Posted onMarch 31, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – Finale
As a final comment about All-Con 2014, after a few years, you start to notice trends. At any given show, the costumes range a wild gamut, and there’s no telling who’s going to come in with the outfit that stops the entire show. Half of the fun at the convention is people-watching, and with so many great costumes coming through the front doors, half of them pass right by the Triffid Ranch booth. With that many people, as mentioned, you notice trends.
The first trend that I’ve noticed for a while is that the comics character of Poison Ivy is an extremely popular as a costume subject, and I’ve seen some incredibly detailed and composed Poison Ivy oufits over the years. The odd part, considering the obsession the character has with plants, is that I’ve met all of two Poison Ivy cosplayers who had any interest in plants whatsoever. The second one was one of the first people to stop by the Triffid Ranch booth on Thursday afternoon, and she asked nothing but fascinating questions about the various plants on display.
The other surprising trend? While I don’t regularly meet Poison Ivy cosplayers who like plants, I have yet to meet a Wonder Woman cosplayer who didn’t. This young woman not only had the look and the attitude down pat, but she made me wish I had miniature roses in this year’s assemblage. She was incredibly happy with her Nepenthes arrangement, but somehow it didn’t seem right to let her leave without roses, and I don’t know why.
And that finishes up the overview of All-Con 2014. As explained earlier, the Triffid Ranch won’t be out at All-Con 2015, but expect to see a whole new presence in March 2016. At least, that’s the idea. See you then.
Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – Finale
Posted onMarch 31, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 9
Each Triffid Ranch show is a surprise, considering that most customers never know what they’re looking for until they see it. I regularly bring succulents to shows, and I never can tell which one will bring the best response. This time, the belle of the ball was our old friend Echinocactus texensis.
Now, both horsecripplers got quite a bit of attention, but this gentleman came through on Sunday after taking a break from his space in Artist’s Alley. When he learned about horsecrippler fruit and the need for two to produce viable fruit, well, two went home with him right then. I regularly get photos from customers who want to show off their plants after they become established, and I fully expect to see photos of many happy horsecripplers before too long.
Posted onMarch 30, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 6
While it may seem understandable that these show and convention reports focus on Triffid Ranch customers, I also have to give credit to and a shoutout for the other vendors who make these shows so much fun. Among many others, I was lucky enough to have Tracy Robertson of Azrael’s Apprentice Designs as a next-door neighbor. Since All-Con started as a costuming convention that expanded its focus, it has an understandable reputation for excellent costume and couture designers, and having one of the best as a neighbor was an honor.
Likewise, it’s always a joy to talk to the folks at the Half Price Books booth, even though we were all so busy that we only had a chance to say hello on Sunday morning before the vendor room opened for the day. In the process, I had a wonderful talk with the HPB district manager, and that leads to a big project to be announced soon. Let’s just say that between the new Day Job and this project, there’s no time to slack off.
Posted onMarch 29, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 3
I’m regularly asked by showgoers about where I get my containers and pots, and I answer honestly “From all over.” Among other things, I take advantage of everything from going-out-of-business liquidations to estate sales, all with the idea of finding something different. Half of the fun is finding something horribly inappropriate for its original intended use, but that works beautifully with carnivores. I regularly tell people “If you like it, grab it, because I doubt I’ll be able to find another.
One of the best examples involves the inexplicable boom in miniature aquaria from the 1980s. Starting around Christmas of 1987, stores were packed with two-liter to four-liter aquaria, all advertised as “everything you need”. Without fail, the packaging showed off a completed and filled tank with dozens of fish inside, never bothering to tell novice aquarists that the horribly underpowered air pumps and completely inadequate filter systems would be lucky to keep a single betta alive, much less dozens of guppies or tetras. Many were bought and discarded when the piscine massacre ended, others were put into storage with the idea of trying again one day, and others were purchased as gifts and never opened until the executors of the estate had to clean out the house for its eventual sale. Having bought one in 1988 for a then-girlfriend, I knew that most were designed by companies that wanted to cash in on the trend but that didn’t really care about whether or not they’d work as promised. I also knew that while they were deathtraps for fish, they’re absolutely exquisite for displaying and raising terrestrial bladderworts.
Case in point, the enclosure above was quite common in department stores in the US around 2001, as well as in the now-defunct line of Discovery Channel Stores in shopping malls through the US and Canada. As advertised, it included a built-in periscope to watch your fish at bottom-level, a fish food holder so you could submerge food and watch the fish as they ate, various plastic reefs, an air pump and airstone, and a pocket full of gravel. Oh, it also came with a clear blue plastic top to keep fish in, and a cardboard backdrop of an exciting ocean scene. The latter was what made things interesting.
Shortly after the Czarina and I started dating, she expressed interest in both getting a betta and in getting a small tank so she could enjoy said fish on the kitchen counter. Having had a bit of experience with bettas, I figured that a small tank of this sort might work, especially with additional aeration provided by the included air pump. I knew better than to try to keep anything else in the tank, so I figured that this wouldn’t be too bad of an investment. And it wasn’t. The Czarina was thrilled, and it was a reasonably happy home for her betta until he died of old age several years later. At that point, she hung onto the tank for a while, and then gave it to me so long as I could do something with it. And I had ideas.
The biggest problem with the Underwater Explorer had everything to do with that top and the backdrop. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between cookie jars and apothecary jars when building terraria. A good glass cookie jar will have a lip on the inside of the lid, right next to the rim, to deal with condensation from the natural moisture of the baked goods. If it were to escape, the cookies would go stale, so any excess moisture condenses on the inside of the lid, rolls to the lip, and drips off into the bottom of the jar. An apothecary jar, though, is to deal with trying to control humidity from the outside, so its lid allows condensation to the outside of the jar, helping to keep the contents as dry as possible. With cookies or aspirin pills, condensation on either is barely noticeable. However, with lots of fluid in each type of container, it becomes very noticeable, very quickly.
That’s where things went wrong. The designers of this setup apparently went crazy with the ingenious periscope, and probably never bothered to test how well water spray from the aeration system would impact the cover. Turning on the air pump meant that spray condensed on the inside of the lid, and it promptly dripped off the cover to the outside of the tank. Since the backdrop was just printed cardboard, it rapidly got soaked and mildewey, and nobody apparently thought of sealing it in plastic to extend its life. Within a week, it peeled off and had to be cut free, and use of the air pump had to be cut way back to keep from coming home to a half-empty betta tank in the middle of a large pool of dribbled water. Keep the lid on, and it inhibited air circulation to the surface, preventing more dissolved oxygen from infiltrating the tank. Take the lid off so the betta could breathe, and her cat Tramplemaine because a lot more intrigued by the new playmate. It just wasn’t going to work as a fish enclosure.
For terrestrial bladderworts, though, it was a dream. Many of your tougher species of terrestrial bladderworts, such as Utricularia sandersonii and U. lividia, thrive on extremely boggy soils, and this enclosure was very good at retaining water. The sides were clear, meaning that a windowsill or a good desk lamp offered enough light for proper growth. The periscope allowed plant’s-eye views of the bladderwort foliage, seeing as how it looks like turtle grass at that scale, or of the bloom spikes in spring. The interior kept up the plant’s beloved humidity. Best of all, this container had a story behind it, and that story was enough to get someone to take a large U. sandersonii clump home that day.
Other people say “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” I say “That’s my story, and do you want to hear more?”
Posted onMarch 28, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 2
This year, in addition to the usual vending appearance, I was invited to suggest possible panels and lectures for the convention. Last year’s general lecture on carnivorous plants was so successful that I was asked to reprise it for Thursday night, but Friday night was special. This year was the first public test of the ultraviolet laser array I put together to view the fluorescence in various carnivores, and it worked even better than I’d suspected. Some of the most UV-fluorescent species in my collection were still in winter dormancy, such as the various Sarracenia, but enough tropicals were out to make up for it. Among other things, we all observed that not only does the wax on the inside of Brocchinia bromeliads fluoresce, as I already knew, but that the plant has distinct bands in UV that are impossible to see in visible light.
The real surprise? I had one Mexican butterwort, Pinguicula moctezumae, in the middle of an early bloom. I knew from experience with other butterworts that this one’s trapping surfaces wouldn’t fluoresce, but the attending audience still got to see the slight fluorescence from chlorophyll, like the last light from formerly red-hot steel. However, its sole flower fluoresces like a sign, with a distinctive white stripe in the upper portion of the bloom apparently intended to attract hummingbirds. Obviously, a lot more work needs to be done on fluorescent attractants in carnivorous plants, both in the traps and in the flowers.
Posted onMarch 28, 2014|Comments Off on All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 1
Four days. Two lectures. More attendees than I could count. In many ways, in years of Triffid Ranch shows, All-Con X was the best one yet. All-Con already had some of the most enthusiastic crowds I’d seen in thirty years of attending, appearing at, and vending for science fiction conventions, but this year? For the first time since the 1980s, I was glad that the show was ultimately over, but I also wished that it had been able to run for another week. For those with familiarity with convention organization or vending, you’ll understand why this is saying something.
Suffice to say, the number of people coming by the Triffid Ranch booth was simply phenomenal. This year, instead of the usual three-day event, the organizers decided to take advantage of Spring Break, and offered free admission on Thursday to anyone who wanted to show up. Since so many liked the taste and bought passes for the rest of the weekend, the hotel and immediate environs were absolutely packed. And since half of the attendees were out in costume…well, All-Con continued its reputation as a perfect place for people-watching.
And in a tradition for guest appearances on Cat Monday, let me introduce you to Darla, the former cat. Five years ago, this little fluffball literally trotted up onto our front porch, having seen the big ultraviolet sign reading “SUCKER” on my forehead from a few miles off. She had no collar and no claws, suggesting that there was some reason why a tabby-point Himalayan was wandering loose in the neighborhood, but that reason wasn’t good. We put up signs announcing a lost cat, but without a response, and we prepared to take her on as a permanent part of the family. That might have worked, too, if Leiber hadn’t pitched such an outrageous fit at being at the absolute bottom of the food chain that we had to find her a new home before he exploded.
As it turned out, my in-laws both fell in love with her, so she got another new home and promptly took over. She also got a new name, as my mother-in-law didn’t approve of the placeholder “Fuzzbutt”. In fact, she became so used to the new situation that she now runs and hides whenever I come over to visit, as she’s afraid that I’m coming over to take her back. Five years in, and she’s now completely in charge, just the way she planned when she first meeped on the front doorstep.
In retrospect, Darla’s arrival was just one of many unannounced arrivals over the years. Cats, a couple of dogs, turtles, snakes, a screech owl, Harris’s and red-tailed hawks, possums, and even a pair of white goats when I was in high school…I step outside, and the critters just look at me as if to ask “Where’s breakfast?” I’m only half-joking when I tell people that it’s a matter of time before I step out the garage door and trip over a snoring tyrannosaur in the driveway. It would definitely be par for the course.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and that means one very important thing in the Dallas area. As of today, you can be reasonably sure that we’re not going to have any more subfreezing weather until next December. I wouldn’t recommend planting any tomatoes or peppers for at least another week past this, but gardening season starts today. If you’re looking for inspiration for this year’s horticultural carnage, head out to the Texas Discovery Gardens for some well-placed inspiration on Texas-friendly plants. While you’re at it, spend some time in the butterfly garden, just for relaxation’s sake.
Oh, and while you’re at it, keep an ear open for possible TDC events involving the Texas Triffid Ranch. Nothing’s cast in stone, but here’s a hint:
While it may not seem obvious immediately, wandering around the butterfly garden at the Texas Discovery Gardens brings up a very good question: how does the garden get its butterflies? Well, one could just let them go wild, lay eggs, and let their caterpillars pupate and metamorphose on their own. Considering how most caterpillars find secure and discreet locations to pupate, though, most visitors would never get the chance to see those pupae before the butterflies emerged. In addition, many butterflies and moths have wasp exoparasites that lay their eggs within the pupa and emerge as adult wasps, killing the pupa before it ever gets a chance to develop.
The best option for a compromise that both promises maximum visibility for visitors and maximum protection for the butterflies is the one used by the Texas Discovery Gardens. Toward the back, near the exit airlock, is a rear display full of collected butterfly pupae, carefully pinned to the ceiling. If you’re lucky, during your visit, you might witness a fresh emergence. If you’re really lucky, you might see two separate species emerge at the same time.
Want a firm demonstration of the phrase “I love living in the future”? Look at what can be done with jellyfish enclosures. Jellyfish tanks aren’t absolutely new, but changing lighting that fluoresces the jellyfishes’ internal structures? You need color-changing LEDs for that. In the process, you get a slow, stately progression and circulation that you could watch for hours.
Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 7
One of the advantages to a public aquarium is the opportunity to show animal and plant species too dangerous or too invasive to risk general importation. The red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) is both, but not quite for the reasons one would expect. While legal for individuals to own in states with cold winters, possessing or transporting red-bellies in Texas understandably tends to rub authorities the wrong way. Contrary to popular expectations, the danger of some irresponsible fishkeeper letting piranha loose in Texas waterways isn’t the threat to humans. In their native habitats in the Amazon and Orinoco river networks, they tend to avoid humans. However, as fish-eaters, they’d strip out everything from minnows to alligator gar, and ultimately would leave nothing in our streams, rivers, and reservoirs besides piranha. Better to view them in circumstances such as these, where they aren’t going to get out due to carelessness or neglect.
On the other scale, the other big advantage to a public aquarium is in viewing species too rare or high-maintenance to justify private ownership. For example, the Children’s Museum has a very nice collection of Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), a species both extremely protected and not suitable for general fishkeeping. Considering the size of adult lungfish, few private aquarists could afford a tank large enough to give one room, much less the three at the Children’s Aquarium. Get three of them together, and you practically have a party.
More to follow….
Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 4
Contrary to popular opinion, adult butterflies and moths aren’t all nectar-drinkers. Oh, many are, but many species go for other options. You may have seen photos of Orinoco River turtles covered with white and yellow butterflies perched on their heads, but the butterflies aren’t just using the turtles as resting sites. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the salt secreted from the salt glands resting by the turtles’ eyes. Many species augment sodium or other elements from sweat, overripe fruit, manure, and, sometimes, blood.
Considering the number attracted by fermenting fruit, it’s not really surprising that the Texas Discovery Gardens butterfly garden has a large loquat tree along its entry ramp. The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), sometimes known as “Japanese plum,” is a rather common ornamental tree throughout Texas. While the foliage can handle a typical Dallas winter without problems, the fruit sets and grows through the winter, and that can’t handle our sudden subfreezing stints. Therefore, to see fruit, loquats in Dallas need to be under cover.
Most people in the US who have encountered loquat fruit did so in Chinese buffets, where canned loquat in light syrup is extremely popular. That was where I had my first experience with the succulent and slightly crunchy fruit, and rapidly became enthralled with both the flavor and the consistency. Because of its winter-growing habits, fresh loquat is nearly impossible to get north of Austin, but friends there relate the popularity of trees grown in front yards among local kids. The fruit needs to be peeled and pitted, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
In comparison to the fruit, loquat flowers don’t appear to have much going for them. Possibly because of their mutual relations within the family Roseacea, loquat flowers have a rough similarity to apple blossoms. I’m curious about how they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, because between their bland coloration under visible light and the relative lack of scent, they need something else to attract pollinators.
All things considered, a loquat tree makes excellent sense in an indoor butterfly garden. Voluminous flowers, fruit that remains on the tree when ripe, plenty of foliage for hiding…now I just want to know what sorts of caterpillars feed upon the leaves.
While not as rare in captivity as they used to be, the Children’s Museum at Fair Park is still the place to see the world’s largest freshwater turtle in optimum conditions. The alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, ranges through Texas into the Gulf Coast, and occasionally as far north as Dallas. In 1987, I was lucky enough to see a large female in Carrollton, north of Dallas proper, during a very rare land excursion while she was hunting for a nesting site. The Children’s Aquarium alligator snapping turtle is about as big as the one I saw back then, with the help of a rich diet and a lot of care.
Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 3
Okay, let’s try a thought experiment. Your organization inherits a classic Art Deco historical building, with a huge adjoining conservatory. The conservatory both looks and shows its age, with leaks coming from the roof and lots of rust along the support pillars, but demolishing it isn’t an option, for a lot of reasons. For reasons of temperature and humidity stabilization, the original conservatory contained collections of various succulents, including aloes and cacti, but they don’t have quite the oomph of rainforest trees reaching for the ceiling. You want to put in plants that fill the enormous conservatory space, but you also have maybe one-quarter the space of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden conservatory. You also want a reason for attendees to visit the conservatory all year round, knowing they’re going to see something new every time they return. So what do you do with the conservatory space?
Well, if you’d answered “Renovate the space with state-of-the-art fixtures and irrigation systems, put in an airlock system to minimize escapes, replant the interior with friendly and impressive flowering and fruiting trees, and turn the whole thing into a gigantic butterfly garden,” congratulations. You did better than I would have. You also thought the same as the Texas Discovery Gardens crews, because they blew out the stops on the design and operation of the facility.
Having seen several butterfly gardens at big facilities as of late, particularly at Moody Gardens in Galveston, it’s surprising to see such a large space turned solely into butterfly garden. Here, though, it works. Entry is from the upper floor of the TDG building, with a long, slow ramp around the periphery of the interior toward ground level. In the process, you get a view of trees, vines, and shrubs from the top, giving a better impression of exactly what butterflies and other flying insects look for when it comes to food and egg-laying sites. As the ramp swings around, it passes through different layers of foliage, revealing unique bloom and leaf patterns. Finally, directly below the entrance is the exit, and if you’re already overloaded, the trip ends there. Or…or you can keep going around, looking for feeding stations, fountains, and the undersides of flowers and leaves usually too low to the ground to appreciate.
Based on the name, you might assume that the main focus of the Children’s Aquarium was on fish. Well, that’s partly true, but the Aquarium has a longstanding reputation for exceptional reptile specimens, both of indigenous Texas species and introduced ones. For example, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans features “Spots”, a leucistic alligator, but the Children’s Aquarium has a full-on albino one.
More to follow…
Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 2
Besides its main butterfly garden conservatory, the Texas Discovery Gardens building boasts an extensive interior dedicated both to touring exhibitions and to local art events. At the moment, it also features a semi-permanent set of animal enclosures, transported there from the old Dallas Museum of Natural History. In keeping with the theme, the majority are of indigenous Texas species, such as the Texas coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), but it contains a contrast between our local and more exotic spider species.
Compared to the beautiful Brazilian tarantula on display, our local tarantula species, 14 of which in Texas, appear both dull and boring. Succumbing to that assumption means missing out on a gentle-tempered, agreeable spider with plenty of fascinating behaviors. Having burned out an extremely intense case of arachnophobia in my teenage years thanks to one, I have a soft spot for all of our local species. Seeing one in captivity brought back a lot of memories, all of them good.
As you may have heard from the newsfeeds, Texas had it a bit rough last weekend. Saturday was a wonderful, sunny, and warm day, with no real warning as to what was coming our way. Sunday started out okay, and promptly took a dive into subfreezing temperatures. By about 3 that afternoon, we had sleet, snow, and ice all over everything. This wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if the Czarina weren’t one of the vendors at the North Texas Irish Festival in Dallas’s Fair Park. By 11:30, vendors facing a drive through the storm were evacuating, the Festival organizers were deliberating alternate plans, attendees were arguing about whether or not they should stick around, and anybody else with any sense stayed at home.
Well, not everyone. Even a terrible day at Fair Park is worth a look around, and with the Czarina already situated with more help than the Sunday crowds justified, she shooed me off to go wander. Since both the Texas Discovery Gardens and the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park were still open, winter storm or not, Sunday was as good a day to wander around as any.
As with the much-missed Dallas Museum of Natural History and the Science Place, now merged and moved across town into the Perot Museum, the Texas Discovery Gardens and the Children’s Aquarium buildings are holdovers from the 1932 World’s Fair and the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Considering Fair Park’s status as the sole surviving Art Deco World’s Fair site, both kept the Art Deco theme, even after their extensive renovations during the last decade. This includes the beautiful bas reliefs around the TDG’s main entrance.
As for the inside? Well, you’ll have to keep checking back over the next few days, won’t you?
Posted onMarch 6, 2014|Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 1
Dallas’s Fair Park has plenty of surprises that don’t receive the recognition they deserve, and one of the most neglected is the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, previously known simply as the Dallas Aquarium. That changed back in the 1990s with the opening of the Dallas World Aquarium in downtown. While nowhere near as large as the World Aquarium, the Children’s Aquarium, now run by the Dallas Zoo, has its own unique charms.
In keeping with the rest of Fair Park, the Aquarium’s build and decoration come from the Art Deco school, most noticeably with the bas reliefs around the front of the building and the two concrete sea horses out front. In my first visit in the very early Nineties, the motif continued through the interior of the building. As mentioned previously, though, the Children’s Aquarium underwent an extensive renovation and remodeling in 2007, and one of the casualties was the baroque aquarium design. At the same time, considering the new displays, it’s an understandable casualty.
Over the next few days, keep checking back for photos: I was fond of the Aquarium in the past, and it’s definitely exceeded itself today.
Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 1