Monthly Archives: January 2022

Have a Safe Weekend

Another week, another weekend. The gallery will be closed this weekend because of an impending move, but keep an eye out for the open house on February 5. Until then, music.

Enclosures: “Watcher and Waiter” (2022)

A preamble on the enclosure backstories:

Once, it and its people were teachers, guardians, shepherds, surrogate parents. They worked with innumerable sentiments reaching toward the stars and showed them the wonders and terrors of the universe, letting them know that they weren’t alone and that someone was protecting them. Eventually, though, the students reach the limits of learning, the weak become strong, the sheep gather their forces and destroy the wolves, and the children grow up. Its people realized that their charges were able to take care of themselves, and they left the galaxy for whatever awaits those who travel between galaxies. They had been guardians for a very long time, and were very good at their jobs, but the forces for which they had massed to fight surrendered at the same time, and they all looked around one last time and migrated away.

Except one.

Unlike its compatriots, it had no great message, no overwhelming coda, no need to impose its doctrines upon those too young to question. If anything, it was at a loss after the decision to leave was made. It didn’t want to go, but it also didn’t want to keep doing what it had before. Its people were very, very long-lived, and it had plenty of time to find a new path, so in the bustle and chaos of migration, it sneaked aboard its starship, broke away from the caravan, and went exploring.

Eventually, it found a world very much like the one its species had first grown on, millions of years before. A thin methane atmosphere, just hazy enough from naturally occurring hydrocarbons to add a champagne tint to the world’s yellow-white star when seen from the surface. The bare beginnings of multicellular life, an atmosphere with potential to nurture that life, and absolutely no spacefaring neighbors in the vicinity. Knowing that none of the current species in the galaxy had the capability of detecting its ship, much less do anything about it, the ship touched down once, let its passenger disembark with sufficient supplies to settle in, and went back into orbit to await new orders. Like its passenger, it could live a very, very long time with very little, and it now could sleep and possibly dream.

The traveler took its time, but eventually started a garden. The current analogues to plants were starting to emerge from the wide and warm oceans covering about half of the world, and the traveler started a garden. Yes, it was interfering with the development and evolution of life on this little world, but nobody was going to complain for probably a half-billion years. It slowly and carefully encouraged examples of flora and selected them for height, color, sturdiness in severe winds, ability to convert methane into oxygen, and ability to wrest nutrients from rock, mud, and sand. It left control groups of all of these spread out nearby, looking for potential diseases, and left them alone when the earliest analogues to land animals started following the plants in search of unexploited food. Growth, decay, regrowth…since the flora’s main photosynthesis molecule was purple, a tiny bruise formed near one ocean as seen from space, and spread and colored with surprising rapidity.

The traveler knew that eventually someone or something would find this little world. Eventually, someone or something would realize that the random intertwinings of genetic material couldn’t explain the sudden explosion of oxygen in the air, or the patterns of color as seen from orbit, or the seemingly instantaneous evolution of fauna to keep the flora healthy and assist in its reproduction. Eventually, someone or something would discover the traveler, in which case it was ready to offer advice or recommendations if needed or wanted, Until then, it had its garden, which was spreading across the entire world, and it was content for the first time in its life.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)

Plant: Drosera adelae

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, glass slag, found items.

Price: $150US

Shirt Price: $125US

Enclosures: “Vestibule” (2022)

A preamble on the enclosure backstories:

Xenoarchaeology is a risky endeavor under just about any circumstance. In the field, researchers face hostile wildlife, fascinating new diseases and parasites, and the ever-present danger that a billion-year-old artifact might be carrying a quantum black hole facing a critical failure on the insulation of its containment vessel. Those back in academia usually envy the field researchers, as Aurigan blood shivers is a blessed relief compared to peer review. Very rarely do both of these streams cross in such a spectacular manner, but professors trying to impress humility upon their students tell stories of the Great Vestibule on Elbein Outer as an object lesson of not getting too carried away with speculation.

For the most part, Elbein Outer was a typical rocky planet with a life-sustaining atmosphere and a water-rich surface, with its only companion around its star being Elbein Inner, a gas giant a few million years from becoming part of that star’s hydrogen reserve. Elbein Inner and its former brethren left the system remarkably cleaned before they either crashed starside or were flung into interstellar space. Very few asteroids or comets, no comparable Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud, and not so much as a moon. The planet’s surface underwent plate tectonics encouraged by solar tides and a radioactive-rich core, but compared to the cosmic sword dances faced by Earth or Gent, Elbein Outer was practically serene. Even its indigenous animal and plant life were mellow by comparison.

That’s why, ten years after its discovery, everyone was surprised to discover traces of an extensive and highly advanced civilization on Elbein Outer’s northernmost continent. The pieces and fragments had been there long enough that they had disintegrated into dust and mud, but as seemed to be the case with enigmatic artifacts, one nearly complete structure remained, still peeking out from the cover of a nearly completely eroded mountain. Not only was this structure nearly complete, but it seemed to be completely functional as well after approximately 600 million years. Whatever it was supporting was even odder: behind a gate or sphincter lay a small chamber, detectable via cosmic ray and neutrino emitters, that reflected both and more besides. As to what was inside the chamber, nobody had a clue.

Most field researchers welcome a challenge, and expeditions came and went around what writers and influencers called “The Great Vestibule.” Everybody had an idea of what might be out there, and the most speculative and the most unsupported by facts and logic got the furthest reach. The Great Vestibule stored, preserved in special stasis fields, its creators’ archives and histories. The Great Vestibule contained a direct hyperspace gate to its creators’ home world. The Great Vestibule contained a sample spacecraft of previously unknown design that could cut crossing a light-year of space from 23 hours to 23 seconds. The Great Vestibule, when shaken, would drop the universe’s most attractive, acidic, and addictive candy until shaken again. The planet was quiet and the skies clear of anything but stars at night, and a lot of chroniclers couldn’t tell the difference between tall tales and confirmed scientific knowledge.

Finally, the Vestibule released its secrets. A three-species team, led by the esteemed xenoarcheologist Gortyyn Lidefit, learned that the original control interface that opened the Vestibule had been deliberately removed before its builders left, and their genius reverse-engineered a working control substitute. Reporters and storytellers and the irredeemably curious from across four galaxies converged on Elbein Outer, all wanting to be the first in 600 million years to see the contents so carefully hidden away across time and space.

A truism in science is that one researcher’s crushing disappointment is another’s prize-winning paper, and that definitely happened multiple times after the Great Orifice finally disgorged its contents. Yes, it contained a hyperspace gate. Yes, it contained previously unknown stasis technology that kept the Orifice’s contents in perfect condition as the universe whirled around it. But as its contents flowed across the surface of Elbein Outer, drowning researcher and rubbernecker alike in a tsunami that covered the entire planet to a depth of 3000 meters, those observing the situation from orbit learned that the Lidefit team had discovered the largest portable toilet in the known universe. Worse, it wasn’t the first one one discovered, hacked, and emptied, and it definitely wasn’t the last.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 24″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 60.96 cm x 45.72 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes maxima

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.

Price: $250US

Shirt Price: $200US

Boosting the Signal: Lunar New Year Open House

It may be a bit premature, but it’s been two years since the gallery has seen a Lunar New Year open house, predating the current nightmare by a month, and it’s time to bring it back. The next Triffid Ranch open house is scheduled for Saturday, February 5 from noon to 5:00 pm, and Arioch willing, I’ll be finished moving by then.

The Aftermath: The First Triffid Ranch Open House of 2022 – 2

I’m not much for selfies, but the first Triffid Ranch open house of 2022 was a perfect time to debut the new look: as one friend joked, “New regeneration, new rules.” The harshness of the red dye back on New Year’s Eve has mellowed, as first dye jobs always do, into a much more mellow ginger, and it’s been sorely missed. (The first time was for a very short time in 1987, probably one of the greatest years of transition in my life, and rapidly replaced with albino white for the next two years. The second time started in 1995 and ended in 1999, when shaving it off famously freaked out Harlan Ellison. At this point, it may be permanent, as it suits me a lot more than my natural blond did.)

A lot about this open house was the beginning of one of Ellison’s Hour That Stretches. Among many other things, this show debuted a record six enclosures at once (photos and backstories coming along soon enough), with a crowd to match. This, however, is just the beginning. Over the next few months, expect a lot of changes to the gallery, including a major move to give a lot more room for everybody. You’ll love it.

For those stuck due to the foul weather, or those who want another chance to visit, the next open house is a special event tied to Lunar New Year: as always, admission is free and masks are mandatory. See you then.

The Aftermath: The First Triffid Ranch Open House of 2022 – 1

January 15 started the way it usually does in Dallas: with massive gusting winds blasting out of the north, promptly dropping temperatures to within freezing. Inside the gallery, though, those who braved the winds found warmth, light, and, most importantly, green. The official start of spring may still be two months away, but the Triffid Ranch opened to general approval and a lot of good post-holiday vibes.

As has been the case for the last year, since indoor events started up again, we had a wide range of visitors from all over the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, and a few who came from much further out. In fact, the crowds kept rushing in until just before closing. The next issue isn’t with getting people to come out: the next issue is with having enough room for everybody who wants to get in.

To be continued…

Have a Safe Weekend

After a short but much-needed hiatus, the Texas Triffid Ranch open houses are starting back up again, with the first of 2022 running this Saturday from noon until 5:00 pm. Keep checking back, too, because the plan is to have a lot more events in 2022 than in 2021.

Science Experimentation at Grad School Prices: Nepenthes rajah

It’s not the greatest photo (if anything, it reveals the limitations of an iPhone camera in low-light conditions), but those familiar with the Nepenthes rajah pitcher plant in the gallery enclosure Gyre might be intrigued to discover that its pitchers fluoresce under ultraviolet light like most other Nepenthes species. Surprisingly, unlike most species that get most of their nitrogen from dung, N. rajah is an enthusiastic fluorescer, at least while the pitchers are relatively small. Considering that rajah is a notoriously slow-growing plant, it may take a while before it starts producing its famously large pitchers and those can be checked for fluorescence.

And along that line, it’s far too early to talk about confirmations, but this spring and summer may offer another massive renovation at the gallery. Everything is dependent upon the next couple of weeks, but if things work out, you won’t recognize the place by the end of summer, and that’s a very good thing. Among other things, this may allow the chance to do a darkroom gallery exhibition showing various carnivore species fluorescing in real time. Let’s see what happens.

Boosting the Signal: the First Triffid Ranch Open House of 2022

A break from combined househunting and enclosure construction: the first Texas Triffid Ranch open house of 2022 goes live at noon on Saturday, January 15 and runs until 5:00. Expect lots of weirdness, as well as king cake and an opportunity to get out of the cold. And so it goes.

Science Experimentation at Grad Student Prices: Nepenthes bicalcarata

One of the nice things about having absolutely no natural light in the back area of the gallery, and having all of the lights on timers to encourage winter growth patterns and spring blooming, is that it gets DARK back there when the lights go out. While this is horrific if you get turned around and can’t find the front hallway, it’s excellent when conducting experiments with ultraviolet light. A little messing about with the handy violet kaleidoscope laser pointer in the gallery led to some interesting observations.

To begin, the squat little pitcher up top belongs to the famous Asian pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata. N. bicalcarata is one of the only Nepenthes species to have a commonly used nickname in carnivorous plant circles, “bicalc” singular or “bicalcs” plural, and it’s also one of the only Nepenthes species to have a common name in English. That name, “fanged pitcher plant,” refers to the two distinctive sharp “fangs: that run down from where the pitcher meets its lid. Those “fangs” are officially called nectaries, in that they secrete and channel nectar, which leads to the slightly disturbing view of a happy and healthy bicalc being one that’s drooling nectar off these structures like a snake’s fangs dripping venom. These nectaries are both strong and sharp, leading to all sorts of suppositions on how the “fangs” prevent monkeys and birds from removing trapped prey from the pitcher. The reality, however, is that nobody really knows what these structures are for, as well as the comparably eye-catching and risky structures on the equally famous N. inermis, N. edwardsiana, and N. hamata.

As a handy hat-tip to any grad student wanting an interesting subject for their first paper, N. bicalcarata shares with its insectivorous kin an actively ultraviolet-fluorescing band of tissue along the lip of pitchers called the peristome. This is fascinating but not necessarily news: this fluorescence has been known among many completely unrelated genera of carnivorous plant for the last decade, and Nepenthes species such as N. hemsleyana and N. ampullaria that no longer produce digestive enzymes in their pitcher fluid also no longer have UV-fluorescent peristomes. What might be news is that nobody seems to have noted that the nectaries on N. bicalcarata fluoresce as hard and as brightly as the peristome itself.

The real surprise? This is an absolutely horrible photo that will require retaking with an actual photographer, but this is the fluorescence of a juvenile N. bicalcarata pitcher. Interestingly, the pitcher itself fluoresces a bright red along the peristome, but the nectaries, only a little over a millimeter long, fluoresce the same yellow-green as the nectaries on full-sized pitchers.

As to why these nectaries fluoresce, that’s a really good question. Since I don’t have any in the gallery at the moment, I don’t know if N. edwardsiana and N. hamata peristomes fluoresce in the same way, or if they go for different patterns under UV the way Nepenthes species with particularly wide peristomes (such as N. rafflesiana) do. I also don’t know at the moment whether the fluorescence in the nectaries matches that of the peristomes as the pitcher ages and dies, because that requires repeated observations over the months the pitcher may live. However, for an enterprising botany grad student wishing to publish for the first time with a paper that might get to the top of standard newsfeeds, run with this.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Nepenthes hemsleyana

Since things are a bit slow at the gallery due to the end of the growing season, now is a perfect time to discuss winter carnivore cleanups. This time, the subject is one that keeps coming up concerning Nepenthes pitcher plants: “My pitcher plant stopped producing pitchers.” 90 percent of the time, the factor causing a lack of pitcher growth is a lack of humidity: studies in the last decade confirmed that once average relative humidity stays below 50 percent, Nepenthes plants stop producing pitchers. This is because on average, Nepenthes roots are to keep the plant in the ground (if you want to get a good idea of what a Nepenthes root clump looks like without digging up one yourself, just clean your shower drain one of these days), and half of the plant’s moisture requirements come from moisture (rain, fog, mist) absorbed through its leaves. Every once in a while, though, you get an exception, and we have a humdinger of one.

Regulars may recognize the enclosure Bat God from the end of 2020, containing the only Nepenthes hemsleyana I’ve ever had the privilege of viewing. N. hemsleyana is famous for being a non-carnivorous carnivore: instead of catching insects or other animal prey, this species specializes in producing traps that act as the roosting site for one of the smallest bats in Asia, Kerivoula hardwickii. In return for a safe haven, the bats provide nitrogen not just in guano, as commonly reported, but also in shed fur as the bats groom themselves and each other. (As organic gardeners will tell you, hair and fur make a great slow-release nitrogen source, and I’m currently conducting experiments with using shed cat fur as a possible alternative to guano for some Nepenthes species. Expect results later this year.) Between these two nitrogen sources, N. hemsleyana no longer produces digestive enzymes by the time it produces its distinctive upper traps, nor do the peristomes on the pitchers fluoresce under ultraviolet light as with close cousins such as N. rafflesiana.

The problem with telling people about these distinctive pitchers, though, is getting the pitchers in the first place. This original hemsleyana grew impressive pitchers in a smaller, much more compact enclosure, but upon moving it to a new location, it enthusiastically grew but didn’t produce a single pitcher. This recalcitrance isn’t due to a lack of humidity thanks to an ultrasonic fogger, and regular foliar feedings with dilute carnivore-safe fertilizer produces lots of new leaves. The problem is that while the leaves produce long ribs with the nubs of pitchers at the end, those nubs never go any further. Obviously, something is up.

Apparently the plant felt the same way, because in addition to its main vine threatening to apply for admission to the United Nations, this Nepenthes is producing a new shoot near its base. This started about three weeks ago, and the first leaves came in nice and broad. The real joy, though, is the new lower pitcher forming off the shoot’s third leaf, and new leaves coming in that appear to be just as determined. In about three weeks, we’ll know for sure if this is going to turn into a true pitcher, but the indications are good.

“This is all fine and good,” you say, “but what does that mean?” Well, it means that Nepenthes and roses have a bit more in common than you might think. Just as how roses may need to have their canes cut back to encourage new growth likely to produce flowers, sometimes a fussy Nepenthes needs to be cut back to encourage new pitcher growth. Once the pitcher on the new offshoot is established and open,, which may happen within the next week, the rest of the vine upstem from the shoot gets cut off and then cut into segments. Those segments then get a good bath in rooting hormone and then planted in a high-humidity, high-light environment to encourage new root growth. The odds are pretty good that if the cuttings take, any new growth on them will contain full pitcher development, meaning that the gallery may be overloaded with N. hemsleyana enclosures before too long. Maybe the next one needs to take a note from the bat fossil beds at Riversleigh World Heritage Site in Queensland, Australia and be entitled “Stately Wayne Manor.”

Have a Safe Weekend

New year, new plans. Unfortunately, this means no open houses or other events this weekend, but make plans for January 15. It’ll be worth it.

“For Your Consideration”

Coming from many different directions, a short film (from Canada, of course) about carnivorous plants that’s campaigning for the Best Short Animated Film Oscar…