Monthly Archives: May 2012

More news about World Horror 2013

To follow up on yesterday’s comment on possibly getting a table for the 2013 World Horror Convention in New Orleans, I’d like to add one note. Because of both the cost and the logistics required for a successful show, the sooner event organizers respond to a query, the sooner we can make plans as to whether or not to pay for vendor space. The only thing that’s more worrisome than not hearing from a venue at all is hearing from a venue only after the official registration deadline. (In this case, this almost always means that the show organizers don’t have anywhere near enough vendors to fill their space, and they’ll take anyone whose money is green. If the show has a lack of vendors, it usually means that it’ll have a lack of attendees, too.)

Now, there are times when hearing from a venue late is better than hearing from them early. With Texas Frightmare Weekend, for instance, I received a response to my first vendor query about a month after the show. Considering that I only contacted the crew about a month before the show, well, that taught me to be a bit more prompt. For the most part, waiting anywhere between two weeks to two months is standard, as the convention organizers have enough other things on their plate. This is why I was thrilled to get this response from the dealer’s room chairman at World Horror:

We are still in the layout stages for the dealer’s room, but as soon as we get something nailed down (which will be very soon) I will send you an email detailing all you need to know! Thanks in advance for your interest!

The surprise? I received this message within six hours of sending it. Oh, hells yes will we be out there in June 2013.

Things To Do In Galveston When You’re Dead

The Czarina and her best friend are absolute suckers for visiting Galveston in the off-season, but I’ve had to beg off their previous trips because of Day Job and plant schedules. (We love each other dearly, but sometimes our taking vacations by ourselves is the only way the other can get anything done without interruptions, such as starting an idle conversation that ends sometime around 3 in the morning.) However, hearing about the new Amorphophallus titanum bloom at the Moody Gardens Rainforest Pyramid in Galveston means that I may have to tag along on the next trip. Besides, how could I resist visiting a plant nicknamed “Morticia?

World Horror Convention 2013: a new Triffid Ranch show?

Until very recently, I’ve been reserved about doing out-of-town Triffid Ranch shows for many reasons. Not that I haven’t had convention and event promoters asking. At least three times a year, I’m asked, very nicely, by the folks at a big steampunk convention in Oklahoma about attending, and I decline, very nicely, and explain why. Namely, it comes down to pure economics. Doing a show in Texas outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is expensive enough with gasoline, vehicle rental, hotel accomodations, and food allocations. Combine that with the necessary legal permits required to transport plants across state lines, and I do NOT want to make Wikipedia for being the guy who introduced some horrible invasive species or deadly floral disease to a new area, and the finances get a bit thin. When I explain to the steampunk convention crew how many plants I’d need to sell just to break even, they blanch and apologize for up my time.

(As a sidenote, I’ve been planning to compose a little essay on why vendors to shows and conventions choose the shows they do and why. In the interim, let’s just say that repeated nagging to attend a gaming convention with an admitted attendance of 200 to 400 people, screaming “You never got back with me!” at another convention, and literally whining about how it was in my best interest to cancel an existing commitment and reschedule isn’t the way to do it. And yes, that really happened last year.)

Recent news makes me reconsider this assessment. For the last fifteen or so years, I’ve received regular postcards from the folks at the World Horror Convention, a big traveling show hosted by a different city each year, asking about becoming an attendee. I had considered being a vendor at the 2011 WHC in Austin, until I saw it was scheduled opposite Texas Frightmare Weekend, and the logistics came into play. (The fact that I’d sooner live in Houston than so much as soil a gas station restroom in Austin had something to do with it, too.) This year’s WHC is in Salt Lake City, which is just a little too far to travel in the summer with a truckload of plants. In 2013, though, World Horror comes to New Orleans.

I reiterate: New Orleans.

My first encounter with New Orleans was fourteen years ago this coming November, when I was invited by the god-in-human-form Robert Fontenot to be a guest at a new genre and pop convention in New Orleans called ExotiCon. I’m still good friends with many of the people I met there in 1998, and I came back for the next two shows run by Robert. So did the Czarina, with her now ex-husband, and she’s still famous for running the world’s most quiet convention party at the 2000 show. I still tell him, to this day, that were he insane enough to try this again, we’d both come down, without hesitation, and do our best to promote the show as much as we were able. In the intervening years, we’ve looked at other excuses to head down that way, and just haven’t quite had the opportunity.

Well, now that may change. I’ve already contacted the WHC 2013 crew for further information, but the thought process ran roughly similar to this:

Negative: One solid day of driving between Dallas and New Orleans, and flying down there with plants isn’t an option.

Positive: New Orleans.

Negative: Considering the cost of renting a cargo van, including mileage, it may actually be cheaper to buy one.

Positive: New Orleans.

Negative: A big portion of the trip entails going over the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, which is one of the most knuckle-whitening, anus-puckering trips I’ve ever made…in a truck full of carnivorous plants.

Positive: New Orleans. Oh, and did I mention the food?

Negative: Phytosan permits, hotel reservations, trying to go anywhere outside of the hotel, old writing acquaintances terrified of leaving the hotel for fear they might miss out on an editor they haven’t already harangued, going back home, and all of the usual logistics of doing a big show combined with the logistics of doing one outside of Texas.


I haven’t brought this up with the Czarina, but that’s on the plate for this evening. I pretty much know what the answer will be, though, without asking. If I don’t check, I know what that answer will be, and if I’m going to be rolled up in a fetal ball while she beats me with a rolled-up magazine and screams “WHAT the hell is WRONG with you?”, I’d prefer for it to be something worthy of the offense.

Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Always be careful of what you wish for. Always. This spring, my only concern was that we weren’t going to have a repeat of the hellish summer of 2011. Welp, that’s not a concern any more. The last two days have dumped lots and lots of rain on my little corner of North Texas, and we’re going to get more before June 1. Even now, with a nice hefty dollop of Angelspit and Ministry in the headphones, the roar of the thunderclaps intrudes, over and over.

Because of how we’re situated between southern winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, northern winds skirting the Rockies on their way from Canada, and the prevailing jet stream currents, this little allotment in Hell’s Half-Acre already has a propensity for terrible storms brewing up from nowhere. Watching weather radar scans, as tremendous thunderstorms emerge and disappear while you watch, has already been entertainment for three generations of Dallasites, and last night’s storms were making someone at the National Weather Service absolutely orgasmic. I have a small weather alert radio intended to warn of thunderstorms and hailstorms, and that blasted thing kept going off all night. After about the fourth alert, screaming of half-dollar-sized hail in far southern Oklahoma, and the storm that produced it heading right for the Dallas half of the Metroplex, I just started grumbling about sending a tornado out this way to give us something to panic about. I don’t even need to go to Oz: Nehwon and Melnibone are nice this time of the year, from what I understand.

And so it continues. If there’s any one good side to all of this, it’s that I’m probably the only farmer in the vicinity who’s glad of the immediate effects, much less the long-term precipitation. The rainwater tanks are full up, the sundews are nearly unrecognizable from the number of trapped mosquitoes coating them, and the Sarracenia pitcher plants think they’re back home. I may grumble about being awakened by the racket of another brutal thunderstorm, but if we get a summer more evocative of New Orleans or Tallahassee than Phoenix, I’m certainly not going to complain.


Vulture in Garland


And this is why I stay in Texas. Garland: come for the Zombieland jokes, and stay for the vultures on the neighbor’s front porch. It doesn’t get more bluecollar goth than this.

Have a Great Weekend

Last Wednesday was the tenth anniversary of two major changes, the second of which was the ending of my career as a writer. Because of this, you get a double feature. Mash these two, and the resultant mess is the official anthem for that lost period between 1997 and 2002.

A pressing need to buy some land

One of the many reasons why the Czarina and I are coming up on ten years of successful marriage is because we always bounce our insane business ideas off the other before we do anything. (Well, that’s one reason. Another one is that a steady diet of science fiction television shows as a kid meant that I have a decided attraction to women much smarter than I am. Friends went crazy over girls in Slave Leia outfits, while I had much more interest in the Maya/Delenn/Saavik/Martha Jones girls in school. The Czarina, in turn, has one particular type: Rik Mayall.) The idea is that we hone project proposals and show concepts until they’re stable and reasonable, and then let the other burn big holes in those proposals and concepts with acetylene torches and thermite. If they don’t collapse, implode, or catch fire after the interrogation, then they’ll probably work in real life. After a decade of the Czarina giggling with glee as some of my business proposals crawl on the floor, begging for a quick death, preparing for an oral defense of my Ph.D thesis is going to be a doddle.

Don’t think that we necessarily enjoy this. It’s bad enough that we’ve watched a lot of retail concepts, ones that would have worked at any time other than the worst recession in the last 80 years, died because the concept planned for profitability in three years instead of six. We both have equipment purchased from once-successful and once-popular companies at their liquidation sales. Most of all, I was in incredible lust for a defunct garden center in Plano a few years back: the garden center had been in business for 30 years before the founders sold it to their son, he decided to neglect the longtime customers in favor of getting into high-end landscaping, and defaulted on his business loans when the real estate bust hit and his big clients decided not to pay their bills. It’s not just because we wanted to avoid really bad business ideas, such as starting a street-corner circus troupe or opening a bookstore with no money down.

As far as that garden center was concerned, I didn’t go for it for multiple reasons. The least of which was having three-quarters of a million dollars on hand, which is what the property was valued at the beginning of 2009. (The garden center itself was recently bulldozed to clear the land, because any other potential buyers felt the way I did.) The other big reason is that while the Triffid Ranch is nowhere near ready for a full-time retail presence, getting a more serious growing environment is becoming pressing. This requires buying land, and the rest of the garden center can wait.

Right now, two things conspire against me on finding a suitable tract of property, properly zoned for agricultural activities and not harboring hidden munitions dumps or chemical waste caches. (Don’t laugh. Around here, it happens.) The first is that North Texas is flat, meaning that only the occasional creekbed and the even more occasional lake or reservoir prevents farmland from being used for other things, such as strip malls or apartment complexes. In fact, those minor impediments have never stopped local developers unless city ordinances, state laws, and smacks in the head stop them. I once watched as a large apartment complex was condemned because the developer built right to the edge of a creekbed, and a sudden gullywasher wiped out the foundations on five buildings and the tennis court. This means that odd little spaces perfect for carnivorous plant propagation just aren’t available.

The other big part of the conspiracy lies with the owners. The Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex owes most of its growth, most of its problems, and most of its desirability on being able to expand outward, and only $4 gasoline has made the idea of living a two-hour drive from one’s place of employment unacceptable. During the real estate boom, developers bought every last bit of farmland they could get, with intentions to flip it to anyone actually planning to use it. Some of these developers are hanging on in the hopes that 2006 land prices will return, because Some Guy told them that it would happen any day now. Others were foreclosed upon, and then their banks went under and their assets acquired by other banks that themselves blew up. The same thing happened during the oil bust of the late Eighties and the bank bust of the early Nineties, when the game was “This is Thursday, so our owner is Hibernia Bank”. If the property has a sign on it, you have a 50/50 chance of the contact name and phone number being four years obsolete, with the realtor returned to a more suitable career in child pornography or regional magazine journalism, and a lot of good lots had the big wooden signs chainsawed down three years ago. They might come back onto the market before 2020, and the Dallas Cowboys might win a shutout World Series pennant this year, too.

This is why I feel particular jealous rage toward the Idiot Gardener, who apparently found his perfect locale. I’m certain that the Czarina can sympathize with his wife: we regularly drive past a failed experiment with Home Depot for a landscape supply outlet, already set up as a full greenhouse, and she has to listen to me whimper about how all I need to do is sell body parts to take over the space. Telling her “I didn’t say they had to be my body parts” doesn’t help, either.

And so the search continues. Licensing and financing issues are entertaining enough, but then we get into the discussions of renting said land versus buying it. Now that’s one route I won’t take unless I can’t help it, as a particular favorite nursery of mine shut down in 2000 when the property owner decided to sell the space and gave the nursery 30 days’ notice. (I’ll note that the property is still up for sale and still empty, as the price quoted by Some Guy as its value isn’t close to a reasonable price.) One thing is absolutely certain, though. If anyone had told me a decade ago that I’d be researching farmland prices and checking for spring flooding, I’d have called that person a loony. Today, I’d hand that person a spare smartphone and said “Call this realtor and see if anyone’s made an offer on that corner lot.”

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

I’m reaching the age where big chunks of my earlier life slough off like old scabs, and my high school days were one gigantic road-rash strawberry the size of a Winnebago. I’m not going to bore all of you with tales of Lewisville High School in scenic Lewisville, Texas, save to note that I no longer receive invitations to class reunions. I can’t figure out why: all I did was state, very publicly, that the best thing about the school fight song was the lyrics. (This was actually pretty sedate, compared to how I felt while I was there. I was nearly suspended for suggesting in the school paper that all we needed around the school was a canal, and life there would be identical to a rather popular John Carpenter movie of the time.)

Even with this, and a still-unfulfilled oath to recreate the “Dick Dent” scene from Sid & Nancy with my old newspaper editor, the cliched seeds of my horticultural future came from those days in the early Eighties. My old sponsors in the Future Farmers of America would have seizures if they saw what I was doing these days, but I actually want to thank them for the experience and for everything I learned back then. Best of all, I learned just enough to avoid being voted “Most Likely To Run a Grow House in Lake Dallas,” so I’m happy.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t heard from the school in recent years. A couple of years back, I received a solicitation from the school district, asking all of its alumni to pay back into the Lewisville Independent School District to help teachers afford such basics as paper for exams and science equipment. I understood all too well, as we had similar cutbacks during my time because the school needed to re-sod the football field. I very kindly offered to make a very large contribution, under the proviso that all contributions were to be matched with equal cuts to the high school football program, which is supposed to be self-sustaining. I never heard from them again.

All of this came to a head last night, when I received an invitation from an old friend to attend the last-ever Lewisville High walk-through. Apparently, the school’s condition is so bad that the school district figured that demolishing it was cheaper than trying to bring it up to current code, so former Fighting Farmers are encouraged to come out this next Sunday afternoon and view the place one more time before it’s torn down. I’m sorely tempted to join the party, but only if I can help out with the demolition as well:

NARBC, King of the Monsters

A few months back, I described the joy of the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, complete with hat-tips to friends in the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society. At the time, the idea was to make plans for next year, because the NARBC only came through the Dallas area once per year, right?

Yeah, I thought that as well, until reading the newest issue of Reptiles magazine brought up a mention of an Arlington NARBC show at the end of August. It had to be a typo, right? We couldn’t be looking at a repeat of the biggest reptile, amphibian, and accoutrement show of its kind, and on Shirley Manson‘s birthday, could we?

Yep. August 25 and 26, at the Arlington Convention Center. Six months later, the cycle continues.

Now, as tempting as this would be for this year’s show, what makes life even better is the option for next year at that time. Next year at roughly the same time is LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 WorldCon, down in San Antonio, and friends and former writing compatriots have already started nuhdzing about my showing plants down there. Well, aside from the distance (mostly involving hauling plants in our famous Central Texas heat), there’s the near-impossibility of finding any vendor information on the site, and similar events run by the same people are notoriously unfriendly to any vendors selling anything other than books. Before the NARBC came up, my response was pretty uniform: “If I wanted to burn a weekend and a month’s pay listening to a herd of reactionary old people screaming about how the universe changed without their express approval and consent, I’d go to a family reunion.” Now, I’m welcoming. “Oh, sure, you could go to San Antonio with about 700 people who will arrive with one shirt and one $20 bill, and not change either for the next week, to an event run by many of the same people who ran the 1997 WorldCon. (And that’s a story I’ll tell for another time.) Or, OR, you could come up here and hang out for a weekend with anywhere between 3000 and 6000 of the coolest people you’ll ever meet in your life.” The choice is clear.

(And back to the subject of Reptiles, I’d like to recommend this new issue, just for the exceptional article on care of three-toed box turtles. Some of you may remember Stella, the world’s meanest box turtle, and her unrequited love affair with our cat Leiber. I can’t say that all three-toed box turtles have her level of personality, generally as vitriolic as it was toward humans, but I can definitely say they’re exceptionally intelligent and fascinating reptiles.)

Upcoming Triffid Ranch shows

Ah, what a weekend. The existing greenhouse suffered quite a bit of damage from two hailstorms, including the big one we had last April, so Sunday was spent hanging out with my best friend as we replaced polycarbonate glazing. Next on the agenda is putting up a new greenhouse, specifically for the Sarracenia. Part of the reason is to build up humidity a bit so they don’t suffer through the summer: we’re already slipping into 20-percent relative humidity territory with the typical stout Dallas south wind, and we’re likely only to get worse. The other reason is to leave the top open to allow insects to come inside but to dissuade squirrels. The blasted treerats are not only back to their old habits of digging up pitcher plants and flytraps in search of magic coins hidden under the rhizomes, but we have one brat of a male treerat, whom the Czarina nicknamed “Big Bad Bob,” who sits outside the bedroom window and chitters at the cats all day. They aren’t threatened by him in the least, so he throws larger and larger tantrums until they deign to acknowledge him. It reminds me a bit of a writer I used to know.

I wouldn’t be bothered by the discovery of a truly giant red-tailed hawk that perches atop the old greenhouse, if she took the time to pick off the treerats. Instead, she joins in with glaring at the cats when they get in the window. I only knew about this because of the truly heroic amounts of bird guano on one side of the greenhouse, but I spooked her last Saturday and watched her take off toward the south. Now all that’s left is the amount of time before my friend Joey suggests naming her either “Shayera Hol” or “Lorraine Reilly”. (It could be worse. After the Harry Potter movies came out, I had regular dealings with a screech owl who would fly out of a big linden tree next to the garden and buzz past my head before disappearing into the night. Somehow, calling him “The Angry Inch” seemed appropriate.)

Once these developments are done, it’s time to get back to shows and events. The next official show is at FenCon IX this coming September, but depending upon the summer heat, a few shows at the Four Seasons Market in Richardson may be in order. After that, well, I haven’t heard anything yet from the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas about another Discovery Days event in November, but I’ll be the first to volunteer once the schedule is nailed down a bit. And so it goes.

Have a Great Weekend

Life without Barry Kooda in it is like a broken pencil.


Even though we haven’t actually hit classic Texas high temperatures yet, we’ve reached summer for all intents and purposes, and the Czarina and I finally have a little bit of free time. Most couples look at an impending holiday or just a free weekend as an opportunity to get out of town. The Czarina and I look at each other and ask “So who wants to vacuum the bedroom?” Having two big back-to-back shows, along with the insane preparation for both, cut into our general household duties, leaving the carpet in the living room filled with…bits. We think they’re claw caps from where the cats use the scratching post to hone their already ridiculously sharp armaments, but we’re not sure. I won’t even get into the dust rhinos underneath the Czarina’s favorite chair, or the three cats’ worth of cat fur I got out of the carpet last night, or that we were both so horrified at how badly our housekeeping had lapsed that we were vacuuming and sweeping at close to midnight.

What you have to understand as well is that I grew up in a rather singular household. My father comes from a very long run of packrats, and the old Scottish frugality is very strong on his side of the family. These days, it’s called “upcycling,” but when I was a kid, it was called “growing up Riddell.” I just looked in wonder when I’d visit friends’ houses and see them using garages for holding cars, instead of band saws, acetylene torches, and enough scrap wood to rebuild the USS Constitution. When I was eighteen, I read a book review in Twilight Zone magazine that talked about how “Grandma could stretch out a Thanksgiving turkey forever, until it was mid-July and she was trying to figure out how to make turkey-flavored Jell-O from the bones.” All I could think was “Are we related?”

My mother, on the other hand, was a budding minimalist, and was notorious for pitching anything that sat in the same place for too long without a purpose. I only saw my parents get into one fight as a kid, and that was when my mother decided to donate my father’s high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill. I could sympathize on both sides, and still do: I’m notorious for letting the schmutz pile up in my office for weeks and months, until one day something snaps and everything else is secondary to stripping the place clean and rebuilding.

And that’s what’s going on this weekend. No shows for a couple of months, until FenCon IX in September, although the call of Four Seasons Markets has promise. The summer heat hasn’t really started, and I’ve never had any interest in sitting around in shorts while watching ball games on a perfectly good Saturday. So what’s the option?

That’s right: I’m taking inspiration from The Idiot Gardener and hislatest run of fence porn, and putting up a new greenhouse. If you don’t hear from me by next Wednesday, just feed what remains to the plants, okay?

Thursday is Resource Day

The first week after two big back-to-back shows (one of which was purely the Czarina’s play) gets a bit crazy, especially when you look over the back lot and realize that it’s starting to resemble a location set for a George Romero movie. The grass is high enough to hide Buicks, the roses beg for deadheading, and the hot peppers require their own ZIP codes. The only joy in Mudville comes from having a relatively cool spring: we have yet to go above 33 degrees Celsius, which we broke last year toward the end of April. It’s coming, though. It’s coming.

Hence, the weekend will be dedicated to shoveling, dumping, pruning, trimming, and mowing. I’d like to invite gardener friends over for dinner without their looking out back and shrieking in despair.

With that in mind, we only have a couple of interesting resources to bring up this Thursday, but it’s all connected to horticulture in some way. It’ll have to do until the next post, right?

Firstly, I didn’t know that Carl Mazur of the International Carnivorous Plant Society had a blog, but Zone 6b: Growing Carnivorous Plants In Cold Climates is out there and it’s definitely worth reading. This week, he brought up a very intriguing point on wondering why Sarracenia oreophila produces traps and then blooms once it emerges from winter dormancy, instead of the other way around as with other Sarracenia. I have a suspicion as to a particular factor, but I’m going to need a low-light camera in order to document it. Yet another experiment on the creaking and swaying pile.

In completely different news, nearly anyone who has ever worked a customer service position has an appreciation for the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, if only because the film envisages a world where the customers actually saw an increase in IQ. (I spent nearly three years with a headset jammed onto my ear, and started referring to some of the language used by our most enthusiastic customers as “Conversational Ichthyostegid.” There’s really nothing quite like explaining to a cell phone customer that said phone was cut off because the last payment was reported as an unauthorized use of the paying credit card, only to be told “That’s not fair! I didn’t make that payment! Smitty told me that he’d pay my bill if I slept with him!”) Because of that, I’m quite impressed with a working Brawndo sports drink fountain, because we could have used that at my previous day job. After all, it has the electrolytes plants crave, even if nobody knows what electrolytes are. (And am I the only person on the planet who has noticed that Monster energy drinks and SuperThrive smell suspiciously alike?)

Finally, one of these days, I’m going to put together a postcard comparable to Tom Wilson’s famed form letter about the film Back to the Future, covering every last repeated question. No, I don’t have any man-eating plants. No, I don’t have any plants that can eat your ex-spouse. No, I don’t have any Audrey 2s, and I’m also fresh out of Delvians, Vervoids, Krynoids, or Vegetons, too. However, after a quick visit to Leilani Nepenthes in Hawaii, I’m finally going to sell triffids. This way, when the occasional person asks if I have a triffid available for sale, I can give that person a John Cleese glare and tell him/her “Here’s your plant, NOW BUY IT!” (I just hope they don’t get too big, because I’m not looking forward to branding season.)

Well, enough of that. Back to the linen mines.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, Datura will walk the earth.”

Early last year, I wrote an article about the angel trumpet, Datura stramonium, and was inordinately proud of being probably the only garden writer alive who could name-drop “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. Since then, it’s hard not to notice Datura in the wild, as it were: it grows inordinately well in poor soils, of which the Dallas area has in abundance, and it’s tough enough to survive the worst of our summers once it has a well-established rootball. Oh, and other than caterpillars, anything dumb enough to eat it is going to have one hell of a surprise.

Datura bloom

All of the recognized species of Datura have nicknames along the lines of “angel trumpet”, for two reasons. Firstly, the long and lush blooms are evocative of the trumpets traditionally carried by angels in Renaissance art, particularly in paintings depicting the fall of Lucifer and his covenant into Hell. That’s particularly appropriate when discussing Datura, because the odds are very good that anyone eating any part of the plant will be hearing angels, or seeing dark angels, before too long. The reason why Datura is one of the only hallucinogenic plants that’s completely free and legal to own and raise in the United States is because the effects aren’t relatively benign, as with peyote. To hear drug travelers describe it, there’s no such thing as a good trip on peyote, and it takes a particular sort of personality to look at Datura experiences as a positive thing. Besides, most Datura enthusiasts don’t remain so for long: every last part of the plant is exceedingly toxic, and what might be a suitable dose from one plant may be lethal from another.

(Mind you, as a disclaimer, anybody ingesting Datura, for any reason, is on his or her own, and neither this writer or the Texas Triffid Ranch take any responsibility for anyone using or abusing Datura under any circumstances. Even if I had any interest in mind-altering substances, I’d smack anyone I knew who was doing this in the head, in the hopes of rattling a few brain cells free.)

Datura bloom, unfurling

Considering its rather wild history, from Bangalore to Jamestown, one might wonder, understandably, who in their right mind would want to raise this in a garden. Well, so long as it’s not ingested, Datura makes a very attractive and low-maintenance addition. As the kind folks at the International Brugmansia and Datura Society will tell you, D. stramonium grows in small bushes, thriving outdoors through most of the year before dying off in the first hard frost. In warmer climes, it readily resprouts from seeds deposited the previous season, and if protected from freezing, the whole plant comes back every year from a rather tuberous-looking stem. The scent is almost literally intoxicating, and aside from tomato hornworms, it seems to be resistant to most pests. Keep children and pets away from it, and Datura makes quite the charming cover for otherwise dead spaces in backyard gardens.

As mentioned before, Datura does rather well in the Dallas area. Both D. stramonium and its close African cousin D. metel readily grow in front-yard gardens throughout the city and its suburbs, and I’ve been surprised on several occasions by Datura perfume on quiet nights along the “M streets” intersecting Greenville Avenue. (I’ll say that it’s a welcome change from the smell of skunk weed grow houses near Hillcrest and Forest Lane, let me tell you. Some of those are so pungent that the stench nearly knocked me off my bike one evening as I was traveling home from work.) I just wasn’t expecting it to be a herald, as this plant was.

Datura clump on Knox Avenue

To give context, this beast of a plant is located at Knox Avenue in Dallas, right at the corner where Knox travels over Central Expressway. To the left is Central. To the right is the entrance of Highland Park, the neighborhood that is to Dallas what Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles. Completely surrounded by the larger city, Highland Park is its own enclave, complete with its own schools and police force.

Datura bloom bud

I couldn’t identify it for certain, but I suspect that this monster is classic D. stramonium based on the shape of the bloom buds and the leaves. The clincher, of course, is viewing the seed pods, known as “thorn apples”, as each species has a distinctive pod shape and size. Since the plant had just dealt with a torrential rain the night before, most of the upright blooms had filled with rainwater and collapsed, but the newly unfurling buds were white with just the barest kiss of purple on the edges. Give it another couple of days, and it would go back to flashing ten to twenty blooms at a time, all summer long.

Datura bloom, unfurling

Of course, half of the fun for me was in the locale. I’ve joked for years that the best documentary about life in Dallas is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and here was the plant attributed with the creation of real zombies. In that context, finding it outside Highland Park was just too appropriate.

The Texas Triffid Ranch in the news

Over a week after we all packed up and came home, Dread Central has a new report on Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012, and guess who made the photo gallery? And before anyone asks, yes, the Czarina and I are definitely planning to attend the 2013 show. As soon as spaces in the dealer’s room are available, we’re there.

Have a Great Weekend

Well, having the word “Ranch” in the company name implies that there should be some country music on the playlist, right?

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012, Continued

More photos from Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012. As can be told, Frightmare has a lot more new and returning carnivorous plant enthusiasts than I realized.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

One person in particular struck a chord, because just about everyone who regularly goes to conventions has been in her situation. This young lady came by to take a look at the plants on Saturday morning, and fell in love with the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata). Unfortunately, she related that money was really tight, and that she had enough left either to buy a sundew or to get back home on Sunday. I asked “So where’s home?”, and she told me “Norman, Oklahoma.” Since that’s also home to a very dear friend from high school and the Sam Noble Museum, I knew exactly how far she’d had to travel, and I told her that there was no way I’d take her money if it meant she’d be stuck.

The girl from Norman

Instead, I told her “I take photos of folks who buy plants, and I’ll put you in the gallery under ‘Next Time, Maybe?'”

The Girl From Norman, Redux

Well, Sunday came, and she took a look at one particular sundew arrangement. Lots of sighing, and I knew that sigh. That wasn’t a sigh of “Oh, if only someone gave me something for free.” That was a sigh of “If I knew a place that bought kidneys in Dallas on a Sunday, I’d cash one in right now.” Count this one as a raincheck, kiddo. Just come back in 2013 and let me know how it’s doing, and consider buying a couple of companions when you have the cash, okay?

The Girl From Norman, Sunday

And that’s it for 2012. Next year, I’m definitely getting a decent lighting rig for the camera, and trying this again.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012: The Aftermath

Like the swallows of Capistrano, every year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009 starts and ends the same way. After spending weeks getting ready so nothing goes wrong, Friday morning opens and then EVERYTHING goes wrong. Grumble, grouse, contemplate going back to bed and not coming out until Monday morning. Rise above it, open up at 5:00 Friday evening, and then spend the entire weekend wishing that the party could keep going for the rest of the week. Come home and collapse, making plans for the next year as unconsciousness slides in. Repeat as necessary.

If there’s one big reason why I’m so enthusiastic about Frightmare, it’s because this show has one of the most interesting audiences I’ve ever seen. Quite literally, there’s no telling who may show up and say hello at the Triffid Ranch booth. Biology majors. Dentists. Stilt walkers. All of them come screeching to a halt and look surprised when they see a carnivorous plant vendor at a horror convention. I repeat: they’re the ones who are surprised.

By way of example, below is my dear friend Mischa Jordan, having left Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and Booga at home for the weekend in order to pose with a Nepenthes arrangement. Not only was she surprised to see an N. alata up close, but she was even more surprised to see the big stein it was in. (For obvious reasons, this arrangement was named “The Mullet of Metal”.)

Mischa Jordan with the “Mullet of Metal”.

Other than the initial difficulties of getting to the convention hotel and getting back out, thanks to ongoing road construction around DFW Airport, the only issue the whole weekend came from the lighting in the hall hosting the dealer’s room. Combine that with getting familiarity with a new camera, and I’ll state for the record that I plan to leave photography to the experts. Even with that aggravation, and lots of frustration with light levels and autofocusing, just look at the expressions on everyone’s faces.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

As always, talking with the kids at shows is one of the great joys of setting up booths at said shows, and I had a real surprise. Among other guests was Madison Lintz, best known for playing “Sophia” in the cable series The Walking Dead, and she took a break on Sunday from signing autographs to wander around the dealer’s room. Not only was she intrigued by the plants in the first place, but she had no idea that the Atlanta Botanical Garden has a large carnivorous plant collection, including a Nepenthes collection. Since she mentioned that her teacher back home was offering her extra credit if she came back with interesting science information from Texas, I gave her my last spare copy of the May 2011 issue of Reptiles. If she becomes the Tippi Hedren of carnivorous plants when she gets older, well, it’s all my fault.

Madison Lintz

As of last check, the crew at Texas Frightmare Weekend still doesn’t have a complete count of the attendance, but I’m glad nonetheless that we were in a much larger space in a much larger hotel than in 2011. Between the Czarina and myself, when asked if we were going to be out for 2012, our simultaneous response was “Oh, HELL yes.”

More photos to follow…

Texas Triffid Ranch: Year Two

A solid year and 350 posts later, and the new Triffid Ranch blog finishes its shakeout cruise. Now it’s time to add some improvements, get rid of some things that don’t quite work, and try to make it a bit more consistent. Most of all, the original Triffid Ranch site is working on four years old (having launched in time for the Convergence 14 convention in Ybor City, Florida), and it definitely needs a refit. Time to do everything at once.

Since that first posting, a lot of interesting craziness came through this way. I could understand interest in the subject of Capsicum peppers in bonsai or using dinosaur figures in miniature gardens would get some interest, but I find it a little disturbing that the most popular post in 12 months was a throwaway on my tormenting the Czarina about getting a crocodile monitor. Even the disturbing realization that Doctor Who and The Red Green Show are the same television program didn’t get as much traffic. And here I thought at least someone would have been interested in designing gardens around what plants look best in moonlight.

Other than that, I’m only a little surprised at which postings were read and which ones weren’t. In some cases, such as the invitation to come out for the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday Show, you probably dodged a bullet. (Not to sound overly cranky about that fiasco of a show, but if I wanted to be pig party entertainment for a herd of SMU horsefaces, I’d take a job with D magazine. But that’s just me.)

Other than that, it’s more of the usual for the next 365 days. More research, more observations, more learning and sharing what comes across the firmament. Heck, I might even open up the blog to comments this year.

Have a Great Weekend

I wonder why all of the “Sounds of the Nineties” radio stations leave this song out of their playlists? Not enough impotent whining to interest the programming directors, I guess.

Personal interlude

Expect radio silence for the next couple of days: tomorrow is the start of Texas Frightmare Weekend, with Friday festivities running from 5 to 11 p.m. If you’re going to be out that way, look for the Triffid Ranch in the back of the Made In Texas Hall: I have a few surprises for longtime attendees. For those who are thinking about it, let me give you James Wallace’s summation over at the Dallas Observer. (I have to admit that I was in shock over such a positive review. It seemed like just yesterday when one particular writer over there would throw tantrums over how he’d refuse to write about any local convention unless he was given exclusive access to the guests, and then write a nasty review because he got everything he wanted. My, how things change.)

Anyway, in the meantime, it’s back to potting up Sarracenia and putting nametags on Bhut Jolokia peppers, and then sleep. And that’s where the saga of Tramplemaine comes in.

I’ve talked previously about my cat Leiber, aka “the FreakBeast,” and now it’s time to bring up Tramplemaine. Tramplemaine is a part-Siamese tuxedo cat that the Czarina rescued in the late Nineties, and he’s by far one of the most interesting cats I’ve ever met. Every cat owner will tell you that his/her cat is unique, but that really does fit Tramplemaine. This cat understands far more English than he cares to let on: at a party years back, a friend picked him up and exclaimed how heavy he was for such a small cat, and her husband quipped “Well, black is very slimming.” That cat was Tom’s best friend for the rest of the evening. We’re talking Gummitch levels of intelligence here.

Because of this, I feel free to speak to Tramplemaine as if he were any other human member of the family, and I respect his opinion much more than that of most biological relations. That is, outside of the bedroom. Just as I’m trying to call it quits for the night, he races to the bed, jumps on my side, and promptly flops down and claims the whole space. The Czarina thinks this is incredibly funny, and keeps telling me that there’s nothing wrong with moving the cat. I know better. Tramplemaine can be vindictive if forced off the bed, and I spent nearly five years at our previous residence with him tripping me on the stairs in the dark. Oh, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

This time, though, I finally decided to let him know who is in charge. After he’d conducted his nightly flop-and-roll, I just looked at him and told him “You know, animals sleep on the floor.”

His only response: “Mang.”

I was insistent. “Animals sleep on the floor.

His only response: “Mang.” I knew the tone: “No shit, Sherlock.”

That’s when we had it out, and I have only one thing to say. I’m glad that our bedroom floor has carpeting, because it’s COLD down here.

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.

Upcoming shows: Texas Frightmare Weekend

Tuesday: Day job, and then Sarracenia potting.

Wednesday: Day job, and then Drosera potting.

Thursday: Day job, and then Stylidium potting.

Friday through Sunday: dragging the plants out to Texas Frightmare Weekend, and all of the potting will be worth it. Now if we’d just get some rain.