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Monthly Archives: October 2011
Just a tiny observation, based on a trip to the grocery store this morning. Back eighteen years ago, my friend Joey Shea kept calling and writing to tell me about a new movie coming out from Tim Burton that I simply had to see. I was still licking bus station toilets clean to get the taste of Batman out of my mouth (to this day, Batman, Girl, Interrupted, and Free Enterprise are my faithful reminders of why I’ll sooner put out lit cigarettes in my eyes than return to film criticism), but this being Joey, he’s rarely wrong when it comes to movies. Well, he hyped up Batman when we first met, but if you can’t forgive your friends, who can you forgive?
Naturally, the film in question was The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s hard to believe today, but that film at the time made lots of heads go explodey, if only because the monsters were the nominal good guys. It definitely made Disney execs at the time go berserk, and the film was the redheaded stepchild of the Disney empire for years. (Even today, I don’t expect to see Sally included with the Disney Princesses, much to the regret of several nieces.)
At the time, I walked out of the theater with only one particular beef about the whole film. Namely, at the end of the film, when Santa fixes the damage caused by Jack Skellington’s addition of Halloween horror to Christmas, you see all of the children given Jack’s special toys welcoming the traditional Christmas replacements. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t one kid, somewhere, screaming and howling at the top of her lungs as Santa tried to take back the one decent Christmas present she’d ever received. Over the years, as I shared this observation, friends and cohorts agreed, especially since most of us felt the same way. Those of a certain age may remember the parental scoffing and cries of outrage over Kenner putting out an Alien action figure during Christmas 1979, but kids LOVED that stuff. The parental cries over how children would be permanently damaged by playing with “inappropriate” toys were especially funny: we knew those kids, and they could already taste-test specific brands of paste.
One of my regular comments upon seeing the changes in the world since my youth is “I love living in the future.” One of the reasons I say this so often is seeing how readily we as a culture have gone back to the old days of mixing horror and joy in everyday life. For far too many of us, our role models for stable and loving marriages were Gomez and Morticia Addams. Nobody’s bothered by the Monster High toy line as an alternative to Barbie. With far too many friends, I could suggest an evening of watching Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and they’d sniff “I didn’t know you were into documentaries.” I LOVE it.
And what does all of this have to do with gardening? Well, I was one of those kids who would have been demanding that Jack Skellington be allowed to do another Christmas now and then. I’m a bit too old for toys, but plants are a good alternative. I’m thinking it may be time to get more people together who feel the same way, and plan a garden show the likes of which this planet has never seen.
Many moons back, I used to write a gardening and horticulture blog over at LiveJournal. I had a lot of reasons for shutting it down, and one of the particulars involved advertising. Spam comments were relatively easy to fend off, although you had some really clueless types who’d actually write to me to complain about how I’d removed their advertising and then blocked their accounts or IP addresses. No, I got tired of people trying to use me as a forum for selling their own stuff, whether or not I actually approved of it. I don’t have any problems with passing on word about venues and events that deserve wider recognition, nor with reviewing items I’ve purchased because I think readers might have an interest. I just refuse to do so without admitting the source, buying the product in question, and letting everyone know what’s up and why. Thanks to the dubious influence of one Dallas writer notorious for throwing tantrums about getting review copies and other swag, and then throwing larger tantrums in print because he didn’t receive enough swag, I generally decline review copies in general. If I’m writing a negative review, it’s because my own money was involved.
This is why I had quite a bit of fun receiving this letter two weeks ago:
I am inquiring about contributing a guest post on
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I didn’t respond for a bit. I wanted to see if this was a blanketbomb solicitation, or if someone was planning to follow up to see if I was going to bite. I wasn’t disappointed:
A few days ago I reached out and sent you an e-mail about possibly
submitting a guest post for placement on your website. I wanted to send a
follow up e-mail because I had not heard back from you after I originally
reached out about the guest posting opportunity.
Please respond as soon as possible and I can either send over a guest post
article for review or we can brainstorm some quality topic ideas you would
be willing to host on your site.
Thanks again for your time,
Well, you can imagine my surprise when I learned about Hamilton Nolan’s solicitation over at Gawker.com to post links to advertisers. You mean 43a pays bloggers for advertising link placement, and GuestBloggingNetwork only offers 50 social votes (whatever those are)? What a cheapskate! Who the hell do these guys think they’re running: a science fiction media site?
Very seriously, I know perfectly well that many bloggers, either inadvertently or wilfully ignorant of conflict-of-interest issues, take regular payments. I also know far too many “reviewers” who are so thrilled to get any attention at all that they’ll give ecstatic reviews to anything that comes to them. (During a short stint as an editor, a good friend pointed out that one of my book reviewers was plagiarizing reviews from other writers and printing them as hers. Apparently, that was the only way she could keep up with the number of books she was receiving for review, and it was all so she’d keep getting more. She was fired on the spot.) It’s just that I know that my good word is the only thing I have here, so the general policy will be to as up-front as possible. If I plug an event or activity by friends, that’s because they’re friends, not someone offering money or “access”. And blatant, shameless pay-for-play is best reserved for SMU football.
I keep telling people that any excuse to go to Fort Worth is a good one, and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is packed to the gills with them. Of particular note is the latest installment in its lecture series, featuring Andrea Wulf, the author of Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Naturally, I’ll be there if I have to walk: I’m very familiar with George and Martha Washington’s contributions to horticulture, and I bow to nobody in my admiration for Thomas Jefferson’s horticultural experiments, but now I want to know what the rest of the US’s presidents were up to. I mean, if Richard Nixon was growing opium poppies in the White House’s Rose Garden, that would explain so much…
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores.
If you’ve been keeping up with the series so far, you might think that I’d never recommend that anybody keep Venus flytraps. That’s not true in the slightest. I’d never recommend them to beginners, for the same exact reasons I’d never recommend green iguanas, Sulcata tortoises, or Nile monitors as pets for anybody who’s never kept reptiles before. Venus flytraps are just as fascinating as any other carnivorous plant, but they’re just so particular about their light, their moisture levels, their potting mix, and choice of prey. I don’t tell a beginner “No, you shouldn’t get a flytrap.” Instead, I point out the merits, note the limitations on care and husbandry, and gently note that I know of a couple of carnivores much better suited for someone who’s never worked with one before. That person usually goes home with a Drosera adelae, and when I see that person again, s/he’s moved to any number of exotic varieties, and then starts experimenting with flytraps.
Back about eight years ago, a very short-lived trend started with bulk carnivorous plant sales to home improvement centers, and I’m glad the collapse of the economy stopped it. At the time, several companies offered carnivores to Home Depot and Lowe’s in the famed cubes of death, but there was one assemblage that just chilled the blood of anybody who knew enough about carnivores to be dangerous. Heck, it even scared me. This was a three-pack sampler, almost always with a Venus flytrap, an adelae sundew, and a Darlingtonia cobra plant jammed together into a cube.
For those who don’t understand, let’s put it into pet terms. Picture walking into a Petco or a PetSmart and seeing a one-cubic-foot package that contained a puppy, a parrot, and a pacu. The only thing they have in common is that their names start with the letter “p”, and these death cube collections of carnivores weren’t much better. As explained before in this collection of essays, Venus flytraps need high humidity and high lighting, but also good air circulation. The adelae sundew gets by on more constrained air than flytraps, as well as much less light, and it doesn’t need a winter dormancy period. The cobra plant needs a winter dormancy period, but it’s native to mountain seeps fed by snowmelt; most botanists consider it an alpine plant, as it needs cool water for its roots and the distinctive drops in night-time temperatures generally found in high mountains. You couldn’t find three more dissimilar species of plant if you tried, and like the puppy/parrot/pacu death cube, you might have one survive for a few months before it finally gave up.
Even with species of carnivore that live in the flytrap’s native or introduced ranges, you’ll find that they don’t exactly live together together. In the wild, flytraps may be found with a few species of sundew, but while they grow in bogs, they prefer more drainage than Sarracenia pitcher plants. Depending upon the species, many Sarracenia have no problems with their roots sitting in water (the parrot pitcher Sarracenia psittacina actually thrives on being submerged for a time in spring and early summer, and its traps apparently adapted to catching aquatic insect and tadpole prey while dunked), which is something that will kill flytraps in a matter of days. Flytraps like their soil kept constantly moist, but they cannot handle being waterlogged. Try to keep a flytrap in the same planter that best suits a terrestrial bladderwort or a Sarracenia pitcher plant, and you’re going to have mush before long.
As always, there are alternatives. In a large bog garden, putting flytraps so they remain at least six inches (16.24 cm) above the general water level works well, and the bog soil can be shored up to keep it from washing down into the rest of the bog during rains. In a large planter, I’ve actually had good results with putting a plastic tube at least six inches wide into the planter so the end rests on the bottom, filling it full of flytrap planting mix (the usual “one part sphagnum moss to one part silica sand” mix), and planting the flytrap above the general soil level for the other plants. In smaller containers and pots, though? Keep it by itself, but if various sundews start sprouting around it, leave them be. They won’t necessarily hurt the flytrap, and they can always be separated during repotting when the flytrap goes dormant for the winter.
Next: Step 8 – Keep moving it around.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.
That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.
Tonight’s Jam 4 Bats event in Cleburne is still going on, but Chicago hot dogs aren’t the only dining experience touched by the crew at Bat World Sanctuary. Might I direct your gaze toward the new Bat World wine selection, each featuring a Bat World adoptable orphan on the label? (I can’t drink, but two dear friends of mine are wine enthusiasts without being wine snobs. I think I know what I’m getting them for Christmas.)
Every time I come across new behavior among parasitoid and exoparasitic wasps, I figure that I’ve read it all. They can’t get any more surreal and horrifying than the one before, can they? And then a friend passed on the story of Polistes dominulus and Xenos vesparum: the former is a European paper wasp, and the latter is a parasitoid fly. Neonate flies that turn their hosts into anarchic wasp queens: that reminds me of a song about a distant relation of mine.
Lots of interesting stuff in the mailbox this week, and all I have time for is to note that the new issue of Reptiles magazine just arrived. I’m very serious about getting serious vivarium people, serious miniature garden people, and serious plastic casting people together for a bit of a discussion. Among other things, we could all have a LOT of fun.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 6: Feed it hamburger.
Were I to assume that the publishing business will be in anything approximating a decent shape in five years, I’d put together a little book full of stupid memes, tropes, and general comments that have no attribution whatsoever. I’ve already got a great list of them: “Put butter on a burn.” “Poke yourself with a pencil lead, and you’ll get lead poisoning.” “Put boiling water in your ice cube trays, and the water will freeze faster.” “Mosquitoes die as soon as they bite you.” “You’ll make more money if you give away all your goods, services, or content for free.” “George Lucas is a cinematic genius.” Hell, I could do the book just on the idiotic advice wannabe writers give each other, such as “Writers make an average of $37.50 an hour” or “If you’re afraid that someone’s going to steal your idea, write it up and mail it to yourself so you’ll have proof.” (This last one always comes from individuals who think that writing Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic is a great idea, and would do so if they had the time.)
One of the biggest ones on that hypothetical list, though, directly involves carnivorous plants. I don’t know who started the meme “Even eats hamburger!” involving Venus flytraps, but it’s everywhere. If it isn’t plastered on flytrap containers in grocery stores and home improvement centers, it’s repeated over and over in any number of poorly researched articles and children’s books. The cliche of Venus flytraps eating hamburger is as established as the comparison between the early “proto-horse” Hyracotherium and the fox terrier, and I have it spouted back at me over and over. The difference between flytrap/hamburger and Hyracotherium/fox terrier is that fox terriers don’t die because of that cliche perpetuation.
To take on this misperception and send it back to Hell, we’ll need to look at three separate considerations. Before I go there, I won’t deny that it’s possible to feed carnivorous plants by hand. Based on recommendations from Peter D’Amato, I’ve fed tiny slivers of chocolate to Cape sundews, solely to watch the response. (It’s remarkably like a human’s, where the leaf wraps around the chocolate and drools on it.) But hamburger? Get a bag of assorted nuts and bolts and feed them one at a time to your flytrap, because it’ll cause less damage.
The first thing to consider is that flytraps get their common name for a reason. Readers of a certain age may remember a series of Life magazine encyclopedias on the sciences, profusely illustrated with black-and-white and color photos from the magazine. In the volume The Plants, carnivores received two pages, with one being dedicated to a large photo of a grasshopper with its head caught in a Dionea trap. Yes, that one was staged (among other things, a grasshopper with its head caught in a flytrap wouldn’t suffocate, as grasshoppers and other insects breathe through their abdomens), but that led lots of first-time flytrap owners to assume that their new plants could handle prey of any size. Trying this, though, usually meant that the prey rotted, the trap turned black and slimy, and ultimately the whole leaf fell off.
The reason for this has everything to do with the square-cube law: square the size of an object, and you cube its volume. A flytrap’s typical prey in the wild ranges from flies to small spiders to large ants because they’re large enough to offer a sufficient return. Flytraps and other carnivorous plants don’t capture and digest insects for energy the way animals do. They’re already getting plenty of energy from standard photosynthesis, and they’re eating insects for the additional nitrogen and phosphorus necessary for growth that they can’t get from the local soil. Any carnivore that produces its own digestive enzymes (and some don’t) has to take energy from maintenance, growth, and reproduction to secrete those enzymes, and they’re very energy-intensive. Hence, if the prey is too big for the plant to digest fully, it rots.
The second consideration? Flytraps can’t chew. For the last 600 million years or so of multicellular life on Earth, animals have some way to shred, crush, liquefy, or dismember food items, so those items get improved exposure to digestive juices. Spiders inject venom that liquefies prey from the inside, and scorpions both inject venom and use their claws to pulverize their prey. Millipedes and grasshoppers have shredding and pulping mouthparts. Mosquitoes, lampreys, and vampire bats all have specialized structures to draw up liquids from their food items. Birds carry gizzard stones that mash food before it’s passed to the intestines. Many carnivores, including Komodo dragons, pull their prey apart before swallowing the chunks. Even animals that swallow their prey whole, like pythons, have strong gastrointestinal muscles that crunch up and squeeze their food so the surface area exposed is increased. If you want a direct example, put your finger on your jaw joint and move your jaw from side to side. This motion allows your teeth to move laterally as well as vertically, thereby shearing and crushing food too bulky for simple up-and-down mastication to work. That side-to-side motion, along with the enzymes in your saliva, allow that lump of food, known as a bolus, to be digested that much faster than if you’d simply swallowed everything whole.
This, right here, is why we don’t have man-eating plants, as much as people nag and nuhdz me about growing them. It also explains why reported incidents of vertebrates being caught in carnivorous plants are so rare, and not just because insects and other arthropods outnumber us vertebrates by 9:1. Not a single carnivorous plant on the planet can chew, mash, chomp, or otherwise masticate its food. That’s not to say that they can’t do so with help: many animals, from spiders to crabs to frogs and geckos, live among carnivores and help themselves to excess prey. Green tree frogs live within Sarracenia pitcher plants and snag prey before it ever gets into the pitcher. Similar frogs are well-documented among the Heliamphora pitchers of South America, and some species of Heliamphora even have a slick spot within the pitcher that’s perfectly suited for a frog to camp for the day. The Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata even encourages ants to nest within special chambers within its leaves, and the ants rapidly daisy-chain down into the pitchers and tear apart prey. Best of all, the South African Roridula can’t digest prey on its own at all, and depends upon a symbiotic species of ambush bug to feed upon prey animals caught on its leaves.
All of this sounds unfair to the plant, but it’s not. With N. bicalcarata, the ants live in a commensual relationship with the plant: the plant offers a living space and nectar for additional food, and the ants clean up large prey and attack anything dumb enough to molest the plant. With the tree frogs in Sarracenia and Heliamphora, they defecate into the traps while hanging out, thereby predigesting prey into a more easily accessible form of nitrogen. Some Nepenthes not only encourage this behavior with frogs, but with tree shrews and bats. And then you have the other commensual animals that live inside of traps, such as midge larvae and the like…
The poor Venus flytrap, though, has no such option. Once it ascertains that the item within its trap is potential food, it closes all the way, and seals the edges of the trap like a purse to retain digestive fluid. Nothing gets out, but nothing gets in, either, to help it. Even with sufficiently-sized prey, a couple of days of particularly cloudy weather, or some obstacle that prevents it from getting full sun, and the trap goes black and slimy. However, the odds of successful digestion are much better at that point than with something, say, the size of your thumb.
And the third consideration has everything to do with fat. As a general rule, as a food source, most insects are incredibly lean compared to most commercially raised and harvested livestock, and some individuals advocate following the lead of much of the world in more commercial farming of insects as food because of this. Really lean meat, such as scraped beef heart, is as fat-scarce as most of the insects consumed by Venus flytraps; again, the flytraps aren’t eating for energy, so they don’t have the need for large amounts of fat nor the enzymes necessary to digest it.
And hamburger? Oh, big cheeseburgers get called “cardiac arrest in a bun” for a reason. Really lean hamburger can run as low as seven percent fat, but most of the good stuff runs anywhere between 15 and 20 percent. Several local grocery stores sell big five-pound bullets of “fine ground beef,” and the fat content? At least 30 percent. We can bypass this a bit by grilling our burgers so the fat melts and runs off, but you’re still looking at a rather high percentage of fat in the final burger. The moment you see a flytrap grilling its food before it digests it, get a picture FAST.
Okay, so let’s recap. Very theoretically, you could feed your flytrap hamburger. It would have to be large enough to be worth the plant’s time and small enough to be digested without issue, and it would need to be extremly fat-free. If you think you can get just the right size, every single time, and make sure it was fat-free, go for it. Letting the plant catch its own insects, though, might be a much easier and saner option. Just saying.
Next: Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.
Just as an aside for those living in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex or who plan to visit this weekend. Yes, I know that Arlington is going to resemble the Atlanta scenes from The Walking Dead on Saturday. Yes, I know this is the last weekend of the State Fair of Texas. You have a real reason to come out this way, and that’s to show up for the Jam 4 Bats benefit at Garza’s Famous Hot Dogs in downtown Cleburne this Friday night. The intention behind Jam 4 Bats is to finance the construction of bat houses to hold the bats currently roosting in Garza’s building. The Czarina and I plan to head out that way as soon as she gets off work on Friday night, so, with luck, we’ll see you there.
In incidental points, as I mentioned a while back, this has a horticultural component. Ultimately, the bats roosting above Garza’s will migrate to southern Mexico and Brazil for the winter, at which point the building gets its renovation so the bats don’t move back in come spring. (Hence, the reason behind the bat houses for downtown Cleburne.) Part of the renovation involves cleaning out the significant amounts of bat guano built up in the building, so I’m trying to organize a volunteer event in conjunction with local gardeners in need of guano and Bat World Sanctuary out in Mineral Wells. The bats leave by the beginning of December, and the guano and dermestid beetles that feed on the guano should be dead or hibernating by the end of December, so I need to work out particulars with both Bat World and Garza’s as to when would be the best time to shovel out guano. Details as I get them, but I should have some idea of what’s going on after this weekend.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 5: Set off its traps with your finger.
Home improvement stores are dangerous places to be when you’re married to the Czarina. On any given day, she has one interesting project or another that’s cooking, from making new necklace displays to building mobile bead tray racks, and that means the folks at the local Home Depot and Lowe’s stores know us on a firstname basis. If she’s not buying up PVC pipe and walnut molding, I’m buying up epoxy putty and Gorilla Glue. What’s scary is that I can exclaim, in my best Red Green voice, “Today on Handyman’s Corner, we’re going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”, and I hear loud and robust laughter from the checkout clerks. At our local traditional hardware store, I had to explain who Red Green was, and this was a store that was hosting an autographing and photo session.
Anyway, I tend to wander through the garden section at those big stores as well. Most of the time, it’s to rescue some poor neglected Dendrobium orchid or random succulent in the deep discount rack, but every once in a while, it’s to see the latest trends in carnivorous plant packaging. Not in variety, nor in propagation methods, but in packaging.
As mentioned a while back, my father was, before he retired, a packaging engineer of some reknown. Every time you see one of those aluminized Mylar packages of Doritos or Fritos in an office cafeteria vending machine, you’re looking at my dad’s work. As also mentioned a while back, the family was hoping that I’d be another Larry Ellison instead of a Harlan Ellison; not much rubbed off from the family’s fascination with engineering. However, just enough rubbed off that I can appreciate the commercial horticulture trade’s attempts to protect its Venus flytraps.
One night, I saw a beautiful example of this in action. I was in a Home Depot picking up some extra garden hose gaskets, and peeked in the garden section. That section was hosted by a girl who was maybe 19 if a day, and she was standing in front of a big rack full of Venus flytraps. These were in those sad plastic containers that were popular at the time, with one clear dome atop a flimsy clear cup, and she was popping them open one at a time. I stepped closer, and I realized she was setting off every trap on each plant with her finger. Once every trap was closed or closing, she recapped the cup and moved on to the next one, and when she saw me, she waved me over. “Watch this,” she said, as she set off another trap.
At that point, I winced. “You really shouldn’t do that. That’s not good for the plant.”
“Oh, it doesn’t hurt it,” she said, going back to molesting the flytraps. Seeing from her badge that she was the garden center manager, I decided that arguing with her was a waste of time, and I simply left.
Right there, with that manager, the entire fascination with flytraps stands revealed. Here is a plant that closes up mouth-like traps, not under any touch such as with Mimosa pudica, but under the specific stimulus of setting off trigger hairs within the trap. The Venus flytrap can count and keep track of time, as the trap won’t close unless two of those trigger hairs are set off at the same time or one is stimulated twice within ten seconds. Even better, if the trap was triggered by something inedible, such as a raindrop or a twig, or by something too big for it to catch and hold, the trap gradually re-opens over the space of hours or sometimes days.
Well, that’s the popular legend, and it’s all true. It also leaves out a lot of particulars that can kill the plant if ignored.
Firstly, when looking at a Venus flytrap, it’s easy to see the trap as something growing off the end of a leaf. In actuality, the trap is the leaf, and the “leaf” is actually what’s called a petiole. Although the leaf’s secondary adaptation is to catch and digest small prey, it’s still a photosynthetic surface, no different from a maple leaf in that regard. The reason why flytraps just sit there and wait for prey is because, like all other plants, they’re relatively low-energy organisms compared to animals. They can afford to wait because their main source of energy comes from the classic conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars and connective tissue.
What this means is that if a trap gets set off with prey inside, the plant benefits from the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bug being digested (possibly along with trace elements, but I haven’t found any research to ascertain what else they may absorb), but the actual photosynthetic surface of the leaf is out of commission until the digestive process is complete and the trap re-opens. If the trap closes without capturing prey, yes, the trap will re-open. The problem is that the return on captured nitrogen just barely makes up for the energy expended in re-opening it, and an empty trap doesn’t even get that. Close enough traps at the same time, and wondering why the plant dies is like holding you down, clamping your nose and mouth shut, and wondering why you’re turning purple.
Incidentally, this also ties into a regular complaint I hear about how “my flytrap won’t eat.” The closing process is a very ingenious use of topography, but opening is a simple growth process. Picture it as opening a mostly-closed door by shoving wedges into the crack between hinges until it pops back open. Add enough wedges, and the door can’t shut at all. After a flytrap’s trap has been set off about four or five times, the trap curls slightly and now acts as nothing but a photosynthetic surface. In that regard, it’s perfectly suited for its job, but no force on earth or heaven will get that trap to close ever again.
This doesn’t explain why flytraps kept in colder conditions, such as those going into winter dormancy, are so loath to close, but it doesn’t have to. Between lower temperatures and lower light levels during winter, any trapped prey in a dormancy-bound flytrap will rot before it ever gets a chance to be digested, so don’t worry about feeding your flytrap over the winter. Giving it plenty of light before snow or ice kill off the current year’s traps is good enough.
Next: Step 5 – Feed it hamburger.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 4: Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.
I have a lot of reasons for hyping fellow carnivorous plant sellers, besides the idea that we’re all in this together. I view Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest as the crazy cousins I never had (well, I have crazy cousins, but not horticulturally inclined crazy cousins), and I enthusiastically turn friends and cohorts in the direction of northwest Oregon when Jacob and Jeff host one of their biannual open houses. This isn’t just because they know their plants and obviously love them. It’s because they’re constantly challenging me. In my old age, I’ve become more convinced than ever that it’s better to be correct than to be right, and they’ve taught me too many times to shut up, listen, and make sure that any questions I ask or comments I make weren’t already answered a week ago. (They also have better stories. I only have to worry about treerats digging up the dragonfruit and geckos hiding in the pitcher plants. They get Pacific treefrogs laying eggs in their aquatic bladderwort tanks and piglets sneaking through the fence from their neighbor’s lot and playing in their lot. The only way I’m ever going to top this is by getting that crocodile monitor after all.)
Anyway, the Sarracenia Northwest tagline is “No terrariums. No myths. No nonsense.” It’s succinct and accurate, and one of the reasons why Jacob and I may be found by palaeontologists 90 million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian fighting dinosaurs. It’s not that he’s wrong. He’s just lucky in that he and Jeff live in a locale where humidity levels aren’t so obscenely low.
One of Jacob’s tenets is that most carnivorous plants can and should be grown outside, in full sun, just the way they do in the wild. He also posits that most carnivores are much tougher than most people assume, and that most adapt to outdoor life much better than expected. He and Jeff offer living proof at their open houses, with growing pools just overloaded with big, bright, sparkly Sarracenia that make my guts ache with jealousy to look at them. Flytraps, bladderworts, and even their beloved Darlingtonia cobra plants…all outside, or maybe under fabric covers if the plant is particularly sensitive to strong summer sun.
To give you an idea on their commitment to researching proper growing traditions, they went into the wild to visit feral stands of Darlingtonia. Tourists may know of the Darlingtonia State Natural Site southwest of Portland, but Darlingtonia californica can be found among seeps throughout the mountains of Oregon, Washington State, northern California, and parts of British Columbia. Darlingtonia is one of the big El Dorados in the carnivorous plant field, having a reputation for being particularly temperamental and likely to die if you look at it cross-eyed. In fact, one of the absolutes that was taught to most carnivore enthusiasts, myself included, is that they can’t handle heat for any length of time. Jacob and Jeff decided to challenge this, taking temperature measurements in prime Darlingtonia habitat and showing that Darlingtonia can handle Dallas-like daytime temperatures in daylight hours with aplomb. (The secret to raising Darlingtonia is that it’s technically an alpine plant, and that it grows in seeps in the mountains fed by snow melt. The assumption was that it needed cool water on its roots at all times: the real issue is how cool the area gets at night. In North Texas, that means lots and lots of air conditioning, because it depends upon the steep temperature drops in the mountains at night, even during the summer.)
This has led to many friendly arguments about whether terraria should ever be used for carnivores. Jacob in emphatic that terraria aren’t necessary, and that he has customers who raise bog gardens in the desert and get great results. I respond that as much as I agree with him anywhere else, some carnivores can only survive in Dallas in an enclosed container. Not only do we receive almost twice as much sunlight as Sarracenia Northwest gets, due to the SN nursery being above the 45th Parallel North, but we also have a dessicating south wind that stops only between October and March. Even on good years for plant-raising, the area regularly drops below 50 percent relative humidity. In bad ones, such as this year, Dallas has lower relative humidity than Phoenix.
Now, you may ask yourself “What does this have to do with the price of cheese?” It’s time for another digression, and a short one this time. Back in 1985, I picked up a 29-gallon aquarium at a garage sale, and promptly drove everyone around me insane with my sudden passion for freshwater tropical fish. While co-workers were sneaking home to read Hustler before their wives and girlfriends caught them, I was sneaking home with the latest copy of Tropical Fish Hobbyist before my roommates knew what I was planning. In the process of learning just enough to be dangerous (and this included keeping, for a very short time in Wisconsin, a red-bellied piranha named “Bub” that would come to the surface to get his nose rubbed), I noted that different authorities gave different advice about the same fish, sometimes in the same book or magazine. That’s when the owner of the sadly defunct shop Neenah Tropical told me “You should never trust the books, because the fish don’t read.”
That’s absolutely true for carnivorous plants, as well. Always take my or anybody else’s advice on keeping carnivorous plants with a healthy skepticism born of actual knowledge. Those of us with expertise will try our absolute best to help, but there’s always the odd exception. If you’re smart, you’ll accept the unique conditions and circumstances in your area that allow success when everyone else falls on their faces. For years, I was able to keep a batch of Darlingtonia raised from seed alive and healthy in Dallas, and I didn’t smirk about how I had special understanding or superpowers. Instead, I stood back and exclaimed in surprise and delight that I’d somehow beaten the odds. And when this kidney stone of a previous summer took them away from me, I took it as an object lesson.
And here’s where I have my very friendly dispute with Jacob and Jeff. I don’t dispute that Venus flytraps are best kept outside. At times, though, they need a touch of help.
In my own experience, I’ve discovered that flytraps grow best when the relative humidity around them stays, day and night, above at least 60 percent. When the humidity goes below 50 percent and the temperatures go above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), they tend to produce small or nonfunctional traps, and won’t produce new ones until either humidity jumps or temperatures drop. When the temperatures stay this high and the humidity drops below 30 percent, which it did quite regularly in North Texas last summer, the plants simply can’t handle the strain and they die. It doesn’t happen right away, and they can recuperate if conditions improve when they start to fade.
Since a typical Wardian case offers that sort of control, the automatic response to this sort of humidity fluctuation is to put flytraps into a terrarium of some sort. As understandable as this is, this is also dangerous for a flytrap. What I’ve discovered the hard way is that flytraps not only require a lot of sun (at least six to eight hours of direct sun) and a lot of humidity, but they also require a LOT of air circulation. This is why Jacob and Jeff recommend raising flytraps outdoors, where they can get the air circulation they need. Put one in a standard terrarium, and the combination of stagnant air and decreased light intensity are doubly lethal.
A second consideration: even if your flytrap does well during the summer, remember that it’s going to need a winter dormancy period. This leaves you with one of two options. You can put the terrarium outside during the winter, which removes any opportunity to enjoy it during the season where you’ll need a touch of green the most, and risks its being damaged by cold or ice. Alternately, you can remove the flytrap and put it into artificial dormancy in a refrigerator, and then spend the winter looking at the hole in the terrarium where the flytrap used to be. Instead, you might be better off enjoying a tropical carnivore such as a tropical sundew: it may slow down over the winter, but it won’t actually require a full dormancy.
A third factor to consider against a standard terrarium: since the air circulation is so poor in most smaller, seemingly flytrap-friendly terraria, putting one in direct sun is a great way to produce Venus flytrap pottage. Terraria, Wardian cases, greenhouses, and just about any other enclosed space can be used to demonstrate the square-cube law. The smaller the volume, the larger the surface area in proportion to that volume. Put a 100-foot greenhouse in the sun as a two-cup terrarium, and the terrarium reaches killing temperatures much faster.
At this point, you again have two options. You could fit your Wardian case with a solar-powered fan, thereby taking care of the immediate air circulation issue. This, though, does nothing about the dormancy situation. Or, or, you could try a container that helps simulate the best conditions for best health for a flytrap. I’ve discovered that large glass bowls, such as very large brandy snifters or even goldfish bowls, tend to work well in combating Dallas-level low humidity. The container can be put in full sun, where excess heat escapes out the top. Humid air is heavier than dry air, so the humidity stays around the flytrap. Best of all, it can be left outside all year, only pulling it under cover when there’s a risk of snow or ice.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was one more catch. This catch is that while flytraps like moist conditions, they cannot handle standing in water for any appreciable length of time. With that in mind, if you try a large bowl, go for one that’s strong enough to handle the peat/sand mix that’s required for flytraps. Again, many experts recommend against using perlite around flytraps under any circumstances, but I’ve found a layer about one inch (2.54 cm) on the bottom, followed by about four inches (10.16 cm)of equal parts milled sphagnum peat moss and high-quality silica sand, works best. Dress the top with long-fiber sphagnum, wet everything so that it’s moist but not soggy, and plant the flytrap on top. Under most circumstances, flytraps in this sort of enclosure seem to do much better during dry summers than unprotected flytraps, and MUCH better than ones in greenhouses or other covered enclosures. But that’s just me.
Next: Step 5 – Set off your flytrap’s traps with your finger.
Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.
The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.
When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.
Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.
As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.
Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.
And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.
This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 3: Water it with tap water.
As related before, I constantly hear from kids who want to know why their Venus flytraps died, but they’re afraid that I’m going to yell at them about their mistakes. Anything but. In fact, I spend a lot of time talking down kids and teenagers who think I’m going to get angry. It’s not just because only an idiot yells at a kid who literally had no way of knowing better, especially when they were given bad care instructions in the first place. It’s also because I’ve been there myself.
My first experience with growing Venus flytraps, or attempting to do so, was similar to those of most kids in the 1970s. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and spotted a “growing kit” in a local Big N, a chain department store. One dollar later, and I had a styrofoam cup full of peat, a plastic bag for retaining humidity, and a basic instruction guide on the lid. Add water, it said, and put the cup in a sunny window and wait for the seeds to sprout. As with Big N itself, the end results were disappointing: the only seeds that germinated were for grass, and to this day, I have no idea whether the company selling these ever put any flytrap seeds in it in the first place. By the end of summer 1977, my cat Morris got the grass, the peat moss was dumped in the garden, and I was leery of any grow-your-own kit for nearly 30 years.
Two years later, my family was living on the south side of Chicago, and I saw my first live flytrap in a garden center. After poking through the flat of flytraps for the one with the biggest and most traps, I settled on one particularly hirstute specimen and took it home. It did rather well through the autumn, but was still green and presumably live when we moved to North Texas. And then everything went kerblooey.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Chicago’s municipal water was extremely soft at the time, particularly compared to what we were going to encounter. In Chicago, the flytrap was doing well, and it survived the move across country to Texas. In fact, it moved in the car along with a travel-loathing cat, a carsick dog, and four hyperactive kids, so I can attest that Venus flytraps are tougher than most people give them credit for being. However, it wasn’t ready for Texas, specifically a little wide spot in the road at the time called Flower Mound.
Now, there’s a lot that can be said about life in Flower Mound at the time, and one of these days I might be able to say it without peppering it with profanities. (This might be a challenge. According to family legend, I said my first words to my paternal grandmother, and those words were “Damn you”.) The one absolute is that Flower Mound got its municipal water from a combination of wells and from nearby Lake Lewisville, a reservoir constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. 90 million years ago, Flower Mound resembled South Padre Island, being a narrow barrier island on the North American Seaway. Today, the area is mostly mesquite and live oak scrub, but a little digging turns up multitudes of fossil shells, gypsum crystals, and the occasional dinosaur.
The upshot of this is that both the wells and reservoir are in what used to be marine sediments, and those sediments were and still are loaded with salt. Lots of calcium and iron, too, to the point where the dissolved iron stained concrete and stucco a bright rust red on surfaces exposed to lawn sprinklers. Even today, the taste of the water is distinctive, and using municipal water for watering houseplants leaves the pots full of thick mineral crusts after a month or so. Sometimes the salt was strong enough to kill cactus after a while.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that while we were holed up in a hotel waiting for the moving truck to schlep our stuff from Chicago, I figured that my flytrap needed a touch of water. It went into the sink for a quick soak and drain, and I removed it and put it back in the windowsill.
An hour later, as I passed by, I saw that the flytrap wasn’t green any more. Flower Mound water had killed that plant in less than an hour, and with no warning.
23 years went by between my last attempt and my revival in interest in carnivores, and I never forgot what happened. Once I discovered what happened and why, when confronted with the “I used to have a Venus flytrap…” lament, I asked first of all “Were you using tap water to water it?”
Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, I refer to the local water as “crunchy”. It’s good for showers and for drinking, but for carnivorous plants, you might as well spray them with napalm and Agent Orange with a Roundup chaser.
The discussion of water quality for carnivores, much like that of the proper potting mixes, can be a point of debate and even anger among enthusiasts. This is often aggravated by varying water authorities in given parts of a larger community, and different sources for said water through the seasons. (Both with friends in Louisiana and with a great-aunt in northern Michigan, they depended during the summer on well water so loaded with iron and copper that anyone drinking it for more than a month was left temporarily ginger. One of those friends had been drinking that well water for so long that she didn’t know she was blonde until she moved to Dallas and her hair faded out.) Therefore, some will swear up and down that their tap water is perfect for carnivores, and that everyone should use it. I just smile and nod, and put in more rainwater collection tanks. The summer of 2011 was so foul that 500 gallons (1,892 liters) of rainwater in early June was down to ten gallons by the time we saw any rain again in September, but using tap water simply wasn’t an option.
Okay, so to play it safe, no matter what: rain water or distilled water. What else?
- Contrary to popular opinion, “steam distilled water” is not the same as boiled water. Steam distillation means that you boil the water to leave behind the calcium, iron, lead, mercury, and other contaminants in water and then recondense the steam into nearly pure water. This happens in another container, unconnected to the first. The only thing boiling water will do is kill microorganisms and volatilize dissolved gases. It won’t remove minerals at all, which explains why I was honestly gobsmacked when I came across a book on carnivores that advocated this. Boiling water to remove minerals will actually concentrate them in the liquid left behind. Do this for carnivores, and think of it as boiling maple sap of death to make death syrup.
- Likewise, bottled drinking water is just as bad. Pure water tastes flat to us, so most of the time, bottled water is extracted from a good-tasting source. Said good taste comes from dissolved minerals and gases, many of which may be lethal to your plants in large quantities. Even better, many bottled water companies add various salts for flavor. If using commercially bottled water, make sure it reads “distilled water” instead of “drinking water”.
- Even when using rainwater, consider the source. Minerals leach out of concrete or stone rooftops or gutters, and they’ll definitely leach out of concrete pools unless those pools are sealed well. Likewise, with the current understandable concern about collecting rainwater for summer use, make absolutely sure that your container is scrubbed and rinsed before it’s used for capturing water for carnivores. That 55-gallon rainwater barrel you liberated from the side of the road may have been used for transporting olives or soft drink syrup, but it may also have been used for transporting hydraulic fluid or soap. Ironically enough, the first two can be just as lethal to your carnivores as the latter.
- Finally, reverse osmosis filters can be a godsend for those who can’t depend upon rainwater, but make sure that your unit can provide nearly pure water. More importantly, check the filter cannister and its prefilters on a regular basis. Dallas water is particularly rough on reverse osmosis filter operation, and the last thing you want to do is discover that the osmotic membrane blew out after you’ve used the output to water your prize-winning Sarracenia.
With all of this talk about water quality, you want the punchline? Remember that “Grow Your Own” cup I purchased in upstate New York? I’m glad that it didn’t work out. What I didn’t learn until I was older was that most of the available water had rather high levels of dissolved radium in it from the local granite in the Adirondack Mountains, and many of the mineral springs in Saratoga Springs have enough radium per liter that drinking more than a glass per week could lead to radiation poisoning. Just what the world needed: radioactive mutant Venus flytraps on top of everything else. Laverne & Shirley reruns were bad enough.
Next: Step 4 – Keep it in a terrarium.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 2: Plant it in your garden.
Running a carnivorous plant nursery means you get a lot of interesting phone calls and E-mail messages. This tends to double after a television or newspaper interview. I gleefully drop everything to help out the kids who call because they need help with recent carnivore purchases, because they were usually given nothing other than the “Really Eats Bugs!” schpiel, and they pay attention. (I’ve even had kids who asked for advice show up at Triffid Ranch shows years later, proudly showing off photos of their latest successes, and I suspect I’ll hear from a couple of Nobel winners in another twenty years.) The same is true for elementary and high school science projects, because I’m always amazed and awed by the originality and innovation of the students coming up with particular experiments. And then there are the, erm, others.
Some are just aggravating, such as the woman who demanded that I find a commercial greenhouse that would store her Boston ferns over the winter without charging her for the privilege. Others are a bit daft, such as the woman who needed map directions so she could come over to “buy carnivorous plant food,” and called me a liar when I pointed out that this is a market that hasn’t been touched by Ralston Purina. Yet. Some are a bit obtuse, such as with the woman whose husband saw a plant on television that “he can’t describe and he doesn’t know the name for it, but he wants to know everything about it.” Some elicit sympathy, such as the administrative assistants whose bosses expressed a vague glimmering of interest in getting a flytrap, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t have a plant on the boss’s desk on Monday morning. (Those actually hurt when they call in the dead of winter, and I have to tell them that my flytraps are all in dormancy.) And then there are the ones that leave me absolutely gobsmacked, such as the demand from one individual who drove all the way out to the Triffid Ranch maildrop and wanted me to reimburse me for his gas and mileage because I wasn’t there to let him “see your plants.”
(As an aside, I love you all. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t offer tours of the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to liability issues. If you want to see the plants, you’re more than welcome to come out to a scheduled show, but private tours are something that won’t happen for a while. This had to be stamped in stone after the call from the woman who wanted to come out from Tyler to see plants at her convenience, and her convenience was at 2 in the morning. As I said, I get odd calls.)
The most common calls after “I want to see your plants,” though, are a mystery. At least once per month, and at least four or five times per show, I get a request for carnivorous plants. Not one or two or even a dozen, but pallets full of them. Once, this was for a birthday party where Venus flytraps were going to be given away as party favors. Most of the time, though, I heard the same sentence over and over: “I want to plant them in my yard to eat up all the bugs.” One guy wanted to put a solid line of them around his house to keep ants from getting through. Another wanted them to take out the mosquitoes in his neighborhood so they’d stop taste-testing him when he was gardening. All of them, though, seemed to think that putting carnivores in their yards would act as some sort of shield against insects, spiders, scorpions, hermit crabs, and any other member of the phylum Arthropoda that dared attempt to intrude on human territory. Heck, even my sister-in-law wanted to buy a stand of Sarracenia, because she thought they’d helpfully zap every last bug that came near her swimming pool.
I’m still clueless as to where this misapprehension on carnivores and their pest control powers comes from, unless the assumption is that anything that eats bugs is some arthropod Terminator. (I’ve come across the same assumptions with both purple martin and bat house purchases, even though both purple martins and bats go after much larger prey than mosquitoes. When I explain that the best biological control for adult mosquitoes requires a healthy habitat for dragonflies, they start this funny squeaking and chittering in horror.) I used to try to explain that because carnivorous plants can’t get out of their pots and chase prey, they have to attract insects as food, and said insects could very easily veer off and decide that humans or their food is much better. After one such call, where I was told repeatedly “Well, I was a doctor for 37 years, so I think you’re wrong,” now I just smile and nod and refer them to a much less organic pest control system.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use carnivorous plants as biological controls. You just have to look at a smaller scale, and understand that the bugs won’t leave for good unless you remove the factors that attract them. For instance, Peter D’Amato at California Carnivores relates that he’s heard of people using sundews and butterworts as organic flea traps. Set up a hungry sundew in the center of a room, and put a light directly over the sundew. When the room goes dark, the fleas gather at the light, jump at it and miss, and adhere to the sundew’s leaves. It works to feed the plant, sure, but a more conventional flea control is both more cost-effective and easier to maintain. (Likewise, I heartily recommend using lanceleafed and spoonleaf sundews to assist with controlling problems with fruit flies in kitchen areas. Set the sundew in the kitchen sink at night, remove the cover if it’s in a jar or terrarium, and leave it open all night. In the morning, close it up and put it back in its normal locale to photosynthesize, and each fruit fly it captures helps break the fruit fly life cycle. This, though, is in combination with one obvious fruit fly control: cleaning your kitchen so the fruit flies don’t have any reason to come back.)
The biggest issue with the whole “wall of flytraps” pest control method, though, involves planting them in your garden. Unless your garden is a sphagnum moss bog, with extremely acidic soil that’s nearly nutrient-free, a flytrap’s life expectancy in that garden can be measured anywhere from days to hours. Standard garden soil is usually too alkaline, too dry, and too salty for a flytrap to stay alive for more than a couple of agonizing days. Planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums, or constructing a bug killer berm for them, is a waste of good flytraps.
To get an idea of what flytraps and most other temperate carnivores need, you don’t need to visit Tallahassee, Florida, but an understanding of its weather and soil is almost as good. Tally is situated on relative lowland, with a soil that’s usually about half sand and half humus. Because of the regular and intense storms, the more mellow of which would set off tornado sirens in Dallas, most of the soluble minerals and salts were washed out over thousands to millions of years. The top layer of most bogs in the area is a thick layer of live sphagnum moss, which secretes acid in an attempt to crowd out competing plants. In addition, what little nitrogen that was in the soil is usually trapped in evergreen needles, which is in a form pine trees can use but precious few other plants can touch. Carnivores bypass all of this by getting their nitrogen and phosphorus from insect prey, so their roots rarely get exposure to either element in large quantities. They’re also susceptible to salts, so with most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in garden soil being in the form of various salts (either in various salts in commercial fertilizers or urea with animal manure), standard garden soil will burn their roots right off before too long.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants. That bog garden can be constructed inside a container, a large freestanding pool converted to the purpose, or even a specially constructed area that minimizes the effects of soil nutrient runoff from other areas. Just don’t expect it to offer a magical cure for your mosquito problem.
Next: Step 3 – Water it with tap water.
Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween.
About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases. Sometimes, they’re in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivorous plant sharing the space. Most of the time, though, they’re in one of the dreaded cubes, or in a similar plastic sleeve or tube. They may come with a basic guide printed on the tube, or a sticker with basic care tips, or simply a label reading “Really Eats Bugs!” The one absolute, though, is that they’re usually stacked up in a well-trafficked area, sometimes with autumn mums and toy bats, encouraging customers to take a chance.
Considering that the nearly universal mantra of one-time carnivorous plant growers is “I had a Venus flytrap, but it died,” it’s not hard to figure out what happens with the vast majority of those impulse purchases. Even if it doesn’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap gradually goes black and appears to die off in November and December, and it gets thrown out or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job.
The funny thing is that most of the time, the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb belowground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves (and the traps are really just modified leaves) for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed.
Now, this dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with precious little warning. Not “may”: “will”. You can attempt to force the flytrap to keep going, by keeping it indoors under artificial lights to extend its photoperiod. What happens, though, is that the plant muddles through for a while. The slightest bit of change in that photoperiod, though, can set off growth of a bloom spike, and the plant dies in the process. In some cases, it doesn’t make it that far, and the flytrap simply blackens and expires. Attempting to feed it over the winter is usually a waste: if the traps even work, and they’ll usually slow or stop their standard trapping response, the flytrap may not be able to produce enough digestive enzymes necessary to break down prey. If you’re lucky, only the individual trap goes black, slimy, and dead. Sometimes, the rot spreads to the whole plant.
The length of time necessary for winter dormancy is just as important as establishing it. A minimum of three months works the best. Here in North Texas, I use holidays as a guide. By Thanksgiving, they should all be arranged outside, and they’ll stay outside in unheated conditions until at least St. Patrick’s Day. For the most part, if they’re being kept in a reasonably-sized pot, they won’t require additional care, other than protecting them from the north wind. If local high temperatures go well below freezing, particularly for more than a week at a time, I cover them with old sheets for insulation, and remove them when the cold snap ends. With last February’s record cold snap, where North Texas generally never got above 16 degrees F. (-9 degrees C), these were the only precautions needed, and every last flytrap at the Triffid Ranch came back without problems. (The record heatwave and drought was a different story.)
Warmer and colder climes offer slightly different solutions. In much colder areas, where the soil can freeze solid for months, flytraps can be dug up and sheltered in an unheated coldframe. (As a rule, unless the top of the flytrap has already died off, don’t put them in an unlit space such as a garage or shed, because any remaining green leaves will continue to photosynthesize.) Alternately, many experts recommend heavy mulching around the flytraps with pine needles or straw. In much warmer areas without extended cold periods, such as around Galveston or in southern Florida, it may be necessary to dig up the flytraps, cut off the tops, carefully wrap the bulb with moist long-fiber sphagnum moss, and put them in the refrigerator and NOT the freezer. Either way, too long of a dormancy period is better than too short of one.
Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes, including Sarracenia pitcher plants and temperate sundews, also need that dormancy period as well or they’ll die. Again, it’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). And whatever you do, resist the temptation to buy that for-sale flytrap at Christmas unless you’ve got room in the refrigerator for it around New Year’s Eve.
Next: Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.
Some of this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, or asking about a plant that could eat the questioner’s ex-spouse, the comment is always the same. “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.”
What happens next varies. Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the seller’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying or for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some people relate that this happened decades ago, with a plant they purchased from a roadside stand, and others talk about the flytrap they purchased at a Home Depot a few weeks earlier. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die.
Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Out of those ten, maybe seven will be amazed to discover that any other carnivores exist, and of the remaining three, they’ve definitely never had the opportunity to examine one. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or “home improvement center,” and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies.
What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their employees honestly don’t know, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good half-dozen species, of at least three genera, that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. Sarracenia pitcher plants get much larger, sundews and butterworts are easier to feed, and triggerplants move even faster when set off. That said, I can understand exactly why flytraps have such an appeal, and they’re an essential part of any properly stocked carnivorous plant collection. You just can’t have a carnivore collection without one.
Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy and thriving for years. It doesn’t take any special requirements, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines.
Over the last few years, I’ve built up a list of basic questions to ask when I’m told about a customer’s dead flytrap. With very few exceptions, I can usually pinpoint the cause of death within three questions, and most require no more than two. Over the next few postings, I’ll share those points, so that you can kill your own flytrap with the best of them. Or prevent that from happening, as the case may be.
Step 1 – Buy your flytrap at Halloween.
Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.
Step 3 – Water it with tap water.
Step 4 – Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.
Step 5 – Set off its traps with your finger.
Step 6 – Feed it hamburger.
Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.
Step 8 – Keep moving it around.
Now these are the main things to watch for when trying to kill your flytrap. Pay attention to these tips and avoid them, and you’re likely to have a flytrap that lives a very long and healthy life. Most of all, you’ll be the envy of your jealous friends, all of whom will tell you about how “I had a flytrap, but it died.” If you’re a real friend, you’ll pass on what you’ve learned, and they’ll have happy and hearty flytraps, too.
To belay the 1500 E-mails, text messages, and smoke signals that any mention of carnivorous plants in the news brings on, the science fiction site io9 did a very good job of high-grading Dr. Barry Rice’s discussion on whether venus flytraps can digest human flesh. The io9 article doesn’t include anything that Dr. Rice’s discussion didn’t already have, but as can be expected, everyone will link to the copy instead of the original. And so it goes, and I take it as strange confirmation that someone at io9 is reading this blog.
No, the interesting part should be reading the comments on the io9 article, and the fact that the commenters didn’t take advantage of a great resource on raising carnivores. Instead of general kvetching about how “I had a Venus flytrap, but it died,” they could have been poking around on sarracenia.com and possibly learning why their flytraps died. (Or, judging by one comment, learning that flytraps go dormant during the winter, so that presumably dead flytrap is just waiting for the spring.) That, right there, explains why so many of us are so passionate about carnivores: once we learned the basic secrets, all we really want to do is share what we’ve learned so that the flytrap lament doesn’t have to repeat over and over.
In any case, I think it’s time to update that old “Gothic Beauty” column on the (now) eight surefire ways to kill your Venus flytrap, on the idea that avoiding all of those tips will greatly improve the odds of its survival. Watch this space.
The rest of October is going to be relatively quiet for the Triffid Ranch, but things start livening up in November. Specifically, four weeks from this coming Saturday, come out to the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park for its “Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters” exhibition. And before you ask, just because it’s listed as a kid’s event doesn’t mean you have to be one to show up. If you’re really self-conscious about asking questions around a herd of sharp-as-whips third graders, don’t feel badly: I’m going to be the target.
As to why carnivorous plants should be included in an exhibition on reptiles and amphibians, well, I have a secret. If you’re unfamiliar with the Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes ampullaria, this should be your chance to see the one known carnivorous plant that acts as a frog tadpole nursery. And if that doesn’t intrigue you, I’ve got nuthin’.
I live in a city that’s relatively bereft of tourist sensations. That’s not to say that Dallas doesn’t have a lot of reasons to visit. It’s just that most of us learned a long time ago that you have to keep the fun stuff on the QT, or else it’ll be overrun by SMU brats and subsequently ruined. Music, art, fun things to do outside…when the horsefaces and hipsters show up, it’s all over. This is why Dallas’s official attractions consist of proving that George Romero was directing documentaries and explaining why our official slogan is “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” These keep the Cokespoon Contingent busy, mostly so they don’t notice that the rest of us are going to Fort Worth.
Because of this, we don’t tend to express surprise when locals and tourists haven’t heard of a particular offbeat attraction. Or at least we try not to do so. For instance, when the Czarina calls me at work to tell me about some new and intriguing event, I don’t scream “Oh. My. GOD. You didn’t know about this?” Instead, I simply point out that I tried to tell her about it three weeks earlier, but that my voice apparently had more of an annoying mosquito buzz than usual. That’s perfectly reasonable, and I don’t blame her in the slightest. (Saying anything else usually leads to tears, concussions, and the Czarina rubbing her elbows and grumbling “Your head gets harder every single day, you know that?”) We only save derision and incredulity for real cluelessness, such as those who assume that Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club is still going.
This is why I wince when I share with local friends the discovery of something well outside, such as the Garden Museum in London. Out here, the snort of “I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t hear about this” is the province of the horseface. Besides, do you have any idea how many of us dedicated Texas gardeners would set fire to a bus full of paraplegic nuns for the opportunity to see a museum dedicated solely to 400 years of gardening history, much less enter it?
Yes, we now have yet another reason to visit Mother England. The only other option is to start up our own gardening museum on this side of the Pond. I’ll definitely get involved…the moment I discover, perfect, patent, and license the 78-hour day.
A few months back, some may remember my less than salutory review of the book Terrarium Craft and my complaints about the “put a bird on it” sensibility that still infects terrarium design. In the interim, I’ve been collating ideas on how to drag the concept out of the 1970s, and preparing to present them in something approximating a coherent form.
As usual, talking is okay, but action is better. The Los Angeles store Potted is hosting a terrarium design competition, with the grand prize being a $500 shopping spree. Each Friday starting on October 21, all entries sent to Potted will be voted upon, and the winners of each round will be submitted for a final competition. The final prize may be collected by anybody in the continental US, but I imagine entries don’t have to be limited to that.
Anyway. You know the drill. It’s time to take the word “terrarium” out of that horrible avocado-and-goldenrod kitchen and banish it forever from that famed kidney stone of a decade. I know you lot, and I know you’ll make your Uncle Zonker proud.
Well, it’s three weeks late, but Tlaloc finally smiled on North Texas, and we got 60 millimeters of rain and a drop in the heat at the Triffid Ranch on Sunday. Considering that this was the first appreciable rainfall in nearly a month, nobody was complaining. (As it is, between Tlaloc and Huitzilopochitli influences this year, I feel like I’m a peripheral character in an Ernest Hogan story. Not that this isn’t the first time it’s happened, either.)
With the rain came the return of one of my gardening nemeses: the treerat. Don’t go all goopy on me about cute and cuddly widdle squirrels. You can come out here and make kissyfaces with the vile little vermin while you clean up their messes. All summer long, not a sign of the pests. A bit of cooler weather, and I discover on Saturday morning that one had uprooted three hanging dragonfruit cactus pots in the hour between sunrise and my stepping out to take greenhouse temperature and humidity readings. Then I find the extras, such as their digging into the Sarracenia planters. (I didn’t worry about their uprooting the Venus flytraps, the way they did last spring, but that’s only because none of my flytraps survived the late August inferno.) There was also the pestilence-carrying mutant who dragged pecans over to the front porch of the house, shelled them all, and dumped glass-sharp pecan hull shards all over the place. And should I mention the future recipient of a double-serving of slow and painful death that cracked the bedroom window while trying to harangue the cats?
As you can tell, I am no fan of treerats. The secondmost-asked question I receive when I bring out the plants is “Yuh gonna raise any man-eating plants?” I argue that all of my plants are man-eating, if you grind up the person into small enough bits. However, I’m working very hard at developing a pitcher plant that can dispose of treerats, alive or dead. A friend of mine has been teaching the local crows to act as guard-birds by popping her resident treerats with a BB gun and tossing the corpses onto her roof: the birds then respond to the regular buffet by yelling loudly at anyone they don’t recognize who comes too close to the house. I’m wondering if I can do the same thing with the Nepenthes.
But no. I wasn’t going to go that far, at least until Elizabeth Bathory over at Google+ showed me this Photoshopped horror:
Oh, NO. These treerats are superior in only one respect. They are better at dying.
The chorus is my mantra while weeding…
I was about ready to put out a new “Horticulture and Publishing” installment with a very simple thesis: if you see a book or magazine you really support, BUY IT. Don’t blog about it. Don’t post it up on Facebook or include a little link on Twitter, and figure that your friends will cover your slack. To quote Gibby Haynes, lead singer for the classic Texas band the Butthole Surfers, “the worst thing in the world is to be famous with no money,” and speaking from hard–earned experience, all of the best reviews in the world don’t mean a thing if nobody buys the item being reviewed. Considering the current nightmare facing the publishing industry, if you come across a publishing house or a magazine that puts out really compelling reading, and you want it to succeed and continue, BUY IT. Review it later. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying it from your favorite independent bookstore or directly from the publisher: buy it, because otherwise it may not be around in the future when you finally get around to purchasing it. This doesn’t just apply to reading matter, either, as I’ve discovered to my sadness in the past.
I say this only because I’m not going to follow my own advice…for about three hours. The crew at Black Jungle Terrarium Supply always impresses me with the variety and quality of their plants, but discovering that Black Jungle now offers a bioluminescent mushroom habitat kit? I’m buying it as soon as I get home. If the kits aren’t completely sold out by the end of the day, I’ll be sorely disappointed. If they’re sold out by the time I get home, I’ll be disappointed, but also looking forward to everyone else’s results.
2011 has been a year for experiments. A few worked out well, and a couple threatened to take over. Most of them, from growing various triggerplants from seed to attempting to raise the Excalibur of carnivorous plants, Nepenthes hamata, leave me crying in my sleep. Thanks to the summer and the continued drought, this was a really bad year for horticulture experiments. I really should complain, because the dingbat who packaged up 2011 didn’t label it “TOXIC WASTE” on the label.
All right, so the National Weather Service is predicting ongoing droughts until possibly 2020, and the front yard is full of cracks big enough to eat a puppy. The Sarracenia look at me these days with nothing but horror, and the Nepenthes hold the cats hostage for fear that I’ll put them outside. Don’t get me started about the Spathophyllum that I’ve been carrying around since 1998. It’s going carnivorous just so it can eat my face. That doesn’t mean I can’t add a new face in the greenhouse, can I?
Well, that’s precisely what happened last night. A while back, I made friends with the folks at the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society, and brought up that I was looking for a few very special bromeliads. Specifically, I was looking for representatives of the two known carnivorous genera, namely Catopsis berteroniana and Brocchinia reducta. It was an idle whim, comparable to my saying “I wouldn’t mind borrowing Quetzacoatl’s raft of serpents for a weekend,” and I figured that the opportunity would present itself when it was ready. You can imagine the shock when I heard from Aaron and Shawn of the Bromeliad Society, telling me “We have your plants.”
So right now, along with all of the other denizens, I have one plant each of Catopsis berteroniana and of Catopsis subulata. I have no idea for certain that C. subulata is carnivorous or even protocarnivorous, but considering the very alien appearance of this beauty, it may be time to find out.
The absolute best part of this? I recently received an invitation for an informal presentation for older students at the Episcopal School of Dallas week after next, and now I’ll be able to show them some really obscure carnivores. Between Catopsis and triggerplants, those lone flytraps out at Wal-Mart are going to look pretty sedate.
As autumn arrives, so does the influx of bold jumping spiders (Phidippus audax) into the garage. I personally have no problems with them in the house or outside, and not just because I’m not an arachnophobe. P. audax, at least in Texas, actually thrives indoors, where it feeds on silverfish, cockroaches, or any other verminous prey it can tackle. Between its distinctive green chelicerae and the distinctive personalities shown by individuals, P. audax is always welcome.
Well, not completely. That is, I don’t have problems with the occasional jumping spider on the ceiling, the cats become rather perturbed. Tramplemaine has become rather resigned to the reality that Dad won’t bring them down as treats, but Leiber will stand on his haunches and howl. Considering that the cat already sounds as if he’s been huffing helium, this howl belongs to a grasshopper mouse and not anything feline, but it’s still annoying in the middle of the night. I also have issues with jumping spiders in the garage, but that’s because I worry about stepping on them. That happened last night, when one P. audax big enough to cover a nickel fell off my bike seat and tried to use my leg as a launch platform. I just gently picked him up and carried him to the greenhouse.
This may seem cruel, seeing as how the greenhouse is full of carnivorous plants, but it’s not intended as such. This time of the year, the spiders are far too big to be snared by the sundews or any of the small Nepenthes pitcher plants. With the larger Nepenthes or the Cephalotus, they’ll hide inside the pitchers and wait for prey. When something comes along that might be reasonably tasty, WHAMMO!
You’d think that the Mediterranean geckos already inside the greenhouse might have issues with the influx of jumping spiders. You’d be right. Considering that the geckos won the war against the orbweaver spiders in the greenhouse last spring, they’re getting smarter, and the spiders are getting bigger in compensation. By next spring, either I’m going to have homicidal jumping spiders big enough to fit with a saddle and ride to work, or I’ll have sentient geckos. Either way, all I need to do is fit the greenhouse with cameras, and sell the resultant footage as lost episodes of Babylon 5. Everybody wins.
Officially, we started autumn nearly two weeks ago. North Texas apparently didn’t get the memo. Oh, we’re no longer skinnydipping in pools of molten concrete, but we’re still in true drought conditions. According to Weather.com, we’re officially registering at 15 percent relative humidity. Yesterday, when the official report was at 23 percent, I measured a whole 9 percent relative humidity next to the Sarracenia growing area. I’ve now given up on trying to grow carnivorous plants, and I’m switching instead to ranching sandworms.
Very seriously, I already have the official position as the Weather Oracle at the Day Job, mostly because I’ve been kindasorta accurate before. Back in April, I was warning everyone that if we didn’t get a lot of rain between then and the middle of June, we were facing one hell of a heatwave. They laughed. I didn’t blame them, seeing as how a weather reporter’s “10-day forecast” makes me see nothing but eighteen shades of red. Now, though, they listen when I tell them I’m worried about this winter. As in “Some say Texas will end in fire, some say in ice.”
For people, at least, the current weather is impeccable. The Czarina was a regular vendor at the late Jazz on the Boulevard music festival in Fort Worth during the first half of the Aughts, so we traveled out that way on Saturday night to catch its successor, the Fort Worth Music Festival. The air was the clearest I’d ever seen in Fort Worth in my entire life: no dust, no haze, no water vapor, no burning chemical factories. The moon looked clear enough to pluck right out of the sky, and I fervently wished I’d hung onto my old telescope to take advantage of the spectacular viewing conditions. Normal relative humidity for this time of the year usually ranges between 40 and 60 percent, so the drier air actually made the fest attendees even more mellow and relaxed than usual, and considering that we’re talking about Fort Worth, that’s saying something.
Everywhere else, it was the same story. If people weren’t going out to the park, or to art or music festivals, or to something outdoors, they were cracking open their garages to get some work done on the car while the weather holds. My next-door neighbor was tuning up his Harley, and my best friend was putting more miles on his. As a sudden biological imperative, just about every human in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex decided that it was time to go outside, and for most, that meant anywhere but the mall. The weather practically demanded it.
And that’s what scares me about the rest of the year. I still have very fond memories of the autumn of 1989, which was roughly the same as now as far as temperatures and humidity. My first real autumn-that-never-dies came through that year, and that October really did seem as if it would go on forever. At the time, I was working a night shift manufacturing job for Texas Instruments, so I would stay up until nearly dawn every single night and watch the stars. I was bicycling all through Dallas, so this gave me a perfect opportunity to explore. Even when the first blue norther came through in mid-month and shifted the usual steady wind from south to north, it wasn’t a hard or oppressive wind. True, I was having to water the plants on my back porch a lot more, but I could deal with that.
What I didn’t know at the time, and precious few other people suspected, was that we’d gotten a bit too dry that season. November was chilly, but not viciously so, and I remember Thanksgiving weekend as being just cold enough that when my then-girlfriend accidentally burned a batch of rolls in the open, it was a bit too cold just to open the doors and windows and vent the smoke. Even the early part of December wasn’t nasty.
And then we got what was, at that time, the worst winter storm in our history. Right in time for Christmas, too: officially, we reached a whole one degree Fahrenheit (-17.22 Celsius), which was just unheard of. The snow and ice that came down in the storm didn’t melt off because the ground was too cold, and I arrived at work just in time to be told that the plant was being shut down due to weather. Yeah, folks in Calgary can laugh about this, but it wasn’t just an inconvenience: this was cold enough that anyone skimping on antifreeze had their car radiators melt (or, if they had older vehicles where the hoses weren’t as flexible as they used to be, engine fires). Nobody down here had reason to wrap pipes against the cold, so there went water and sewer lines across the Metroplex. Me, I nearly died from a good wrist-slashing, but that was my fault: since the day was shot, I figured that this would be a perfect time to take care of my then-girlfriend’s birthday present. When picturing this young idiot trying to move a movie poster-sized piece of glass down an ice-covered hill by himself, just label that image “Fools and Horses”.
Now, I’m not saying that we’re going to get another 1989-level freeze. I’m not even going to note that our most extensive precipitation between January and April for the last two years consisted of record snowfalls, and we already had the worst sustained freeze in recorded Texas history this last February. I’ll just be stocking up on weatherstripping for the house, caulking for the greenhouse, wool socks for myself, and insulation for the water pipes in October, while the weather is nice and the supplies are cheap.