Monthly Archives: May 2013

Have a Great Weekend

Why, yes, the late Eighties damaged our fragile little minds back then. Why do you ask?

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Pogonomyrmex barbatus

Harvester ant mound

As mentioned in the past, I love torturing my Brit friend Dave Hutchinson with horror tales about the fatal fauna and flora of Texas. He’s already convinced that Texas is nothing but a semi-desert version of Peter Jackson’s Skull Island spider pits, where every last animal and plant in the state exists solely to eat us, enslave us, and steal our wimminfolk. This, coming from a man who lives in a country overrun with hedgehogs, starlings, sparrows, and Manchester United fans. Some people just don’t know when they have it worse than everyone else.

I’ll admit that some of our problems lie with misidentification, as well as exceptional expectations on the lethality of our wildlife. When I first moved here, my previous experiences with ants were as minor pests, but not anything that could inflict serious damage before stripping the meat off my bones. I’d heard about Argentine fire ants, but decent forms of identification were lacking, especially to schoolkids from out of state. One day, standing out in a big cleared patch of ground near a highway, I found myself being stung repeatedly by giant red ants, and those ant stings swelled and came to a head full of clear fluid after about two days of rather intense pain. Not knowing any better, I’d come across fire ants, right?

The reality was that I’d come across a mound of our indigenous harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, and I was paying for standing right in the middle of the mound. I also got off lucky, as I only had about six stings. Argentine fire ants, when they sting, sting in the dozens. P. barbatus also pretty much inflicts enough damage as necessary to convince big dumb vertebrates to get the hell out of their nesting sites, and they otherwise leave humans alone. Fire ants, though, actively hunt around and in human habitations, nest in phone junction boxes and other electrified areas (for some reason, they’re attracted to electrical fields, so they’re commonly found chewing on the insulation of ground-installed spotlights and water sprinkler controls), and make lawn mowing into an endurance sport. If Dave ever discovers that they react to flooding by forming huge living rafts and balls that allow the ants to flow by the thousands onto any life form that comes in contact with them, he’ll be catatonic for weeks.

Harvesters, though, are positively mellow by comparison. They get their name from their tendency to collect grass seeds and bring them back to extensive granaries within their nests, and the granaries are large enough that the nests can extend for meters below ground. At the beginning of each year, most nests are only noticeable because the ants shred and prune any vegetation growing within the vicinity. By the middle of the summer, continued construction leaves a very distinctive pile of small stones around the nest entrance, resembling nothing so much as a very small volcanic crater. Finer dust is moved further away, and larger rocks worked around, so the stones generally range from about the size of a typical ant’s head to stones just large enough to be moved by two or three ants working in a team. Throughout North Texas, they’re usually our distinctive and ubiquitous ironstone, but occasionally such treasures as fossil mammal teeth can turn up in the mound spoils. I myself haven’t found anything other than the occasional tiny shark’s tooth in local mounds, but I also haven’t been looking that hard.

Harvester ant - closeup

Since I know that Dave will insist upon knowing why such abominations walk the earth, I’ll also note that harvester ants are a vital food source for many small animals, particularly the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). In fact, P. cornatum pretty much eats only harvester ants in most circumstances. Sadly, the horned lizard and the harvester ant are threatened by the same two organisms: fire ants and humans. Fire ants do a great job at hunting down and devouring horned lizard nests, thus partially explaining why they’re becoming threatened throughout Texas, but both lizards and harvester ants suffer more from habitat destruction and random pesticide application. In the process, harvester ant mounds become more and more rare, generally turning up in undisturbed areas such as those at the ranch. The horned toad…well, I haven’t seen a live one outside of a zoo since 1980.

Harvester ant - close closeup

Another aspect of harvester ant behavior led to a very interesting observation this last weekend. While harvesters have no interest in human habitations as food sources, they definitely appreciate any sources of water, human-caused or otherwise, that last through the summer. They march impressive distances to any steady water source, whether it’s from a natural seep or a leaking pipe, so long as the water is reasonably clean. When I first moved to Texas, I lived in the center of a large area cleared for construction of a new housing subdivision, and I came across a minispring formed by a leaking water line in the middle of the construction zone. Every morning, harvesters rushed out to collect as much water as they could get before the sands around the “spring” became too hot, leaving them open to predation from birds and the occasional spider. The few casualties they faced by becoming bird food was apparently worth the effort of having a water source both closer and cleaner than the nearest creekbed, and they kept coming up to the day a house was built atop that water line.

This weekend, I was reminded of that tiny spring when watching the behavior of multitudes of leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) around a seep close to the Brazos River. The whole area around the ranch was just starting to dry out after a series of rains, so I understood why so many frogs would be up away from the river itself. What didn’t make sense at first was why so many would be in such a shallow and honestly piddling puddle, until I stopped to take a closer look. The frogs had no interest in the seep for either residence or breeding, and all of the frogs were too small to breed in any case. However, it was irresistible to harvester ants, which piled up against each other while gathering water. The frogs just waited for the ants in the seep, ate their fill, and went back to the river. Confirmation came in finding frog scat, almost bejeweled in harvester ant carapaces, all over the area. Once the rains stop, the seep dries up, the harvesters find another well, and the frogs find other food sources. In the meantime, the frogs are fat and sassy, and the harvesters aren’t hunted to the point where they move elsewhere for their water. And the cycle continues.

–And a tip of the hat to Bug Girl, who regularly reminds me about the constant interaction between insect and flowering plant, and the odd stories therein. Go read every last post she ever wrote, and don’t be afraid to offer her a job if you’re in need of a professional entomologist.

Tales From The Ranch: Secret of the Lost Quarry

Rock pile

After a solid decade of trips out to the ranch, I know haven’t come anywhere near understanding or even listing the wonders and mysteries out there. Some may think “mysteries” a bit extreme, but it fits. They don’t have to be big mysteries, and unraveling observations to make sense of them works as well with understanding plant behavior as it does with solving murders. I’ll admit, though, that if Agatha Christie hadn’t added a big scoop of murder to them, her Miss Marple stories wouldn’t have quite the oomph.

In this case, the mystery starts with the background. One small portion of the ranch lies right on the Brazos River, and the fauna and flora of that area is typical for any similar area in the state alongside a steady source of water. The main trees are oak and cottonwood, with lots of scrub between the big ones. In spots, the right spots, you can even find wood ferns growing in that scrub.

However, taking a look at an elevation map of the ranch, you’ll see that it doesn’t make a smooth progression from riverbank to full desert. It effectively has four distinct levels from the entrance to the river, with long flat plains leading to each narrow and steep trail to the next. Anyone foolish enough to travel any distance along the ranch without 4-wheel drive would be walking back before too long, and a couple of the trails are getting rough enough that even an all-terrain vehicle needs a steady and calm hand to get up them. In the process, the ongoing erosion of old Pennsylvanian sub-period seabed produces distinctive habitats, with pockets of oddness in each one.


Another bit of background: while the ranch has been in the Czarina’s family for forty years, its history goes a lot further back. Six years ago, my father-in-law went on a trek of idle curiosity, intending to track down what showed up in old maps of the property as, quite literally, “the lost quarry”. A large limestone deposit near the entrance to the ranch had been used quite extensively in the late 1960s and early 1970s for building and landscaping stone, and a second saw extensive use in the late Fifties. The Lost Quarry, though, was a quarry for a particularly dense and tough sandstone used for the reconstruction of the Palo Pinto County Courthouse from 1940 to 1942, necessitating a full WPA work camp in the vicinity during that mining and construction. The general area comprising the Lost Quarry was well-marked, but the specific traces of it were extremely hard to find on the ground. It’s not that the quarry area was buried per se, but that instead it was inundated with recent explosions of mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei. With the trees in the way, it’s hard to see much of anything, especially after seventy years. In addition, the WPA crews did a very good job of cleaning up their messes when they were done, so not much other than a few wooden fences remained when they were finished. Seven decades later, even those existed only as chunks.

Rock pile and ferns

But did they? When we finally found the quarry, the tipoff was finding spoils piles roughly where the crews had been cutting the stone in preparation for transport. Mostly hidden in big stands of mountain cedar, these were now sporadically-lit rubble mounds, further hidden in weeds, cactus, and greenbriar. Oh, and they were covered with ferns.


The popular perception of ferns holds that they’re denizens of dark, moist, soggy areas, and Texas, as always, makes a liar of that perception. Texas boasts many species of desert-loving fern, even if many are obscure or inobtrusive, so this isn’t that big a surprise. The problem, though, is that these ferns are only found in this one spot on the ranch. Why should this spoils pile matter so much?


Well, the explanation is easier than you may realize. The sandstone making up this pile is very dense, so the core of the pile retains coolness as the outside heats up during the day. As the heat radiates off at night, the loose arrangement of the pile draws in outside air, and nighttime humidity is much higher, especially when the constant daytime southern wind lays off at night. That marginally more humid air enters the core and the moisture condenses on the cool rocks in the core, and you have an air well. It’s not enough water to keep humans alive, or even supply water for animals other than the occasional rattlesnake or spadefoot toad. For the ferns, though, it’s just right, and the thick spreads of mountain cedar all through the area discourage cattle, deer, or most other grazers from stripping the ferns right down to the soil line.

And as an extra, while the use of the term “Lost Quarry” leaves all sorts of implications, I’m sad to say that the Lost Quarry has no dinosaurs in it, fossilized or otherwise. Any fossil beds in the area dating from the Mesozoic Era were probably eroded away long before the last ice age, and every rock in the vicinity indigenous to the area dates to the Paleozoic. Depending upon your definition of “dinosaur”, the area may have some after all: what allowed me to find the Lost Quarry on this trip was being startled by a roadrunner so big that I was wondering if the ranch was raising acrocanthosaurs. The ranch already looks like the shooting location for a Ray Harryhausen movie, so this would just be par for the course.

Hints at upcoming projects

To quote Michelangelo, “When I steal an idea, I leave my knife.” This seemed to work for him, considering his career of artistic bootlegging, and it works here. Being a hopeless fan of the work of Alaska artists Scott Elyard and Raven Amos, I’ve argued for years that the gardening trade needs an alternative to flamingos and gnomes for garden ornamentation, and there’s no better alternative than a blatant plagiarism of Scott and Raven’s Dinosaurs and Robots exhibition. What better way to leave my knife than show the first part of a miniature garden series in progress?


Please note that this is just the bare start: besides constructing the rest of the series, this skeleton itself is nowhere near finished. Let’s just say that I’m very glad that I bought enough europium paint and ultraviolet LEDs for the project.


As for seeing the final series, you’ll have to wait. If this doesn’t add a bit of incentive for people to come out for FenCon X, I don’t know what will.

Tales From The Ranch: May 2013

Lookout Point

When most couples finally get a spare weekend free, they have all sorts of options. They could decide to spend more time with their kids, roughly about the time the kids are finishing up college and asking their parents “Mind if I move me and my English Lit degree back to my old room while I try to get a job with the local Borders store?” Others, with much younger children, have a relaxing time, hoping that nobody notices the recent Google searches on their computers for “recipes for laudanum”. In our case, our only children either mew or capture wayward insects, so holiday weekends belong to the Czarina’s family. Yep, it’s time for a new assemblage of “Tales From The Ranch” photos, including even more natural history and Texas history than before.

Quarry Face

Those stories are due over the next few weeks, but let’s start with the biggest news. The Czarina made a really impressive fossil discovery while we were wandering along the bottom of what was a limestone quarry in the mid-Seventies. As is her wont, she looked down, chirped “I wonder what that is?”, and promptly started attacking it with sharp implements. Fond memories of our wedding night. A few minutes of chipping through limestone shards and thick mud revealed this little surprise:

Calvinosaurus egg

Okay, we know that the stone of the quarry itself dates to the Pennsylvanian subperiod, but with various workings from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. There’s always the possibility as well that this may have been introduced by Palaeoindians from another location and left in what is now the quarry. When we excavated it, I wasn’t going to get overly excited until we had the chance to look at the other side and view any markings on a surface that hadn’t seen sunlight in over a quarter-billion years.

Calvinosaurus egg 2

The markings confirm it: it’s a Calvinosaurus egg, and it’s probably still viable. Just wait until the guys at the Arlington Archosaur Site get a look at this! Better yet, is there any chance of officially describing Calvinosaurus czarina before it goes on a madcap rampage through downtown Dallas?


Cat Monday


Have a Great Weekend

April cold fronts bring May cactus blooms

Blooming prickly pear

While chasing wildflowers the other day, I very nearly stepped into a big surprise. While the cliche of Texas being covered with wild saguaro cactus is indeed false (not even mentioning the fact that Carnegia gigantea isn’t found in the US outside of Arizona), about half of the state is clear of most forms. Well, kinda. The thick clay soil of North Texas isn’t amenable to most cacti, but every once in a while, a migrating bird dumps a prickly pear seed after feeding on cactus fruit further west, and if it comes across just the right conditions, it might sprout and continue. It won’t thrive, and it certainly won’t form the massive clumps found west of Fort Worth, but it’ll grow and very occasionally bloom.

Blooming prickly pear

Blooming prickly pear

April cold fronts bring May wildflowers – 4




Trumpet vine seed pods

April cold fronts bring May wildflowers – 3





April cold fronts bring May wildflowers – 2



Texas thistle

Texas thistle

Texas: The Original Deathworld

My friend Dave Hutchinson in the UK and I have an ongoing challenge. He asks me for reasons why he should come to Texas for a visit, and I immediately respond with the most horrifying thing I can find. Giant spiders, baby birds that eat other baby birds, photos of my state legislators. He then screams like a wounded rabbit, tells me that Texas is nothing but a nightmare manufactured in a factory run by asylum inmates and powered with psilocybin mushrooms, and I show him something even worse. I then inform him “the inmates went catatonic ten years ago, and so now the whole place runs off ketamine fumes.” Trust me: he’s not hiding behind his sofa just because of the Daleks.

On easygoing days, I just tell Dave about mesquite thorns and the time an armadillo jumped up and nearly knocked out my front teeth. Other days, I describe the joys of second-degree sunburn and fire ant stings. A few asides about watching cicada killer wasps collecting fresh hosts for their young, and he’s glibbering and meeping. It’s on special days, though, that I tell him about the weather. He knows the normal progression of Texas summer from “hot” to “my eyeballs are melting” to “my guts are steam-broiling just looking at the thermometer”, but he doesn’t believe me about the torrential thunderstorms we get.

Not that I blame him for the concern. When the forecast in the UK is for torrential rain, that presupposes all of two inches over the space of, oh, a couple of days. In severe storms, that two inches may come down in the space of hours. When I told him about how an average storm in Dallas might give us two inches of rain within about twenty minutes, there we went underneath the couch again. Were I closer, his left leg would be a full six inches longer than his right, just from my grabbing him by the ankle and pulling him out from underneath the couch to show him the baseball-sized hail we occasionally get. He still doesn’t believe my story about how I got the Harry Potter scar on my forehead from a full sheet of plywood caught in the winds of a dust storm thirty years ago.

“Dust storm?”, he’d squeak. “What were you doing: riding sandworms or something?”

“Nope: feeding pigs. Same thing around here, really.”

Baaaaaaaack under the sofa. I think the Daleks are under there, too.

What’s really sad about this is that I used to get the Czarina into the same state. After a decade of threatening to adopt crocodile monitors and having to explain to her mother the other meaning of the term “fluffer”, nothing fazes her any more. Nothing. I’ve tried to get a response out of the Elbows of Doom, but anything that might get them to slide of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor is something that’s already so dangerous and insane that the Elbows might be a blessing. We’re talking “going to a science fiction convention and telling everyone around that Firefly has to be one of the worst genre television shows made this side of Lexx” dangerous. I’ve tried that, too, and she just pats me on the head.

I know this won’t last, though. The moment I start insulting Project Runway, I’m doomed.

Well, that’s what I thought. And then Dallas caught the tail-end of the second big storm front of the week. Based understandably on events in Oklahoma the day before, we were all bracing for the worst, or at least a repeat of March 2012’s tornado nightmare. This time, no tornado, no hail, no boom. No boom tomorrow, either. Instead, we got blinding rain, the sort where you have to hold your hand over your mouth when moving in it to keep from suffocating. Naturally, it’s during the height of it that the Czarina calls up to ask if I need a ride home from the Day Job.

“Not at all. In fact, I’m planning to bicycle home.”

“Okay, whatever you say. No starlets, now.”

Dave couldn’t believe this. He simply refused to accept that I’d be crazy enough to do this. That’s when I upped the ante and told him “I just bet her $5 that I could make it home without being hit by lightning. $10 if I held a golf club over my head the whole way.”

“$10? You value your life so little that you’d do something like that for $10?”

“Well, if I bet anything more than that, she’d figure I was cheating. If I get hit by lightning, she inherits everything, and she knows I’m worth a total of $11.32, if she wants to take the time to cash in those deposit Dr. Pepper bottles.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Absolutely. If she hangs onto the Dr. Pepper bottles for another 30 years, they may be worth more as collectibles than for their deposit.”

And there goes Dave back under the couch, and he’s got the Cybermen and Sontarans under there with him. Should I tell him about our hailstorms, or just invite him out in September to see one for himself? And should I cover the floor with blankets so he doesn’t stain the carpet under our couch?

April cold fronts bring May wildflowers – Overview

Wildflower overview

Every spring in North Texas is different, and this one was one of the oddest I’ve seen since 1982. Last year, we practically didn’t have a winter, so the local peach and pear trees were in full bloom nearly a month before normal. The year before that, the weeklong killing freeze in February stunted a lot of plants that might have been ready for the usual March botanical explosion, and before that, everything had to deal with the repercussions of the deepest snowfall seen here in recorded history. This spring, not only was everything dealing with the ongoing drought (in which we’re still trapped, even with yesterday’s wildly anticipated rainfall), but we’d fluctuate wildly between high and low temperatures. Normally, I can put the winter coat into storage around the beginning of March and give up on light jackets by April. This year, I had the coat out to deal with near-freezing temperatures all the way up until the first week of May.

Because of that, the annual wildflower season lacks a bit. The bluebonnets simply failed, with the exception of a few in hollows protected from our mid-March freezes. Everything else…well, it’s time to let the photos do the talking.

Japanese honeysuckle




Cat Monday


Investigating UV fluorescence in carnivorous plants at grad student prices

Back in February, many of you may remember the distinctive paper in Plant Biology titled “Fluorescent prey traps in carnivorous plants” and the subsequent popular science reportage. As can be expected, this opened up a whole new series of questions as how carnivores attract insect prey, with the biggest limitation being the ability to study the phenomenon. The situation is aggravated by the wild variability of consumer-grade ultraviolet light sources, particularly ones that produce the correct frequency of UV to fluoresce carnivore structures. While many UV LED arrangements, such as the flashlights used for viewing UV ink stamps at nightclubs, will fluoresce these structures, they also tend to emit enough visible light to wash out the effect.

In trying to study this further, the problem lay with finding a UV source that produced the correct wavelength, cut back on the amount of visible light being emitted, and kept the cost of the final arrangement to a reasonable amount. The last immediately removed shortwave UV lamps, used for decades for viewing fluorescent minerals, from consideration, as these can run well outside of a typical underclass or grad student’s budget. Thankfully, it’s possible, with a little modification, to make a perfectly suitable and very effective arrangement that, while not necessarily precise, allows researchers to experience carnivorous plant fluorescence in the field.

AS&S violet laser

The core of this apparatus is a violet laser, which emits enough UV for any number of fluorescence effects. (As can be expected, violet lasers are now the go-to item at raves and music festivals for precisely this reason.) While available from many sources, this one came from American Science & Surplus. One limitation, due to US regulations, is that it uses a momentary switch to turn on and off, requiring the user to keep it held down in order to use it. Other than that, it has exceptional range, which means that it has enough power for more long-range field observation, such as seeking fluorescing carnivores at night.

DISCLAIMER: Since a violet laser produces a significant amount of UV, neither the Texas Triffid Ranch nor anyone involved with it takes any responsibility or accepts any liability for damages or injuries caused or abetted by the misuse of said laser. Keep this thing out of your eyes and the eyes of innocent bystanders, and wear protective eyewear when using it. Likewise, keep it away from exposed skin whenever possible.

Laser beam (unmodified)

The other limitation to using a violet laser is tied to the basic concept of a laser. Namely, it emits a beam of coherent light in a pinpoint. As the photo above shows, this means that the light from the laser scatters in air (the reason, by the way, why the visible lasers in science fiction movies and television are impossible, unless someone fires one into a cloud of gas or vapor), but not quite enough for our purposes. What’s needed is a coherent light that also spreads out laterally, just enough to cover a larger area and to view fluorescence effects without the visible light component washing it out. For that, we’re going to need an optical diffuser.

ThorLabs diffuser

Another thing to consider when working with UV is that standard glass absorbs UV: this is the phenomenon that allows people in glass greenhouses to work in full sun all day without suffering crippling sunburn. (Take this from an authority on “shedding like a monitor lizard all summer long”.) Because of that, standard glass diffusers intended for coherent and incoherent light won’t work. You’ll have to pay a bit more, but Thorlabs offers a series of fused silica diffusers designed for UV, in polishes from 120 grit to 1500 grit. Since I knew precious little of what I was doing, I bought one 120 and one 1500 to compare the effects, and then tested it with the laser back from the diffuser by about a centimeter.

Laser beam with diffusor

As the photo shows, the diffuser does an exemplary job of spreading the laser beam while still keeping it reasonably coherent. The only problem right now is with keeping the diffuser perpendicular to the laser and turning on the laser with one hand. In a very quick and dirty installation, this could be fixed with judicious application of the Time Lord’s secret weapon, but the more realistic plan involves constructing a clip for the laser that allows the diffuser to be adjusted for best effect. That’s in the future.

Sarracenia under visible light

Now the acid test. Since most of my previous experiments involved Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants, the first series of experiments involve going out into the middle of a collection of Sarracenia with the newly modified laser and viewing the effects. As important as using UV on the plants was recording their appearance under visible light, if only to see if the plant had any correlation between its markings under visible light and any fluorescence in UV. Hence, a quick photo of the pitcher is necessary before moving on.

Sarracenia under UV, first attempt

The first test of the newly modified laser was an unqualified success, at least to the naked eye. The beam stimulated fluorescence in most carnivores, including hints in sundews (particularly Drosera filliformis), as well as reddish chlorophyll fluorescence in Venus flytraps. In fact, the extreme fluorescence in Sarracenia of all species helps explain why Sarracenia seem to capture so many moths, and the next big project is to capture similar fluorescence, if any, in the genus’s relatives Darlingtonia and Heliamphora. The only limitation lay with the camera: working without a net, the fluorescence was barely visible in final photos, even if it was nearly blinding in person.

Sarracenia pitcher under UV

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the cover to the latest Hawkwind album. While the fluorescence can be seen in the throat of the pitcher (on the right) and the edges of the lid (left), it’s still not perfect. Time for more experimentation with shutter speed and light sensitivity.

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

One of the more interesting phenomena that was observed while working with the laser with Sarracenia were distinctive neon blue spots on either side of the lid interior, visible here on the upper left of the lid. Not all pitchers have these, but larger pitchers do, and they almost resemble fragments of Australian fire opal or blue ammolite to the naked eye. I have no idea if these work as additional lures to insect prey, but that’s yet another experiment for the near future.

Triggerplant blooms under UV

And as an additional treat for botanists, the laser apparatus also helps bring out UV colors and patterns in flowers as well. The hot pink blooms of the triggerplant Stylidium debile already stand out to human eyes, but under UV, they’re a brilliant neon pink. Combine that with known fluorescence in the blooms of other carnivores and protocarnivores (particularly Utricularia bisquamata, which has a spot that glows a brilliant DayGlo yellow under UV), and this laser arrangement could be used to study the attractiveness of flowers to insects without requiring special camera lenses or other equipment. If further tests with sticky trap carnivores such as Drosera and Byblis work out, it may also offer a way to search for possible attractants in protocarnivorous and potentially protocarnivorous plants as Probiscidea.

In summary, with the advent of inexpensive violet lasers, carnivorous plant researchers may now view fluorescent attractors in carnivores for the cost of dinner and a movie. I hope that this encourages further experimentation with UV on carnivores, particularly among college and high school students, as well as among layperson carnivore enthusiasts. As always, please feel free to ask questions or add commentary below, particularly concerning ways to improve upon the results.

Have a Great Weekend

A prize in each box!

Over here at the Triffid Ranch, we get our share of value-added items in the mailbox. Several times, the good folks at FarmTek include extra surprises in a shipment, such as secateurs or thermometer/hygrometer sets, and I’m still trying to figure out who sent the set of gardening tools I received last Christmas. Well, you get surprises, and you get surprises, and one of the most interesting I’ve seen yet came from Thorlabs, Inc.

The reason why I put in an order for a ground glass diffuser will have to wait for a future post, save to note that, as the Czarina puts it, “it’s all that and a biscuit.” I couldn’t be happy enough with the diffuser and its final results, and I’m hoping to show the results in a formal paper soon. Either that, or for an article in Make. What surprised me, though, was that in addition to the two diffusers selected for my experiments, I found this in the box as well:

Lab Bites

Again, I’ve had surprises in packages before, especially when ordering plants from Sarracenia Northwest. This, though, was brand new. So was the legend on the side of the box:

Side of Lab Bites

Finally, a slight bit of explanation as to why this arrived with the diffusers:

Lip of Lab Bites

After reading the legend on the interior flap, I looked at the contents, and I suddenly understood. ThorLabs knows the sensibilities and tastes of its customers, especially the poor grad students usually assigned to order parts and components. Forget training teenagers to choose Coke over Pepsi: this is how you guarantee brand loyalty for life when it comes to scientific equipment.

Contents of Lab Bites

For the record, of course I shared. If you think nutritious snacks are a rarity in a grad student environment, you have no clue as to the lack of options around the herd of electrical engineers at the Day Job. The pretzel sticks are the only thing left so far, and I suspect they won’t be around for long. Well played, ThorLabs. Well played. If further experiments require further gear, they’ve got yet another customer for life.

Introducing Sphenodon punctatus

At the end of the day, the only thing you can do with some shows is laugh and try to say one good thing about the whole fiasco once you’ve gone home and unpacked. So it was with a Mother’s Day art event at the Dallas Zoo this last weekend, where the Czarina was showing her artwork. We’ve both had some bad shows, including both ones where the staff was at no fault of their own for the debacle and ones where everyone involved should have been hung by their big toes and used as Viking pinatas by the vendors and attendees. This one couldn’t have been improved upon if it had opened with the announcement “Hi! I’m Johnny Knoxville…”

Well, I’m one of those guys who can sit in a room full of horseflop and exclaim “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” In fact, at times, the Czarina accuses me of treading dung in a huge pit of it, occasionally feeling a pony as it emerges from the deep in its search for fresh toes to chew. That’s how I found myself in a momentary escape from the booth, sneaking out to hit the reptile house. Say hello to the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), one of the most unique reptiles on the planet today.

Tuatara at the Dallas Zoo

I won’t go into details on tuatara physiology, habits, or distribution, nor will I say anything other than that the Dallas Zoo deserves its reputation for being one of the most exciting venues for reptile care and captive breeding on the planet. In fact, the Dallas and Fort Worth Zoos have a very friendly rivalry involving results in captive breeding programs. That’s why the fact that the government of New Zealand was willing to allow a loan of two tuatara to the Dallas Zoo is such a singular honor. After the show season is over, it’s time to go back, with a much better camera than my phone and with a lot more time, and get more photos. Seeing the Zoo’s crocodile, Perentie, and Komodo monitors was enough of a thrill, but barring making that long-anticipated trip to Aotearoa to see tuatara in the wild (a very unlikely occurrence, as visits to the islands frequented by tuatara are strictly regulated by the New Zealand government), this was as close to fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was three as I’m going to get.

New Triffid Ranch show: NARBC Arlington

Ten years ago, when I picked up my first batch of carnivorous plants from a local Home Depot, I had no idea how far this was going to go. Even five years ago, when I first started doing lectures and showing plants, I had no clue. Well, it keeps getting better, as the Texas Triffid Ranch joins the list of esteemed vendors at this August’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference show in Arlington, Texas. As a longtime attendee of the NARBC Arlington shows, you can imagine the thrill of being on the other side of the register for the first time. Heck, this time, I might even work out a trade for a crocodile monitor.

Cat Monday


Yes, when she’s sleeping, we have our own Grumpy Cat.

Have a Great Weekend

Introducing Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri

I have friends from outside Texas who ask me regularly “Why do you stay there?” The general impression of Texas is that it’s a hostile, horrible place full of dangerous wildlife, most of which is human. The more specific impression is that Texas is just like Australia, only instead of drop bears descending from trees, we have armadillos that jump up for home games of “Ow, My Balls!” Several years back, on a trip to Banff, Alberta, the Czarina and I stopped by a tourist center and talked with several Canadian national park rangers, and all they wanted to talk about was the number of venomous snakes in Texas. “I couldn’t live there. Between the rattlesnakes and the alligators…”

My response was “Dude, you live in a province where all of the garbage dumpsters are armor-plated to fend off GRIZZLIES. And even we Americans know how dangerous pikas can be. Bloodthirsty little monsters.”

No, I stay here because of the unorthodox beauty. The sort of beauty, for instance, that presented itself on a side lot of the Day Job. Say hello to Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, better known as the Texas rat snake.

Texas rat snake

Texas rat snakes get their common name for obvious reasons. Yes, they’re from Texas, as well as Louisiana and Arkansas. They’re also obviously snakes. The “rat” part, though, comes from their eating habits. While rat snakes of all types won’t turn down birds and various small mammals, their diet consists mostly of rodents, all of which are constricted instead of being dispatched with venom. As such, they tend to hunt on the edges of farms and grain fields for rats and mice, often moving inside barns and stalls while seeking prey. Our local indigenous rats, along with the introduced Norway rat, also have a thing for hiding out alongside human dwellings, and where they go, so do the rat snakes. More often than not, the snakes slither down rat burrows, chow down on the rats, and then claim the burrow as a hiding area.

Texas rat snake

After hearing stories from co-workers about the giant snake inhabiting one outdoor courtyard, I’d hoped to spot it one of these days, but it was my boss who saw it while looking down off a balcony normally used by the smokers at work. Knowing the number of ophidiophobes on site, we figured that the best thing we could do was move it away from the building so as to prevent any misunderstandings between reptile and human, but otherwise leave it alone. After all, neither of us want the rats around. Since I’m probably one of the only people on site who knows anything about reptile handling, I came in for a closer look, identified it as a rat snake as opposed to any of our rather rare venomous snakes, and held it long enough for identification. I wasn’t absolutely sure, but based on experiences with indigenous king snakes, I suspected this one was gravid and looking for a place to lay eggs, so we called it “her” in the interim.

Texas rat snake

This wasn’t the first time I’d come across Texas rat snakes, or even ones as big as this one. The area around the Day Job is loaded with various winter and summer wheat fields, with the unfortunate side effect that snakes hunting for rodents get hit with all sorts of horrible pesticides. Most of the time, the snake is dying or at least extremely disoriented because of the spraying, so it was a singular honor to examine one in excellent health. Oh, and she was. In fact, she was point-blank cantankerous until she settled in and realized that I wasn’t a threat.

As for the much-hyped bad attitude of this species, that’s a matter of attitude. Having kept snakes at one time or another since I was three, I’ve handled everything from garter snakes to water moccasins (once, and I don’t recommend it without safety gear), and Texas rat snakes are nowhere near as cranky as water snakes or black racers. I’ve personally kept a beautiful bull snake and an equally beautiful speckled king snake (named “Madcoil” by the request of a then-girlfriend who was heavily into the comic Elfquest back when we were in high school) that did their best to kill me before I could pick them up, and this one wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that. Even so, she managed to get in one quick tag on me before I secured her head, and it was such a soft bite that I didn’t even realized she’d touched me until I noted the blood.

Texas rat snake bite

Aside from biting, Texas rat snakes don’t have much in the way of defense. Like the aforementioned bull and speckled king snakes, they vibrate their tails when started or threatened, sounding like a rattlesnake’s rattles if in leaves. (Again, they’re nothing like black racers: hatchling black racers not only vibrate their tails, but they have markings nearly indistinguishable from those of pygmy rattlesnakes.) That doesn’t do a whole lot against their natural enemies, which include hawks, coyotes, and the occasional ambitious housecat. When in hand, she first tried to strike at my face, and then calmed down when she realized that I wasn’t going to take a bite out of her. Snakes aren’t particularly intelligent compared to other reptiles, and they’re really just mouths and stomachs with a mobility system, but the rat and king snakes are smart enough to understand when a human isn’t a threat.

In the end, it was fun, but my boss and I moved this snake out and let her climb a tree far enough away from the front of the building that nobody would come across her when leaving work for the day. She’ll probably be back, but seeing as how she’s been around for this long, I don’t begrudge her this a bit. With luck, she should get in another decade of basking on tree limbs and snagging rats and mourning doves, and I don’t begrudge her that at all, either.

Carnivorous plant fluorescence under UV vs. point-and-shoot


While this may not look like much, the photo above is a scientific demonstration. Namely, what happens when you combine a large Sarracenia pitcher plant pitcher, a violet laser that throws off a lot of UV when properly scattered, and a camera whose owner needs further training for low-light operation. Alternately, it could be a demonstration of viewing the fluorescence of carnivorous plants under UV with less than $20 in equipment, because the glow is much more intense in person than in this terrible photo. Either way, new, better photos WILL follow.

On other developments, this marks the 700th post on this blog since it started two years ago tomorrow. Do I get a cookie for longevity?

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath – 6

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Before I stop posting about Texas Frightmare Weekend, I’d like to extend any amount of gratitude to my fellow vendors, as well as the security crew and the volunteers who made the show happen. The Czarina and I always look forward to seeing regular and new vendors, and having Dametria Green of The Curiositeer stop by is one of the many highlights of the show. Dametria and her boyfriend have been regular Triffid Ranch customers since the first Triffid Ranch show at Frightmare back in 2009, and we consistently run into them at other local events. A show that ends without running into them, or at least a quick view of the Curiositeer booth, is like a broken pencil.

I’d also like to give a serious shoutout for my immediate show neighbor, Shaun Kama of Halloween Tattoos, who had to listen to me recite carnivorous plant information over and over and OVER all weekend. What became particularly scary was how many people we knew in common, including glass artist R.C. Whitus of Drink With The Living Dead. When I’m ready to get more skin art done, Shaun is at the top of my list for out-of-town artists to get my business.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013
So it ends until this time next year. The next big convention: FenCon X in Addison, where it all started. I wonder what happened to the catgirl who smirked “Whoever heard of anyone selling plants at a convention?” all those years ago?

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath – 5

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

And the smiles keep coming. Oh, they keep coming. In fact, about the only bad attitude at the whole show, seen from my side of the vendor’s booth, came from a Dallas Observer Street Team writer who wandered around with a curled lip as if someone had stapled a small turd under her nose. Everyone else with the Street Team was having a blast, but she obviously wanted to be back in Uptown or Highland Park with the other Beautiful People. Her MO was to walk up to vendors, sneer “So why is this so special?”, and wander off bored as soon as anyone tried to answer her question. Either she’s trying to fill the niche left emptied by former Observer writer Robert Wilonsky, or she’s gunning for an editorial position at D magazine. Even so, even she couldn’t ruin the mood.

On that subject, Texas Frightmare Weekend is becoming quite the media event as well. Lots of photographers and reporters, with regular photo slideshows on a lot of local media Web sites, and precious little interest in the sort of “Look at the freaks” coverage you used to see from our local newspaper whenever a convention was in town. (I don’t miss that, and I definitely don’t miss one certain reporter who would demand freebies and special access in exchange for coverage of a convention, who would then slam the convention because he got everything he demanded. I suspect he really, really misses the Nineties and his long-dead control over local media coverage.) Combine them with the various touring podcasters, and some of the conversations were as bizarre as anything in the movies, films, and books being celebrated at Frightmare. It almost, almost, makes me nostalgic for my days in journalism.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath – 4

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

One of the many reasons why I so thoroughly enjoy being a vendor at Texas Frightmare Weekend, and I have a LOT of reasons, is because everyone is so mellow and so blasted happy. You’re among 4000 to 10,000 stone horror fans, half of them in costumes that would leave my paternal grandmother in pattern nightmares for years, and they’re all smiling. Not “I’m smiling so I don’t start shooting at school buses” smiles, either. These are folks who wait the entire year for Frightmare, and even when things don’t go precisely as planned (such as when The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus had to cancel his appearance due to filming deadlines on the show), they don’t just deal with it. They aren’t grabbing water and sugar to make lemonade: they’re grabbing the ice, the salt, and the tequila and making margaritas that will peel the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips. In other words, my kind of people.

And to explain the situation with my grandmother, I just like to point out that my two late grandmothers had completely different attitudes. My paternal grandmother admitted she still had nightmares after seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein back in 1932, and she disowned me when I celebrated my 19th birthday by seeing the local premiere of George Romero’s Day of the Dead. My maternal grandmother’s birthday was Halloween, and she was a walking recreation of the “Hell’s Grannies” skit on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Guess which one I took after?

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath – 3

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Expect some serious changes to the Triffid Ranch through 2013. It’s not just in an expanded list of shows, or in cosmetics such as new banners and plant nametags. (That said, though, the Triffid Ranch inventory is now color-coded for easier identification. Red tags are for carnivores, while green tags are edibles, blue are succulents, and black are toxic or poisonous ones.) Besides a desperately-needed revamping of the main Web site, it’s time to change focus on the plants themselves. In the last half-decade, first-time customers who couldn’t believe they were looking at actual carnivorous plants at a horror convention are now sophisticated enough to want something new and not immediately accessible, so it’s time to expand for them as well. We’ll still continue to carry old stalwarts for those finally ready to take a chance on a beginner carnivore, but it’s time to expand further into pygmy sundews, Mexican butterworts, and even more terrestrial bladderworts, among many others. This is in addition to an expanded line of custom arrangements and environments, including the long-promised ultra-hot Capsicum bonsai.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

And along that line, yes, the photo above is of a year-old Trinidad Scorpion pepper plant. It’s just one of many babied all winter long, and it’s going to be joined by a new batch of exotic peppers. If things work out well, this just might convince my little brother to come out to visit for the first time in two decades, because he’s a chilehead to end all Capsicum addicts.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath – 2

Texas Frightmare Weekend

As mentioned previously, Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013, in many ways, summed up the last five years of the Triffid Ranch. May 3 marked the fifth anniversary of the first-ever Triffid Ranch show, and it just keeps getting better and better. New customers, old friends, interested cohorts who aren’t quite ready to move away from “typical” gardening yet…they all came together last weekend in what was, so far, the largest show by volume in which the Triffid Ranch ever appeared. If Frightmare keeps going like this, not only am I planning to help celebrate Frightmare’s tenth anniversary in 2015, but I’m planning also to hold festivities of my own for the Triffid Ranch’s tenth as well.

Obviously, it isn’t a real party without photos. Over the next few days, keep an eye open for a cross-section of typical Triffid Ranch customers and their beloved plants. I wouldn’t have them any other way.

Texas Frightmare Weekend

Texas Frightmare Weekend

Texas Frightmare Weekend

Texas Frightmare Weekend

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013: The Aftermath

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013 booth

Five shows and four years after the first one, we’re home from Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013. Since it’s been a while, it was time for a change for this year’s show. New banner, new backgrounds, new plant species…it’s hard to believe that all of this started a half-decade ago, and with so little in the way of selection.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2013 booth detail

As always, Frightmare is one of the two big regular Triffid Ranch shows (the other is FenCon in October), and it just keeps getting bigger. Since the convention outgrew its previous hotel and moved to DFW Airport, its proximity to the airport terminals means that it gets a whole slew of enthusiasts of the dark and disturbing. In the first day alone, I chatted with horror enthusiasts from Poland, Russia, and South Africa, and that’s not even going into the number of Canadians who came down for the festivities. (And yes, I carried purple pitcher plants [Sarracenia purpurea] for a reason, seeing as how at least two former Newfoundland residents commented “Ah, a little piece of home.”) This meant a lot of conversations about local plants, and all we needed were a few New Zealanders and Argentineans to make things complete. They showed up on Saturday.

New Triffid Ranch banner by Larry Carey

Expect a lot more about Frightmare over the next few days, but let’s just start with the new background banner, with many thanks to Dallas artist Larry Carey. Now to get this rendered with a 3-D printer and cast in resin, just as a background for a few carnivorous plant arrangements. I mean, anybody can do Maya bas-reliefs, right?


Cat Monday


Have A Great Weekend

If you’re reading this now, I’m hoping you’re at Texas Frightmare Weekend, because the Triffid Ranch will be out here the whole weekend long. Be seeing you.

Countdown to Texas Frightmare Weekend: some concentrated evil

With a bit less than 48 hours left until the opening of the 2013 Texas Frightmare Weekend, I won’t be one of those pests who constantly tries to remind customers “Hey, I have an event this weekend, so who wants to come out and say hello?” Well, I am, but there’s more to it than that. Yes, any small businessperson wouldn’t mind having a tremendous show, but there should be more to it than merely asking people to come out and buy. Since Texas Frightmare Weekend is a convention dedicated to all flavors and nuances of horror, it’s time to share a proposal. Thankfully for all, it’s such an insidious proposal that I don’t see any need to put it on Kickstarter.

Part of the inspiration came from running into an old and very dear friend at All-Con last March. I first ran into said friend at a long-defunct science fiction convention held out at DFW Airport, where I was trying my best to promote an equally long-defunct genre magazine. This friend was working security at the convention, and he demonstrated right then why his nickname was “Ogre”. Taller than I was, definitely a lot more muscular, with hair and beard that gave every indication that his distant ancestors and my distant ancestors had grand fun together raiding England and Scotland in longboats and waving swords at monasteries before setting them afire. Not only was he dressed for the nickname, but his crowd control device of choice was a buffalo femur, with a rawhide thong tied around one end so he wouldn’t lose it if blood or other fluids caused it to slip out of his hand. And yes, he used it a couple of times, which was something I kept in mind when I later dated someone he treated as an adoptive daughter.

For a very long time, Ogre was a fixture at conventions where I was a guest, and it was one of these shows where another friend came up with what was one of the more disturbing wagers any fellow human has ever contemplated in my vicinity. At the time, Ogre was in a bit of financial constriction, so this guy had the idea of a fundraiser. All we had to do was get $200 together, and all Ogre had to do was stand out on Dallas North Tollway during morning rush hour, in a Sailor Moon costume, singing “I’m A Little Teapot”. Maybe it was the thought of the thousands killed, maimed, or permanently blinded by that image that caused the backlash, or maybe it was the realization that anyone who could come up with that image of cosmic horror was someone who would have left Howard Phillips Lovecraft screaming in fright. Personally, I think it was the wager rider that someone threw on that stated “Oh, and the skirt on the costume has to be ‘regimental’,” but suddenly Ogre had more fans than he knew what to do with. Of course, they were all chipping into a counter-wager, offering him $300 if he didn’t do this. From what he told me later, the counter-wager fund managed to snag almost $500, with some of us chipping in to both funds just to see what would happen. (I was regularly blasting up and down Dallas North Tollway, commuting to and from Frito-Lay’s corporate headquarters through most of 2000, so I was open to a serious diversion on the Monday morning commute.)

This came up when we ran into each other last March, because I’m in a similar situation. That is, I have a large carnivore planter that I want to set up, and the Czarina specifically banned me from doing so. Merely mentioning “You know, it’s recycling” would cause the vein on her forehead to pulse like the strobes in a goth club, and I knew perfectly well that my setting up this project in the back yard was a good way to discover exactly how comfortable sleeping out there could be all summer long. It was winter that worried me.

That all changed last month with the construction of the new greenhouse. Installation of shade cloth to fend off the worst of the summer heat meant that the Czarina can’t see inside. Since she can’t see inside, she doesn’t care what sort of nightmares I construct. This means that I can do a tutorial on my paternal grandmother’s second-favorite form of gardening planter (second to the giant combine tires, painted bright pink with latex paint, full of cosmos and black-eyed susans in her front yard), knowing that she won’t start screaming until she sees the photos. Since the greenhouse is full of carnivores at the moment, though, the only way I’ll have enough room for this is if I sell a lot of Sarracenia this weekend. A LOT of Sarracenia.

As to the project itself, let’s just say that it’s a tribute to my paternal grandmother’s side of the family, and it’ll give whole new meaning to the term “bog garden”. I also owe George Lucas a great debt, for casting Ewan McGregor in his Star Wars prequels before going absolutely insane with merchandising based on McGregor’s character. You’ll understand when it’s done, and yes, it’ll be exactly as horrible as you can imagine. Now back to work: I think I can hear the Czarina’s forehead vein from here.