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Monthly Archives: November 2013
Dedicated to Velvet, an old friend who helped me appreciate Newfoundland more than she realized. If I ever develop a unique cultivar of this plant, I’m naming it for her.
When first exposed to carnivorous plants, most people are amazed that they aren’t all denizens of strange exotic jungles in tropical zones. They’re surprised to discover the range and variety of pitcher plants along the Gulf Coast of the United States, or the vistas of sundews and butterworts through Europe. When they learn about Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, and its place in Canadian history, they’re even more surprised. A regular pitch is “Lots of countries put out stamps and other memorabilia involving carnivorous plants. My people, though, are so badass that we made one a provincial flower.”
The provincial flower part is true, and it’s the real reason for the plant’s common and Latin name. Although S. purpurea grows in a wide range of colorations, from deep maroon and purple to a nearly pure green, the flowers are consistently colored a deep royal purple. These emerge in spring when the plant comes out of its winter dormancy and droop over the plant’s crown, and then the pitchers emerge after the odds are pretty good that the flowers have already been pollinated. As with other members of its genus, S. purpurea has no problems with capturing its pollinators if given the opportunity, and blooming before it produces traps is a good way to avoid the opportunity.
When compared to other members of its genus, the first things that stand out are the height and shape of S. purpurea‘s pitchers. Instead of the long, fluting pitchers of other species, S. purpurea pitchers are squat and short. Likewise, the lids that normally protect the mouth of the pitcher in other species acts as a scoop for rainwater. After a good downpour, purpurea pitchers are usually full of fresh rainwater. This rainwater may act as a lens for incoming sunlight, giving a better opportunity for light to hit chloroplasts on both inside and outside of the pitcher. What’s absolutely certain, though, is that the open pitchers provide a habitat for various lifeforms, which feed upon drowned insect prey and any other organic matter that falls within.
As with other Sarracenia, S. purprea has no issues with digesting insect prey, with the assistance of bacterial action and larger organisms such as midge larvae, but that’s not its only option. In the book Gardening with Carnivores: Sarracenia Pitcher Plants in Cultivation & in the Wild, Nick Romanowski noted the high numbers of rotifers living inside S. purpurea pitchers and feeding upon bacterial colonies within, to the point where the potential nitrogen absorbed from rotifer waste alone exceeds the amount needed for plant maintenance, growth, and reproduction. Combine that with S. purpurea‘s tolerance of much more alkaline habitats than other Sarracenia species, this helps explain why S. purpurea grows in a much wider range. All other known Sarracenia species are native to a relatively small area of the southeast United States, with most concentrated within Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and northern Florida. Two subspecies of S. purpurea, S. purpurea purpurea and S. purpurea venosa, grow along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to far eastern Florida, and then north up the East Coast to Newfoundland and Labrador. It then grows due west, through bogs in Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, and Minnesota, and ultimately reaching Alberta. Romanowski also surmises that both rotifer cultivation and tolerance to relative alkalinity helps explain why S. purpurea is often one of the first plants to move into freshly denuded areas after a glacier retreats. Considering that the soil on a glacial plain is little more than rock dust and clay, any plant with the ability to gather its own nitrogen has a decided survival advantage.
All of these factors, with an additional tolerance for lower humidity than what most other Sarracenia prefer, make S. purpurea an excellent plant for bog and container gardens through North Texas. For best results, go with typical basic care for Sarracenia (full morning sun, rainwater or distilled water only, and potting mix comprised of two parts sphagnum moss to one part sharp sand), and S. purpurea responds by spreading out into thick clumps. Once the first hard frosts arrive, the tips of the pitchers tend to brown and burn at the tips, but they generally don’t die entirely with anything less than a week of temperatures remaining below freezing. Any pitchers that don’t die off still collect sunlight while the plant is otherwise in winter dormancy, but the real action starts in mid-March in North Texas conditions, when they start blooming and then producing pitchers.
And now the Canadian angle. Sarracenia purpurea gets its genus name from famed French naturalist and doctor Michel Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who first described it after he emigrated to what was then New France in 1685. At the time, the plant was used as a treatment for smallpox, and its carnivorous nature wasn’t confirmed until Charles Darwin’s experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. As other relations turned up in North America (and, in the case of Heliamphora, in South America as well), Sarrazin’s name was also given to the whole family, the Sarraceniaceae. Sarrazin died without learning of S. purpurea‘s range and habits, but the purple pitcher plant became a favorite of a famed horticulture enthusiast of the end of the Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria. She was so taken by the scrappy little plant and its beautiful flower that until Newfoundland entered Canadian Confederation in 1949, the back of the Newfoundland half-penny coin featured a purple pitcher by order of the queen. Even today, it remains the provincial flower of the province, partly because of its previous history, and partly because it’s one of the first plants to bloom in the province in spring. If you’ve ever visited Newfoundland and Labrador, especially in the very early spring, you’ll understand why this is such a big deal.
In a way, S. purpurea could be the Canadian national flower, too. It’s a natural survivor, low-key yet tenacious, humble yet possessed of a unique beauty. If that doesn’t describe every Canadian I’ve ever met, I don’t know what does.
And now an ongoing tribute to those working in the retail trenches today, with the best documentary about the worst shopping day of the year ever made…
Submitted with love and respect for my Jewish goth friends, as well as everyone else who ruptured themselves with laughter when this first aired nearly two decades ago. Any chance of turning this into a feature film?
And an extra from the incredible Rachel Bloom and her latest album:
And because everyone today is focusing on the obvious circus, let’s look instead at the reasons why I stay in Dallas. Namely, the music of several friends, all of whom make this place a lot more exciting.
And on other notes, for all of the hype about the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who on Friday, just keep in mind that we’re coming up on the fifteenth anniversary of the end of arguably one of the other best science fiction television shows, this coming November 25.
And so the Sarracenia growing season ends. Last week’s surprise but not completely unexpected hard frost finally put paid to the taller growth in the Sarracenia pools, and they don’t have much longer until all of them go brown and die back. Considering the weather forecast for next week, with lows pushing freezing, we’ll get a classic Sarracenia autumn: lots of brilliant color as the traps die off, and then quiet until spring.
One of the benefits of the heightened color is that the insects still around are even more mesmerized by the coloration, and the plants have no problems taking advantage of the arthropod bounty. This way, the plants get one last boost of nitrogen and phosphorus before the winter sleep, and in anticipation of large and healthy blooms in March. More than at any other time during the growing season, this is when passing by a Sarracenia stand yields the odd sound of flying insects attempting to fly or climb out of the pitchers, only to have the shape of the pitchers produce a downdraft towards the depths every time they try to fly out. The pitchers also act as acoustic horns, so that angry buzzing travels a lot further than one would expect.
And what’s in the pitchers? This time of the year, it’s usually a combination of moths and bees, both attracted by the pitchers’ fluorescence under UV and by a particularly generous secretion of nectar along the lid and lip. This year was surprising, though, because a significant number of traps also caught at least one stink bug at a time. I don’t know if they were attracted by the nectar or the promise of a hiding spot, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that next year’s stink bug population drops every time the plants feed.
A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.
This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.
Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.
The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.
And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.
DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.
Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.
The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.
When discussing plant identification and origins, I regularly tell people “The Latin never lies.” I get this constantly when discussing so-called “primrose” plants, where the flowers receiving that name in Georgia are drastically different from those here in Texas and from those in England. That’s because “primrose” is a descriptive term, not an actual name, referring to the first plant to flower in spring. Collect all of the various primroses known worldwide in one place, and put on nametags with proper Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature on them, and their complete lack of relationship becomes obvious, as would just looking at them.
The understanding of relationships is why I’ll make a point of bringing up Latin names when asked questions about carnivorous plants. Mention the common name “pitcher plant”, and I immediately ask “So…which one?” I don’t expect others to know the Latin for plants they saw casually in a garden center two years ago, but if they’re described as “a little bit like a calla lily,” it’s fairly clear that we’re both talking about Sarracenia, a North American pitcher plant. If the description includes “flat leaves with pitchers on long stems coming off the tips,” it’s invariably one of the Old World Nepenthes plants. And if the plant described matches the description of the South American pitcher plant, Heliamphora, or the Australian pitcher plant Cephalotus, my first question is always “And exactly WHERE is this garden center?”
And that’s where we come to one of my follies. A decade ago, when I was first started digging into the vagaries of botany, my wife and I joined her parents for a trip to the Parker County Peach Festival in Weatherford, just due west of Fort Worth. While everybody else was shivving fifth-graders for the world-famous peach ice cream (and I didn’t blame them a bit: those fifth-graders are just lethal when they have access to machetes, and they usually work in packs), I struck up a conversation with an event vendor selling odd plants near the town square. One of her offerings was a package of odd cuttings from some kind of succulent I didn’t recognize, and that she couldn’t identify. “The person who sold me the original plant called it a ‘corpse flower,'” she said as she was bagging it up. I didn’t hear anything else, as I was too busy screaming “Shut up and take my money!”, so that was about it.
The only good news was that I discovered why it had the name “corpse flower”. Those original segments rapidly and enthusiastically rooted and took over their containers, and dropped handfuls of segments every time they were moved. Right now, the greenhouse is full of descendants from that original package, and every autumn, they throw off these fascinating five-pointed blooms.
When they bloom, the name “corpse flower” becomes obvious. While the flowers don’t actually produce a stench per se, their scent draws in flies as pollinators, and on a warm day, the flowers can be practically dripping with flies that assume that they’re tracking carcasses. However, with the bloom buds being roughly the size of a pencil eraser, they don’t necessarily stand out from across the yard.
Care and maintenance were the easy part, so the ordeal started with the identification. At first, it appeared to be a member of the genus Stapelia, a group of succulents native to Africa and Asia. The blooms didn’t match any reference I could find, either online or in various books on succulents, and that’s when I discovered that Stapelia has two related genera, Orbea and Huernia, and the blooms and coloration don’t match any of those, either. The research continues, but in the meantime, the Czarina watches the blooms and comments “Wouldn’t these make great inspirations for jewelry?”
Yes, it’s that time of the year. Time to remind everyone of that classic horticultural graphic novel, “V For Violet Carson”.
Many thanks to dear friend Ernest Hogan, whom I’ve now proudly called “friend” for 25 years, for finding this last entry in the holiday Triffid Ranch video festival. To absent friends and much-missed family.
The theme for the end of the season, from what should have been the most influential song of 25 years ago:
Oh, and remember my noting a couple of years ago that those Dunecraft Carnivorous Creations kits might not be as productive as advertised? Well, here’s a firm demonstration of the problems with growing carnivores from seed. The seeds from which these seedlings sprouted went into the pot back in April, and they’re only now that large. It’s possible to grow carnivores from seed, but be prepared for a long wait. (I admit that I love telling kids who ask about the Carnivorous Creations kits that if they can get their seeds to germinate, they’ll still have to wait at least three to five years in most cases before they have full-sized plants. The kids are shocked, but you really need to see their parents’ expressions for real comedy.)
Halloween’s over, and even in Texas, that means that winter is due at any time. The first big blue norther that officially announces the arrival of real autumn should hit by Saturday night, and the trees are already changing color thanks to our recent rains. Sadly, that means that the resident Sarracenia should start dying back and changing color themselves before too long. This means that standing outside during a full moon and marveling at the brilliant glow from the leucophyllas is just a dream until next April, but so be it. A good winter dormancy, and they’ll come back even stronger than last year.
As an extra, I regularly rave about the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, as one of the toughest carnivorous or protocarnivorous (depending upon your prespective) plants available to beginners. Here’s a demonstration. In spring, they started blooming, and didn’t let up all summer. By the beginning of August, when just about everything else was dying off or simply baking, little S. debile was blooming and growing. Now, with the sun fading and the outside temperatures dropping below what most tropical carnivores can handle? It’s still blooming. Next year, if everything works well, S. debile will be joined by a whole flotilla of new triggerplants, but this little monster is still one of my favorites just because of its tenaciousness.