Monthly Archives: April 2012

I get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

A tribute, if you will

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, the quintessential Chicago newspaper columnist. To say that Royko was one of my most influential journalistic role models as a kid doesn’t even come close to the situation. In fact, not only did Royko influence the state of the newspaper column through the Twentieth Century, but I submit that media through the Twenty-First owes him recognition as well. You wouldn’t have had newspaper columnists as diverse as Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Lewis Grizzard without Uncle Mike’s inspiration, and I’m certain that if he were alive today, he’d have one of the most-read and most-quoted blogs on the planet.

At the same time, considering what has happened to standard journalism since he died, I also think he really got the last laugh. Royko was famous for quitting the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and laughing when Murdoch tried to pretend this wasn’t an issue and ran old Royko columns in their place. In some afterlife, I can see him cutting up with his friend Studs Terkel, howling “They practically gave me a state funeral! Talk about leaving early to avoid the rush! I wonder what they’re gonna do for Skip Bayless and Elvis Mitchell: set fire to the garbage can before tossing them in?”

Goodbye, Uncle Mike. And goodbye to your lifelong pal Slats Grabnik, too. There are times where my old friend Edgar Harris mourns that we won’t get any more anecdotes from Slats or Dr. I.M. Kookie as well.

Have a Great Weekend

Things to do in Fort Worth when you’re dead

This weekend will be dedicated to getting everything ready for next week’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show at DFW Airport (and check out the PDF vendors’ list), but those readers who don’t need to go insane with repotting Bhut Jolokia peppers or Medusa head Euphorbia might want to take note that the annual Spring Festival at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden‘s Japanese Garden is this weekend. Go have fun, and if you hear random screaming and cursing from the east, that’s just me.

And speaking of Dallas, I’d also like to note that the big Dale Chihuly garden glass exhibition at the Dallas Arboretum opens next weekend. Obviously, opening weekend is out, but just watch us stay away after that. For the people who come up to the Czarina and request to see her famed elbows, just tell her “Chihuly sucks” and watch them go to work firsthand. It’s like some oddball fusion of a world-class boxing match and a Ginsu commercial.

Introducing Oenothera speciosa

Last month, I had one of those conversations that makes you want to dig around in reference material for a few days. Specifically, I was showing plants at a show to a gentleman who was unfamiliar with carnivores, and he took a particular shine to a primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primuliflora). The name confused him, though: “I know primroses, and that’s no primrose. Why do they call them that?”

At the time, I explained that this was a great example of why Latin binomial nomenclature is so important: I explained that a lot of plants receive the common name “primrose”, but that he needed the Latin names to help distinguish between them. After he left, though, I kept asking “Why ‘primrose’?” I was familiar with the color primrose, which could fit some varieties of plant with that color of flower. However, North Texas has at least two varieties of plants called “primrose”, one with bright canary yellow blooms and one with bright pink blooms. So what was the connection?

I learned later that the term “primrose” refers alternately to the first-blooming flowers of the spring and to flowers that close in the morning and open in the evening. This works, except for the flowers that buck that trend. Oenothera speciosa, the pink evening primrose, does a great job of waggling various appendages at pedantics, as it pretty much opens if and when it feels like.

Oenothera speciosa

O. speciosa is quite the common wildflower in Texas, especially right now, and it usually cheerfully blooms when most other wildflowers have died off for the summer. It grows just about everywhere, but does best in open areas with lots of sun and protection from excessive mowing. As such, it’s found along highways, drainage ditches, vacant lots, and back alleys. It’s usually not invasive, so most people don’t notice it save when its blooms pop in the middle of an otherwise monotonous field.

Oenothera speciosa, the pink evening primrose

Now, you may notice that the common name for this primrose includes the word “pink”, but this photo shows precious little. That’s a bit of a surprise. O. speciosa blooms tend to be rather reactive to ultraviolet light, and shining a UV flashlight on one in the dark reveals that it tends to fluoresce white-yellow. The upshot is that this photo was taken with a new camera after my old one finally cacked it about two weeks ago, and apparently this new camera is much, much more sensitive to UV than the previous one. This may not be much, but get ready for some interesting projects in the next few weeks.

Now that’s just wrong

The Czarina and I are celebrating ten years of marriage at the end of the year, on top of an additional decade as good friends, and yet we’re regularly mistaken for newlyweds. Some couples understand. Others just get upset and stomp off, clutching their abdomens and gasping “Ow! My pancreas exploded!” Still others ask our secret, and they look at us strangely when I tell them “Letting your husband have a crocodile monitor as a pet.” (Hey, one of these days, this might work.)

The real secret, to be honest, is being in a situation where each partner has a separate bathroom. This isn’t just for those situations where trying two functions in the same space is aggravating or flat-out impossible. Since the Czarina and I keep wildly different work schedules, this is the best way for us to get ready for work or wind down for the night without disturbing the other. She’s not getting chocolate in my shaving brush, and I’m not getting peanut butter in her Nair. It’s worked remarkably well for a decade, especially on those afternoons where I come in, coated with ordure and sawdust after turning the compost pile, and she can’t reasonably insist that I hose off in the front yard. We tried that once. That much albino flesh showing at once, and half of the neighborhood had flashburns on their retinas.

Therefore, we have our own spaces. Her bathroom and vanity resembles Cleopatra’s makeup laboratory. Mine just makes people ask how long I let Hunter S. Thompson camp out in the bathtub. Either way, we get remarkably few relatives and acquaintances asking to crash on the couch. One look at the life-sized Nanotyrannus head over the toilet takes care of that.

Even here, the plants intrude, in the most surprising places.

To go with all of the other fence-hugging vines out back, ranging from trumpet vine to moonflowers, I let luffa squash (Luffa acutangula) go feral two years ago. In most years, this earns a decent crop of luffas at the end of the year, and these generally get used as potscrubbers and glass cleaners. They’re gentler on glass and plastic than Scotchbrite pads and the like, and the best thing about them is that (a) they’re cheap to grow and (b) when the scrubber wears out, you just toss it onto the compost pile. Since the tub in my bathroom is a bit delicate, I use a luffa to scrub down the sides so as to prevent scratching, and it’s usually good for about a year before it needs to be replaced. (I’ll also note that these are nearly essential for cleaning terra-cotta pots without abrading them, and I use them for cleaning up dirty porcelain pots as well. You’d be amazed at how many garage sale rejects can be converted into desirable and attractive Nepenthes pots with a judicious application of luffa abrasion and elbow grease.)

Well, no matter how well you clean and prep your luffas at the end of the season, a few seeds remain trapped. Most are immature seeds, ivory-white and flexible, and those go down the drain without any problems. A few, though, are still viable, and just wait for a suitable abrasion of the waxy integument on the outside of the seeds before they germinate. Given the right temperature and humidity, they germinate extremely well. With the absolute perfect conditions, they’ll sprout in extremely unlikely places. The top of a soap drain, for instance.

Luffa seedling on a soap drain

To her credit, the Czarina didn’t yell or so much as raise her voice when I demonstrated the new addition to the household. She didn’t even cock an eyebrow and ask “So you were cleaning out garage sale pots in the bathtub, weren’t you?” (Well, I had, but she wouldn’t have needed to rub it in. Besides, that was only to soak them in sanitizer before drying them. She gets a bit tetchy when I try to wash them in the dishwasher.) Instead, she chirped “Plant it out back and see if it grows!” Yep, she’s a keeper.

As a little aside, there’s no reason you can’t replicate this experiment all on your own. All you need is an ever-shedding cat and an ever-shedding shaving brush, one luffa seed, a soap drain, and a nice warm bathroom. Collect cat fur, from where the FreakBeast is rolling around in the bottom of the tub while you’re at work, every morning as you finish your shower, and put the seed atop your unorthodox growing medium. In about four days or so, take note of your new squashling. Plant it in reasonably acid soil with lots of compost, and watch it take over.

If anyone gives you any grief for encouraging delinquency in vegetables, tell them to talk to me. I’ll tell them about the time in the late Eighties that I used leftover gravel from a friend’s reptile cage as drainage for planters, not knowing that this friend’s former roommate had the habit of dumping the seeds from his latest dime bag of pot into the bottom of the reptile cage. That was not only when I learned that paying attention to proper seedling identification is essential, but that my late cat Jones did his utmost to protect me from charges of cultivating controlled substances by mowing down every last seedling as it emerged. (This was about the time that I also learned that, to the completely idiotic, savannah monitor urine looks exactly like crack cocaine. That’s a story recorded elsewhere.) There are things MUCH worse than the occasional squash seedling in the bathtub.

Have a Great Weekend

This time of the year, both the subtext of the song and the literal title apply with equal measure. This also comes with a friendly shoutout to Ms. Shirley Manson: if I’d been another three hours premature, we’d be the same exact age.

Introducing Hemidactylus turcicus

As mentioned for a while, we have a lot of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) in the Dallas area. As can be told by the name, they’re not native in the slightest: they apparently arrived in the US in Florida on potted plant shipments, and they’ve been steadily moving west since the 1950s. The first time I ever noticed them was in 1990, where large adults were taking advantage of porch lights on an old apartment of mine to snag insects. Today, they’re all over Dallas, where they’re usually only noticed when they wriggle away from approaching humans on brickwork and stucco walls.

For the ophidiophobes out there, the Medgecko is a much better neighbor than the Tokay gecko (Gekko gekko), which has tried and failed many times to become acclimated to the Dallas area. (Back in the Eighties, a popular suggestion for dealing with cockroach problems in apartment buildings was to buy Tokays and then let them loose in the apartment. Not only did this do nothing to the roach population, but those happy new Tokay landlords discovered that they had a beast that bit and bit hard when approached. Tokays also have the charming habit of getting directly over a person on a ceiling or wall, barking loudly, and then crapping on the eager upturned face trying to identify the noise. I’ve heard of Tokays becoming dog-tame, but I’ll believe it when I see it: I’ve had too many encounters with them.) H. turcicus is very skittish around humans, and most encounters with one consists of hatchlings getting into a house in search of new territory. A Medgecko may spend its entire life in a territory about three meters from where it was born, and most of its species’ prodigious migration is due to females laying their eggs on moving trucks and shipping containers (the eggs actually glue themselves to the chosen surface), where the hatchlings emerge hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the place of their laying. In Dallas at least, they don’t compete with indigenous geckos, and they do keep the bugs down a bit.

However, there’s always the joy of finding one inside, such as when the Czarina found a big adult in her bathtub a while back.

Hemidactylus turcicus

See the little dark patch in his abdomen? That’s his liver. H. turcicus is translucent enough that it’s possible to make out internal organs and stomach contents, and if you should be in front of a pane of glass on which one is resting, it’s actually possible to see its little heart beating. The translucency gives an idea of how delicate they are: many people come across them after they’d been captured by the local cat, usually with a leg or two broken and the tail removed. (The tail isn’t a big deal, as it auto-sheds at the slightest touch. It’s very rare to find a large one like this with a complete tail with proper markings, and most have tails the color of stale egg nog.)

Hemidactylus turcicus (closeup)

And before you ask, this little guy went back outside where he belonged. He couldn’t escape the bathtub, and now he’s ensconced in the greenhouse with others of his kind. Let them fight their war with the orbweaver spiders with one additional warrior.

“Uhh…like, his name is ‘Number Two‘. Huh huh huh huh.”

Coming up for breath from a very long day, I couldn’t help but laugh at Black Walnut Dispatch’s assessment of Serenbe, Georgia. I remember a television show about this place:

(Naturally, this isn’t helped by taking a look at the Welsh resort Portmeirion, the shooting location for The Prisoner, and its extensive gardens. It’s on the list of places to visit when the opportunity presents itself, after McMurdo Sound and the Blue Mountains of Australia.)

Introducing the FreakBeast

It had to come to this. The song was absolutely correct:

I know this because I was informed by Network Solutions this morning that this blog has nowhere near enough photos of cats on it. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they said they’d have to do to me if I didn’t rectify this. Tasers. Sawdust. Hipster poetry. By the time they mentioned “Nickelback concert”, I caved. I mean, what would you do?

Because of this, it’s time to introduce the youngest employee at the Texas Triffid Ranch. Meet Leiber.

Leiber, the FreakBeast

As can be told by his intense expression, Leiber doesn’t care that last Friday was his tenth birthday. He also doesn’t care that he was named after a much-beloved enthusiast of felines of all sorts. In fact, were I to have known how dopy this cat was when I first adopted him, I would have named him “Niven” instead. He’s a sweet cat in his own way, but he’s also so dumb that he trips on the carpet pattern at times, and I wish I were joking. About the carpet pattern, that is, because it’s hard to explain to guests that he has a walking problem. If this cat could speak, the only English he could manage is “Humperdidoo!”

I don’t want to imply that he’s completely worthless. He has some intrinsic value, in some alternate reality where the common currency is manufactured from cat vomit. He’s very good, VERY GOOD, at tripping people in the dark. He’s a master at screaming helplessly at the occasional invading mosquito, even if he couldn’t catch one with surface-to-air missiles and a complete fire team. If universities offered degrees in “chewing on vinyl shower curtains for no readily apparent reason,” he’d have a Ph.D. We started referring to him as “the FreakBeast,” because his grasp of English is right up there with his grasp of French, Latin, Urdu, and modulated armpit farts, and he responds to that as much as he does his given name. This either suggests that he’s intensely intelligent and just refusing to blow his cover until the interstellar invasion fleet arrives to blow up the sun, or he’s exactly as advertised. Humperdidoo!

Now don’t get me wrong. I may give him an inordinate amount of grief, but I’m also incredibly fond of the little monster. He has a thing about trying to sleep on my hip, so I just comment that he has something in common with the Czarina: riding my butt while I’m trying to take a nap. He can’t quite meow, so his vocabulary of meeps and chirps is exceedingly entertaining. He’s also the first cat I’ve ever had that fetches thrown items, leading him to drag his favorite toys for us to chuck across the house. In other words, trying to find unique things about him, other than noting that his base skill consists of shedding defensive hairs like a terrified tarantula, makes us no different from any other cat owner on the planet.

No matter how much one loves a cat, every cat owner has the same dream. Namely, looking the little furball dead in the eyes and telling him “It’s time for you to get a job and earn your keep around here.” Even better is being able to tell the cat to get a job worthy of his skills and aptitudes. This is why Leiber has now been appointed the official Triffid Ranch Social Media Officer. It’s a role for which he’s perfectly suited.

Leiber, the FreakBeast

Yeah, you can see the expression in his eye. That’s not glowing hellfire and severe radiation. That’s ambition.

And now for the funny and/or disturbing

It’s going to be a busy week, between plants and the Czarina’s show this weekend, so let’s just pretend that this is what is going on in the greenhouse, okay? On one side, this is research being done by someone significantly less dorky than I am. On the other, the sort of work I did over the weekend is best fictionalized by someone like David Cronenberg.

Have a Great Weekend

And yes, when I bring up the phrase “I’m living in my own private Tanelorn,” I’m referencing this song. Well, halfway. The other reference may be to Michael Moorcock’s fictional city, or it may be to a certain Australian music festival of thirty years ago. It’s your call.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

The observation of the day, courtesy of my friend William Nobilis: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for life. Give an octopus nunchuks, no one’s eating fish ever again.”

Things to do in Carrollton when you’re dead

Oh, my miniature garden enthusiast friends are going to laugh at me. Laugh. Laugh and snort and giggle and hiccup and possibly go incontinent. I don’t mind any of this, except for the incontinence, and that I’ll tolerate if they clean up their messes. It’s just that I know that I am Right, and I am Correct, and I Know Of What I Speak. Giving them all the particulars on an essential miniature garden accessory resource makes it all worth my effort.

I’ve joked for a while that I’m sufficiently far enough along in some of my horticultural researches that any book answering some of my current questions will be one that I write myself. (And no, I am not wanting to write a book, at least not for the next five years or so. That’ll be about the time necessary for the fallout from E-books and the collapse of Borders to trickle into the publishing water table and stop producing giant mutant cockroaches.) It’s much the same situation with particular accessories desired for garden arrangements. After a while, you want to give up looking for that perfect slate walkway tile and just make your own.

Miniature garden arrangements are a bit more problematic, mostly because they need to be sufficiently durable to handle being left outside or in a bright window. The obvious source for a lot of miniature garden accessories is a dollhouse furniture retailer, but a lot of those items aren’t intended to be exposed to wind, rain, frosts, and high levels of ultraviolet. More retailers specializing in accessories and ornaments specifically for miniature gardens, such as Two Green Thumbs, are available, but they also may not scratch the creative itch. If your imagination is fixed on something really odd, then it’s usually something you’ll have to make yourself.

This is why I’m sending you all in the direction of, a stalwart resource for model builders for decades. This isn’t just because it’s a great source for parts from existing models that can be converted to new uses. Back in the days before CGI, hobby shops were a necessary source of parts for miniatures for movie and television productions, and that’s the same case for hobbyists as well as professionals. No, it’s because Squadron also carries a lot of items for scratchbuilding items, and many of these are perfect for miniature gardening. Look into Milliput superfine epoxy putty for making your own sculptures, for instance.

The other reason why I bring this up is because Squadron’s annual modelbuilding event, EagleQuest XXI (PDF), runs this coming June 21 through the 23rd, and one of the perks of membership in EagleQuest is a 40 percent discount on purchases from Squadron’s main warehouse. Seeing as how this is the only time of the year where average customers are allowed into said warehouse, there’s no telling what you might find, and unorthodox gardeners might find it worth their time to visit. And I don’t know about you, but I’m sorely tempted to enter a diorama entry involving a classic model from the Seventies with live Norfolk Island pines and other Cretaceous flora.

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

Tyrannosaurus (worst view)

It’s only a matter of time before the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park moves to its new home near downtown, and that means that we’ll have a new home for the Beer & Bones events on Thursday nights. If John Simon Ritchie here can’t convince you that it’s worth the trip, what will?

Tyrannosaurus back view

The next Beer & Bones event is June 21, with the subject being “Space Cadets”. I think this might have to become a costume event.

More fun with Cthulhufruit

In other developments, I’ve discovered some very interesting things about the Buddha’s Hand citron, Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, and its proper propagation in Texas. I already knew that to encourage blooming in spring, it had to be protected from excessive light at night, such as from streetlights and back porch lights. A bit of nighttime shade from a new fence, and it promptly started blooming. What I didn’t know was that Dallas isn’t known for its lack of citrus trees just because of our occasional cold winters. While this doesn’t stop kumquats, grapefruit, or lemons, our poor Cthulhufruit needs much higher humidity, and more stable high humidity, in order to keep it from dropping immature fruit.

Yeah, this was all learned by accident, when I came across a brand new fruit, about the size of my thumb, on the poor little recovering tree. A quick search revealed four fruits at varying stages of growth. That’s when I made my other big discovery. Most books and references on citrus treat Buddha’s Hand trees spend maybe a paragraph or two on Cthulhufruit before moving on to more respectable trees, usually with a snippy aside of “Only grown as a novelty” or something similar. A few might mention that the fruit comes in two forms, the “closed hand” and the “open hand”, with the latter generally commercially known as “goblin fingers”. NOWHERE does anybody say ANYTHING about how this isn’t a difference between different cultivars of C. medica var. sarcodactylis, but instead a difference in relative humidity during the early development of the fruit.

Naturally, I was thrilled with the developments, and made tentative plans for the ripened fruits come winter. That’s when the tree said “Oh, HELL no,” and dropped one of the goblin finger fruits.

Immature Cthulhufruit

Was this disappointing? Yes. Was this aggravating? Definitely. It didn’t stop me. A good healthy dose of fresh bat guano to feed the tree, and that dropped budlet became a perfect little LOLPlant:

Let Cthulhufruit give you the finger

Now you know why I’m so fond of Buddha’s Hands. The local gardening clubs look at me the way citrus writers look at them.

Introducing Lonicera japonica

Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica

At the moment, the North Texas area is truly in the middle of spring. We’re past any reasonable chance of a freeze (although the area reached just short of freezing 39 years ago today, so it could happen), with about three weeks to a month before things start to get torrid. (Of course, as mentioned last year, it’s not truly summer until you can’t walk into a grocery store anywhere in the state without at least four old ladies accosting you to tell you “It’s HOT,” as if we always get snow flurries and sleet on the Fourth of July. Last year, I went grocery shopping early, because otherwise the place sounded like a pterosaur rookery.) When we aren’t being dragged to Oz by tornadoes (and the current count of last week’s April Madness was 17 in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area), the wind is mild, the sun tolerable, and the nights incredible. The evening air this time of the year makes the worst summers worthwhile, because it’s cool enough to get active while warm enough to leave the jackets and sweaters at home.

Right now, my best friend and I are getting particular mileage from those evenings, and I mean that literally. He bought a new Harley last summer, and spends the dusk and evening exploring exactly how far and how fast his monster machine will take him before he resigns himself to having to go home so he can get up for work in the morning. I’m no different, even if I’m on a mountain bike instead of a motorcycle. Back roads and bare paths, spooking armadillos and the occasional great horned owl because they didn’t hear me until we were close enough to touch…yeah, it’s that time of the year.

It’s during these perambulations that my best friend and I come into contact with one of North Texas’s most hidden-in-plain-sight invasive plants, usually as we’re buzzing right past. The air’s already clean, and then a quick whiff of fresh sweetness, and then it’s gone like a kiss from an ex-girlfriend. It’s Japanese honeysuckle season.

In all of my travels, the only other invasive plant I’ve come across that inspires as mixed a set of emotions as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) in Texas is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) in Oregon. In areas outside of Portland, Himalayan blackberry is an absolute menace once it’s established. It grows in huge clumps as much as eight meters tall. The canes are bandsaw blades with chlorophyll, and moving through a patch with anything other than plate mail is a great way to see how much blood the human body can lose at once. The plant gets established through seeds, cane tips, and runners from rhizomes, and extensive application of fire just encourages it. Gardeners and farmers spit and curse upon mention of the name, because clearing an established stand just means that the space is clear for a few birds to leave fresh seeds with their droppings and start the cycle again.

What makes it rough is that while the whole plant is a nightmare, the blackberries themselves are absolute heaven. At one point in the summer of 1996, my ex-wife and I stood at one spot in Washington State, right along the Columbia River, and picked berries for a solid hour without moving our feet except to get new containers. For most Portlanders, the Himalayan blackberry is becoming the New Zealand brushtail possum of local flora: yes, it’s wiped out whenever encountered, but summers also aren’t the same any more without local restaurants offering blackberry margaritas.

That’s about the situation with Japanese honeysuckle out here. Just whisper the name to gardeners, and wait for the shrieks. I understand that Debbi Middleton killed a big stand of the stuff all by herself, wielding a Garden Weasel like a naginata, in a classic battle that begs to be recreated by Peter Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mounted the tuber over her fireplace with the killing strike turned out toward the couch, so she could gaze upon it and snicker. When members of local garden groups get together to talk about the latest infestation, and they start mumbling “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit,” they aren’t kidding.

I understand. I sympathize. I join in with their justifiable wars against hackberry, greenbriar, and cottonwood seedlings. It’s just that I look at a clump like the one above, and remember how many times I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike in an attempt to stop and savor for a few seconds. Most people need a gallon of coffee to wake up in the morning. All I need is a bicycle, a bit of Hawkwind or Yavin 4 in the earbuds, and that insane scent in my nostrils to get me going. And so it goes.

Review: Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Machiavelli’s Lawn: The Great Writers’ Garden Companion, written and illustrated by Mark Crick
ISBN-10: 1847081347
ISBN-13: 9781847081346
Published: Granta Books (UK), 03/01/2011
Pages: 111
Language: English

Machiavelli's Lawn

When it comes to in-jokes, particularly extensive in-jokes, writers have two options. The better option is to write such jokes in such a way that the intended audience gets the humor, but that humor also gets those outside the loop. I say “better” because if the joke dies both with the in-audience and everyone else, the writer’s done. Science fiction is full of these failed attempts, where the only defense to a poorly written “comedy” is to yell “Oh, yeah? Well, I wrote this for the fans!” And what happens when the fans think that the resultant book or production is a pile of garbage?

The other option, rarely done well, is to ignore that urge to go for a larger audience. Go narrow and focused, and understand that 95 percent of the potential world readership will look at it like comedian Bill Hicks’s famed “dog being shown a card trick”. The trick isn’t to make the intended audience laugh. The trick is to be so good that it makes readers outside that vicious circle want to read the original reference and then go back to the in-joke. Occasionally, very occasionally, this works out, and the creator or creators are heroes in song and legend.

I won’t say that Mark Crick’s writers’ garden companion Machiavelli’s Lawn is going to appeal to 99 percent of the general readership. I can’t say that it’ll appeal to the vast majority of gardening enthusiasts. For those of us who spent far too much time reading things other than horticultural references, though, it’s a trip.

The conceit of Machiavelli’s Lawn is to write gardening guides in the style of various famous writers, such as Raymond Carver, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, and Pablo Neruda. That can be hard on its own, considering that the best material for parody is broad prose with a style about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail served at dinner. (This, incidentally, is why H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson are such an inspiration for aspiring parody writers as yet unable to work with the subtlety of Ray Bradbury or Mike Royko.) Discussing removal of tree suckers in the style of Bret Easton Ellis has its moments, but it’s not hard because Ellis’s style was practically a cliche from the second he started typing. Pulling off a parody of Martin Amis that was itself viciously funny (involving repotting an abused houseplant within a strip club) that’s more readable than an Amis story? Now that’s talent.

I might also add that Mr. Crick provided his own illustrations for this book with a similar mindset, as if the Ralph Steadman tribute wasn’t obvious. (I have to admit that I snagged this book because I first assumed that Mr. Steadman had moved from writing about wine and whisky to horticulture.) Here we also get treatments of Durer, Munch, Lichtenstein, Dali, and Robert Crumb, all distinctive and all appropriate for the essay being illustrated. If you aren’t familiar with any of these artists, don’t sweat it. Not knowing about them doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the illustrations. However, if you do…well, my Day Job boss is a proud Robert Crumb fan, and he got a good enough cackle over Crick’s hommage that he wanted to read the accompanying story just to get more context.

The problem here is that you have so many authors, and so many books, that could thrive under this sort of treatment that this book isn’t enough. In fact, I have one that’s been sitting in my head for a while, and let’s see if anyone’s sufficiently erudite to catch the reference:

“Amanda gets me a job as an arborist, after that Amanda’s pushing secateurs in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Amanda and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Amanda Thomsen.”

It’s amazing what you can get done on a three-day weekend

You know, most people spend a three-day holiday weekend lazing about, or puttering, or maybe getting a few things done that the normal schedule doesn’t allow. Oh, we did quite a bit of that. Date night on Saturday night was a matinee showing of John Carter, so the Czarina finally got the chance to see what was the big deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s secondmost famous creation. (Because she still has pattern nightmares over seeing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch twenty years ago, I didn’t bring up the singular horror of continuing the conceit from Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” and suggest the idea of A Princess Of Mars as written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice. Mugwumps instead of Tharks, for instance. One of these days, though, I will, when she last expects it, and her scimitar elbows will wail in the night.)

Instead, time was spent with The Plants. Plural. A new shipment of Nepenthes came in, so I can compare the suitability of several new species and hybrids for Texas life, which meant Saturday morning was spent frantically repotting them in fresh sphagnum moss. Friday was spent cleaning up the last of the mess from Tuesday’s tornado April Madness, which included clipping dead Sarracenia leaves, repotting bladderworts and triggerplants, and checking on hot pepper seedlings. On the last, thanks to the kind folks at the Chile Pepper Institute and Dilly’s Chilis, this summer should yield quite a crop of both Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers for those with that sort of inclination. At least, that’s the hope, and if hope was all I needed, half of Texas would have been covered with Roridula gorgonias plants last September. And so it goes.

Anyway, pulling weeds and picking whitefly makes you ask all sorts of interesting questions, and now half of my best questions are ones that require my going back to school to get answers. Some are the sort that require so much expertise that I’d probably have a couple of Ph.D theses by the time I had them answered to my satisfaction. Now, I could be greedy and hang onto these, or pass them on to folks who can do something with them. Even if the only response is a quick smack to the back of my head, at least I’ll know that someone else considered them.

The first one was relatively easy. Deadheading the current crop of Stylidium debile made me wonder if any suitably dedicated botany grad student has continued sequencing triggerplant genomes to view interrelationships between the species and with other plants. Some work is available, but dating from back in the Twentieth Century, and this only nailed down close relations to the Stylidacea. I’m considering some molecular palaeontology, by comparing the various species within Stylidium of Australian origin with those in Japan and South America. I have absolutely no proof right now, especially no fossil proof, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Stylidium or its forebears had as much variety and range in Antarctica before it froze in the Pliocene as the genus has in Australia today. Comparing genes of Australian species to those in Tierra del Fuego won’t prove that the genus used Antarctica as a bridge for a time, but it may give some additional lanes of study for understanding how the flora of Gondwana evolved as the supercontinent broke apart.

And the other? Again, this requires expertise and resources that I certainly won’t be getting any time soon. Last spring, I had a bit of an accident with several propagation flats full of Sarracenia pitcher plants. In an effort to get a more dependable source for drainage material than standard horticultural perlite, I decided to experiment with Growstone, an artificial pumice made from recycled glass. Naturally, after the plants were set and starting to emerge from winter dormancy, I get a call from the retailer, letting me know that the batch I’d purchased had a problem keeping a neutral pH. In other words, it was just a little too alkaline for most hydroponic options, and was definitely too alkaline for most carnivorous plants. Of course, I learned this right about the time the drought and heat of 2011 really kicked in, so I wasn’t sure if the plants were dying because of high pH or because they hadn’t evolved to grow and reproduce in a lead smelter.

Well, cleaning up some of last year’s batch, something interesting came up with the plants planted with Growstone as a drainage medium. Namely, most of the Sarracenia that survived were stunted and twisted, and others grew incredibly slowly. Purple pitchers, Sarracenia purpurea, though, grew much faster than expected. At that point, I remembered previous reading on how S. purpurea spread all through the eastern seaboard of North America, and then took a hard left and spread into Michigan, Ontario, and Alberta. Of particular note was that they seemed to do rather well in marl bogs in northern Michigan, and marl is extremely alkaline.

And there started the queries. S. purpurea obviously had a higher tolerance to alkaline conditions than its cousins, but how much of a higher tolerance? Did plants in the Michigan marl bogs grow more slowly than ones in more acidic soils, and was the alkalinity the only factor affecting slow growth? Best of all, what gene did S. purpurea have that its cousins lacked, what did that gene do besides control alkalinity tolerance, and could that gene be transferred to other Sarracenia? Was this something that could be introduced via standard crossbreeding techniques, or is the pH tolerance gene sufficiently recessive that it isn’t expressed in other species?

Now you understand why I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Most people would use a gigantic windfall to quit their jobs or go on perpetual vacation. Me, I’d enroll in a school with an exemplary natural history and botany program, and I wouldn’t leave until I had my answers or a professorship, whichever came first. In the meantime, I do what I can, and pass on some of these questions to friends that can do something with them. I just tell those friends “Now, remember, after you get back with your Nobel Prize money, you owe me dinner, okay?”

Have a Great Weekend

Very rarely, a cover of a classic song can be better than the original. This is one of those, from a classic member of the Bromley Contingent.

Introducing Stylidium debile

When I started studying carnivorous plants nearly a decade ago, I had no idea as to the level of trouble I was going to get into by now. I could count the number of carnivorous genera on my hands, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too hard to master these, would it? Nine years and seven months after I saw my first Sarracenia purpurea in the wild, this has become the hobby with no end. When I tell new beginners that this is one of the wildest periods of research into carnivores since the Victorian Period, I’m not exaggerating. New species, new genera, new hybrids, newly observed behavior…and all taking advantage of the great and mighty Interwebs to disseminate that information.

It’s that great research tool that first introduced me to Ryan Kitko and the genus Stylidium, and I’ll owe Ryan for the rest of my life for his gentle tap on the shoulder and redirection. In particular, I owe Ryan for introducing me to the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, because this little monster quite literally changed my life even further. I don’t want just to visit Australia to see the vast majority of known Australian species. I want to see the ones in Japan and Tierra del Fuego to see their indigenous species, too.

Stylidium debile

Experts still argue as to whether triggerplants qualify as full carnivorous plants, or whether they should be shoved into the taxonomic dustbin known as “protocarnivorous”. They have the ability to capture prey via sticky threads on their flower scapes, and they definitely secrete the digestive enzyme protease. Part of the issue seems to be that triggerplants seem only to be carnivorous during their blooming season. The rest of the year, they’re about as carnivorous as a rose. The carnivorous aspect of the blooms, understandably, is outshone by the reasons for the common name for Stylidium. Yes, the flower scapes can snag tiny insect prey, but so can many other species of carnivore. How many carnivores have a column between their blooms’ petals that thwack insects with pollen?

While the common name “frail triggerplant” may scare beginners, I assure you that this refers to the thin, wiry flower scapes, and not to its being overly delicate. As an introduction to triggerplants, S. debile can’t be beaten. I mean this almost literally. So long as its growing medium never dries out, it keeps growing. It seems to bloom the moment the temperatures rise enough to allow growth, and it keeps blooming until the first serious freeze. Its pot freezes solid, as what happened with a batch of them during the big Dallas blizzard of February 2011, and it comes back in spring. It readily sprouts from roots, so its container rapidly fills with its distinctive ground cover. It chokes out most weeds, and crowds the roots of most others if given a chance. If its pot has any light leakage at all, those leaks are filled with new plantlets. During the worst of last year’s head and lack of humidity, when even the horsecrippler cactus were ailing, the S. debile pots were full of happy, steadily blooming plants that only had issues if the pot went dry for too long. And then you have those tiny hot pink blooms with yellow centers, just waiting for bugs to land on top so the column could whip forward and smack them with pollen.

Stylidium debile buds

Another common question I’m asked, half in jest, is “Do you have any real triffids?” (For the record, this is matched in the number of times it’s asked with “Do you have a plant that can eat an ex-husband/ex-wife?”) While John Wyndham’s carnivorous perambulatory flora are fictional, the triffid’s venomous sting actually has a slight parallel with the triggerplants’ columns. When set off, S. debile actually causes a bit of a disconnect. You see the column locked back in its “ready” state, and then see it touching the bug or intruding finger, but without seeing the transitional swing to get from Point A to Point B. A friend holding one of my first triggerplant clumps was so freaked out when she realized this that she dropped the pot, and I really couldn’t blame her.

Stylidium debile blooms

Other than the necessity of keeping the potting mix moist, S. debile is one of the most undemanding carnivorous or protocarnivorous plants you can keep. It thrives in full sun and partial shade, although it keeps blooming all year if given full sun. It can be left outdoors, in a windowsill pot, or kept in a well-lit terrarium. It doesn’t freak out and die if given a small bit of liquid fertilizer every month or so, and it’s relatively nonplussed as to water quality compared to most other carnivores. I don’t recommend it as a staple, especially during the summer, but it can tolerate the occasional watering with Dallas municipal water. It keeps growing under high humidity and dangerously low, during air quality alert days, and any plants that die off are rapidly replaced by new offshoots from the roots. In the six years since Ryan gave me my first plant, I have yet to see a single pest attack it, not even a green cabbage looper or stink bug. It even seems to repel squirrels, as I’ve come home to discover treerat rampages among the Sarracenia pitchers and the flytraps that left the triggerplants untouched. I keep mine in equal parts peat and sharp sand, and propagation consists of pulling the root ball from the pot, tearing or cutting it into chunks, and potting each new chunk in fresh peat. Best of all, when kids at shows ask me if they can set off the flytraps’ traps in order to watch them close, I instead show them the triggerplants and tell them “Here: setting these off won’t hurt a thing.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go bug Ryan about other triggerplants. I keep telling him that it’s no coincidence that my favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”, because I can look over my pots of S. debile and tell myself, honestly and truly, that I will NEVER get tired of them.

Personal interlude

I have good news and bad news concerning the spate of tornadoes ranging through the Dallas area yesterday. The good news is that I didn’t make it, and I’m now doomed to walk the earth and feed on the flesh of the living. The bad news is that since I don’t have any other priorities, the Czarina wants me to mop the kitchen floor. (Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but right now the cats are shedding their winter coats. Five minutes after I finish mopping, they come strolling in, and visitors compliment us on our new grey felt floor covering. I’d shave them both if I thought it would do any good, as Leiber in particular appears to be part tarantula whenever he’s picked up. One neck scritch, and you can see his outline in shed hair on the carpet.)

Anyway, seriously, we missed the worst of the storms. No baseball-sized hail, no tornado touchdowns, and no panic at the Day Job over which of us would make the best food source if rescue wasn’t coming. Lots and lots of rain, a full two inches’ worth, which made the Sarracenia very happy, but nothing abnormal. Of course, just try defining “abnormal weather” in North Texas if you want a complete semantic nervous breakdown. Considering the climate anomalies over the last two years, anything short of an asteroid strike, and the local meteorologists just shrug. Now it’s time to help everyone else clean up, because while things could have been a lot worse, we still have quite the mess.

EDIT: And to add to the weather-related spectacular, I just realized that I got the Harry Potter scar on my forehead thirty years ago Monday, when I was hit in the head with a sheet of plywood caught in a dust storm coming through the Dallas area. Considering that this would have caught me in the throat had I been standing up, instead of leaning over a pig pen (long story), I had enough fun with weather-related mishaps before I turned 16. Monday was also the 30th anniversary of my first published article, a book review in my high school newspaper, so I can state with authority that disasters and misery tend to come in pairs. And so it goes.

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

We made it to the end of March. No last-minute snowfall. No end-of-month freezes or frosts…yet. Oh, the trees and weeds are determined to wipe out all animal life with pollen, but that’s not quite the disaster of the big snowfall in mid-March 2010. And what do we get for our reward? Sarracenia blooms!

I once had an English professor who stated that everyone should write as if a new writer were given a total of three exclamation points to use over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t disagree, but I always felt that a better solution was inspired by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman”, with the writer relinquishing a year of life for every exclamation point used. Naturally, if this rather draconian example actually ever saw use, you’d see millions of YouTube and political site commentators dropping dead days after turning 15, but there you go. When it comes to Sarracenia, though, I willingly give up a year to emphasize the joy. In fact, let’s give up another one: THE SARRACENIA ARE IN BLOOM!

Sarracenia bud

The trouble starts with these little flower scapes. They’re usually an excellent guide to air and soil temperatures, and when I tell customers that the Sarracenia generally won’t be for sale until after St. Patrick’s Day, it’s because I’m waiting for these to come up out of their winter dormancy first. Since the various species in the genus Sarracenia usually depend upon the same insects as pollinators as for prey, they generally put out their bloom spikes first, and then start growing pitchers.

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

This isn’t to say that this is an absolute. Since many of the Sarracenia are still recuperating from last year’s drought, many stressed plants will forgo putting out flowers and concentrate instead on growing new pitchers. Incidentally, this photo was from a week ago, and the pitcher spike in the background is now nearly twice the size of its neighbor. If our current benevolent and humid weather continues, this one may have pitchers as much as a meter tall by the end of April.

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

But let’s get back to the blooms. A typical Sarracenia bloom is about the size of a ping-pong ball, with a large cap on the bottom. As with many other flowering plants, Sarracenia attracts pollinators with both color and scent. Sarracenia alata, the yellow pitcher plant, tends to have blooms with a rather cat musk smell, which both seems to attract cats and repel raccoons. Others range in fruity and rosy scents, including several that, as Peter D’Amato noted to considerable merriment, smell almost exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. I don’t laugh at him when he says this, because he was understating the case.

Now, the cap and the petals work together to capture insects, but not in the way you’d expect. The bloom’s anthers are within the cap, so insect pollinators have to force themselves through the petals to get to the flower’s nectar. The petals block the entrances merely by dint of hanging free, so the bug runs into the anthers repeatedly while trying to get out. The cap also captures pollen knocked free from the anthers, so the bug gets a Shake & Bake treatment by the time it finally gets out and goes to another pitcher plant bloom. (Among other things, this may help explain why Sarracenia species produce so many natural hybrids, as visiting insects are simply covered by the time they work their way out.) The plant doesn’t want to capture them permanently for their nitrogen: any carnivorous plant that captures its pollinators before said pollen can get to another plant isn’t going to be in the gene pool for long.

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

Not that this stops other plants in a clump (or, in this case, a nursery) from taking advantage of another’s pollinators. In this case, the little brown spots on the lip of this hybrid Sarracenia‘s pitcher are ants, all getting drunk and falling into the pitcher. Considering the huge colony of ants hiding out in the roots of a cactus on the edge of the growing area, this Sarracenia is going to feed very well this spring.

And now, back to the nursery. Among other things, it’s time to learn how to use this cell phone camera properly.