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Monthly Archives: March 2012
At Triffid Ranch shows, the thirdmost common comment I get is “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” I usually try to help out as much as possible so as to prevent that in the future. The secondmost common comment comes upon viewing an iTerrarium, is “Finally: the only good use for a Mac, hur hur hur.” Since this invariably comes from some Bruce Sterling wannabe (Arioch help us) who both figures that no individual in human history has ever told me this and who desperately craves the attention he didn’t get from his parents, I usually smile and reply “You’re right. Macs suck…almost as much as Cat Piss Men.” The most common comment, though, is “Wow. I knew about Venus flytraps, but I didn’t know there were so many carnivorous plants.”
My response? “Oh, let me show you a few.”
The reasons why so many people never come across carnivores other than flytraps are multifold. Firstly, flytraps both move at a speed that surprises humans and have leaves that resemble mouths, so they become a direct manifestation of the highlights of the group. They’re also small enough to transport easily and readily reproduce via sterile tissue propagation, so they can be everywhere. Triggerplants only show off their speed when blooming. Sarracenia pitcher plants usually get too big for easy display in garden centers. Nepenthes pitcher plants just sit there and let the bugs do all the work. Sundews and butterworts move too slowly to get an immediate response. Bladderworts need a strong magnifying glass to view their prey capture: with terrestrial varieties, you both need to dig them up and put the trap structures into an electron microscope to see the detail. Flytraps are rock stars for these reasons.
Another reason why so few people see most carnivores is, to be honest, because they’re relative prima donnas. The Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum) cannot handle any root disturbance whatsoever, and only recently have carnivorous plant nurseries worked out methods to transport them safely. Only a few people propagate triggerplants, although that number, thankfully, is increasing. The cobra plant (Darlingtonia) is an alpine plant that both needs cool roots from snowmelt runoff and a significant temperature differential between day and night. (Considering that summer temperatures in North Texas really don’t drop much between day and night, the only really successful way to grow them would involve moving them into an air-conditioned area every night.) The sun pitchers of Brazil and Venezuela (Heliamphora) need cool conditions all year round. It’s the obverse for many of the lowland Nepenthes pitcher plants, which thrive under high heat and high humidity. Considering the specialized soil, humidity, and temperature requirements of many carnivore species, it’s no surprise that most don’t show up in most garden centers and nurseries. The employees at a typical home improvement center have a hard enough time keeping up with the care requirements for tomatoes and strawberries, and most potential customers understandably don’t want to take a chance on an expensive plant that may die a week after its purchase.
Half of the thrill of raising carnivores is discovering that their care and feeding is a lot easier than you’d believe. I’ve talked to serious orchid fanciers who tell me “Oh, carnivores must be hard to raise” at the same time they’re telling me how easy most Oncidium and Cattleya species are to keep, so long as you know their basic requirements. We then look at each other and say, almost simultaneously, “Yeah, but there are some that are slow growers.
That accusation definitely applies to Cephalotus follicularis, known commonly as the Australian pitcher plant and the Albany pitcher plant. As can be told, it’s a visually stunning plant…if you have a good magnifying glass when it’s young. The adult plants gradually grow pitchers about the size of an adult’s first thumb joint, but this can take years. Between this and a general sensitivity to root disturbances, most of the plants on the market are rather pricy, due to the time necessary to grow them to a decent size. This isn’t a plant to be purchased on an impulse, nor for anyone wanting a rapid grower.
That said, Cephalotus is a fascinating plant, and the Triffid Ranch now has a very limited supply of them, courtesy of Deryk Moore, the self-described “greenhouse gnome” at Sarracenia Northwest. Deryk is an absolute genius with Cephalotus (as are Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas, the proprietors at Sarracenia Northwest), and after some discussion with Deryk, I now have Cephalotus acclimating to Texas outdoor conditions. Thankfully, our humidity and cloud cover are more appropriate to Portland than Dallas at the moment, but I also know that Cephalotus can survive most Texas summers if given half a chance. Indeed, the only reason why my previous Australian pitcher died last year was because last September and October were lethal to native species, and it just couldn’t handle the severe lack of humidity before Halloween. Deryk recommends using African violet pots with Cephalotus, and what kind of idiot would I be to ignore his advice?
Now, besides the little ones, I purchased an adult plant from Deryk. To quote Basil Fawlty, when anyone asks if this one is for sale, I hiss “THIS…is MINE” while grinning. Even the Czarina stays away when I grin like that.
I thought that last year’s blooming season for the indigenous horsecrippler cactus was prodigious. I had literally no idea. The way they’re all going insane, I’ll be up to my armpits in ripe Echinocactus texensis fruit by the end of May.
Of particular note should be the areolae in this closeup, because it helps explain how the cactus gets its common name. When the cactus dries out in summer heat, it tends to collapse, and those big downward-pointing spines point up. On the edges of the cactus, these are sharp, long, and strong enough to punch through the bottom of a standard US Army combat boot, and I know this from experience. (In fact, I came awfully close to losing a toe when I did so. You do NOT want one of those spines breaking off, especially if you’re a few miles from medical assistance, and I’m just glad the spine creased my toe instead of spitting, and possibly splitting, the bone.) Considering the amount of local wildlife that would gleefully feed on cactus pulp without that additional protection, this level of armament makes sense.
Anyway, these are part of the ongoing Kared adoption program, and they should be an added inducement to see them at May’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show. If we’re lucky, any resultant fruit may even be ripening by then.
The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.
As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.
Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.
To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.
And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.
The Triffid Ranch’s motto is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People,” and that’s pretty much its business mission statement, too. That’s easy to uphold when dealing with carnivorous plants (that is, unless you’re a resident of Tallahassee, Florida, and even then), but how do you define “odd plants” otherwise? Is this label dependent upon location, upon growing habits, or upon its back history? More importantly, what do you do when a customer responds to the slogan, takes a peek, and tells you in all seriousness “I see odder things in my breakfast cereal”?
I bring this up because it’s time to retry an experiment cut short by last summer’s solar annihilation. This year, it’s time to expand, very slightly, into hot peppers.
Part of the fascination with Capsicum peppers comes, obviously, from the tasting. Several years back, I worked a day job where my daily consumption of sriracha sauce surprised Cuban co-workers, one of whom told me “You have a little brown in you, don’t you?” I definitely took the compliment in the manner in which it was intended, and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I used to be a hopeless wimp about spicy food when I was a child. Michigan wasn’t exactly known for spice in its cuisine, and I remember literally crying at the age of five when a McDonald’s hamburger had too much mustard on it. That lasted until I moved to Texas in 1979 and had my first exposure to jalapeno peppers that hadn’t been pickled to within an inch of their lives. After that, you might as well have carved “JUST ONE FIX” into my forehead when it came to Tex-Mex, Thai, or Indian cuisine.
(When I lived in Wisconsin in the mid-Eighties, a new Mexican restaurant opened in the area, advertising traditional Tex-Mex sauces. They didn’t realize how much they had toned down the bite for Wisconsinites until I kept asking for salsa that was “a little stronger than this.” By the time the main course was served, I had a crowd of employees and managers watching me snarf down an exquisite green chile salsa that was put off-limits to the general customers. Twenty years later, an acquaintance thought he was showing off by handing me a bottle of sriracha sauce and telling me that this was the hottest sauce he’d ever tried, and then completely lost it when I squeezed out a line onto my finger and used it to brush my teeth.)
The other aspect, though, is the science. It’s not enough to know that peppers are spicy, but why they’re spicy. The brilliant colors and the incredible heat evolved together, with the colors intent upon attracting birds acting as vectors for the pepper’s seeds and the capsicum oil intent upon repelling mammals whose digestive systems could destroy those seeds. The sheer variety of peppers today comes from a certain variety of upright ape that both had the ability to see those colors and taste those flavors, and cultivate plants based on their ability to perpetuate said colors and tastes. At that point, you have to wonder which species is influencing whom: are humans controlling the peppers’ distribution and evolution, or are the peppers controlling humans by encouraging them to expand the peppers’ range and variety?
Heady thoughts for a Monday evening, and thoughts that make me want to sit down with a gaggle of grad students at the Chile Pepper Institute for a good long chat. These and other questions are why the greenhouse is now full of flats of Bhut Jolokia seedlings, why I’m awaiting a fresh batch of Trinidad Scorpion seeds, and why I plan to use David Shaw’s recipe for homemade sriracha sauce with Black Pearl peppers to make the ultimate goth hot sauce. Purely for satiation of scientific curiosity, of course. Heck, I may even make some Capsicum bonsai.
One of the curses of having interesting friends is that they can be a bit too interesting. See, they share things. Horrible, mind-altering things. Things that leave me in a little fetal ball, crying “Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and looking for sharp instruments with which I plan to trim my fingernails to the shoulder. And those are just with the puns. No, some of these disturbing images and concepts are so foul that I immediately share them with the Czarina.
Back twenty-five years ago, I worked as a groundskeeper for a now-long-defunct Texas Instruments site in Carrollton, Texas, and I had quite the assemblage of odd co-workers. One’s name was, quite literally, “Bubba”, and I’m pretty sure that this was his legal name on his driver’s license and birth certificate. Bubba was an absolute salt-of-the-earth guy in his own way, except for one particularly vile habit. See, he had a thing for various gas-producing victuals, ranging from Ranch Style Beans to Mickey’s Big Mouth Ale, and he wasn’t afraid to share the end output. Problem is, he’d wait for just the right moment, right when our natural instincts to trust our fellow man were at their height, emit a silent-but-deadly that could char the nose hairs out of a dead rhinoceros, and then ask innocently “Do you guys smell barbecue?” Yes, in fact, we did, as the delicate scrollwork that used to be our sinus bones was turned into smoke and ash.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I’m regularly reminded that I associate with friends who carry on the scientific, theological, and philosophical tradition, as if Bubba were right there in the cargo elevator with me. While they might not physically subject me to a haze of hydrogen sulfide and methane, the effect on brain tissue is much the same.
Case in point. My friend Bon Steele was apparently at the garden center today, and she passed on a photo of a kid’s garden starter kit. Specifically, by way of this, I learned about the Growums line of gardening kits, and I can’t argue with the basic idea. It was one of the characters that burned my frontal lobes. Namely, the introduction to “Frank Cilantro“.
Yeah. Frank Cilantro.
And that’s when it went wrong, Your Honor. “Elvis Parsley” was to be expected, as would “John Lemongrass”. My mind doesn’t go that way, and suddenly I was picturing similar kits with “Jerry Gardenia“, “Jello Bicalcarata,” “DeeDee Romaine“, and “Turner Vanda Blarcum“. I realized how far I’d sunk when suddenly the thought of naming a plant “Nancy Spathophyllum” almost, ALMOST, made sense. Sorry, but NOBODY is going to eat an onion nicknamed “G.G. Allium” if they’re even remotely familiar with the reference.
And then it really got to me. Suddenly, I realized that I had the perfect spokesfigure for a new line of high-intensity herbicides. A pernicious weed with thick-frame birth control glasses and smarmy smirk, that hyperfocused on one subject and wouldn’t shut up about it, before being burned down to the soil line by a welcome rain of poisons and acids. The world’s ready for “Coriander Doctorow,” isn’t it?
Oh, don’t look at me like that. This is your dead rhinoceros moment. Besides, what’s he going to do: sue for copyright infringement?
Because with the vernal equinox comes the big yellow hurty thing in the sky staying out longer and longer. Last summer, people finally understood what I meant when I said “If I’m not back in my coffin by sunrise, I turn back into a pumpkin.”
Even though we’ve been delieriously happily married for almost a decade, the Czarina and I occasionally have problems with elaborations on communication. The biggest problem is that she’s never consistent. My nearly-three-year-old nephew calls up to tell us “I went poo-poo all by myself!”, and she’s thrilled. If I call her to tell her this, she beats me. Further elaboration usually makes things worse: telling her during the beating “It’s not as if I asked you to weigh it!” usually wakes up the neighbors with the howls of “What the hell is WRONG with you?” And here I thought I was trying to help.
Believe it or not, I actually learn valuable lessons from these incidents. Namely, when ex-girlfriends call up out of the blue to see what I’m up to, I pay attention to that little voice in my head that tells me “Jump…jump NOW!” Unfortunately, this also means that the Czarina gets worried when I suddenly change plans in midstream, or at least re-evaluate them, which is why she worried when I started wondering if I should go to this year’s International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference 2012 this August 11-13. In this case, it’s not so much a re-evaluation as a concern, but she worried all the same.
That’s not to say that any and all readers shouldn’t register right now. I’ll even note that the Conference is organizing field trips for partners and spouses who don’t want to breathe and live carnivorous plants. Right now, though, for me, everything is going to depend upon how well next May’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show goes, and then we’ll see.
Well, that was an interesting weekend. All-Con 2012‘s ending saw wild rainstorms, nearly 11.5 centimeters in less than 12 hours, and pollen explosions, and the pollen explosions started a bit early. As the sole purveyor of floral entertainment, I spent the whole weekend apologizing to visitors to Texas. A tiny bit of advice: when you see your dealer’s room neighbor with an exceptionally puffy face, offer a couple Zyrtac instead of asking “So how badly did you kick that motorcycle gang’s asses?” She’ll appreciate the gesture.
Anyway, since All-Con is predominately a costuming convention with undertones of extreme strangeness, the Triffid Ranch booth didn’t stand out that much. However, it’s just distinctive enough that attendees who visited last year were quite pleased to see it as part of the assemblage. As can be told by the photos, Triffid Ranch customers are just as diverse as the plants, and the photo quality was limited only to the talent or lack thereof of the guy holding the phone:
This show featured a whole set of bottle arrangements with small sundews inside, and these were surprisingly popular among the costumer population. Next year, I’m making a set specifically to encourage visitations from resident Mayas, Delenns, and Martha Joneses.
This young lady came to the show as an artist’s model, entering the Saturday night costume competition as the classic Batman villain Poison Ivy. Who knew that she’d have a real-life fascination with carnivorous plants?
As an extra, the Rockwall Half Price Books store hosted a booth, and I knew the manager from when he worked at the Richardson store and watched me strip the gardening section. He was just as thrilled to get a sundew as everyone else.
It wasn’t all about carnivorous plants at this show. The dragonfruit cactus is gradually waking up from winter slumber, and this gentleman really wanted something different.
Oh, and as an extra, it’s not always just about the plants. This young lady came by to tell me how she had an emergency costume failure…
…repaired with a Triffid Ranch button. I’m half-tempted to host a contest for the most interesting use of a Triffid Ranch button in the future, because I’m honestly surprised at every show about their uses.
Most friends know that I’m a defender of the odd animals in the garden. Others celebrate the bluebirds and the box turtles, but I’m the one who encourages the paper wasps, the Mediterranean geckos, and the occasional armadillo out back. That’s why these guys went back into one of the garden beds as soon as this picture was taken.
Mention “grubs” in North Texas, and you’ll get a few choice curses. The bane of most lawn obsessives is the grub of the June bug, Phyllophaga crinita, which feed on the roots of most of our local turf grasses. (Considering that Bermuda grass, widely considered a viciously invasive pest that probably originated the invective “Kill it with fire,” is one of the few turf grasses that can survive a North Texas summer, this should give an idea of how badly some gardeners loathe June bug grubs.) The big grubs up here, though, are from Strategus aloeus, commonly known as “ox beetles”.
The late-instar grubs can be the size of an adult’s thumb, and while they have sharp jaws, they’re otherwise completely harmless. They consume rotted organic matter, so most gardeners tend to find them in rotten wood, compost piles, and raised beds. They’re alarming, but having them in large numbers is a sign that you’re doing everything right with your garden. The handful in the picture above were collected solely by sweeping up leaf litter off my porch and onto a raised bed, which also revealed the wide tunnels they dig through the soil. Those tunnels manage to get humus and other debris into the local Blackland Prairie clay and loosen it up, going much deeper than earthworms or other detritivores.
What’s interesting for me is that the grubs are common, but I haven’t seen an ox beetle in thirty years. The beetles themselves are very impressive beasts, with a purple-brown shell and the males bearing small horns like a rhinoceros beetle. They apparently used to flock to streetlights in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but their descendants appear to have burned out that urge, and they’re only occasionally encountered. I’m certainly not complaining, as I’m perfectly happy to let their spawn turn my compost pile for me.
As far as predators are concerned, most larger carnivores (opossums, crows, raccoons) will eat the grubs if given an opportunity, which is why the grubs usually rapidly undulate deep into their burrows when disturbed. Fifteen years ago, I had a savannah monitor named “Steadman” (so named after regularly leaving his cage as splattered as a Ralph Steadman painting) who would practically do tricks for ox beetle grubs, but now I rescue them and feed the June bug grubs to the local mockingbirds. It seems to be a fair trade, and the ox beetles return the favor by loosening the soil around the roses and the tiger lilies. Again, I’m not complaining.
EDIT: A lesson to everyone, learned at my expense. I was certain that I was looking at D. regia here, but Ryan Kitko and a slew of other friends kindly noted “I hate to say this, but I think you have a Drosera filiformis instead of a Drosera regia here. Thankfully, I had my original receipt on hand, and discovered that what I had been calling “Drosera regia” really was D. filiformis after all. That said, if Black Jungle offers D. regia, buy one at once, and also consider that D. filiformis makes a great mosquito snare in the greenhouse, too. And now I take that tasty crow and turn it into a sandwich.
Way back in the Eighties, when pterosaurs soared through the skies, VCRs cost most people nearly a month’s pay, and nobody was embarrassed to wear spandex in public, I was a tropical fish enthusiast. No, scratch that: I was a tropical fish junkie. Let me loose in a well-stocked fish store, and you might as well tattoo “JUST ONE FIX” to my forehead. In that regard, letting me loose in northeast Wisconsin in 1985 was like giving William S. Burroughs a key to a smack factory and telling him “We’ll be back in a month.” In the days before the Interwebs, there wasn’t much to do in places like Menasha and Little Chute (then not known as the future home of Ellen Ripley) during the winter other than watch the snow fall and pickling one’s liver, so the fish shops were valuable bastions of sanity for those who couldn’t drink, couldn’t smoke, and didn’t want to follow in the traditions of fellow residents Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Me, I practically lived in several fish shops, where I learned the vagaries of community tanks, the basics of saltwater arrangements, and the allure of exotics such as discus and red-bellied piranha.
One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was “Don’t trust the fish books, because the fish don’t read.” This is something else that needed to be tattooed on my forehead, because whoo boy does this apply to carnivorous plants. Every once in a while, you come across the right conditions for what are generally considered difficult plants, and they’re nearly impossible to kill. In my case, the book-breaker was the king sundew, Drosera regia.
Two years ago, on a trip to Boston, I purchased a king sundew, cultivar “Big Easy,” from Black Jungle Terrarium Supply. Having heard about D. regia‘s notorious reputation for being difficult, I figured, with the hopeful arrogance of most horticulture students, that I wouldn’t botch it up too badly. The sundew went into the greenhouse in July, right after I got back, and it promptly went berserk catching mosquitoes and fungus gnats. It appeared to die off in September, but I also knew how many sundews play dead for a while before growing back from the roots, so I didn’t dump the pot right away. Over the winter, it sat outside, where it froze solid in our big week-long cold snap in February 2011, and it suddenly came back in March.
This time, it went into a tall ceramic pot with no drainage, and it seemed to do even better. The plant grew nearly a meter tall, and regularly seemed to reach out to grab my hair as well as its usual prey. The 2011 heatwave started, and it kept going. July and August blasted the earth, and it kept going. Finally, when things really dried out in September and October, it appeared to die back again, but I kept watering it from time to time to make sure. Finally, the pot broke during a rearrangement of plants in winter housing, and I took a closer look at the freshly sprouting mass. You can imagine my surprise at seeing eight new plants emerging from separate rhizomes, each the size of a coat button, acting as if the weather of the last year was standard operating procedure.
There’s not much more to tell at the moment. Right now, seven of the eight rhizomes are in a propagation tank, and I’ll probably bring out a couple to this weekend’s plant show. The eighth is going to go back into the greenhouse, where I’m going to figure out whether this is a new tolerant cultivar or I just ended up hitting the right conditions for it. Reports will follow.
Discuss with friends or co-workers where they would go and what they would do if given access to cheap and effective time travel, and the answers are usually painfully expected. Well, they are if the idea is not to influence the timestream in any way. Get up next to the big stage at Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix. Check out the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas in November 1963. Sip champagne at the Battle of Hastings. Oh, you might have a few people who want to go further back, but only so far as to see a dinosaur or two. All of time and space to play with, and we’re still desperately limited to human experiences and human timescales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this. If given the opportunity, and knowing that (a) I was going to change our current history irreparably if I made any changes and (b) I was never returning to my own time, I can think of lots of entertainment. Joining the French Resistance in 1942, for instance.)
However, were some madman with a blue box to give me an opportunity to visit any place and any time in Earth’s past, for a full day, I can think of two options. The first is to find a nice hilltop around 108 million years ago, and enjoy a picnic dinner while watching the asteroid impact that produced the crater Tycho on the moon. The other would be to drop off anywhere in Antarctica about 50 million years ago and go sightseeing. Not only would I see things never viewed with human eyes, but I’d probably see lots of things that aren’t even suspected. First and foremost, flora unlike anything else on our planet, then or afterwards.
The popular perception of Antarctica as a frozen, alien waste contains a lot of truth, but we’ve only known the continent for a little over two centuries. With 98 percent of its surface covered in ice, kilometers’ worth in some areas, precious little other than the coasts, the famed Dry Valleys, and some areas in the Transantarctic Mountains, the vast majority of Antarctica has been icelocked for longer than the genus Homo has existed. Because of the ice coverage, most of the continent’s features are obscure. To put it another way, Antarctica has a lake the size of Lake Ontario in North America, and it was only discovered in the 1990s.
(And before I start, I’d like to apologize to any and all Antarctic researchers and explorers reading this, because I feel your pain. I imagine you’re as sick and tired of references to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, coming from people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of human civilization to ever make the connection, as I am to references to Little Shop of Horrors. Aside from legitimate reasons for doing so, I won’t bring up either for the rest of this essay.)
Naturally, that ice doesn’t prevent palaeontologists from making new discoveries, but it definitely gets in the way. Hints of the geological and palaeontological richness of Antarctica’s past keep emerging, particularly with dinosaur discoveries in the Nineties and Aughts (most notably with the Jurassic theropod Cryolophosaurus), but almost nothing is known about Antarctica’s animal life after the dinosaurs became extinct. Floral knowledge is even worse: thanks to pollen analysis and some fossils in accessible deposits, Antarctica was one of the last holdouts for the Wollemi pine until about maybe 5 million years ago. Today, only two flowering plants still live on Antarctica, mostly because so little of the continent ever reaches temperatures amenable to growth. For all intents and purposes, Antarctica is an entire continent above the tree line.
It also needs to be said that palaeontological evidence still only gives hints of Antarctica’s former zoological and botanical bounty. It’s possible to make informed assumptions about certain lifeforms based on studies of South America, Australia, and New Zealand, based on their former connection through the supercontinent Gondwana. For instance, just looking at carnivorous plants, considering their distribution through the rest of Gondwana’s territory and on pollen analysis of Australian sites, Antarctica probably had its own selection of sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Judging by their current distribution through the Pacific Rim, particularly in Tierra del Fuego, the triggerplants (Stylidium) may – may – have considered Antarctica home before the continent froze. The problem, though, is that without some sort of fossil proof, this is all supposition. Carnivorous plant fossils other than pollen are incredibly rare because they generally lived (and continue to live) in areas hostile to fossil preservation, and any surmisals on what survived where before the antarctic glaciation depends upon finding fossils that aren’t, as mentioned before, under two kilometers of ice.
In a strange way, this ties directly into important concerns over introducing the seeds of potentially invasive plants to Antarctica, because the one last time I’d like to visit for a day would be Antarctica 30 million years from now. One way or another, whether it’s by anthropocentric climate change, a change in the ocean currents that help keep Antarctica’s temperatures stable, or the continent’s gradual tectonic shift north, Antarctica is going to thaw. At that point, the whole land surface is the cliched but appropriate blank slate. As recent news concerning Silene stenophylla raised from 30,000-year-old seeds, some native plant seeds might survive the freeze and sprout again. Human-transported seeds could very easily get established, and will probably become extremely invasive for a time. The biggest vectors of new flora, though, will be the ones that have been around for millions of years: water, wind, and birds. And they’re going to go nuts.
This won’t be a sudden change, and we definitely aren’t going to see forests at McMurdo Sound in our lifetimes even if Antarctica’s entire ice sheet melted tomorrow. Most of northern North America is still recovering from the last big glaciation in the Pleistocene, with many soils still being nutrient-poor: some theories about the wide range of the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea compared to its relations lie with its encouraging animal life such as mosquito larvae and rotifers as a replacement source of nitrogen. (As such, if you’ve ever been to Newfoundland and Labrador, you’ll understand why S. purpurea is the official floral emblem and provincial flower. S. purpurea is perfectly suited for the bogs of Newfoundland, Ontario, and Michigan, as well as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.) And North America wasn’t covered with ice for 5 to 15 million years, the way Antarctica has been. Once it thaws, the whole continent will gradually green up, and all of those plants will most likely be descendants of traveling seeds dropped within the last few hundred years. With Antarctica remaining an island continent as Australia gradually runs into Asia and produces a whole new run of mountain-building, comparable to India’s formation of the Himalayas, I’d love to see what the forests of Queen Maud Land look like in another geologic era or so.
Ah, it’s always something the week before a big show. Sunday was the Czarina’s turn to get horribly sick a half-hour before a friend’s wedding (in her case, labyrinthitis instead of my nearly-lethal asthma fit), and now there’s the glee of an emergency dentist’s visit to reattach a freshly popped crown. Thankfully, not only do I actually like visits to the dentist, but my dentist is a hoot. And yes, he’s getting a sundew today: he’s as sick of Little Shop of Horrors references as I am, so he’s threatening to feed the next person who starts doing Steve Martin impersonations to the plant. (I’d recommend saving that for the next one who asks “Is it safe?”, but that’s just me.)
In the meantime, I’m slightly disappointed with my previous dentist, even if he was a daylily junkie the likes of which even I couldn’t quite grasp. I mean, the tooth in question had a root canal back a decade ago, so there’s enough room in there for two cyanide capsules or three CIA mind control transmitters. Heck, there’s enough room in there to pack in enough Semtex to turn my head into an aerosol in case I were ever captured by enemy agents and threatened with torture. Either dentists are getting a lot less imaginative than in my youth, or my current dentist saw me coming and figured “Next thing you know, he’ll ask about having all of them replaced with chrome, so he can smile and scare the hell out of Sigourney Weaver.” The worst part of it all is that he’d be right.
It’s been a little while since the last time we had a good “Thursday is Resource Day” entry, and this one probably won’t be a good one. It, however, should be enough to get everyone through until the next one, as things are starting to pile up around here. Seriously, blame the plants, because our recent run of warm weather woke up everything, and I’m now up to my armpits, almost literally, in “Pink Lemonade” blueberry flowers.
Anyway, to start off, things got very interesting in the Dallas/Fort Worth home and garden show market all of a sudden. Ever since the original company running the Texas Home & Garden Shows shut down and was bought out, both the programming and the general lineup at the shows has been progressively worse and worse. Remember a while back, when I was joking about organizing and starting the “Manchester United Flower Show” for gardeners under the age of 65? Over the last few months, it was seeming more and more reasonable.
And then, completely by luck, I discovered the Great Big Texas Home Show, being held this weekend in Arlington. Any home and garden show that offers a refund for dissatisfied customers already piques my interest, as does the list of exhibitors. Were it any other weekend, I’d brave the horrors of Cowboys Stadium parking to come out for this and check on exhibitor’s space for smaller vendors.
Unfortunately, this is a bad weekend. To attendees of the show, understand that the vague grinding sound you hear in the back of your head is the sound of my molars doing their best impersonation of the New Madrid Fault in sheer jealousy. I’m being a responsible grown-up, though, and continuing to get ready for the second Triffid Ranch show of the year at All-Con in Addison. It’s now late enough in the season that the flytraps are emerging from dormancy, the Sarracenia are starting to bloom, and we’re reasonably assured that we won’t see any more freezing weather until next December in North Texas. Hence, it’s time to party. Come on out and watch me regale the younger attendees with tales of what science fiction fandom was like in the days before the Internet, and maybe check out the plants, too.
And now for a bit of fun. I’m constantly asked “Why raise carnivorous plants?”, and the long story involves growing up in Michigan with its extensive mosquito and horsefly herds. You’ve heard the old tale of how Arctic mosquitoes can drain a person of as much as a pint of blood per hour? Spend some time around Alpena or Manistee, and you’ll realize that this isn’t idle speculation. My paternal grandmother lived up in the woods of Northern Michigan, and I remember her buying Deep Woods Off by the case. Hence, when I was first exposed to Monty Python at the age of 11, I had particular appreciation for the saga of the mighty mosquito hunter:
Well, thanks to our unusually warm and mild winter, our early spring, and several bountiful and extensive rainstorms, the mosquitoes are out about three weeks earlier than usual. I’d even be worried about their being more fruitful than usual, if every last one in the vicinity wasn’t heading straight for my sundews and butterworts. I still note that carnivorous plants will never replace standard pest controls for dealing with insects, but carnivores have one morale advantage over sprays, mosquito dunks, and flyswatters. Namely, you can look over a hale and hearty Cape sundew, leaves covered with trapped mosquitoes and fungus gnats, and make “AAAAAAAAAH! HELP ME! IT’S GOT MY LEGS!” screaming noises as the leaves embrace the bugs for the first and last time. And oh how the situation from my childhood is reversed.
I’ll admit that, for someone my age, I have precious few freakouts over the times changing. If anything, anyone offering me the chance to go back to 1982, with or without my retaining everything that I’ve learned in the last thirty years, would get punched in the nose. (Well, that’s not completely fair. I’d go back for an hour, bushwhack my previous self from ’82 as he was coming home from school, break both knees, tell him to get his act together and quit journalism or I’d come back to finish the job, and then return to the present. But that’s just me.) Just when it comes to horticulture, viewing the new techniques, the new knowledge, and the new materials available that didn’t exist even five years ago blows me away. At least once a week, I look at how I can order seeds from South Africa and get detailed care instructions on plants indigenous to New Zealand, and set them underneath LED light systems designed to maximize the light usable by the plants while minimizing energy consumption. When I exclaim “I love living in the future,” I mean it.
As things change, though, I have to admit that sometimes while I don’t miss the past, I miss some of the side effects. I don’t miss the dank old decrepit hardware store in town, with the elderly owner who spent more time in day-long xenophobic diatribes than, say, sweeping the floors. However, I occasionally miss the days before elaborate point-of-sale systems at Home Depot, where I didn’t have to buy up the entire stock of an item I liked for fear that it would be discontinued and dumped in the “Clearance” aisle a week later. I don’t miss Sevin dust all over the cabbages by well-meaning relatives, but I actually miss bamboo leaf rakes that don’t cost the gross national product of Bosnia and that last more than one season. I like the automatic checkouts at garden centers. And I was surprised at how little I miss newspapers, but how much I find myself dependent upon newspapers a day or so later.
Odd as it sounds, newspaper has a million-and-five uses in the garden, and the decline of newspapers means that we’ll need new materials to replace it. Need to kill off grass in a new garden plot? Most garden guides recommend putting down several layers of newspaper over the grass, and then piling on fresh soil on top. Need a separation material between the various sheets of composting material in a lasagna garden? Nothing works better than newspaper. Remember the joys of making your own newspaper seed starter pots? Exactly how are you supposed to conserve on available resources if you’re having to buy sheets of paper to make them? Let’s see you use your iPad to pack up bare-root plants for transport, or to line a manure hotbed pit before filling it to the brim.
Until a few years ago, not buying the daily paper wouldn’t stop a dedicated gardener. Besides asking neighbors who were probably glad to hand over the 20 kilos of Sunday paper, you always had relatives who’d stack up the last few months’ reading matter until they decided it was time to dump it all. Go to work and stalk the break room, and the place would be loaded with discarded papers by about 10 in the morning. If that wasn’t an option, most cities had weekly newspapers that laughingly suggested “One copy is free; all other copies $2” on the front cover, with a handy address to receive the money. There was a bit of redundancy in spreading composted chicken manure over the Dallas Observer and its resident James Lipton of fandom‘s 60,000-word blatherings each week on comic books and Star Trek, but what can you do?
These days, though, finding a suitable supply of newsprint for gardening is quite the task. I have a friend and co-worker who does a lot of glasswork in his offtime, and he goes through a lot of newsprint during the shaping process. He finally filled a storage shed full of old newspapers, picked up Elvis-knows-where, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a new source. At the rate things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gardeners start stalking out crazy cat lady houses the way blacksmiths stalk out decommissioned wrought-iron bridges in the hopes of getting a suitable stockpile.
This isn’t to say that this is impossible. In my neighborhood, I already have a regular source for newspaper, and I don’t have to work at it. I just have to look for the sign.
Now, for years, Dallas gardeners could always depend upon getting tremendous quantities of free newspapers from the Dallas Morning News, delivered every other day. That is, until a little circulation scandal that horrified the CEO of the company (wink, wink), and suddenly stopped the flow of valuable paper pulp when advertisers threatened a class action suit. Never let a good idea go to waste, the CEO thought, so suddenly the Morning News‘s parent company started offering several free options that included Briefing and Al Dia. Much like disliked relations, they tend to arrive unannounced and unwanted, with the recepient left with the responsibility of disposing of them. Although I imagine the parent company would like to tell advertisers that each issue gets opened and read by an adoring family of eight at each and every address, most Briefing issues are dumped in the garbage as quickly as they’re received or (in the case of a neighbor who was particularly disgusted with the littering of his yard) tossed into the street. At least twice a week, a surly delivery guy drops them off, and asking said delivery drone to not drop it off gets a snarl, a rude gesture, or a frantic chirp of “Call the home office! Call the home office!” And don’t get me going about actually calling the home office, because any attempt to stop delivery gets repeated phone calls asking “Are you sure? After all, you’ll miss out on valuable coupons in each paper,” in an age of QR codes.
Besides, what we’re gunning for here isn’t just a discussion of the increasing self-inflicted obsolescence of print newspapers. It’s a matter of knowing that you accomplished something good in the garden and in your neighborhood by taking something unwanted and unloved and turning it into something beautiful. Besides, we want a LOT of papers. This is why you want to look for those “For Sale/For Rent” signs. It’s because, in areas where Briefing and Al Dia are delivered, you get sights like this:
The Briefing delivery guys don’t care that their papers pile up for days, weeks, or even months, because their bosses are insistent that they get them out. Their bosses don’t care, because they don’t have to clean copies of Briefing off their lawns every other day. (The Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas County has strict ordinances involving the dumping of unwanted trash in public view, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of the county.) You could subscribe to Briefing and get those papers one bit at a time, or you could keep an eye open for houses under construction, houses abandoned in foreclosure, or houses between residents and literally clean up. Trust me: not only will the neighbors not have issues with your swiping the piles, but they’ll probably thank you for your conscientiousness in caring for your community.
What you do with those copies of Briefing depends upon your intent and their condition. Get a couple of weeks of dry weather, and those piles will be close to pristine. Get out after a good North Texas gullywasher, and you’d think those sopping wet lumps are unusable. Pshaw! Dump them into any decent grade of wood chipper, and you have a wonderful mass of moist paper fiber for all sorts of things. Add grass seeds before dumping it onto a bald patch in the yard, and you have hydromulch. Put the pulp in the bottom of flowerpots to retain water and cut down on the weight of standard potting mixes. Mix it with dirt to shore up raised beds, or use it as a proper mulch for roses and around irises. Compress it in bowls and paint with nontoxic paints to make seasonal toad houses. You’re making your community more beautiful in more ways than one, and for free.
I know this doesn’t help gardeners in other areas with their lack of gardening foolscap, but this might give you ideas on available sources in your area. For Dallas-area gardeners, though, take advantage of the surprise bounty, and make sure to send pictures of the process to the crew at the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure they and their advertisers would love to learn how much of an influence they have upon the horticultural arts.
– A tip of the hat to Barry Kooda, who has been dealing with the delivery of Briefing to empty lots in his neighborhood for a lot longer than I have.
Thirty years since John Belushi died, and his description of how March comes and goes still applies to North Texas. Most of us here can agree that most of March sticks around as a cross between a frilled lizard and a common house cat, and that’s during the years when it doesn’t come in like a naked mole rat and go out like a Basilosaurus. (The late-month rains can be intense, you know?)
No matter how much you love your Day Job, it’s hard not to hum this song on a Friday when spring starts in Texas. The fact that this was sung by an old and dear friend doesn’t hurt, either.