Daily Archives: June 18, 2012

Future Triffid Ranch projects

When I’m not making plans to offer fast food to the Harris hawk, it’s time to get ready for the next big Triffid Ranch show: FenCon this September. With that comes the advantage of doing live shows over mail order. Namely. being able to bypass the insanity of the US Post Office. Yes, Triffid Ranch Nepenthes may be a little more expensive than ones ordered from another nursery. However, they’re also going to be much larger than is practical or sane to ship, especially in the summer, and they’re going to come with pots that will damage your fragile little mind.

Figurine Front

For instance, check out this puppy, recently snagged at an estate sale. Deliberately fake Maya and Olmec pots of this sort were standard tourist fare throughout the Sixties and Seventies, and there was a time circa 1981 where it seemed nearly impossible to find a house in North Texas that didn’t have an authentic fake figure pot from Texcoco in it. Maybe I remembered it differently, but they seemed to be as common in Texas houses as anniversary clocks further north, and in the same spot of honor atop the monster console television in the living room. Then, with no warning, they all disappeared from the land, without so much as a sighting or two in garage sales to mark the passing of a long-running fad.

Figurine Side

I’ll state from the beginning that I’m a sucker for well-done fabricated artifacts, so long as I know from the beginning that it’s a modern fabrication, and this one has its merits. As can be noticed from the photos, though, this figure was damaged a few times before it ended up in the estate sale. The front cup, which is the perfect size for a succulent such as a Stapelia, was cracked at least twice in its life. The first time, the part was glued back in. The second time, a big chip came off and was lost. In order to be usable again, it needs restoration. And herein lies the dilemma.

Over the past few years, I’ve noted a decided change in the presentation of restored archaeological and palaeontological treasures. Until the late Eighties, the idea was to make the restoration match the new material as much as possible, to the point where telling bone from plaster was nearly impossible without X-rays. Now, though, I’m seeing a trend toward making sure the general public understands how much of a piece was reconstructed after discovery, with obvious white or grey patches to fill in for missing material. Since I’m also a sucker for modern museum displays, do I patch the spot so that nobody can tell where clay ends and Milliput begins, or does this repair beg to make the final piece look as if it were “borrowed” from a friendly museum prior to its appearance in a plant show? Questions, questions.

Introducing Anolis carolinensis

Last weekend was a time to get busy at the Triffid Ranch. We haven’t truly moved into traditional Texas summer weather yet, and man, beast, and plant understood this, because we were all going a bit nuts. I spent Saturday and Sunday making a new raised bed edge for the Czarina’s tomato garden, pruning and trimming various bushes on the property, clearing clover out of the Sarracenia pots, clearing clover seeded from the Sarracenia pots out of the horsecrippler cactus, repotting Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion peppers for the next big show in September, deadheading orchids, and watering the flytraps. By Saturday evening, by the time the Czarina got home, my usual lament about not having access to the 57-hour day was coming off my lips with the raging froth at the clover. At least I didn’t have to deal with the squirrels digging up the Sarracenia, at least since a big female Harris’s hawk started using the rooftop as a dining room table and my greenhouse as a commode. (With the hawk, the only beef is with bluejay feathers blowing off the roof. Other than that, “Shayera Hol” is welcome here for as long as she wants to stay. I don’t even mind her sitting on the greenhouse, staring at the cats through the window.)

Around the Triffid Ranch, taking the time to smell the roses was secondary to taking the time to watch the critters, and it was a day for critter-watching. Moving a brick in the tomato bed dislodged a rough earth snake (Virginia striatula), a snake so sweet-tempered and inoffensive that even serious ophidiophobes tend to soften a bit upon seeing one. Lots of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus)hid among the bricks as well, waiting for nightfall. And then, as I was moving a batch of dragonfruit cactus pots, this little gentleman moved just enough to let me know he was there.

Sunbathing Carolina anole

The first common misconception about the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is that, because of its common nickname “American chameleon,” it can change color with the range and definition of Old World chameleons. While A. carolinensis can switch between various shades of green and brown, it has nothing on true chameleons. However, true chameleons don’t have the brilliant scarlet dewlap, which looks as if the lizard were brushed with powdered rubies, that male anoles flash to signal territorial claims. This fellow wasn’t worried about other anoles trying to take his space, but he also wasn’t taking an eye off me.

Carolina anole closeup

The other assumption about Carolina anoles, at least in North Texas, is that they’re escapees from captivity that went feral. Although a lot of anoles may have been released in the wild in the Dallas area from the days when they were inexplicably popular offerings in pet shops, this is actually native habitat for A. carolinensis, and they range south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Arkansas before moving east all the way to the Atlantic. They don’t get as large in Dallas as they do in Tallahassee, but considering some of the gigantic anoles (not to be mistaken for the introduced Cuban anoles in the area) I used to catch in Tally, I’m actually a bit happy. This one was about as long as my hand, which suggested that he was getting both plenty of insects and plenty of drinking water. Anoles will not drink still water, and prefer to drink dew from plants, so I suspect the mister system in the greenhouse may have made his life a bit easier last summer.

"I'm ready for my closeup now, Mr. deMille."

When I was a kid in Michigan, I dreamed of one day keeping an anole as a pet, and would camp out at the pet sections in department stores to stare at the lizards. I know today that the vast majority didn’t survive more than a few weeks of that treatment, and many more died due to substandard care with their future owners, but lizards were a rarity up there and color-changing ones nonexistent. I became enough of an insufferable know-it-all on the subject that when showing my little brother a cage full of them at a K-Mart, I related “Look: Carolina anoles.” This peeved the toad overseeing the pet section, and he proceeded to correct me: “They’re chameleons.”

“No, they’re anoles. Anolis carolinensis. They’re native to the East Coast.”

He pulled out a cheap booklet entitled “All About Chameleons” from a shelf, and promptly showed me pictures of anoles, and then flashed the cover again, emphasizing the word “chameleon.” I then asked if I could see the book, and promptly read to him the first several paragraphs about anole habits and scientific nomenclature. He grabbed the book back, sneered “You’re just making it up,” told us to get out before he called the head manager, and went back to the dreams of a K-Mart pet shop manager. Probably involving how, when someone finally gave him command of a Constitution-class starship, he’d get into pissing matches with seven-year-olds and win.

Well, that was then. Now, I figure the lizards are happier and healthier in the yard than they’d ever be in captivity, and I encourage moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) to give the anoles and geckos more cover. This fellow sat atop that fence top with a very catlike demeanor, and when he was done watching me, he skittered off to do whatever anoles do in their off time. He’s always welcome to come back, and bring his harem with him, too.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia leptocaulis

For most people living outside the US, and for many inside the US, the word “cactus” brings up two images. The obvious first one is of a saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), even though the saguaro is (a) one of the most extreme in size of all cacti, and (b) restricted to only a small area of southwest North America. (I’m still amazed at how often saguaro imagery shows up in cowboy motifs in Texas, even though the nearest one in the wild is in Arizona. It’s that iconic.) The second is of some sort of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), which is a little more reasonable. Prickly pear not only thrives in desert and semi-desert, but just about any place with sufficient drainage for its roots and protection from long freezes. In fact, most people are surprised to find them thriving in the mangrove swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in Florida.

Once those cliches are out of the way, Texas cacti have a lot of charms on their own. The best cactus-viewing in the state can be done around Big Bend National Park, and I heartily recommend such trips in mid-March, when the cacti and associated succulents are in full bloom. In the Dallas area, most cacti are limited to collections and the occasional prickly pear in an especially viable area (the seeds are spread by birds, so lone prickly pears can be found hundreds of miles away from their nearest neighbors), but go a little west of Fort Worth, and both cacti and agaves become significant components of the local flora.

Opuntia leptocaulis

Out on the west side of the Brazos River, for instance, it behooves visitors to be careful underneath scrub trees such as mesquite. This is preferred habitat for Opuntia leptocaulis, locally known as “pencil cactus,” among the names that can be printed. The Czarina’s family refers to it as “break-stick cactus,” from its habit to break off in chunks on skin, hair, and clothing, and it can be a menace in places where it grows alongside roads, trails, and paths.

O. leptocaulis detail

As can be told from its habits, O. leptocaulis isn’t especially fussy about its soil requirements, but it needs shade when smaller. Like all flowering plants, it reproduces by seed, and produces bright red fruits in the late fall that often remain on the plant through the winter. Like its prickly pear cousins, it also reproduces from pieces caught on animals and dropped elsewhere, causing it to be compared to the famed chollas of the Joshua Tree National Park of California. This helps explain why O. leptocaulis ranges all the way from the Brazos to the east all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

O. leptocaulis overview

O. leptocaulis blooms

One of the interesting aspects on O. leptocaulis is that it is one of the only cacti on the ranch that blooms in the evening to night, instead of blooming in the early morning as with the other species in the area. Between this habit, the size of the blooms, and the understandable concern more about the spines than the blooms, most people are surprised to see one blooming. They also tend to bloom much later in the year, around late May into June, when most of the more spectacular cactus blooms are long-gone and those cacti are more focused on producing fruit. That said, they gravitate toward insect pollinators, based mostly on their extreme luminance under UV illumination, but they apparently also offer a few drinks to hummingbirds as well.

O. leptocaulis fruit

Now, what few guides contain information on O. leptocaulis mention that the fruit are eaten by deer and other mammals, but you’d never know it based on the huge loads of fruit on mature plants. Prickly pears are eaten with gusto by everything from cattle to skunks. Horsecrippler fruit is preferred by birds, native peccary, and feral pigs, while the other indigenous barrel cactus save their attentions for small birds and possibly the occasional lizard or box turtle. In the last decade since first coming out to the ranch, though, I have yet to see any vertebrate touch a pencil cactus fruit. The invertebrates seem to enjoy them, though, as the cactus offers both hotel and cafeteria for various species of grasshopper and katydid. As to how they encourage seed spread, your guess is as good as mine, and this entails more trips to the ranch to investigate. Oh, the absolute agony.

Grasshopper in O. leptocaulis