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Monthly Archives: November 2012
The biggest problem with getting vining moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) established isn’t getting the seeds to germinate. It’s getting the first year’s plants through that first year. I don’t know for sure if moonflowers require symbiotic fungi for growth, but the first year attempting to get a decent moonflower vine going has been a nightmare, ever since the first time I tried it nearly fifteen years ago. The year after, though, the problem is keeping them under control. This autumn was especially rough on the small enclave I planted along the garage fence, but finally one bloomed. One single bloom, and sufficiently shaded during the day that it didn’t fade the way they normally do.
With luck, this flower gets some attention from the local bees and wasps, and produces seed before the first big freezes come in. If that happens, then expect to see them again next year and every year where they’re able to go to seed. As compared to the completely unrelated but superficially similar blooms from angel trumpets (Datura stramonium), these are nontoxic, they’re generally noninvasive in North Texas, they produce quite a bit of habitat for local lizards, praying mantids, and assassin bugs, and they offer food for both night-dwelling hawkmoths and the occasional very early hummingbird. Combine that with their generally low-maintenance habits, and they’re perfect vining flowers for that bluecollar goth of your acquaintance.
Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.
Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.
(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)
Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)
This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.
The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.
And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.
Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.
Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.
Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.
In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.
Yes, it’s time to go back to school. I can’t identify this bunching cactus without proper references, and I don’t know enough about cactus to know for sure. All I can say is that it’s rather common at the ranch, especially in fields covered with limestone slabs, and it’s exceedingly attractive both in and out of flower. Other than that, it’s time to study.
I generally don’t recommend driving around the in-laws’ ranch at night, particularly in an open-top vehicle. It’s not out of any worry about the local wildlife, although I’m pretty sure that any local mountain lion hungry enough would pluck me out of an ATV if I weren’t paying attention. The real danger comes from overhanging branches (mesquite trees have nasty thorns that will take chunks of meat if you hit them at sufficient speed) and cactus clumps, as well as the occasional steer or deer that won’t move out of the way. The occasional trip at dusk, though, reveals treasure.
Stopping at one particular point, the last of the sun’s rays were just enough to highlight a strange white blotch in a clump of Opuntia leptocaulis cactus. A closer look, and I found two silken lumps among the cactus arms, which I first took to be spider egg cases. A quick check, though showed them to be moth cocoons. What kind, though, I have no idea. Whatever they were, the caterpillars were rather large, about the size of my thumb joint, and the moths may be comparable. Either way, it may be worth a trip back to the ranch in early spring to see what emerged.
Out at the in-laws’ ranch, most of the available strata is former ocean bed. As such, it’s rotten with fossils, usually of crinoids, sea urchins, and other well-armored fauna. In a few very lucky areas, these have opal cores, sadly not of gemstone quality but fascinating nonetheless. The vast majority of the local rocks are very soft shale (including the now-famous Barnett Shale, which stretches all the way east to Dallas) or harder limestone, and that limestone was mined extensively as building stone since the Great Depression. However, right along the Brazos River is another formation, and it’s only accessible in one place on the ranch. That road is jokingly named “Fat Vulture Gulch,” because the combination of steepness and loose rubble promises that anybody attempting to drive it recklessly is going to become vulture food. As it is, the only way to get down it with motorized transport involves 4-wheel drive, and even then it’s a serious white-knuckle drive up or down.
As mentioned before, most of the rocks on the ranch are oceanic in origin, but the strata that makes up Lookout Point is a bit different. This rather thick layer is otherwise only accessible from Fat Vulture Gulch, and it’s extremely different from the others above and below. Besides being much harder and more erosion-resistant than the limestone mud below it, it’s a relatively coarse conglomerate of sandstone and smooth pebbles. As the mud below it weathers away, it comes free in large slabs, most of which worked their way free before the road went in. Best of all, I gave it the informal designation “the Lepidodendron Layer”, because it’s rich with fossils of tree branches, roots, and sometimes leaves, very likely from the Carboniferous Period lycopod plant Lepidodendron.
Absolute confirmation of this formation’s origin either lie underneath the bulk of the ranch or were eroded away as the Brazos River worked its way across the desert, but those rounded pebbles give a hint as to where those Lepidodendron parts came from. At one point, while the main ranch strata is marine, a river emptied into the sea near this point, and both regular flow and the occasional flood dumped huge amounts of sand and stone over the local muds. Some of those floods transported wood from the forests along the river, and as that sunk, later floods buried it further. That river may have lasted a few hundred years, or a few thousand, but ultimately it was itself choked by rising ocean levels, and all that was left was the detritus caught in this sandstone layer.
Of particular note are some of the oddly bent slabs in the area. Since this area isn’t exactly known for its geologic uplifts, and since the material inside isn’t severely distorted by heat and pressure, the suggestion is that these slabs were deformed while they were still heavily compressed mud. Only a few show this distortion, so are we looking at alluvial deposits following an ocean slump, or did earthquakes cause a slump in the muds beneath them after they were already buried? It’s time to go back to school and find out, I think.
This slab may not have any especial scientific value, but its personal value is immeasurable. The Czarina and I spent our honeymoon on the ranch, and my first visit to Fat Vulture Gulch was during a particularly overcast and drizzly day in January. Because of the rain, a piece of turquoise showed itself atop this slab, and a couple of deft taps with a rock hammer freed it for the first time in a third of a billion years. The Czarina still has this chunk after all of this time, and one of these days, she’s going to mount it in a piece of her own jewelry. That turquoise has no real value, either, but that’s not why we still hang onto it.
While it will probably outlast me, my relations, and anybody who might come across my name, the Lepidodendron Layer is doomed. As mentioned, the limestone mud below it is extremely soft, and it rapidly weathers away in every rain. West Texas doesn’t get much rain, but when it does, it comes in huge gullywasher storms, and without adequate ground cover, those gullies wash clean. Ultimately, all of the Lepidodendron Layer will end up in the Brazos, following the mud into the abyss, and those slabs will be torn apart by river, rain, freezes, and the occasional rockhound.
Before that happens, though, the mud needs to wash away, and Fat Vulture Gulch has a lot of it. The erosion in recent times is obvious, judging by the occasional lost tree still attempting to hang on as the mud disappears, but this is still a layer that’s at least 100 feet (30.48 meters) deep. We may be waiting for a while.
In bonsai terminology, surface root arrangements are called nebari. This tree won’t have much but nebari before too long.
One of the essential activities on visiting the ranch, summer or winter, involves standing on the overhang called Lookout Point and viewing the Brazos River. Many of the Czarina’s family race on ATVs down the ranch roads to Lookout Point, take a quick photo from the point, and rush back to beat the record time. Me, I could stand to be out here for hours, because this spot is one of the few spots in the area where you can really appreciate how big Texas can be. You can’t see Fort Worth from here, but you can come awfully close.
As mentioned previously, the drought of 2011 wasn’t necessarily repeated in 2012, but this autumn is unnaturally dry compared to previous years. Usually, by Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve had at least two hard, thorough gullywasher storms within the previous week to bring up water levels through the area. This year, though, we haven’t had any appreciable precipitation since the middle of October. What sprinklings we’ve seen have evaporated away, and the south winds dry out ground and skin even faster. The Brazos River generally doesn’t go dry, but most of the smaller bodies of water in the area are threatening to do so.
By way of example, this bend shows both the scars of the great floods of 1990, where all of that sandy area was under about three meters of water or more, and the current deficit. By now, that little promontory should be an island, even if the water surrounding it is ankle-high. Right now, the river is so low that you don’t need a boat to cross. In spots, you could use a ladder.
Right now may be dry, but the occasional violent storms that pass through the area leave their mark. 350 million years ago, this pillar of limestone mud was the bottom of a shallow sea, full of crinoids and other ocean life. Last summer, it had had a capstone of the same formation that makes up Lookout Point atop it, protecting the mud from rainfall. Sometime in the last few months, that capstone slid off in a storm, and the rest of the pillar will fall over the next year or so. As the seasons progress, the mud underneath Lookout Point weathers away as well, and it will ultimately collapse and fall into the river valley. It could happen tomorrow and it could happen in a thousand years, but the fractures on the Point show that it’s going to happen, sooner or later. I may enjoy loitering around the Point, but I’m not planning to sit there that long.
The heat broke back in October, so the Czarina and I did for Thanksgiving weekend what most people do: we spent it with family. The difference is that we spent it with her family out at their ranch in West Texas. She got her fill of wide open vistas, and I had the chance to explore natural history at a time when most of the local flora was out of the way. Not all of it, of course: the resident agaves, cactus, salt cedar, and mesquite were just as common as usual, but the various grasses and small herbs were either dead or gone, giving clarity to previously overgrown areas. Combine that with a nearly full moon rising just before dark and both Jupiter and Aldebaran rising in the evening, and this was a perfect time to come out for a visit.
Admittedly, it’s due to both that sudden freeze we had two weeks ago and our current unnaturally dry autumn, but anyone want to tell me again about how North Texas doesn’t get fall color? (As noted before, this is definitely due to our current lack of precipitation, because I’ve passed these trees for years on my way to the Day Job, and never once seen a smidgen of color from them before. I’m glad for the moment of beauty, but I’ll also be very, VERY glad when we start getting rain again. It’s getting to be a bit too much like 1952, meteorologically speaking, to suit me.)
The Czarina is a tremendous Rik Mayall fan, and she seems to think that I look like Mayall. If this video doesn’t fix that, I don’t know what will.
On behalf of everyone having to work behind a counter today, here’s a clip from the best documentary about Dallas ever made. Nine years ago, I was facing this scene at the Dallas Galleria, and just about anybody who has ever worked retail, specifically at a shopping mall, has anecdotes about this not being fiction.
On behalf of the Texas Triffid Ranch and everyone here, I hope everyone in the States has a great Thanksgiving weekend. For everyone, here’s one of the only holiday specials you’ll see me endorsing, courtesy of my people’s answer to Doctor Who.
(Well, that’s not really true. The Star Wars Holiday Special takes a lot of justified grief, but the basic concept is sound. This is why I’m waiting for the premiere of The Walking Dead Christmas Special, complete with musical numbers by Bea Arthur and Paul Lynde.)
For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.
If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.
Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.
The flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants are all going into dormancy, and the focus for the rest of the year is on getting ready for next year’s shows. HowEVER, if you’re in the Dallas/Fort Worth area this weekend, I’ll be the guest speaker for the Dallas – Fort Worth Herpetological Society meeting at the University of Texas at Arlington Life Sciences building on November 17. The subject at hand is a near and dear one: “Absolute Surefire Steps To Kill Your New Venus Flytrap”.
And on a sidenote, I’d also like to make a shoutout for friends on the West Coast of the US, because Sarracenia Northwest just started a series of winter open houses in December. Any excuse to go out there is a good one, and these winter open houses are really good excuses, so go out and have fun.