Back in the beginning of 1972, almost the whole of the state of Michigan was hit with subsequent ice storms that shut down significant portions of the state. What was odd was that they kept hitting hard enough to cut power and phone service, at the same time every day for most of a week. Kids were back home from school, most adults were home from work, and just as everyone made plans to sit down for dinner and listen to the wind raging on the other side of the windows, everything went dark. Again. Those with fireplaces made sure after two days of this to have the fire lit and ready to go, and those who didn’t, including my father, made plans to put one in as soon as possible. Being just short of six, my biggest concern at the time was our 9-inch black-and-white television and its ability to keep up its main job as cultural center during the blackouts, and the storms had the preternatural ability of cutting power right at the same moment that our NBC affiliate started running its regular afternoon rerun of Star Trek. In fact, that issue became so pronounced that by the end, the station manager of that TV station came on to announce that he and his crew had done everything they could to keep broadcasting but the storms had defeated them, and he was on the air just to let his viewership know that they were going to try one more time. Maybe it’s southern Michigan and maybe it’s a week of horrendous storms that left everything covered with flowing ice, but I’m pretty sure that the cheers in that little house when the end credits ran were multiplied across the greater Lansing/Jackson/Flint area.
After the last two weeks, I know exactly how that station manager felt. Come to think of it, I think I’m the same age he was at that time.
Anyway, this is a roundabout way of noting that now that the Dallas area is going back to its presumably normal weather, and we’re reasonably sure not to get another week of Last Week until the end of November, the February Multi-Holiday Carnivorous Plant Tour scheduled for February 14 is still on for February 28. Okay, so Valentine’s Day, the beginning of Chinese New Year, and Fat Tuesday are over and done, but last week hit the reset button, and my birthday is still on for February 30. Besides, it’s time to debut several new enclosures, and this will be one of the last indoor tours before we start outdoor shows in April, so we welcome you to give it another shot. The current weather forecast predicts rain for the whole weekend, but we can do rain. Let’s hope we don’t have to do this level of snow and ice for a long, long time.
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Installment #23: “Fungus Gnats and Dryer Sheets: A Case of News Churn”
Originally published January 22, 2021.
It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon. Right at the moment in the North Texas area, the air is too dry inside and too cold outside for them to get going, but they’re waiting. By the end of February, they’ll flitter in your peripheral vision, and by March 15, they’ll be flying up your nose with every breath. Yes, it’s almost fungus gnat season.
That’s when the calls, the Facebook posts, and the general chat queries start. Many never use the term “fungus gnat,” instead describing them as “the little black bugs that fly like they’re drunk.” Sometimes, they note that the explosion came from a new potted plant, or a neglected one in an office that was suddenly watered along with the rest. Others only notice them when they show up close, flying in their erratic manner into eyes, nostrils, and open mouths. Still others only note how many dead bugs they find on windowsills, underneath aquarium lights, inside light fixtures, and along kitchen counters. From all of these, the flow chart paths all converge on one square: “How do I control them?”
For the most part, those encountering fungus gnats have no interest in the backstory: what most assume is one species is actually about six families of insect, all adapted to consuming fungi and occasionally algae. The flying adults are usually the only sign of an issue, but they’re nothing but packages to move genomes to new concentrations of fungus. Adults lay eggs on and in soil and substrates with a significant collection of fungus and then eventually die, and the eggs hatch into larvae that chow down on fungus filaments. (At this point, it should be noted that if you’re looking for mushrooms in a philodendron pot as a sign of fungus, you’ll generally only see those mushrooms when conditions are right for fungus to spread spores for reproduction. If conditions aren’t right to encourage mushrooms, or what are better described as “fruiting bodies,” you won’t see most fungi growth in a pot without a microscope or easy access to DNA sequencing gear.) Those larvae also feed on root tips of some plants: whether they do this deliberately or because the roots have a mycorrhizal relationship with the fungi is something for which I have yet to find an answer. Likewise, when the larvae metamorphose into adults, those adults take and transmit spores from other fungus, including the fungus responsible for “damping off” disease. Office dwellers hate them, houseplant enthusiasts hate them, greenhouse workers hate them, and you don’t even want to know what hydroponics enthusiasts think about them and the distantly related “drain gnats.”
This is the point where carnivorous plant people enter, or get dragged into, the game. Venus flytraps can’t waste their time with fungus gnats, but they’re enthusiastically consumed by all four types of pitcher plants if the gnats fly into the pitchers, they’re equally eagerly consumed by sundews and other sticky-hair trap plants, and they’re a major nitrogen source for butterworts. In fact, whether in cultivation or the wild, it’s hard to find a butterwort that isn’t covered with dead and trapped fungus gnats in varying states of digestion. The good news is that butterworts and fungus gnats go together like rum and Coke (or so I hear: I can’t drink), and butterworts have no problems with entrapping and converting those tiny chunks of protein into leaves, blooms, and seeds. But will butterworts or other carnivorous plants CONTROL them?
The reality, as anybody familiar with integrated pest management will tell you, is that while carnivores will gather up an excess of fungus gnats, setting out a sundew or butterwort next to your office Spathophyllum won’t do much to stop the problem. They’ll work so long as adults are out and flying, but they don’t do a thing about larvae living inside pots or the dirt just outside the door, and those eventually grow up and start the cycle anew. It’s not as if gardeners and houseplant growers haven’t tried, and the suggestions, ranging from spreading powdered cinnamon to spraying diluted hydrogen peroxide, can be found everywhere. The vast majority of those, though, are purely anecdotal, and usually assume effectiveness because the adults die off instead of doing anything to the larvae. The overwhelming majority of pesticide sprays have the same problem, and the user has the additional issue of those sprays killing everything from lacewings to lizards that catch the overspray. So what to do?
Well, I have a solution, one tested by experts, that’s remarkably effective. It affects fungus gnats only, and won’t injure or kill beneficial insects. It’s remarkably cost-effective, easy to apply, and available in grocery and department stores everywhere. No vile chemical smell, no dealing with insect corpses, and it won’t accidentally kill wild or domesticated animals if they get into it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most readers already have some of this in your houses right now
You’re going to laugh.
I mean it. You’re going to laugh.
No, really. You’re going to laugh.
Okay, the secret is standard dryer sheets.
See? I told you that you were going to laugh.
For the last two decades, commercial greenhouse operators related how putting down dryer sheets atop pots and trays kept down fungus gnat populations, but everything was anecdotal. In 2011, though, Greenhouse Product News published the first paper testing the effectiveness of dryer sheets on fungus gnats, and found…guess what, it works. (Sadly, this paper still isn’t available online, so no links, but please feel free to contact GPN for copies.) This was followed up three years later by Michigan State University, and both discovered that dryer sheets contained a compound called linalool, which was remarkably effective at repelling adult fungus gnats. The GPN paper also noted the presence of an aromatic compound that may prevent fungus gnat larvae from completing their metamorphosis from pupa to adult. Even better, this didn’t require huge amounts of material to get the desired effect.
On a purely anecdotal level, I can say that I had exceptional success with dryer sheets in a particularly tough environment. For those that remember the old Triffid Ranch gallery at Valley View Center, that mall had an absolutely horrendous problem with fungus gnats starting at the end of February and going until the middle of June, then starting again through October to the middle of November. Most of it was due to the various potted plants throughout the mall, which were haphazardly watered and cared for and probably hadn’t been repotted since the original owners of the mall abandoned their investment in the 2000s. The current owner wasn’t interested in any significant expenditure to deal with them, so fellow gallery owners had to grin (with clenched lips to keep the little monsters out) and bear it. Getting a roll of generic dryer sheets was the easy part: the real fun was hitting every last planter in the mall, including the mostly-hidden ones in the movie theater on the upper level, with at least one dryer sheet, and then switching them out once a week. Since the life expectancy of an adult fungus gnat is only a few days (I’m not sure if this is because of a lack of energy reserves or if their wings abrade from friction against the air and wear out enough that they can’t remain airborne), I figured that we’d start seeing positive results within ten days. We started seeing a drastic decrease in fungus gnats in about three days, to the point where I stopped applying dryer sheets in two weeks. When we had outbreaks later in the year, out came the dryer sheet roll, and they also were gone within a few days.
The reason I found this particularly interesting is bifold. The dryer sheet control technique has been around for decades, with hard science to back it up for one decade, and yet nobody outside of the commercial greenhouse trade seems to know about it. At plant shows and events, everyone is surprised at such an effective method. Friends keeping reptiles and amphibians, especially chameleon and tree frog enthusiasts, are even more surprised. Obviously, this is something that needs a larger audience: as with using carnivorous plants, it won’t control every insect that comes within the vicinity (this means “don’t cover your front yard with dryer sheets to keep the bugs away,” because we lost that war about 400 million years ago), but it should definitely help take the edge off for those with especial issues with fungus gnat maintenance. Even better, if this news takes off, then it’ll keep rolling around in news feeds and chat rooms (a phenomenon known as “news churn”) and become self-perpetuating, and when someone new to the field starts asking “So what do you do?”, everyone chirps in “Well, you KNOW…”
Friends and cohorts approving of the Delenn/GIR dynamic in Caroline’s and my marriage are passing on word about the death of actress Mira Furlan, and we join in the mourning. We met her once at one of Caroline’s jewelry shows in Galveston seven years ago, and we both pass our condolences, as inadequate as they are, to her family and friends.
The definition these days of a Sissyphean task is “producing scientifically accurate dinosaur figures,” mostly because the goalposts seem to change every few days. That said, the crew at Creative Beast manages the nearly impossible: capturing the thrill of the 1970s Prehistoric Scenes model kit line from Aurora while pushing the edges of current theory on dinosaur appearance and behavior, and at a reasonable price. For lots of personal reasons dating back 40 years, a mountain accessory pack featuring the small predator Troodon had to come home, where it will remain as accurate as current research will allow. Sadly, that might be a few weeks, but that’s palaeontology.
A couple of chapters into The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore, and it’s easy to understand why Salvador Dali famously flooded the art market with autographed reproductions of his paintings to give palpitations to the art collector community. It also explains why so many people tell artists “Oh, your work is so INEXPENSIVE! You should charge a lot more!”, before wandering off without buying anything. And so it goes.
Growing up a ridiculous distance from civilization meant missing out on a lot of music, and thankfully streaming services offer the same chance to catch up on bands that couldn’t afford radio station payola to get airplay the way cable allowed movie enthusiasts to catch up on films that you’d never have seen at the local two-screen. This causes deep dives down rabbit holes for acts that somehow never turned up over the years, and this month’s deep dive is the Dead Milkmen. A few months of their work in regular rotation, and jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, you’ll never look at a burrow owl in the same way again.
As of this writing, the Dallas area should be thawing out from this week’s deep freeze, and hopefully the rest of Texas as well. For the first time in decades, we get the experience of seeing the lost, the misplaced, and the discarded as they’re revealed by the melt. That’s the problem with thaws: you never know what was hiding under the snow and ice.
This WAS going to be a boring little missive about the state of the Texas Triffid Ranch, with maybe a few comments on getting through the past year unscathed and making plans for the rest of 2021. Sprinkle on a few snide comments about the plants and their inability to even faster, and cover with a sigh that we were probably going to see an early Sarracenia blooming season because of the quiet winter. You know, like last year. Say what you want about 2020, but last winter was as gentle as moleskin sandals and half as cold. Seriously: all through January and February, the only concern? Rain. We barely got to freezing temperatures in the Dallas area, and by the time of the NARBC spring show at the end of February, the winter coats, barely touched, went back into the closet barely used.
For those three people who were trapped in a pocket universe for the last week and were so isolated from outside information that you flipped coins as to entertaining yourselves with readings from The Wit of Gardner Dozois or just jamming burning caltrops into your eyes, last week started out about as well as you’d expect, meteorologically speaking. The upcoming forecast suggested that things could get colder over the weekend, with a chance of snow, but residents know that this could go any number of ways. Yes, we could have seen snow, but we also could have seen sunny skies and jogging shorts temperatures. Even by midweek, we had reason to worry, but this was leavened by the understanding that we were reasonably prepared for what was coming. Yes, a stockup on groceries was prudent, and so was filling up the car’s gas tank. Make sure the pets were inside. Cover the outside faucets and bring in plants that couldn’t handle two days of freezing weather. We did all that. If anything, the ongoing shift to working from home made things easier, because this way everything didn’t stop dead once the roads turned into skating rinks. Bring home the laptop, check the home wifi connection, and plan to stay inside and off the roads until the snow and ice dripped away. If you did have a control freak of a manager who insisted that you had to come into the office, the idea was to stay away from iced-over bridges and follow the lead of the sand trucks that were already making plans to hit the slickest spots in the area.
After all, we’d had major cold waves before. December 1983 was so cold that Galveston Harbor froze over, but we got through that. February 1985 was when police throughout Texas discovered that the state didn’t have a law banning the use of snowmobiles on roads and freeways, an oversight that was quickly rectified by the Texas Legislature. December 1989 had especial significance for me, as we hit our coldest temperature in recorded history on the day I transported a movie poster-sized sheet of glass on foot, sliding on ice down a hill toward my apartment, for a present for my then-girlfriend, only to have it crack inside the apartment from thermal stress. Our greatest snowfall since the Pleistocene in February 2010 was as close to a weather disaster as we’d had in Dallas since the 1909 flood, as trees never before exposed to heavy snowfall disintegrated and exploded under the weight of a foot of the best snowball snow we’d ever seen. We were ready, though, right? Trees were pruned, sand reserves were allocated, and everyone carried around little pocket computers that could give them immediate information on everything from traffic routes to where to call to report power outages. We were good to go, right?
The plan, pre-snow, was to open the gallery for a joint Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year open house on February 14, and that plan stayed true until the first snow started on the 13th. By midday that Saturday, the temperature dropped enough that the safety of attendees coming in from Fort Worth and Denton was at risk, so the Carnivorous Plant Tour was rescheduled for February 28 and everything else would resume after the snow melted off. The gallery heaters were working and working well, the automation for plant lights and foggers went off without any issue, and everyone had been informed about the change, so the doors closed on Saturday night, with everyone reasonably sure that everything would be up and running by Tuesday at the latest. That was the idea, anyway.
Record cold, we were prepared for. Snow, we were prepared for. Nobody was prepared, though, for these combined with an electrical grid run by incompetents for greedheads, with no plans for winterizing because Texas (lack of) regulations didn’t require them. The power first went out on Monday morning at about 2:30, and at first it was the gentle hope that “okay, the power is out for a bit, but it’ll come back on.” Hours later, we were firsthand playtesters of James Burke’s technology trap warnings, where the power came on for about three hours and then cut out again. Then it stayed off, just in time for the Dallas area to come neck-and-neck with its all-time record low temperature. After that, more snow.
Compared to many in the area, we were lucky: as temperatures inside the house dipped toward freezing, friends who had just reestablished power invited us to stay there and to bring the cats. That worked until about 2:30 Wednesday morning, when the power cut out over there, combined with cell phone towers losing power because their emergency generators were running out of fuel. We all evacuated that house, we took the cats back home, and finally saw power come back late Wednesday evening.
The upshot is that the gallery and the plants are in good health, even after four days without power. Between being sandwiched between two other locales and my weatherproofing the rear exit, everything inside the gallery came through without problems by the time power was restored on Wednesday evening. (Using a generator wasn’t an option because of a lack of exhaust options, and propane heaters have a little problem with carbon monoxide buildup indoors that really isn’t good for anybody checking up on them.) The outdoor plants in winter dormancy, such as the Sarracenia pitcher plants and the Venus flytraps, are going to take a lot longer to come out of dormancy after this, but there’s hope that everything will come through without major problems.
The really funny part about all of this, in classic gallows fashion, is that from a precipitation standpoint, you’ll barely know this happened by next week. Already the people behind the outages that hit almost the entire state are either blaming wind and solar generators or screaming “But what about…”, and they have the advantage of most of the state going back to February-normal temperatures by next Monday and everyone forgetting by Wednesday. The snow has turned into slush, and the slush will eventually melt into the storm drains, and our biggest hope right now is that we get some regular rain to wash all of that road sand off the streets before it turns Dallas into another Dust Bowl. (Trust me: the road dust after our big ice storm in 1996 made people mistake Dallas for Phoenix.) As far as the gallery is concerned, we got through, but I’m definitely looking at potential battery backups to keep lights and heat going, if only for a few additional hours if this happens again. The week-long power outage after the Dallas area was hit by tornadoes in 2018 should have been a sufficient warning.
After this week, any other gallery discussion is best relegated to “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Now it’s time to get back to work.
The closer to Sunday we get, the worse the weather promises to get, and it’s not getting better all week. Because everyones’ lives are much more important than any open house, we’re rescheduling the Carnivorous plant Tour for Sunday, February 28, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and cancelling all appointments until after things thaw. In the meantime, stay inside and stay warm, and we’ll catch you all when it’s safe to go on Dallas roads without a snowmobile.
The weather forecast for this coming Sunday keeps bouncing back and forth between “bitterly cold but reasonably clear” and “SET THE HOUSE AFIRE BEFORE YOU’RE BURIED ALIVE IN SNOW,” so Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour is still on for the moment. (I really feel for the number of Dallas outdoor events scheduled months ago on the reasonable presumption that this month would replicate February 2019, where even day drinkers in search of wine samples wouldn’t want to venture out.) This may change as the National Weather Service refines its predictions, so keep checking back for potential cancellations.
For those in the general Dallas-Fort Worth area, you already know the score. For everybody else, as happens to be a long-running tradition with Triffid Ranch events, Sunday’s Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year Carnivorous Plant Tour coincides with what threatens to be not only one of the coldest temperatures in Dallas recorded history, but possibly (if predictions hold) the coldest temperature experienced in this area since the Early Pleistocene. Of COURSE it will be.
As of this moment, barring the threatened snowfall on late Sunday night and Monday morning hitting 12 hours earlier than predicted, we’re still gunning for the Plant Tour on Sunday. Yes, it’ll be cold, but we have heaters and plant lamps, and we might have hot chocolate, too. If you don’t feel safe making the trip, or if your return threatens to cross the incoming snow and ice, you’re under no obligation to attend. If you do, though, we’ll see you on Sunday. Until then, stay safe and stay warm.
As part of efforts to make 2021 better than 2020, the efforts begin this week to clean up the computer desktop, which was taking on disturbing parallels to fiction. This entails cleaning up lots of redundant folders, removing applications that shut down back in 2014, and trying to get something laughably close to a decent image archive. Lots and lots of oddities turned up, including the below weirdness on Buddha’s Hand citrons, so keep an eye open for images that nobody has seen since the Aughts, and maybe we should be thankful for that. Anyway, enjoy.
A pictorial based on necessary training for the Day Job: almost without fail, I always plan travel that coincides with one meteorological menace or another. This time, it was headed for the East Coast of the US just in time for a massive snowstorm that ran a full four days. As the plane arrived in Philadelphia, the first flakes started coming down, and by the time I got situated for the night, it was coming down fast and furious.
Perspective: One of the reasons why this funky little gallery wasn’t named “Michigan Triffid Ranch” is because Texas isn’t my birthplace but it is my home. Most of that comes from living through other blizzards, including the Chicago Blizzard of 1979. The last time I spent more than two days in snow (by the time you’re sick of Dallas snow, it’s already melted away) was 35 years ago, and those months of minus-40 weather were a big reason for moving back to Texas for the first time. The last significant snow of any sort was Dallas’s famed blizzard of 2010, where we broke all records for snowfall within a 24-hour period. Right now, as I write this, Dallas faces a cold front next week that might actually drop temperatures below freezing. However, the odds of snowfall are passing small, even if there’s precedent.
As far as the future is concerned, everything depends on more than just a drastic COVID-19 control, but the idea is to return for further training, preferably when winter is over. It’s also been a very long time since I’ve been anyplace with significant autumn color (Dallas has its moments, but it’s all pastels compared to New England), and sharing photos of that wonder is definitely on the agenda.