilton. He’s a very interesting fellow all the way around, and one day, I’m going to the Chelsea Flower Show just to meet him in person.

Keeping busy in the heat

I have friends and cohorts from outside of Texas who have to ask me, every once in a while, “why do you stay in Texas?” I have to admit that the summer heat has something to do with it. I’m not just talking about how summer out here makes you appreciate autumn that much more, although autumn that lasts until New Year’s Eve has a lot going for it. There’s something about strenuous effort in our current flash-fire weather that brings on particularly Lovecraftian insights into the universe. Fixing a blown tire on my bike as the sun was coming up, I think Coyote, Loki, and Nyarlathotep tag-teamed me, because I came up with all sorts of disturbing long-term garden pranks.

Dallas is particularly good at producing sick pranksters: those of us in certain circles may remember the exploits of the late musician and filmmaker Joe Christ in the Eighties. One of Joe’s most disgusting and funny pranks was pulled during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1983. Joe, like many people, was disgusted at Dallas’s efforts to cash in on Kennedy’s death instead of celebrating his life, so he and friends proceeded to drive by a big ceremony at Dealey Plaza with a convertible just like Kennedy’s. With friends and cohorts dressed as Secret Service agents and John Connally, next to a big mannequin dressed up to look like Kennedy. As they passed, the top of the dummy’s head popped off, and spurted stage blood ten feet into the air in front of the horrified onlookers. The last time I talked with Joe, back in 1999, he was talking about updating this for the fiftieth anniversary, and knowing him, his friends have something really horrifying to pull off in his memory.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to go that far, although there’s nothing wrong with making your neighbor’s garden gnomes’ eyes glow red at night. Besides, the best stunts are the ones that go off months or years after you’ve left the scene of the crime, because then nobody has any idea of who was responsible.

And so I’m going to test a very long-term stunt. As with everyone else in Dallas, my front yard is riddled with big cracks. We’re talking cracks big enough for hiding spaces for kittens. The thick clay that comprises the first three meters or so of North Texas, what locals call “black gumbo”, is now almost completely dry, and its prodigious water-holding properties are now demonstrated by the fact that the water is gone. Even worse, there’s no realistic expectation of rainfall for the rest of the month, either.

So that made me wonder. Considering the length and the width of the cracks, the sane response would be to use this opportunity to spread compost across the lawn, so that compost helps break up the clay when the rains return. (Contrary to advice given by some gardening experts, do NOT add sand, unless you like concrete for a front yard.) Sure, I could do something responsible, such as taking advantage of Starbucks’s “Grounds For the Garden” program and packing those fissures full of used coffee grounds. Instead, I wondered “What would happen if you dumped a few kilos of water-retaining polymer crystals into a couple of those crevasses before the rains returned? What would happen THEN?”

Why, yes, my brain WAS well-cooked by the time this errant thought ripped through my mind, unpacked its bags, and demanded breakfast. Time to make a trip to the garden store: most likely, the crystals will simply add to the soil’s capacity to hang onto water during the next drought. HowEVER, if this experiment leads to geysers of clear goo in the center of otherwise pristine lawns, I’ll let you know. Then we’ll talk about using it to write graffiti in lawns.