Monthly Archives: November 2011

Next season, on “The Texas Triffid Ranch”…

As of Saturday night, the official Triffid Ranch show season ended for the year. This doesn’t mean that individual events and opportunities won’t open up between now and December 31, or that folks in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex can’t order custom arrangements. It just means that the next next big Triffid Ranch event, at ConDFW in Dallas, starts on February 17. As always, keep an eye on the main Triffid Ranch site for updates and revisions.

As for the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show last Saturday, let’s focus on the positives. We met a lot of very interesting folks, including one very considerate woman from Chicago (who unfortunately left without giving a name) who reminded me of why I miss Chicago at times. It may be time for a road trip up that way before too long.

Have A Great Weekend

And for all of the retail drones out there having “Santa Baby” and other obnoxious holiday tunes shoved up their noses for the next 29 days, the only obligatory shopping season music that’s endorsed by the Triffid Ranch:

Triffid Ranch events: MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday

For the most part, this weekend is the one I recommend as Dormancy Day for anyone keeping temperate-climate carnivorous plants in North Texas. Temperate carnivores, particularly Venus flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants, are already battening down for the winter, and will remain so until at least the middle of March. Now’s the time to put them to bed, or at least a place where they can get outdoor temperatures and photoperiods, and leave them there until St. Patrick’s Day.

For the tropical carnivores, though, they get one more big show before the end of the year. This Saturday, look for the Triffid Ranch booth at the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday in Dallas’s Fair Park, benefiting the Friends of Fair Park. I don’t know exactly where we’ll be located, but we’ll be in the Holiday Gift Market between 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

After that, the next Triffid Ranch shows will be in 2012, starting with ConDFW the weekend of February 17. For the rest of the year, please feel free to keep tabs via the Upcoming Events and Past Press page. And now, back to getting ready for this coming Saturday.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The Czarina gives me grief about remembering all sorts of odd anniversaries, usually those involving the two of us. Here’s one worth remembering: as of tomorrow, November 23, 20 years have elapsed since we first met. Well, that’s the day I remember meeting her, because she relates my first meeting her six months earlier and making quite an impression. I think she just came across some other lunatic who looked and sounded just like me, because it’s either that or I was popping back and forth randomly through time in 1991 and I still really haven’t met her for the first time yet.

In any case, the plan is for us to celebrate a few more of these odd anniversaries, at least until sanity intrudes and she comes to her senses. With luck, that won’t happen for a while, because I let her know that I love her in the same way I did a decade ago: by asking “Does this rag smell like chloroform to you?”

Curse of the Frugal

As mentioned in the past, at times, my paternal Scot ancestry and the habits associated with it are a curse. An absolute curse. I don’t mean just in the traditional ways, such as competing within the family to see who could knit the longest Tom Baker scarf with one’s nose hair over the winter. (We Riddells not only beat out everyone else in the vicinity on this, but also being able to knit whole tocques from a single eyebrow hair. See, there’s cold, there’s COLD, and there’s “preparing for life in Canada”.) I mean as in coming up with ideas to use available resources that come off as just crazy.

By way of example, this year set off combat shock in almost everyone involved in horticulture in Texas. The summer finished the job started by the particularly long and brutal sub-freezing snap back last February, and we’re now chopping and sawing and pruning the trees that didn’t make it. This also means that a lot of enterprising individuals are out picking through the spoils piles for wood. With dead pecan and mesquite trees, this means smoking wood for grilles and commercial smokers. For everything else, it’s firewood in anticipation of another bad winter. Texas generally doesn’t have weather that justifies stocking up on firewood, or even using a fireplace for more than a few days out of the year. After this last February, though, I don’t blame anybody a bit.

ER doctors and nurses regularly relate how so many of their most interesting cases involve someone telling them “There I was, minding my own business, when Some Guy came up and shot/stabbed/sodomized/defenestrated me for no reason whatsoever.” Well, there I was, biking to the Day job, minding my own business, when Some Guy threw a particularly vicious idea into my head. No provocation or anything. That idea was “You know, what’s to keep you from using this bounty to heat your plants this season?” And one thousand years of ancestral Riddells, from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, stood up and screamed “HURRAH!”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Czarina wasn’t there to save me from myself. Besides, give her an engineering problem, and she’ll spend the next six months researching every possibility and offering a plan that’s both cheaper and more efficient than anything I could come up with. Not that I’m complaining about this, but then she kvetches about how this took time away from jewelry design.

I’ll also note that using available biomass for greenhouse heating isn’t new, and the wonderful folks at FarmTek have a lot of commercial biomass heating solutions available for consideration. I’ve also been drooling over FarmTek’s radiant floor heating systems, too. The problem with having a very small nursery is that these solutions really aren’t all that practical, especially when most of my issues can be handled with a much smaller option.

The idea kept eating at me, though, and I started researching what the Victorians did to keep small greenhouses warm during bad English winters. That led me to reports of people using converted Franklin stoves with water boilers for supplemental greenhouse heating, and from there to the Good Time Stove Company, and its collection of refitted and repaired gas, wood, coal, and electric stoves.

Oh, my. Who else wants a steampunk nuclear weapon?

This is an idea that may have to sit for a while, at least until the Triffid Ranch gets a new greenhouse solely for tropical plants. Several friends with expertise in wood-burning heating point out that the worst thing about going with wood in severely cold weather is the “one a.m. feeding”, but I’m also glad to note that our current climate means that nights like those are rare. Now, cooling a large greenhouse is a bigger issue, and one that requires a more high-tech solution for Texas summers. And so it goes.

Have a Great Weekend

“Poised, Keep Cutting Away”

Ken Thompson at the Telegraph recently wrote a column that hit a personal spot of white-hot rage in my heart: the constant portrayal of gardeners, horticulturalists, and botanists in fiction as dull and dowdy. Naturally, he’s absolutely right: even with the ones intended to be interesting, most characters with a passion for plants have other major failings. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may have a brilliant detective mind, but she presents herself as a batty old woman much more interested in fussing over the garden and knitting. Nero Wolfe may be both a genius detective and an orchid fanatic, but he’s also a neurotic agorophobe who only leaves his townhouse when absolutely unavoidable. Freeman Lowell is insane, Edward Scissorhands is socially retarded, Tom and Barbara Good are summed up with a very evocative speech by Adrian Edmondson, and the less said about American botany student Perpugilliam Brown, the better. The only even remotely exciting horticulturalist in fiction in the last century? Well, I’m biased, but I’d have to say Bill Masen, for obvious reasons.

The reality is that Mr. Thompson is angry about this cliche, and for the right reasons. Anyone who thinks gardeners and botanists are a tweedy lot obviously hasn’t known a lot of them. Yeah, we’re obsessive and sometimes a bit scary, but I like to think in a good way. I just like to tell people about famed botanist W.D. Brackenridge, the first botanist to describe the cobra plant Darlingtonia. The story has it that he found himself in the area around Mount Shasta, California, chased by very hostile natives with an armful of Darlingtonia specimens, noting while running for his life that butterflies were very interested in the pitchers’ distinctive tongue. And let’s not forget John Gould Veitch: this guy was willing to take on samurai for his plants. Non-plant people might think carnivorous plant expert Stewart McPherson‘s obsession with tracking and photographing carnivores in the wild to be dangerous and risky, but there’s not one of us in the field who, if we got a call to accompany him on a new expedition, who’d say “Sorry, but I have to stay home and prune the roses.”

As a final note, think gardeners are dowdy and dull? Share the news that the US Air Force is open to bids on energy weapons for weed control. Just look at it at face value: energy weapons for weed control. Picture your next-door neighbor with a phase plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, and now picture the demented rictus of glee on her face as she sends hackberry seedlings and nutsedge back to Hell. You’ll never again wonder what she’s doing with that Garden Weasel, because she’ll probably go Akira Kurosawa on your liver if you give her any grief.

What has to aggravate Mr. Thompson and myself the most isn’t just that this perception continues. It’s that this affects not just the general public’s perception of gardening, but the perception by businesses that would sell to us. Science fiction enthusiasts rightly get bent out of shape over the presentation of Cat Piss Man as the archetype for science fiction fandom, but what do gardeners get? The assumption that nobody under the age of 60, unless s/he’s severely broken in some way, has any interest in gardening, so (with one very prominent exception) there’s no need to try to sell to anyone else. Walk into a garden center with a leather jacket or motorcycle boots, and the staff will tell you the restroom is in back and the other customers will tell you to put their purchases in the backs of their cars. (I say this from experience, and I even had one woman at North Haven Gardens in Dallas blow up on me when I told her that I didn’t work there, as if that was my fault.) While the gardening trade makes lots of noise about getting younger gardeners into the hobby, it’s still pushing books, magazines, and supplies almost exclusively to the septugenarians, even as I’m seeing more reptile and amphibian enthusiasts getting into horticulture by way of raising live bromeliads and ficus trees for arrow poison frogs and chameleons. The market is out there, and it’s as far away from the popular media cliche of the gardener as you can imagine.

Even better, it may now be time to push a bit harder and follow another respected English tradition. Not only do I figure that gardening needs a bit of a perceptual revolution, but it needs a full shakeout and the opportunity to go in strange and wonderful directions. I’m still collecting ideas and possibilities on where to go (I keep joking about starting a gonzo garden show called the “Arsenal Flower Show”), but it’s time to build a brand new Bromley Contingent for the botanically inclined. And what else did you expect from someone whose favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

It’s been a rough week at the Day Job, and tonight will be dedicated to roasting up pumpkin seeds collected from highly discounted Jack-o-Lanterns left over from Halloween. (The secret to successful collection and roasting will be shared soon enough, but let’s just say it involves gloves, a very sharp machete, and the phrase the doctor used when I got my vasectomy a few years back: “Hassan…CHOP!”) In the meantime, consider an example of priorities. Let’s say that you had access to cheap and effective time travel, where you could travel to any time in the past or future and return home without worrying about paradoxes or the Morphail Effect. Say that you had a week, subjective time, in your chosen chronal journey, and you could return a second after you left. Where would you go?

Okay, the rest of you can go catch Woodstock and try to stop whoever it was who framed Lee Harvey Oswald. Me, I’m going back about 50 million years ago. I understand that the Gamburtsev Mountains of Antarctica were pretty impressive about then, and I think I need a weeklong vacation in a good forest full of Wollemi pines.

A little foggy

As usual, the Czarina is overachieving, so she’s laid down the law concerning the upcoming holidays. Since we have Christmas and our ninth wedding anniversary coming within days of each other, she’s already making plans for giftgiving, not just for me but for the entire family, and she will not be stopped. The time between now and January isn’t a holiday: for her, it’s a military campaign. I just warn friends not to use the obvious Jack Kirby reference, because even though the comparison fits, as does the physical and temperamental resemblance, she really, really hates being called “Big Barda“. (Keeping up the geeky analogy, have pity for her. She’s obviously married to Ambush Bug.)

Because she’s so determined this year, the edict has come down from the mountaintop: a minimum of presents this year. It’s not necessarily due to finances, but because she has major issues with my getting her things that are interesting but not as functional as she’d like. Last August, for instance, I bought her a Fresnel lens for her birthday, which was much appreciated but not quite as useful as she thought…at least, without a big stand on which to focus it as a solar forge. Instead, she wants to take care of things that we really need. Since I fear her sharp and terrible elbows, I comply.

The problem is that most of my present wishes are inordinately practical, too. We’ve both been running our own businesses for too long: we look at the usual lovey items that married couples get each other, and snort “That’s okay, but what I really want is something that does something.” In her case, that’s relatively easy, because there’s always a surfeit of interesting stonecarving and stoneshaping gear out there. In my case, though, either my ambitions are a bit too expensive (a new greenhouse) or too esoteric (a full sterile tissue propagation facility). I have plans, but they require lots of planning.

And this is where Loch Ness Water Gardens comes in. I’d already been complaining about the lousy lack of humidity this summer and fall (one day, 80 percent relative humidity, and the next, down to 9), and misters simply weren’t cutting it. I’d been poking around for a while for commercial fog humidifiers, but most either had inadequate reservoirs or were too big for an operation like mine. More importantly, they didn’t have style. Worse, I’d found a few ultrasonic misters on the market, but they were mostly designed for reptile care. They were great for chameleon enclosures, but they wouldn’t cut it in a greenhouse.

I just recently came across the crew at Loch Ness Water Gardens via Twitter, and was already impressed with the company’s sense of humor. A quick peek through its offerings, though, and I was hooked. I didn’t know that ultrasonic foggers had improved to the point where they were available for pond applications, and discovering the five-disk pond fogger…well, that’s that.

Mind you, this won’t replace plans for a full evaporative cooling system further down the road. This will, though, keep things nice and sultry for when the temperatures aren’t quite as high, especially at night. Put this inside a good 100-gallon Rubbermaid livestock tank, switch out the LEDs in this with UV and deep green LEDs, and it’ll be the creepiest little greenhouse in Texas.

And just to finish the story, the Czarina already passed on what she wants for the holidays, and I’ll have a full month to mess with her head in the meantime. This is going to be too much fun.

Have a Great Weekend

Bill Bailey doing Gary Numan…in French. Is it any surprise as to why he has his own Nepenthes hybrid named after him?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In loving memory of the late Nigel Tufnel, here’s the best song on geology ever written.

Personally, I don’t worry about poor Nigel. He’s probably currently holed up in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming. Days filled with visiting the small-arms range with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, ultralight flying with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan (with Randy Rhoads in the control tower and Rick Nelson as flight crew), charm school classes with Sid Vicious and GG Allin; and let’s not forget those barbershop quartet sessions with Jimi Hendrix, Joey Ramone, and Andy Gibb. And then there’s his daily pantsing of his roommate from Memphis…

“HI! I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is ‘high-tech beekeeping.”

Oh, get a load of this

When I first moved out on my own in the Eighties, I used to work with a gentleman who regularly said “There are some ideas so stupid that you’d have to go to school for years to come up with them.” Admittedly, he was talking about some of the genius ideas coming out of Texas Instruments at the time (the fact that our CEO at the time has a technology school named after him is roughly akin to naming a culinary school after Jeffrey Dahmer), but I can only imagine how much he’d have howled upon seeing some of the goofy high-tech “green” items being offered today. I suspect that if I went to his gravesite and told the marker stone about Philips’s proposed urban beehive, I’d hear Boris Karloff-level laughter coming from the ground for weeks.

It’s not that I have issues with the concept of urban beekeeping, although it’s becoming less a matter of a legitimate hobby and more of a bored hipster attempt to have something to distinguish them from the urban chicken keepers and goat herders. (Seriously, guys: go for raising alligators. I can guarantee you that nobody’s doing that in their back yards, and you might get some upper body strength in the process.) It’s that in a lot of cases, existing techniques and materials exist for a reason. I’ve met plenty of legitimate urban beekeepers who do what they do partly because the traditions work, and partly because they’ve learned, often through quite a bit of pain, that you need to know more about bees than what a quick Google search can give you.

That quick Google search was probably where this started: what would you need to keep and enjoy bees in a highrise area? The concept photos sure seem interesting, but it’s painfully obvious that the individual or group that did the design saw cartoons about bees once, and figured “How easy can it be?” Heh heh heh.

As someone who started beekeeping when a random swarm landed in my old back yard in the spring of 1982, the old Scottish frugality kicks in over the idea of housing and caring for a random swarm. It sounds like a great idea, and real beekeepers regularly relate how they get calls from people with swarms in their trees or chimneys, offering to give up that valuable swarm “for free”. However, it’s impossible to tell if the swarm is infested with diseases such as European foulbrood or parasites such as varroa mites, and most keepers won’t bother. The idea that this high-tech hive is supposed to attract swarms, then, is folly.

Oh, but it keeps getting better. Take a look at the concept photos, and ask yourself how this hive is supposed to be installed. Do you cut holes into very expensive picture windows to fit it, or do you have to take out the window and re-fit it? Considering that bees keep the temperature stable in a hive by setting up sentries to fan their wings at the entrance, how will they be able to cool things down with that tiny tube exit? With the goofy plant tray underneath, how do you water the plants if they’re 30 stories up? Even better, since bees take their dead and drop them outside the entrance, how do you clean a plant tray that’s full of dead bees when it’s 30 stories up? In the winter, will the heat of a typical house or apartment, transferred to the hive, keep the bees from settling down for the season? And when it comes to hive growth, how do you allow expansion so the hive doesn’t abandon a too-small space?

Since the main stated purpose of this hive is to collect honey, here’s where everything really breaks down. The promotional material makes a big deal about a smoke attachment that “calms the bees” to allow honeycomb extraction, but this was obviously written by someone who has never worked with bees. Beekeepers use smoke when opening a hive to calm the bees, yes, but that’s because a bee’s basic instinct when exposed to smoke is to prepare to evacuate. To that end, the bees drink as much honey as they can in order to have a food supply if they have to leave: it sometimes calms them, but mostly their full bellies prevent them from being able to sting as readily as they’d like. Speaking from experience, every five “calm” bees is accompanied by one perfectly willing and able to sting, and they’ll gang up on anybody without proper protection. Even those lucky “bee charmers” wear hoods and veils more often than not, just to keep bees out of their eyes, and most folks (myself included) need heavy gloves, veils, and coveralls to keep bees from climbing into every available opening in clothing.

(And while we’re at it, I want to know how the designers of this hot mess thought that users could collect honey from it. Most standard hive comb is a combination of honey storage and cells for raising larval bees, and existing hive designs take into account that queens, the only bees in a standard Apis hive that lay eggs, prefer to work near the base of the hive. Will one of these brave urban first-implementers be able to tell the difference between honey comb or brood comb, know when honey comb is ready for collection, or know how to separate honey from comb once it’s out of the hive?)

And here’s the main critical issue with this whole design. Let’s just say that the person using it is one of those spectacularly lucky individuals who smells right to bees, to where s/he can just reach inside a hive and not get stung at all. It happens just often enough. The problem, though, is that the hive can’t be picked up (and you don’t know how heavy a hive full of honey can be until you try to move one) and taken outside if it’s attached to a window. This means, in order to gather honey (the hive’s stated purpose) or do basic hive maintenance (which isn’t even accounted for in this plan), this requires opening that polycarbonate case inside a house or apartment. The person opening it may be lucky enough not to get stung, but do you want to risk this with anybody else in the building? Even better, after you’ve cracked open the hive and let about 5000 to 10,000 bees loose, how are you planning to get them to go back inside? Ask them nicely?

The fact that Amanda Kooser at CNet fell for this sums up a lot of the current problems with science journalism these days. I have no doubt that Ms. Kooser is well-informed on the latest in consumer electronics, but it’s obvious that she knew next to nothing about beekeeping and didn’t have the time to check with anyone who did. Even better, I can only imagine the phone exchange if she had: “Please excuse me, Ms. Kooser. I have to go laugh myself incontinent, and I’ll call you back as soon as I’ve changed my pants.”

Now, judging by some of the comments over at the CNet article, this missive will be met with the same response from know-nothings who think that any criticism is unfair and overly negative. Let’s see how supportive they are of this idea after the first time they try to open the blasted thing.

Discovery Days: The Final Assessment

Last weekend, the folks at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park were considerate enough to invite the Triffid Ranch to display plants at its regular Discovery Days event on reptiles and other critters. This year, the “other critters” extended to flora, both by showing off carnivores that live in symbiosis with various reptiles and amphibians (in particular, a big display of Nepenthes ampullaria, based on its relationship with the frog Microhyla nepenthicola), so it was time to show off temperate carnivores before they went into winter hibernation and tropical carnivores before the new greenhouse goes up. Naturally, the Czarina wanted pictures.

"Introducing Carnivorous Plants" banner

The first sign that We Have Arrived: a literal sign stating who, why, and where. It’s probably time to write up a standard lecture rider that explains what we need at shows, probably plagiarizing heavily from Iggy Pop’s standard concert rider.

Bob the Builder

Being right next door to the “Bob the Builder” traveling exhibition meant that this guy right here was my nemesis and my salvation. “Nemesis” as in how every child under a certain age (I suspect below retirement age) wanted to drag Mom and Dad inside to see Bob, and “salvation” in that the kids and parents all went nuts over plants after they’d received their Bob fixes. The little disc at Bob’s feet was a motion sensor that normally set off one of three different affirmative comments. Apparently, so many little feet had tromped on it that the sound card went off randomly, and then it stopped working entirely by Saturday evening. I didn’t want to ruin the fun for the kids coming out to see Bob and Pilchard, so I filled in for that wayward sound card with the expected Canadian twist. Every kid should learn “Remember, if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy,” right?

The Texas Triffid Ranch at the MNS Discovery Days

A basic cross-section of carnivores and containers for display, along with a particularly ugly brute brought in to haul the big hexagon tank and scare wasps away from the pitcher plants. That beast could make a sundial run backwards, couldn’t he?


“Just because I only have nine fingers doesn’t mean my name is ‘Frodo’.”

Carnivorous plant books

Accompanying the main display was an additional table, giving plenty of room to show off a cross-section of the best books on carnivorous plants on the market today.


The two magazines in the Riddell household that get read first, without question.


We were located right around the corner from a display demonstrating the fluorescence of scorpions. “Twenty bucks says I can hit the back wall with the next sneeze. Thirty if I replace the scorpion with a cockroach.”

And before anyone asks, yes, I’ll gleefully return for next year’s Discovery Days, or any other event held by the Museum that requests my presence. This was just too much fun.

Introducing Maclura pomifera

Between the end of August and the beginning of December, I get the occasional query at the Day Job and elsewhere about “brainfruit”. Along the sides of roads, in the middle of parks, and across vacant lots, these strange green pods appear, sometimes dropping down into traffic. They generally range about the size of a softball, with fine crinkles and whorls across its surface. Even the ones hitting pavement usually roll away with little to no damage, and they generally sit for a time until wet and cold set off rot.

Osage orange

Look up at the right time, and be prepared to duck. The tree can sometimes grow to as much as 60 feet (18.28 meters) tall, but it usually remains shrubby throughout North Texas. It can be found in individual clumps of junk trees, full brush, and even as isolated trees in the middle of nowhere. The amazing thing about the tree is how well it blends in with everything else until it bears fruit: mixed in with a copse of hackberry trees, and it blends in perfectly for most of the year. See one with fruit, though, and everyone pays attention.

Osage orange bunch

This is most peoples’ first encounter with Maclura pomifera, known commonly by such names as “Osage orange,” “horse apple,” “hedge tree,” or “Bodark”. It’s a remarkably common tree throughout North Texas, and not just because it’s a native. While mostly forgotten today, M. pomifera used to be a valuable tree, both ecologically and economically speaking.

Before anyone asks, the fruit itself is inedible to humans: cut one open, and it’s full of fibrous pulp and seeds that resemble elongated cantaloupe seeds. They aren’t a particular choice of most animals today, either, regardless of the “horse apple” common name. However, based on dung samples, M. pomifera fruit used to be quite the treat for Columbian mammoths and ground sloths during the last ice age. Both would mash up the fruit, swallowing the seeds and passing them in their dung, thereby protecting them from squirrels, mice, and other possible consumers. Today, without the benefit of Pleistocene megafauna, those fruit either rot on the ground or are torn up by squirrels for the seeds, and treerat predation helps explain why the trees died back from their original range across most of North America to their last holdouts in Texas and Oklahoma by the time of the first European colonization of the continent.

If not for human intervention, M. pomifera might have faced the same crisis as the Wollemi pine. However, the various indigenous tribes through its range noted that its wood is remarkably rot-resistant. The wood is also both an attractive yellow-orange and incredibly tough, thus making it a desirable tree for woodworkers patient enough to shape it without wearing out their tools in the process. Fence posts, pilings, bowls and cups…I even have a pen given to me by the Czarina made from turned Osage orange, and it’s the most comfortable pen I’ve ever owned. The combination of strength and flexibility made it an excellent wood for bowstaves, and the original French name, “bois d’arc,” was rapidly corrupted into “bodark”.

Osage orange thorns

The common nicknames “hedge tree” and “hedge apple” come from a more recent use. Before the invention of barbed wire, nurseries grew Osage oranges for hedges around farms. As the picture above shows, M. pomifera puts out nasty thorns much like those on citrus, with much the same effect on anything trying to pass through a stand of them. (Also like citrus, the thorn points tend to break off in wounds, so should you find yourself punctured by one, make absolutely sure to get out that tip from the wound before it festers.) The standard mnemonic for planting them was “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” referring to letting them grow high enough to keep horses from jumping them, strong enough that a bull couldn’t shove its way through, and close enough together that pigs couldn’t squeeze through. Obviously, the popularization of barbed wire spread well beyond the open prairie, but Osage orange posts continued to be used, and the trees themselves found themselves going feral in most of their old pre-Holocene territory.

As to what to do with the fruit? This time of the year, plenty of well-meaning Osage orange fans relate how keeping the fruit inside houses and garages keeps cockroaches and other insects away. As someone who has watched big local palmetto bugs feeding on rotting Osage oranges, I call shenanigans, and I’d never even consider using them to drive off spiders or scorpions in any way other than with a good fastball. Should you want to encourage squirrels and chipmunks in your back yard, a couple tossed out every week offer hours of entertainment, and they also make great bait for those who want to exterminate the little vermin. And then there’s the obvious use: spread them out in the front yard when out-of-town relatives arrive, and tell them that Texas has a tradition similar to the Easter Bunny involving the “Thanksgiving Armadillo”. That’s the best use yet.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Autumn Edition

Most people don’t think of North Texas as a place running rampant with autumn color. We definitely don’t have anything to compare with the fiery sugar maples of Vermont or the canary ginkgos of Oregon, but we get a lot of interesting pastels. Get up high, as in the top floor of an office building or landing at DFW Airport, and you might be surprised at how much color other than “brown and dead” we get that isn’t easily visible from the ground.

Every once in a while, though, the place will surprise you. Halloween 1993 came in with record subfreezing temperatures, so we learned how many of our indigenous trees change color if given the opportunity. Crape myrtles, for instance, shift to a brilliant Tyrolean purple when hit with a good stout freeze before the leaves fall for the season. In tough years, though, sometimes the beauty can stun you, especially if you get up before dawn to look at the area first thing in the morning.

Texas-style autumn color

This, by the way, was taken from right on the border of Garland (yes, the Garland, Texas mocked at the beginning of the movie Zombieland) and Richardson, right on the edge of one of Garland’s many parks. Between the autumn foliage and the occasional armadillo scampering toward the woods, it’s sometimes worth the effort to get up early.

Closeup of autumn color

Invitations to swim in strange waters

And now begins the hour that stretches at the Triffid Ranch. Between several conversion projects, a few possible commissions, and preparation for the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show on November 26, I’ll be working hard on earning my Ig Nobel Prize by inventing the 86-hour day. Those who know me might be amused to learn that I have to stay away from coffee, chocolate, and other stimulants, because they make me hyperactive. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear the hysterical laughter from here.)

In the meantime, I’m not going to say more about the whys, but I’m going to share the whos. If you aren’t already familiar with the blog Midnight in the Garden of Evil, let’s just say that I’ve found someone in southern California with as much of an appreciation for dark gardening as I do. Of particular note is that our author caught the traveling exhibition The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. Having caught this exhibition when it ran at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010, I can attest that it’ll either give nightmares or inspire whole new gardening scenarios.

Anyway, it may be time to gather dark gardening enthusiasts like “trickortreat” in one place and see what we come up with. Details will follow as they happen.

Something something bandwagons

Along with everything else, the Triffid Ranch is now on Google+. Just saying.

“Today on Handyman’s Corner…”

Things are getting interesting at the Triffid Ranch, so apologies for a lack of immediate updates. The Czarina and I are switching out computers (gently used PC so she can do bookkeeping, gently used Macintosh for me for several upcoming projects), so our evenings are punctuated with screams of triumph, rage, and exultation, often all at once. People listening to the racket outside would have every reason to believe we aren’t married.

Between this and our current run of late-season thunderstorms, things have fallen behind. I still haven’t had the chance to relate the story of Frank Garza of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs in Cleburne (although I will say that they’re the best hot dogs I’ve had since I left Chicago 32 years ago) or the final assessment on last weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science last weekend, but the’re on the way.

Anyway. Several friends (including the Dallas music legend Barry Kooda) are regular enthusiasts of the various local and statewide auction houses and excess inventory sales going on through the area, and these can be dangerous. This isn’t just because you can find yourself almost literally drowning in “great deals”. It’s because the ideas that come with them are so crazy that they almost make sense, and crazy ideas with logic behind them make the baby Czarina cry.

For instance, as related far too often in the past, this last summer was the worst in Texas history, both in temperature and in duration. In the process, I lost several plants that I’d had for years, mostly due to our record highs in low temperatures. Many carnivores, such as the cobra plants of Oregon (Darlingtonia) and the sun pitchers (Heliamphora) of South America need a significant temperature drop between day and night during their growing seasons, and that just isn’t possible through July and August without technological assistance. I won’t even start on trying to control humidity as well, because that story is getting really boring.

I was already working on possible solutions, and ones that wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of power or maintenance, when I went poking on Lone Star Online, a site specializing in auctioning off state and local government surplus. And there, there on the Group W bench, was a lot for two, count ’em, TWO Traulsen rotating food display cases. With a current bid of $75, no less.

Refrigerated case

One part of my brain knew exactly what was going to happen. Namely, I could hear the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheaths, drooling venom onto the floor as they prepared to wield sudden and bloody retribution for challenging her reign. Even if I argued “It’d stay in the garage! Honest!”, the cries of triumph and horror coming from the front of the house would be drastically different in tone, especially if they were followed with my sobbing. The other part, the part that always gets me into trouble, thought “Okay, it’s glass. It’s designed to keep up humidity so that pastries and other baked goods don’t go stale. If it can keep Key lime pie from turning into a dessicated mess, it would definitely work on keeping Darlingtonia and Heliamphora cool and humid. Now all I need to do is figure out how to upgrade the lights to high-intensity LED arrays to put out enough lumens to keep both plants happy…”

And this, friends, is why you never want to let your brain get you into trouble. It’s bad enough when I suggested to the Czarina that we could always buy a house with a pool so we could cover it with a pool enclosure and turn it into one giant greenhouse. She’s either going to scream in rage at my wanting to drive down to Austin to pick up a rotating pie and cake display case, or she’s just going to sigh in exasperation and tell her mother about it. Then I get two pairs of elbows coming at my already-compromised cranium.

For the record, I have no intention of driving down to Austin for these. I’m just going to keep an eye open for a local restaurant closing, and snag one then. Now all I need is a Possum Van to carry it home.

Discovery Days: Day Two

I’ll have pictures from this weekend’s Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters event at the Museum of Nature & Science after we’re done, but now it’s time to go back. Saturday’s crowd was extremely impressive, with a lot of kids stopping by on their way to see the mineral or light exhibits, and a lot of parents coming back after taking their very young kids to see the Bob the Builder Project: Build It! exhibit. (The only issue so far, and it’s really minor, is that the Triffid Ranch booth is right next to a big Bob the Builder display, with a motion sensor that makes Bob utter three inspiring messages when people walk by. The motion sensor was apparently damaged a while back by well-meaning kids walking on the display, so Bob goes off randomly, all day long. In other words, he’s just like me. Interestingly, a few buzzes with my scorpion detector, brought specifically to light up plant structures with UV, and Bob quiets down for a while.) Either way, everybody’s having a blast.

Although this has been like a typical show, where I’ve rarely left the booth, this encourages me to do more reptile shows. In particular, the turtle exhibit on the ground floor is full of the expected wonders, including softshell turtles and a huge Sulcata tortoise that begs for romaine lettuce. I won’t be ready for a big show right away, such as next February’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference show in Arlington, but I’m definitely getting lined up for the 2013 show. In the meantime, if the folks at the Museum want me to come back next year, or to participate in any of the Beer & Bones evening shows for adults, I’d have to be an idiot to say “no”.

Have a Great Weekend

A double feature, in commemoration of my first discovering this crew fifteen years ago this week:

The horror, the horror…

Lots of hyping of this weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park in this blog’s future, and I hope everyone can deal with it until after the show is over. In the interim, here’s something to give you an idea of what to expect. Last May, the exemplary local photojournalist Mike Kinney came out from our CBS affiliate to shoot some video, and this is what he got for his trouble.

And before anybody says anything, I know, I know: I have a voice that Fran Drescher finds nasal and annoying. I’m trying to rectify that, with an ice pick if necessary. However, considering that I’m also one of the few people on the planet whose driver’s license photo is preferable to real life, I chalk up the voice as yet another one of my character flaws. On the bright side, though, this is yet another bit of news reportage that states my name without starting with the words “convicted chainsaw murderer and cannibal” and ending with “…before being taken down by police snipers.” This annoys my sister to no end, and I plan to keep doing so for years and years.

Peppers so hot, they’ll give you superpowers

Even with the abysmal summer, one of the experimental successes this year was with moving beyond carnivorous plants and into Capsicum peppers as container plants. Specifically, thanks to the wonderful folks at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, I had a lot of experimental material. The heat and savage dryness managed to kill off some of the more promising plants early on, but you should see them exploding now that the heat has let off.

Now, I could tell you that the expansion includes crashing the 21st International Pepper Conference, scheduled for a year from this weekend. This depends upon how well I recuperate from the International Carnivorous Plant Conference next August. Instead, I’ll just relate that next spring, it’s time to try some more of the Institute’s specialty peppers under Texas conditions. As it is, I can’t recommend the NuMex “Halloween” cultivar highly enough, even if my plants never had the chance to bear fruit this year. The innumerable violet blooms were worth it.

Events past and present

Now that the Halloween insanity is over, you’d think that gardening season joins it. It may for those in northeast North America (my friend Joey Shea just sent me a picture of a little girl with a jack-o’-lantern atop a snowman, thereby setting the stage for The Nightmare Before Christmas 2: Oogie Boogie Strikes Back), but we’re still good for another four to eight weeks. Heck, now’s the time to get prepared for next spring, and I’ve already had my next-door neighbor give me some really odd looks upon watching me throw purloined bags of grass cuttings over my back fence. I tell him “it’s for the Czarina’s tomatoes next year,” but I don’t think he believes me.

Now’s also when lecture season really kicks in, before all of the temperate carnivores go into winter dormancy and the tropical ones need to move indoors. I’ve done a lot of talks and lectures in the last few years, but I have to say that last Thursday’s talk at the Episcopal School of Dallas had to have been one of the best of the lot. The only thing better than showing off carnivores to a gaggle of extremely curious and exceptionally intelligent kids is discovering that most had already been taking Latin, so they understood exactly why I started lapsing into Linnean binomial nomenclature. When discussing the four different and very distantly related groups of plants commonly referred to as “pitcher plants”, that’s vital.

(Sadly, I had no pictures of the lecture, even though the Czarina brought out the camera. She got a bit involved with passing around plants, and I don’t blame her. She also got great enjoyment off watching the girls in the front of the lecture room wince and make “eww” noises when talking about sundew feeding habits, because they were listening to every last word. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear from a few of them in a few years, making serious contributions to natural history after being inspired by those sundews.)

The only problem with the ESD lecture was that it was far too short, which can be a problem when discussing the sheer variety of carnivorous plant habits, environments, and capture and digestion strategies. This weekend’s Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters event at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park should take care of that. Look for the Triffid Ranch table within the lofty environs therein on Saturday and Sunday until 5 in the afternoon, feel free to let your kids bring grown-ups, and don’t be afraid to let the grown-ups ask lots of questions. I’ll probably be mute by Sunday evening, but it should be a blast in the interim.

And speaking of the Nightmare Before Christmas motif, we’re now 25 days away from the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show, hosted by Friends of Fair Park. If things go quiet between now and then, it’s because I’ll be at work on Capsicum pepper bonsai and iTerrariums. Look at it as a live rendition of the Day of the Triffids Holiday Special, and come on out.

Post-Halloween gold

I’m the first one to agree that making up caramel-covered onions and giving them out to the local kids on Halloween is a cruel and horrible trick. However, I also have a slew of friends whose idea of a perfect Christmas Eve is to sit around the fire and eat chocolate-covered habanero peppers. (And thanks to Teresa Floyd for the tip.)