Category Archives: Hard Science

“It’s got what (carnivorous) plants (don’t) crave!”

A little sidenote between shows and new enclosures: a friend and Day Job coworker took recommendations on carnivorous plant care in Dallas to heart and came across something that would have slipped between the cracks otherwise. As related elsewhere, the municipal water in the greater Dallas area is best described as “crunchy”: seeing as how we’re situated on what used to be North American Seaway ocean floor about 80 to 90 million years ago (with big areas of Arlington, Irving, and Flower Mound peeking up as barrier islands akin to today’s Padre Island), water out of the tap is full of dissolved salt and calcium carbonate. Up in Flower Mound, the water is also so full of dissolved iron that you can tell which residents have lawn sprinklers by the wide rust stains on driveways, sidewalks, and sides of houses. All of these are really bad for carnivorous plants, and a lot of people have issues with them, too, so Dallas people tend to drink a lot of bottled water. (Not me: I actually like the flavor, and the only bottled water that catches my interest is the even more mineralized Mineral Wells product, and I’m fairly sure that when I die, my bones will glow in the dark from the dissolved radium I imbibed as a kid in Saratoga Springs.)

Anyway, my friend noted the regular Triffid Ranch admonishment “Rain water or distilled water ONLY” with a recently purchased Cape sundew, and found what she thought would be a great source of distilled water with a new brand called Zen WTR. It makes a promise that it’s “100% vacuum-distilled water,” but not is all as it seems.

Let’s start by noting that for this discussion, we’ll take all of Zen WTR’s claims at full face value. No snark, no arched eyebrow, nothing. The claims of using 100 percent recycled plastics is a noble one, as well as using only ocean-salvaged plastics. (I’m currently working on a Nepenthes enclosure that asks what plastics would look like after 50 million years of burial, and the reality is that nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen to all of the various plastics we’re turning into signature fossils for the Anthropecene.) I have no reason to doubt that the water isn’t 100 percent vacuum-distilled for maximum purity, either. But is it safe for carnivores?

Well, the first tipoff was noting that the contents at the bottom of the bottle read “Vapor distilled water with electrolytes for taste.” Even discounting the obvious jokes (which I imagine the crew of Zen WTR is as sick of hearing as I am of Little Shop of Horrors references), my heart sank upon reading “…with electrolytes for taste.” Flip over the bottle to read the ingredient list, and…

…and we get “Calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium bicarbonate (electrolyte sources for taste).” None of these are bad in drinking water. If you ever get the chance to drink true distilled water, such as that used for topping up car batteries or keeping steam irons clean, you’ll note that while it’ll hydrate you, it’s not necessarily going to win any taste tests, and a big tall glass of lukewarm distilled water served to friends on a hot day is a good way to guarantee they never to come to your house again for summer activities. (Since cold water holds more dissolved gases than warm water, really cold distilled water is okay, but as with vodka left in the freezer, you’re more likely mistaking the chill for any actual flavor, but that also isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Spring waters are popular because of naturally dissolved salts and other minerals as part of their makeup, and most bottled water has a pinch of various salts per bottle to improve their flavor and make sure you buy more. Zen WTR does the same thing, and for us humans, there’s nothing wrong with this.

(A little aside, sometimes water that’s too pure can be dangerous in other ways, and not the ones you suspect. When I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s, the city made a big deal about how the Bull Run reservoir, filled from snow melt, was some of the purest municipal water in the world. What was left out was that it was so pure that it tended to leach chemicals and various metals out of plumbing, and if you lived in a house or apartment in Portland built around the turn of the last century, as my ex and I did, odds were good that Bull Run water and lead pipes put in before World War I and never replaced led to tap output with potentially dangerous levels of lead and cadmium when drunk for long periods. This wasn’t always limited to metal, either: while I haven’t found any confirmation one way or another, small amounts of salt in bottled water may possibly have an effect on the amounts of plasticizer, the chemicals added to give plastics, well, their plastic and flexible properties, from leaching into the bottle’s contents. A bonus fun fact: with most plastic packaging, such as bread bags and Fritos packages, the “Best if used by…” date isn’t the predicted date when the contents go bad, but the predicted date when levels of plasticizer and solvent are detectable within.)

Now, humans are very good at removing minerals from our ingested water: as anybody suffering from kidney or bladder stones can tell you, sometimes we’re a little too good. with most plants, a little salt is completely beneficial, and most accumulations wash out with the next rain. The problem with carnivores is that most live in areas inundated with enough regular rains to wash out most dissolvable minerals after a few thousand years, and more live in sphagnum bogs, which both exude acid and a polymer that bonds to magnesium. In a pot or container, those salts, as little as they are, tend to accumulate. It may not happen right away, and it might not even happen soon, but eventually enough salt will build up in a captive carnivore that it will start burning the roots. In a remarkably quick time, that salt content goes from “minorly irritating” to “lethal,” and with precious little warning.

A few more astute readers may note that technically rainwater can have similar problems with dissolved minerals from dust atop roofs and in containers, as well as dissolved dusts and pollutant accumulated while falling. That’s completely fair, but these are in considerably lower levels than those from Texas tap and drinking water. Please: keep drinking Zen WTR if you enjoy it, but keep in mind that it eventually won’t be safe for your Venus flytrap. And next time, we’ll discuss reverse-osmosis filters and “drenching”…

Happy Darwin Day

Today is a very special day at the Triffid Ranch: it’s time to celebrate the 210th birthday of Charles Darwin. Others in the scientific and horticultural communities have their own specific reasons to celebrate Darwin’s birthday, but the overriding reason around here is simple: the publication in 1875 of the book Insectivorous Plants. Darwin’s research into the mechanics and chemistry of carnivorous plants obviously predated such tools as radioisotope tracing and DNA sequencing, but all such research into carnivores today depends to an extent on his careful study 150 years ago. While you’re out and about today, hoist a beverage of your choice in the direction of Westminster Abbey and toast this singular individual, without whose studies the current study of carnivorous plants would have been very different.

Glen Rose Interlude – 2

Want to know what you missed? Go back and catch up.


The main reason most people have for visiting Glen Rose, Texas is for dinosaur tracks. Whether it’s to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park or the oxymoronic Creation Evidence Museum up the road, it’s all about dinosaur tracks. Before one Roland T. Bird came into downtown Glen Rose for a glass of lemonade and found a dinosaur track incorporated into a WPA-built bandshell next to the courthouse, the town was one of a multitude of towns southwest of Fort Worth boasting scenic views and excellent diners, but nothing that would convince people to travel from the other side of the planet to visit. Now, Glen Rose has a plethora of antique stores and art galleries to give a reason to stay, just so long as you don’t spend so much time stomping around in the Paluxy River that you lose track of daylight.

Since the original plan to go slopping around in the Paluxy was capsized by the closest thing to white water that I’ve ever seen on it, this meant lots of daylight for other endeavors. The dinosaur trackways are on what used to be muddy beachfront, so they tended to catch lots of other items during regular rounds of sediment deposition. While I have yet to come across any reports of actual dinosaur bone preserved in Glen Rose, that mud preserved a lot more. In particular, the area is simply rotten with exquisitely petrified driftwood, most of which looks as if it came out of the surf last week instead of 120 million years ago.


Those familiar with the fossilized logs at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona might be a bit disappointed with Glen Rose petrified wood, or most of the stuff in Texas for that matter. The Glen Rose deposits rarely preserve whole logs: the vast majority of pieces resemble the chunks and bobs that wash up in the Gulf of Mexico today: the bark is gone, but the surf wasn’t strong enough to move big logs and stumps onto land, so most of what’s here are smaller pieces that were broken up elsewhere. However, it’s beautifully silicified, preserving knotholes and insect damage, and it’s considerably more forgiving of erosion than its mudstone matrix, so it once collected in large piles. A tough but workable stone, with obvious attractiveness and durability: when given that sort of resource for construction, of course the people Glen Rose put it to use.


Based on the buildings still extant incorporating local petrified wood, you’d think that the area would remain loaded with logs. Making a trip out to Glen Rose 15 years ago, I heard some of the backstory from the former mayor, who ran a now-defunct bookstore in the town square. According to her, most of the available logs and larger chunks that weren’t already incorporated into local buildings were picked up and sold for the rock shop trade in the 1950s, and the high quality of the wood meant that people were keeping a close eye on the buildings. She related how a gas station near the square, made almost completely out of local petrified wood, had shut down and the land purchased by a local church for possible expansion. According to her, the church was evenly split between those who wanted to restore the gas station as a piece of local history and those who wanted to sell the petrified wood to a wholesaler, and this was settled when the gas station “accidentally” came down in the middle of the night. The petrified wood was salvaged and sold, and half of the congregation hasn’t talked to the other half since.


Even acknowledging that (a) the story might be apocryphal and (b) I should have taken notes rather than depending upon memories from a decade-and-a-half ago, the gas station story is believable upon seeing the structures still standing. So long as Cretaceous rock remains in the Glen Rose area, additional petrified wood will eventually erode out and gradually migrate to the bottom of the valley, but all of the easy pickings have been gone since the Great Depression. With luck, though, enough will remain that some aspiring palaeobotanist should be able to identify and classify the local flora, and give as much of a view of the plant life of Creataceous Glen Rose as the trackways give of the fauna.

To be continued…

Hanging around with the Fangirls of Dallas

We’re in the last couple of weeks before everything hits the fan. The flytraps and Sarracenia both come out of dormancy by the middle of March; that is, unless we get another one of those oddball end-of-February snowstorms like the one that surprised us last year. We’ve already had a hailstorm at the end of January, so anything’s possible. (At times like these, I’m happier than ever for the new space: between the hailstorm and the subsequent heavy winds, the one-two hit literally degloved the greenhouse. This would have been a problem if I still had anything frost-intolerant in it: instead, it’s full of flytraps, seedling pitcher plants, and triggerplants just waiting for one last cold snap to encourage them to bloom this season.) This time next month, free time will be something I hear about from ne’er-do-well cohorts, but for now, it’s time for an interview with the Fangirls of Dallas, my favorite Dallas fan group. Please excuse the hair. And the voice. I’m not going to age well, am I?

More fun with UV lasers: The Aloe Edition

Aloe bloom

Let me state up front that I hate Nerine Dorman, the acclaimed South African horror writer. This isn’t a minor hate. I have plans for a vicious and vile repayment for everything she’s done to me and for me, and she’ll have earned every last bit. This was the woman who, along with her husband, introduced me to the fynbos, the smallest and most fecund floral kingdom on the planet. They’ve forgotten more about fynbos flora, particularly aloes and euphorbias, than I’ll ever learn, but that’s not why I plan to gain revenge.

Aloe nobilis

It all started this spring, when my aloes started blooming. At this time, I only have two species on hand, A. vera and A. nobilis, and last winter’s repeated Icepocalypses did wonders for all of my South African and Australian flora. Instead of burning off or freezing off permanently, the cold snaps not only encouraged sprouting and growth in Roridula seeds I’d given up on, but it caused a bloom explosion in the aloes.

Aloe blooms
(As an aside, I’m regularly asked at shows by cactus and succulent beginners about their plants’ blooming or lack thereof. While many require at least some cooling period to encourage blooming, the biggest factor is ambient light. With most barrel cacti, regular interference from streetlights, porch lights, security lamps, and other artificial illumination throws off their circadian rhythms, even if it’s only for a few days during their normal blooming periods. I’ve also noted this in such common succulents as jade plants (Crassula spp.), and it’s absolutely vital for aloes. Protect your aloes from light pollution in the spring, and watch them go nuts.)

Aloe blooms
Now, things got even more interesting when taking a closer look at the blooms themselves. They closely resemble the blooms of indigenous North American plants that depend upon either hummingbirds or hawkmoths for pollination, and the confirmation that they had a similar attraction came when a ruby-throat hummingbird proceeded to give me grief when mowing the grass by the aloe planters. There’s a very good reason why Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, was often portrayed as a hummingbird, as these little monsters have no fear of man, beast, or god, and this one took severe umbrage at my interrupting his feed. Most people would look at the wonder of being attacked by a dinosaur in this day and age and move on, but I needed to know what set off the sort of response more likely to be encountered when haranguing a hummingbird’s nest.

Well, that night, I dusted off the UV laser flashlight used to view fluorescence in carnivores, and tried it on the A. nobilis blooms. The petals fluoresce slightly under UV, but the tips? Those glow a brilliant cadmium yellow, like a black light poster. Considering similar enthusiastic responses from hummingbirds from bladderwort blooms with comparable yellow fluorescence, this suggests either that blooms of this sort offer trace elements in their nectar needed by hummingbirds, or some other factor makes hummingbirds associate this sort of UV glow, and remember that hummingbirds can see well into the UV spectrum, with particularly good food. Time for more research, or at least time to pass on the observations to botanists and ornithologists who can examine things further.

Aloe bloom spike junction

With that observation, I then asked Nerine, without any other familiarity with aloe pollinators, about which birds might be attracted to the blooms. That’s when she informed me of sunbirds (Nectariniidae), which are enthusiastic aloe pollinators. Two groups of birds separated by the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the same floral cues for the same reasons, and a group of plants able to be pollinated by a bird group from the other side of the planet for precisely that reason…so do the birds call the shots, or the flowers?

Aloe blooms
This is why I hate Nerine as much as I do, and why I’m not going to rest until I come out to her house and talk her to death. At the same time as all of this, I lucked into a copy of the absolutely incredible book Fynbos: South Africa’s Unique Floral Kingdom by Richard Cowling, Dave Richardson, and Colin Paterson-Jones, and now I know where my next trip outside of the US is going to be. As if I don’t have enough realms to research: now I’m addicted to studying fynbos flora, and I CAN’T STOP.

Introducing Myocastor coypus

Nutria

I love terrorizing my UK friend Dave Hutchinson with tales of the horrible, vicious wildlife in Dallas, because it’s like poking a Knox Block with a stick. He refers to Texas as “Australia Lite”, because he knows that unlike Australia, not every life form in my native land would try to kill him. No, most just want to knock him out, drag him back to their lairs, and lay their eggs in his chest. Worse, I have a passport now, so I just might come out to London, drag him onto a plane to Dallas, and sing to him the whole way back.

Anyway, so that Dave doesn’t soil his bedsheets every night, I wanted to show him something here that wouldn’t try to kill him, enslave him, or steal his wimminfolk. That can be a tough order, especially coming from a guy nearly taken out by his bicycle being hit by an armadillo in my back alley. (Not only can those little armored pigs run, but they JUMP, too.) It took an exotic intruder in one of the oddest places in the area, but I finally succeeded.

As mentioned a while back, I took a new Day Job out in the Las Colinas area of Irving, close to DFW Airport. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Las Colinas started out in the early Eighties as a tech hub, culminating with it becoming quite the symbol of dotcom excess about 15 years ago. All of that turned back into pumpkins and mice, but some of the oddities remain. First and foremost is the network of canals that run all through the eastern side of the area: apparently originally intended to make slightly hilly Dallas prairie a bit more tolerable, the canals had the side effect of attracting all sorts of wildlife. Egrets, herons, softshelled turtles the size of a garbage can lid, the occasional water snake, and the very occasional alligator all show up in the canals, but one of the biggest surprises here was a little guy I met on the daily commute from the train station to my office.

A few people here may know the story of the nutria, a South American water rodent that pretty much fills the niche there that the muskrat fills in the US and Canada. Nutria were first brought to the US as a possible source of cost-effective furs when beaver became endangered through the States: the market never took off, but nutria breeding numbers did, and they rapidly became a major pest in Louisiana. Part of this was due to their voracious feeding habits, and part was because nutria prefer to dig deep burrows into steep riverbanks. When said “riverbank” is a flood levee…well, you can imagine why they’re not exactly loved through the area.

Even fewer know that nutria are a rather common invasive animal in the Dallas area, but that’s because they’re incredibly shy and secretive. While I’ve seen the occasional burrow along creekbeds through the area, the only time I’d seen one before was when two ran out in front of me in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. They’re usually so secretive that one doesn’t even hear them slip into the water and swim off, which was why spotting “Gustavus” here in the morning light was an even bigger shock. His favorite lounging and feeding spot is a canal bank in the middle of a large park in the middle of Las Colinas, and he’s completely unafraid of the innumerable joggers and bicyclists who race right by his grazing area.

Nutria

That is, until one of those cyclists stops and tries to get his picture. Well, it’s not like he’s going anywhere soon: the three-foot alligator I spotted in another canal is a ways off, and Gustavus is big enough to be a major challenge for a gator that small. Which brings up the eternal question: in such a blatantly artificial and manufactured venue as Las Colinas, are introduced species residing therein really quite the menace they would be in more pristine areas? Or is this just giving them running room to spread out further? Either way, I suspect Gustavus is going to be here for a while.

Investigating UV fluorescence in carnivorous plants at grad student prices

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

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

AS&S violet laser

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

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

Laser beam (unmodified)

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

ThorLabs diffuser

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

Laser beam with diffusor

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

Sarracenia under visible light

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

Sarracenia under UV, first attempt

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

Sarracenia pitcher under UV

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

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

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

Triggerplant blooms under UV

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

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

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

sarracenia_uv_1

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

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

In defense of ultraviolet

By now, a fair number of carnivorous plant enthusiasts know about the new paper on fluorescence of Nepenthes, Sarracenia, and Dionea traps under ultraviolet light. First and foremost, for all of you undergrad and postgrad students out there, take this as a warning not to procrastinate in finishing and submitting a scientific paper. I was about maybe a month away from submitting my own paper to the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter on the subject, and not only did the authors of this paper beat me to the punch, but they produced an exceptional paper that presented distinctive blue fluorescence spots that nobody else had caught before now. They did exceptional work, they deserve every last bit of publicity they’re receiving, and I just regret not having the proper gear for proper research.

That said, there’s a lot more to be done with fluorescence in carnivorous plants. I can state with authority that many other genera of carnivore fluoresce under UV, including at least two species of Heliamphora,Darlingtonia, and the two carnivorous bromeliads Catopsis and Brocchinia. In fact, Catopsis fluoresces brightly enough to hurt. There are other advantages to running around your carnivorous plant nursery with UV lights, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The whole strange experiment with carnivores and UV started about five years back. Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores noted about three years ago how brightly some species of Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, seemed to stand out under moonlight, and I noticed that myself when looking over Sarracenia propagation pools during a full moon. Likewise, after damage from sudden hailstorms, I took a good look at the trap contents of those particularly bright Sarracenia and noticed that a majority of the prey items consisted of moths. The moths didn’t have any particular interest in visible light color variations, and many would have no interest whatsoever in the nectar secreted along the rims and lids of the traps. So what attracted them?

Since I was the sort of kid who cracked most Encyclopedia Brown mysteries by the third-to-last page and who went digging to verify the plausibility or lack thereof of Danny Dunn novels, it wasn’t hard to recognize that the moths were seeing something that I couldn’t without assistance. The initial research was easy, but I’m again getting ahead of myself. The problem involved getting photos that verified observations. Almost anyone who studied any level of high-school botany or natural history remembers photos of flowers taken “with a UV filter” that allows UV-blind humans to see the patterns on seemingly boring flowers that draw in bees and sawflies. Just try to get a breakdown on how to do this, though, especially in the digital camera age. Half of the advice I received was completely worthless (hacking your camera to detect infrared does nothing, and just wasted my time), or it was tantalizingly vague as to how those photographers managed to pull it off. I even hired my adopted daughter Jenny to take photos of Nepenthes and Sarracenia while using a UV filter, but the results were inconclusive at best. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so impressed with the photos taken by the Plant Biology authors: they bypassed all of that by using low-light photography and controlling the exact wavelength of UV used.

In further developments, I’m still publishing, but only after quite a bit of revision. Among other things, it’s time to note the number of other carnivores that show similar fluorescence, and the variations therein. For instance, Darlingtonia, the cobra plant, fluoresces along its trap aperture, but it also has veins of fluorescence along the ala, or wing, that runs up the shaft of the trap, presumably to encourage insects up the ala to the aperture. Venus flytraps fluoresce, with varying patterns with different cultivars. Oh, and the greatest fluorescence among sundews is at the tips of its trapping hairs, with the dew at the tips absolutely shining under UV.

Now, there’s no reason why you can’t experiment with this as well. In fact, after running a few tests, I hope to present a regular shortwave and longwave UV display at plant shows comparable to fluorescent mineral displays in rock shows. This sort of equipment isn’t absolutely necessary, though, and most experiments in carnivore fluorescence can be done with a simple UV light.

Black light fluorescent fixture

To begin, don’t bother with standard “black light” fixtures, either fluorescent or incandescent. Not only do these put out relatively little UV, but they emit so much visible light that the plant fluorescence is nearly unnoticeable. These will still work with one exception, to be related later, but for most investigation, save the money for a better option. About the only fluorescence you’ll get off a carnivore with one of these comes from dying leaves, and if you can’t spot that under visible light, this won’t help.

UV LED flashlight

That better option is a good UV LED light, preferably a battery-powered one that can be used in the field. These days, with the drop in prices in UV-emitting LEDs, it’s possible to find plenty of good LED flashlights at affordable costs, with and without standard white LEDs for double duty. I picked up mine from American Science & Surplus for two reasons: it has six UV LEDs surrounded by white LEDs so I can use it as a standard flashlight, and the switch glows in the dark. You may laugh, but drop one of these in the dark, and that improves the odds of finding it.

Sonic screwdriver - closed

And then there’s the one I use for plant shows with lots of kids, because they completely lose it when I pull it out and turn it on. This, of course, is my scorpion detector, as it’s just as good at causing scorpions to fluoresce as carnivores. It has one good, powerful UV LED in the tip, which already makes it very handy for shows, and it has a pen attachment at the other end for leaving notes on business cards and stickers. The best thing about it, though?

Sonic screwdriver - open

It extends. Particularly when showing the bright patches at the back of the throat of a Nepenthes pitcher, that’s a lot less intrusive than manhandling a pitcher into place for a larger light source. It won’t work well in bright light, but it gets the job done.

Now, instructions for using LED lights. If at all possible, try to use your new lights in as dark a set of conditions as you can get. When working outside, try for a new moon and a minimum of street and porch lights for the best effect. Indoors, go for the darkest room you can get and let your eyes adjust to the darkness before lighting everything. Contrary to news reports on how these “glow in the dark”, the effect is going to be a bit subtle, much like using UV lights on a piece of opal. With proper precautions, though, the effect is not only obvious, but one of the LED flashlights mentioned above can detect carnivores from as much as three meters away. Go for a longwave UV lamp, such as those used for diamond prospecting, and have some real fun.

And for a last word, there’s one additional benefit in wandering through your carnivorous plant collection with a UV flashlight. My dear friend Ryan Kitko recently wrote about the bladderwort, Utricularia bisquamata, that was infesting his shield sundew. U. biquamata has quite the reputation as an aggressive pest in carnivore collections, but I have a soft spot for it. Firstly, it’s very easy to care for, and it makes an excellent starter plant for those who want to work with bladderworts but who don’t have the facilities to raise any of the true aquatic species. Give U. bisquamata soggy soil and lots of light in a standard terrarium, and it takes over, producing lots of white-pink slipper-like blooms with a pastel yellow spot on the top.

The other reason why I’m so fond of U. bisquamata? Get outside with a UV flashlight and find out for yourself. That yellow spot may be pastel under visible light, but under UV, it fluoresces like a black light poster. Considering how many birds are able to see into varying frequencies of UV, I now understand why both the migratory ruby-throat hummingbirds and their competing rufous hummingbirds won’t stay out of my greenhouse. I’ve had hummingbirds literally tapping on my office window to get at U. bisquamata and U. sandersonii blooms, and now I know exactly why.

Autumn serendipity

In the house, it may be spring cleaning, but the best time to clean out the greenhouse from stem to stern is in autumn. Well, it is in Texas, where we’re still seeing temperatures considered “balmy” in higher latitudes. It’s warm enough that I can clear out all of the tropical plants, check for spots that need to be clipped, and set them outside for a few hours , but it’s also cool enough that the usual pests are at a minimum. After this year’s horrible mosquito season, I enjoy any day where the smell of citronella tiki torch oil doesn’t get into my pores.

This sudden stripdown and rebuild was particularly important, as the greenhouse was underneath an aging and rapidly dying silverleaf maple, Silverleaf maples were a rather popular addition to many North Texas suburbs forty years ago, where they promised rapid growth and extensive shade. Well, both are true, but they also live about as long as our indigenous cottonwoods, and anybody in the area knows that you never want to encourage cottonwoods in your back yard. This silverleaf offered plenty of shade for the first two years we were here, but it was obvious that it was having problems after last year’s drought, where its companion planting didn’t make it. The tornadoes in April only compounded matters, and it’s now become a wreck. The tree’s heartwood is now nothing but punk wood and fungus, the dead branches produce a never-ending fall of sawdust from boring beetles, and the live ones threaten to fall if you look at them cross-eyed. I regret not being able to leave it alone, but either it comes down, or it takes the whole adjoining house with it, and possibly a neighbor’s house as well. Sic transit gloria.

In order for the tree to come down, the greenhouse had to come down and relocate, and that’s where the joy came in. Last summer, I learned exactly why nobody ever uses citrus wood when examining my Buddha’s Hand citron: one of the branches that died during the 2011 freeze had sprouted a single water shoot before it expired, and now the rather larger branch was hanging onto its roots by a sliver of tissue and a handful of dry rot. Pull out the rooting hormone, starter trays, and lots of rich potting mix, and start setting cuttings. Surprisingly, more cuttings survived than died, and if the state department of agriculture gives a full approval that these are disease-free, they might be up for sale within the state of Texas next year. Of course, that’s also dependent upon what sort of winter we have this year, so I’m not saying anything else.

No, the real surprise was getting ready to pitch a flat of presumably dead seeds and seeing a flash of green. Last spring, I purchased a set of seeds for Roridula gorgonias, a singular carnivorous plant from South Africa. Both species of Roridula look like gigantic sundews, but they can’t absorb nutrients directly from the insects and other animals they capture. Instead, in their native biomes, they depend upon a symbiotic relationship with an indigenous ambush bug, where the bug feeds on the prey, it defecates on the leaves, and the plant absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces via special channels in its leaves. I’d had suspicions that established plants would do very well in the Dallas area, but the problem was getting established plants. Repeated attempts with seeds, both in standard peat mixes for carnivores and in peat mixes exposed to smoke, did no good, and I was about ready to give up.

It turns out that I was just a bit premature. This latest batch hadn’t sprouted at all over the spring or summer, but it finally started germinating in November. The trick, apparently, is both to expose the seeds to high heat (daytime highs above 40 degrees C) and to let the soil mix dry out for a week. The seedlings, obviously, can’t handle complete dryness, but they apparently need much drier conditions than in a standard germination flat to get established. I’ll try some experiments this winter, but between this and the sudden cold front we had two weeks ago, something set off the little monsters.

In the meantime, I understand all too well why Chinese panda breeders refuse to name a baby panda until its eyes open, because the mortality rate among infant giant pandas is so high. Hence, no pictures until we get the first full set of true leaves. That may happen before we know it, but you won’t know if the seedlings suddenly succumb to fungus. If they take off, though…

Essential Viewing: Life From Light

When I tell people that I don’t watch that much television, it’s not that I’m snooty about what I’m watching. Honestly, a lot of it comes down to having the time: between the Day Job and working on the plants, I don’t have the time. Oh, I’ve tried, but setting up a laptop to view while repotting Sarracenia is more trouble than it’s worth. But when it involves a BBC Scotland documentary hosted by Professor Iain Stewart on the origins of plants? I’ll make the time.

EDIT: And while I’m at it, have I mentioned often enough how badly I wish BBC America would put Sir David Attenborough’s classic miniseries The Private Life of Plants on DVD?

Walking With Dinosaur Gardens

Time is running away, and there’s not that much time left until next weekend’s Reptile and Amphibian Day hosted by the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society, but there’s time for a subject currently near and dear to my heart. Namely, dinosaur gardens. This is what I get for dreaming last night about building a vivarium arrangement in tribute to the classic Lost Spider Pit scene from King Kong. I may even pull it off this weekend, and if I do, there WILL be photos.

To start, I could refer you to the single greatest tribute to Mesozoic Era flora I have yet to view, the Cretaceous Garden exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, but that wouldn’t be fair. It’s not fair because ongoing renovations mean you won’t be able to see it again until next year. When it reopens, though, it’ll probably be as glorious as it was when I visited it in 2006.

If you’re open to travel, and you can get out there before the end of the month, Trey Pitsenberger brought up Plantosaurus Rex, the current exhibition at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. The way my schedule runs right now, I have no chance of getting out there before it closes on October 21, but that shouldn’t stop anybody else.

A bit closer to home, we have permanent exhibitions in Austin, with the Hartman Prehistoric Garden set up to take advantage of dinosaur tracks and indigenous animal fossils. With the heat breaking in Austin, it’s actually safe and sane to go outdoors when the big yellow hurty thing is in the sky, and I speak from experience when I say that now is the time to head out that way. (Twenty years ago, I heartily looked forward to road trips to Austin for the Armadillocon science fiction convention held around this time in October, and I pretty much stopped going when Armadillocon moved to the end of August.) In fact, try to make a road trip of it and head down to the San Antonio Botanic Garden for its Dinosaur Stampede exhibition (PDF) while you’re at it.

Much closer to home this time of the year, the Heard Natural Science Museum in McKinney is hosting its annual Dinosaurs Live! exhibition, complete with a Halloween wander through the dinosaurs on October 20. I generally tell myself not even to consider events the weekend before a big show, but this might be worth hitting just as a break after repottings and trimmings.

The weekend after the Halloween at the Heard event, we have something peripherally related. Namely, the Dallas Palaeontological Society and the Palaeontological Society of Austin host the 30th annual Fossilmania in Glen Rose on the weekend of October 26. Speaking as a longtime attendee, this isn’t just an opportunity to view and purchase fossils, both plant and animal, but it’s an excuse to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park and view the famed Glen Rose dinosaur tracks. Again, because of the lack of crippling heat, wandering around and viewing the scenery, especially alongside the two 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs at the front of the park, gives a lot of inspiration for palaeo-based gardening.

Finally, no guarantees on this, but the Czarina and I have some personal good news involving upcoming museum events. Namely, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas just announced that it plans to open a month early, on December 1. Seeing as how we married under the Protostega skeleton in the old Dallas Museum of Natural History a decade ago next December, we’ve been contemplating having some sort of event for our tin anniversary at the Museum. Anybody interested in coming out on December 28 to celebrate?

Introducing Didelphis virginiana, a.k.a. “Harold”

Cat Found

For the last few years, friends have been posting a “Found Cat” flyer that continues to crack me up. I don’t know why, but the “I think he might be scared” comment gets me every time.

Well, I have great news. On my way to the Day Job, I found that kitty again. Yes, I think he might be scared.

Harold the Opossum

For folks outside of North America, this is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum. Besides being the only indigenous marsupial in the United States and Canada (which is why I nickname the resident opossum “Harold”, after the nephew of Canada’s answer to Doctor Who), opossums also qualify as one of the native mammals that I’m glad to see in the back yard. Between their personalities and their eating habits, raccoons are hipsters with fur. Armadillos are both dumb as posts and likely to jump at the slightest noise, and one nearly knocked out my front teeth the first time I encountered one. Skunks are best viewed from a distance, and that can be doubled for coyotes and bobcats. Comparatively, if I find a possum waddling across the back yard in the middle of the night, he’s comparatively welcome, even if he does look like a half-drowned rat.

Harold closeup

Sadly, all of the possums in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch are nicknamed “Harold”, and not just because they tend to look alike. The best natural lifespan for D. virginiana is about two years, with owls and early-rising hawks getting the ones that aren’t killed by cars, coyotes, or dogs. This little guy was apparently checking out the tree for edible fruit or flowers, found himself trapped by encroaching humanity, and figured that he’d just hold still until we all went away. After all, if the motto “Quando omni flunkus, moritati” worked for the fictional Harold, why shouldn’t it work for the real one?

Unnatural solutions for invasive problems

This time last summer, the drought still had the rest of the year to go, and I was forced to buy water to keep the carnivores alive. This year, the rainwater reserves are loaded to the gunwales, the Sarracenia are actually growing this early in the season because of the decreased temperatures, and the Nepenthes are going mad. In my case, I can’t remember a summer quite so insane and an August so drenched since 1987. That was quite a year: that was the August where I discovered that if the rainwater in the streets rides over the axles on your bicycle wheels, you should just give up and push. That was the summer where jokes about putting pontoons on my transport really weren’t jokes, and where I spent my 21st birthday trying to get dry after biking to work through what we charitably call a “gullywasher” in Texas and the rest of the planet calls “God letting you know what He REALLY thinks about you.” It hasn’t been that bad this year, but considering that our high temperature on Tuesday was the low this time a week ago? I’m not complaining.

GloFish

Because of the coolth and the surprising amount of rainfall, you may have read about our current situation with West Nile Virus, mosquitoes, and authorities in Dallas County spraying for both. Now, it would be remarkably easy to note that this was a self-inflicted issue, compounded by Highland Park and White Rock Lake residents who freak out every time they see a wayward bug. (True story: I received a call last year from a White Rock Lake gentleman who wanted to buy hundreds of Venus flytraps from me. He apparently saw a trail of ants at the end of his driveway, and wanted to build a killing hedge of flytraps around his house to eat them all. When I tried to explain that flytraps could actually attract bugs, and that they wouldn’t magically wipe out every arthropod in the timezone with intentions of coming near his house, he called me a liar. I truly wish that he was the only person with this idea, but I’ve had several others deciding that this is more “all-natural” than covering themselves with bulletproof plastic.) Instead, this started the beginnings of a Project.

Okay, to start, we’re going to need music. When dealing with evil experimentation of this sort, I highly recommend The Consortium of Genius. In fact, when it comes to projects that invoke both Doctor Who and The Red Green Show, I can’t think of anyone else.

Now, to start, consider the basic situation with the Triffid Ranch as a venue that raises carnivorous plants. Many if not most of these carnivores thrive in boggy conditions, which usually entails bodies of standing water. Standing water attracts mosquitoes, which lay eggs, which in turn become larvae. Said larvae grow to adulthood, bringing with them any number of diseases. The females collect many of these diseases when drinking blood in order to produce viable eggs, and spread them from host to host in the process. Keep the mosquitoes under control, and you control the diseases. This situation is aggravated by the fact that many of said carnivores depend upon mosquitoes as prey, and one, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea, actually depends upon a certain number of mosquito larvae in its traps to assist with breaking down trapped prey. I need to collect lots of rainwater, preferably clean enough to use in mister systems, while at the same time making sure that it remains mosquito-free for both my health and that of everyone around me.

Now, for those with an aversion to broad-spectrum insecticides, you have plenty of options. For small applications, such as the Triffid Ranch’s Sarracenia pools, mosquito dunks work remarkably well: they contain a natural toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and Bt is extremely effective on mosquitoes. The problem with mosquito dunks is that they’re effectively sawdust disks impregnated with Bt, and they have a tendency to break apart after a while. This isn’t a problem at all in most applications, such as with planters, old tires, or other places that regularly fill with water and then dry out. When being used in open water cisterns, though, they make a royal mess that can jam up pumps, filters, and mister systems.

Then there’s the biological controls. Traditionally, since Dallas is on a floodplain, using fish adapted to living in floodplain ponds, cattle tanks, and streams makes the most sense. The traditional introduced control is the western mosquitofish Gambusia affinis, but we also have plenty of indigenous minnows that might work. Some of them are also quite attractive, adding a benefit to using them in large rainwater tanks.

Those already familiar with using fish in rainbarrels and ponds to control mosquitoes might already be mumbling “What about goldfish, you moron?” That’s a fair question, and one that’s answered by asking you to look at last year’s heat wave in the Dallas area. Goldfish are great mosquito devourers, but they thrive best at temperatures around 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), and we’re lucky if we see that as an air temperature during the summer. Rainbarrels and yard ponds are particularly subject to the underside of the square-cube law, where you increase the available surface area of an item as you decrease its volume. A lake will heat up in the summer much more slowly than a typical rain barrel, and during a typical July, the water in a standard 150-gallon stock tank can get point-blank hot.

It’s not just the issue with hot water denaturing brain proteins, either, although this is a concern. Anyone who stayed awake in high school biology or chemistry remembers that the higher the water temperature, the lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in that water. That’s a major factor with higher temperatures being lethal to goldfish, as they simply can’t pull enough oxygen out of the available water to survive. Many fish have options to absorb oxygen from the atmosphere in these situations: bettas and lungfish are two famous options, and anybody around a stagnant section of the Trinity River in summer (and in summer, the whole of the Trinity is stagnant) can watch both spotted and alligator gar rise to the surface to catch a quick breath of air. Mosquitofish have that ability as well, which explains their continued popularity.

Another point to consider here is that future plans at the Triffid Ranch include growing both Aldrovanda and aquatic bladderworts, both of which need very acidic, very clean water. Out here, to get that, rainwater is about the only option. Aldrovanda plants can and will catch mosquito larvae, but only bladderwort species with the largest traps could handle something as large as a larva, and most consume water fleas and other prey considerably smaller than a baby mosquito. They also need a lot of light, meaning that any tank keeping them will either have to be in full sun or exposed to a pretty impressive bank of artificial lights. They’ll need a biological control that can both handle summer water temperatures and the lower temperatures seen in spring and autumn.

GloFish

Years back, a friend told me about using zebra danios (Danio rerio) in rain barrels because of their exceptional hardiness. They thrive in temperature extremes that kill most tropical fish and goldfish, and they’re particularly undiscerning about their water conditions. They breed readily, they eat like horses, and they can be brought into indoor tanks when things get cold. Since they’re most assuredly NOT going to be released into the wild at the end of a growing season, danios are already a great choice, but let’s jam the weirdness dial to “11,” shall we?

GloFish

If you’ve been around a pet shop with a decent fish selection in the last five years, you’ve probably seen GloFish in one. Originally developed as a sideproject in efforts to genetically engineer a fish that glowed in response to pollutants, GloFish are gengineered zebra danios with a jellyfish gene added to its genome. Because of this, they are luminous in five colors, with the colors particularly popping in ultraviolet light. Now, that’s interesting enough for our purposes, but apparently the gene that controls the GloFish fluorescence also imparts additional temperature extreme resistance. I saw this myself about five years ago, when a malfunctioning heater in my personal aquarium left the water inside literally steaming when I woke up one morning. All but five fish died due to the temperature, and four of those were GloFish.

So, let’s recap. Heat tolerance. A firm appetite for mosquitoes. Improved opportunities for filtration and maintenance on aquatic carnivores. Designer colors. It’s too late to run a full series of experiments on their viability this summer, but I’m already making plans for next year to go along with a new 150-gallon stock tank for bladderworts. Dr. Pinkerton, could you give us an appropriate theme for the science party?

Uncle Sam’s On Mars

Back at the end of the Nineties, my obsession with the European colonization of New Zealand, particularly with the Acclimatisation Societies, led to my putting together a discussion on the subject of importing fauna and flora to Mars for the late, lamented online magazine Event Horizon. In the intervening 13 years, I’ve continued to research the whys and wherefores of growing food items in space habitats, as well as the potential controls for previously innocuous organisms becoming major pests in lunar or Martian greenhouses. Naturally, you can understand why I’m thrilled to discover that NASA is also looking at the issue of feeding a 30-month Mars mission. Admittedly, I’m also fully expecting that the first serious exports from a permanent Mars installation probably won’t be hot peppers. And so it goes.

With that said, I’m actually more intrigued by the idea of some enterprising soul producing the solar system’s hottest peppers on Mars, either via hydroponics or with the use of suitably augmented Martian soil. Testing the effects of Martian gravity on pepper plants may be problematic, but it’s definitely possible to test the soil viability with Martian and lunar soil simulants in a greenhouse environment. This may be a very public experiment for this winter, when I’ll be starting up pepper and tomato seedlings anyway. Best of all, I could see the interest in Martian explorers taking such a Capsicum plant and shaping it into the first-ever Martian bonsai.

Ain’t no cure for the antlion blues

Ant lion pits

All things considered, I’m not sure this is really summer. The summer so far has been the wettest we’ve seen since 2007, and it’s certainly the wettest July we’ve seen since 1982. Yesterday and today, we’ve had general temperatures more often seen at the end of April than the middle of July, not that anyone’s complaining. Is it really summer, or did I get into real trouble by oversleeping and waking up in October?

Well, the surefire way to tell involves looking at any covered area with reasonably loose soil. such as this spot beneath a local bridge. Look for the antlions (Myrmeleon sp.), because around here, you won’t see them at any other time.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

A little while back, thanks to the wonders of the Internets, I got back in touch with Cyndy, an old friend from high school. The intervening 28 years since we sat across from each other on the school newspaper staff have been rather good for and to her: she has a great husband, great kids, a good career, and all sorts of joys. I looked at her back then as the little sister I always wanted (even though *cough* I was the youngest member of my class, usually having my birthday fall on the first day of school every year), and I keep up that tradition today. There’s no reason to scare her too much as to what an, erm, well-rounded person I’ve become in the intervening decades…except for the entertainment value. Picture Doris Day and Hunter S. Thompson on a weekend road trip, and that pretty much describes our relationship these days.

Since a lot has happened since those high school days, we’ve been catching up on what the other has done in our adult lives. I’m trying not to bring up too much strangeness, but it’s hard not for some of it to seep out, especially when I’m waving a marlin spike around and yelling about reptiles. She swears that she didn’t write “I should have killed you when I had the chance” in my yearbook, and I just want to make sure.

Anywhoo, due to various considerations, she discovered yesterday that I have a tattoo. I keep forgetting that she isn’t part of my usual circles, where they’ve gotten a bit used to it. The fact is, I joined Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium twenty years ago last January, and that’s something that even messes with my tattooed freak friends.

Anomalocaris tattoo

To explain, I have to go into some of the background. Twenty years ago, I was living in Exposition Park, a small collection of lofts and shops directly across the road from the north entrance of Dallas’s Fair Park. By the beginning of 1992, I was already known as the local reference librarian for the Expo Park area thanks to my science library. Neighbors on my floor would ask for confirmation of one fact or another, but the folks in the old Skin & Bones tattoo parlor immediately downstairs from me were the ones who needed, in those pre-Internet days, a particular photo or drawing to take care of customers. I was awakened from a dead sleep several times because one of the artists downstairs had a customer who HAD to have a tat of some obscure beast, they didn’t have any ready art, and they knew I’d find the right reference. I still wonder about the absolutely stunning redhead who kissed me for finding a life-sized photo of a charging blue-ringed octopus that was going between her shoulder blades.

This was just during the beginning of the big tattoo rush of the early Nineties, and while I could appreciate the work, I couldn’t afford it. Besides, I swore, as many do, that I’d only get ink if I could find something that truly spoke to me. I’d already seen too many impulse trips to the competing tattoo parlor down the way that turned into impulse trips to the ER for antibiotics, so I also knew that I’d have to take care of it, and care for it well, while it healed.

Finally, it struck. I was writing for a now-long-forgotten magazine called Science Fiction Eye, and just saw the latest issue come out with a big article I’d written on the fossils of the Burgess Shale. Meanwhile, Chuck Jones, one of the artists at Skin & Bones, was desperately trying to wheedle a book I owned on how to cast stop-action models. I joked “Well, I’ll trade you a tat for the book.” I had NO IDEA he was going to take me seriously.

When faced with that sort of offer, your mind clears and you make your choice right then. I looked at my Burgess Shale article and flipped a coin between two of the most impressive oddballs from the Middle Cambrian: Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia. You can imagine my relief upon going for an Anomalocaris tat and discovering, literally the next week, that all of the existing interpretations of Hallucigenia‘s fossils were wrong and it had been restored upside down. I wasn’t just pushing the edge of tattoo work: I was scientifically accurate, too.

Well, that was then: Chuck did a beautiful job, and I paid honor to his work by babying that tat during its first few months. Even 20 years later, it’s still crisp and recognizable because of that effort. Since then, it’s made the rounds of presentation to quite a few palaeontologists (including one former member of the Dallas Palaeontological Society who literally became ill upon seeing it), musicians, writers, and other fascinating folks, and they all agree. Having skin art of a two-meter-long top predator with compound eyes on stalks, cuttlefish-like propulsion, feeding appendages originally mistaken for the tail of a crustacean (the name “Anomalocaris” roughly translates to “strange shrimp”), and a mouth that irised open and shut like a steel vegetable steamer just suits me.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities for more skin art, but have passed up the opportunity, even though the guys at Hold Fast Tattoo in Dallas are THE people who’d be trusted to do so. (Seriously: they’re customers as well as friends, so if you’re in the Dallas area and thinking of any augumentation, head over there and ask to see their Cape sundew.) That may happen one day, and it may not. If it does, then it’s a clump of Darlingtonia on the left shoulder.

That said, I truly look forward to the day Cyndy can meet the Czarina after Cyndy reads this. I imagine they’ll compare notes, look at me, and decide that my days need to be ended by being beaten with rolled-up magazines by two women yelling “What the HELL is WRONG with you, huh?” I’ve had worse deaths.

Revving up your sense of wonder

Unknown mantid

For various reasons, I thoroughly enjoy my day job. It’s not just because it pays for my various carnivorous plant fixes. It’s close enough to the house that I can bicycle to work without the trip being an ordeal. We’re located near enough Texas wilderness that I literally have no way to tell what I’ll encounter on the morning ride. I’ve passed bobcats, coyotes, Texas ratsnakes, red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, vultures and buzzards, armadillos, a bounty of songbirds ranging from scissortails to mockingbirds, at least three species of hummingbird, ox beetles, katydids, and even the occasional roadrunner. That’s not even counting the opossum curled up in a redbud tree right by the bike rack one morning two years ago, hoping that I hadn’t noticed 10 kilos of fatbutt in a tree far too small for it.

Another reason why I enjoy the Day Job comes from the daily conversations. I’m lucky enough to work with a crew of exceptional minds, and a lot of them have very different interests away from the job. When everyone stops in the morning, realizing that we’ve been staring at monitor screens for so long that the words start to run together, that’s when the real fun begins.

And so it happened last Friday, when my boss and I were discussing the upcoming Mars Curiosity rover landing in August. (His background is in fine arts, but he dabbles in quantum physics, and I’ve been a terrible influence on introducing him to the grand tradition of palaeontological art. As I said, it’s an interesting crew out here.) He looked over at a window, stopped for a second, and asked “What the hell is that bug?” Clinging to the window was what appeared at first to be a lacewing, but the more we viewed it, the stranger it was.

Firstly, as can be told, it’s definitely a mantis of some sort. However, with the four species generally found in the North Texas area, only nymphs are this small, and the wings confirm that this was an adult. (In the photo above, the little symbol is the recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic bowl, left in to give a sense of scale.) The whole insect was only 1.5 centimeters long, with a shriveled abdomen that suggested that it was a female that had just laid its egg case. As it was, it was already dying when we found it, and it expired maybe an hour after its capture.

Taking a view of the corpse through a dissecting microscope just brought up more questions. I’ve seen similar grasping arms on other mantid species, but ones that got much, MUCH larger than this one. Only when cleaning up this photo did the second pair of wings present themselves, and with two pairs of wings being a diagnostic for all members of the order Mantodea, I was wondering at first if it were a mantis after all until I saw the second pair. At this size, I could see it being an aggressive predator of ants, aphids, and other small insects, but that’s a bit hard to test with a deceased specimen.

To make things even stranger, no mantid of this sort shows up in Texas bug references, which makes me wonder if it were one blown in via winds off the Gulf of Mexico last week. The big question now is “Is this a lost traveler who was extremely far from home when she died, or is this a representative of a new species that somehow slid past the determined and dedicated crew at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology?” More research is in order, because I’m hoping that this one wasn’t the last of her kind.

EDIT: With friends like Michael Cook, you’d think I’d have the brains to ask someone like him, who practically knows every member of the Phylum Arthropoda on a first-name basis, for a positive ID. It turns out our friend was a mantisfly, a rather rare group of insects more closely related to ant lions and lacewings than true mantids. Many thanks to Michael for passing on that information, and for widening my horizons that much more. I may never see another mantisfly again, but at least I can say that I’ve seen at least one.

Introducing Anolis carolinensis

Last weekend was a time to get busy at the Triffid Ranch. We haven’t truly moved into traditional Texas summer weather yet, and man, beast, and plant understood this, because we were all going a bit nuts. I spent Saturday and Sunday making a new raised bed edge for the Czarina’s tomato garden, pruning and trimming various bushes on the property, clearing clover out of the Sarracenia pots, clearing clover seeded from the Sarracenia pots out of the horsecrippler cactus, repotting Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion peppers for the next big show in September, deadheading orchids, and watering the flytraps. By Saturday evening, by the time the Czarina got home, my usual lament about not having access to the 57-hour day was coming off my lips with the raging froth at the clover. At least I didn’t have to deal with the squirrels digging up the Sarracenia, at least since a big female Harris’s hawk started using the rooftop as a dining room table and my greenhouse as a commode. (With the hawk, the only beef is with bluejay feathers blowing off the roof. Other than that, “Shayera Hol” is welcome here for as long as she wants to stay. I don’t even mind her sitting on the greenhouse, staring at the cats through the window.)

Around the Triffid Ranch, taking the time to smell the roses was secondary to taking the time to watch the critters, and it was a day for critter-watching. Moving a brick in the tomato bed dislodged a rough earth snake (Virginia striatula), a snake so sweet-tempered and inoffensive that even serious ophidiophobes tend to soften a bit upon seeing one. Lots of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus)hid among the bricks as well, waiting for nightfall. And then, as I was moving a batch of dragonfruit cactus pots, this little gentleman moved just enough to let me know he was there.

Sunbathing Carolina anole

The first common misconception about the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is that, because of its common nickname “American chameleon,” it can change color with the range and definition of Old World chameleons. While A. carolinensis can switch between various shades of green and brown, it has nothing on true chameleons. However, true chameleons don’t have the brilliant scarlet dewlap, which looks as if the lizard were brushed with powdered rubies, that male anoles flash to signal territorial claims. This fellow wasn’t worried about other anoles trying to take his space, but he also wasn’t taking an eye off me.

Carolina anole closeup

The other assumption about Carolina anoles, at least in North Texas, is that they’re escapees from captivity that went feral. Although a lot of anoles may have been released in the wild in the Dallas area from the days when they were inexplicably popular offerings in pet shops, this is actually native habitat for A. carolinensis, and they range south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Arkansas before moving east all the way to the Atlantic. They don’t get as large in Dallas as they do in Tallahassee, but considering some of the gigantic anoles (not to be mistaken for the introduced Cuban anoles in the area) I used to catch in Tally, I’m actually a bit happy. This one was about as long as my hand, which suggested that he was getting both plenty of insects and plenty of drinking water. Anoles will not drink still water, and prefer to drink dew from plants, so I suspect the mister system in the greenhouse may have made his life a bit easier last summer.

"I'm ready for my closeup now, Mr. deMille."

When I was a kid in Michigan, I dreamed of one day keeping an anole as a pet, and would camp out at the pet sections in department stores to stare at the lizards. I know today that the vast majority didn’t survive more than a few weeks of that treatment, and many more died due to substandard care with their future owners, but lizards were a rarity up there and color-changing ones nonexistent. I became enough of an insufferable know-it-all on the subject that when showing my little brother a cage full of them at a K-Mart, I related “Look: Carolina anoles.” This peeved the toad overseeing the pet section, and he proceeded to correct me: “They’re chameleons.”

“No, they’re anoles. Anolis carolinensis. They’re native to the East Coast.”

He pulled out a cheap booklet entitled “All About Chameleons” from a shelf, and promptly showed me pictures of anoles, and then flashed the cover again, emphasizing the word “chameleon.” I then asked if I could see the book, and promptly read to him the first several paragraphs about anole habits and scientific nomenclature. He grabbed the book back, sneered “You’re just making it up,” told us to get out before he called the head manager, and went back to the dreams of a K-Mart pet shop manager. Probably involving how, when someone finally gave him command of a Constitution-class starship, he’d get into pissing matches with seven-year-olds and win.

Well, that was then. Now, I figure the lizards are happier and healthier in the yard than they’d ever be in captivity, and I encourage moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) to give the anoles and geckos more cover. This fellow sat atop that fence top with a very catlike demeanor, and when he was done watching me, he skittered off to do whatever anoles do in their off time. He’s always welcome to come back, and bring his harem with him, too.

Better Than Brawndo

Now, I’m sharing a rather intriguing paper in the Annals of Botany on digestive mutualism between several species of bromeliad and the bromeliad-living spider Psecas chapoda for several reasons. It’s not just because P. chapoda is just one of several species of spider adapted to living within bromeliads, with their feces and food scraps contributing toward the bromeliad’s nitrogen needs. It’s not just because further investigation may help develop new insights into why carnivory developed in so many flowering plants, as well as how the carnivorous bromeliad genera Brocchinia and Catopsis got their starts. It’s not just that this sort of digestive mutualism exists in many protocarnivorous and carnivorous-by-proxy plants, such as the South African genus Roridula. It’s not even because with enough true carnivorous plants that take advantage of assistance from animal predigestion of prey, such as frogs in Sarracenia, Nepenthes, and Heliamphora pitcher plants, this discovery may suggest that other plants are only protocarnivorous during the times of year when the spiders move in. On a personal note, it means I need to do more to encourage the indigenous jumping spiders in the area to move in among my Nepenthes and Catopsis.

No, the real reason I want to share is because in the course of a long and eventful life, I have a lot of very sick and sordid friends. In fact, I can see at least one of them making up a tiny outhouse for the pitcher of my Catopsis, or at least a little sign reading “Flush Twice: It’s A Long Way To The School Cafeteria”. I expect at least one to go electronic, and fit the Nepenthes racks with a motion sensor and a sound chip that chirps “DUDE! Light a match, will you?” I may be 45 going on 12, but my friends are even worse.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, Datura will walk the earth.”

Early last year, I wrote an article about the angel trumpet, Datura stramonium, and was inordinately proud of being probably the only garden writer alive who could name-drop “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. Since then, it’s hard not to notice Datura in the wild, as it were: it grows inordinately well in poor soils, of which the Dallas area has in abundance, and it’s tough enough to survive the worst of our summers once it has a well-established rootball. Oh, and other than caterpillars, anything dumb enough to eat it is going to have one hell of a surprise.

Datura bloom

All of the recognized species of Datura have nicknames along the lines of “angel trumpet”, for two reasons. Firstly, the long and lush blooms are evocative of the trumpets traditionally carried by angels in Renaissance art, particularly in paintings depicting the fall of Lucifer and his covenant into Hell. That’s particularly appropriate when discussing Datura, because the odds are very good that anyone eating any part of the plant will be hearing angels, or seeing dark angels, before too long. The reason why Datura is one of the only hallucinogenic plants that’s completely free and legal to own and raise in the United States is because the effects aren’t relatively benign, as with peyote. To hear drug travelers describe it, there’s no such thing as a good trip on peyote, and it takes a particular sort of personality to look at Datura experiences as a positive thing. Besides, most Datura enthusiasts don’t remain so for long: every last part of the plant is exceedingly toxic, and what might be a suitable dose from one plant may be lethal from another.

(Mind you, as a disclaimer, anybody ingesting Datura, for any reason, is on his or her own, and neither this writer or the Texas Triffid Ranch take any responsibility for anyone using or abusing Datura under any circumstances. Even if I had any interest in mind-altering substances, I’d smack anyone I knew who was doing this in the head, in the hopes of rattling a few brain cells free.)

Datura bloom, unfurling

Considering its rather wild history, from Bangalore to Jamestown, one might wonder, understandably, who in their right mind would want to raise this in a garden. Well, so long as it’s not ingested, Datura makes a very attractive and low-maintenance addition. As the kind folks at the International Brugmansia and Datura Society will tell you, D. stramonium grows in small bushes, thriving outdoors through most of the year before dying off in the first hard frost. In warmer climes, it readily resprouts from seeds deposited the previous season, and if protected from freezing, the whole plant comes back every year from a rather tuberous-looking stem. The scent is almost literally intoxicating, and aside from tomato hornworms, it seems to be resistant to most pests. Keep children and pets away from it, and Datura makes quite the charming cover for otherwise dead spaces in backyard gardens.

As mentioned before, Datura does rather well in the Dallas area. Both D. stramonium and its close African cousin D. metel readily grow in front-yard gardens throughout the city and its suburbs, and I’ve been surprised on several occasions by Datura perfume on quiet nights along the “M streets” intersecting Greenville Avenue. (I’ll say that it’s a welcome change from the smell of skunk weed grow houses near Hillcrest and Forest Lane, let me tell you. Some of those are so pungent that the stench nearly knocked me off my bike one evening as I was traveling home from work.) I just wasn’t expecting it to be a herald, as this plant was.

Datura clump on Knox Avenue

To give context, this beast of a plant is located at Knox Avenue in Dallas, right at the corner where Knox travels over Central Expressway. To the left is Central. To the right is the entrance of Highland Park, the neighborhood that is to Dallas what Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles. Completely surrounded by the larger city, Highland Park is its own enclave, complete with its own schools and police force.

Datura bloom bud

I couldn’t identify it for certain, but I suspect that this monster is classic D. stramonium based on the shape of the bloom buds and the leaves. The clincher, of course, is viewing the seed pods, known as “thorn apples”, as each species has a distinctive pod shape and size. Since the plant had just dealt with a torrential rain the night before, most of the upright blooms had filled with rainwater and collapsed, but the newly unfurling buds were white with just the barest kiss of purple on the edges. Give it another couple of days, and it would go back to flashing ten to twenty blooms at a time, all summer long.

Datura bloom, unfurling

Of course, half of the fun for me was in the locale. I’ve joked for years that the best documentary about life in Dallas is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and here was the plant attributed with the creation of real zombies. In that context, finding it outside Highland Park was just too appropriate.

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.

I get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Introducing Hemidactylus turcicus

As mentioned for a while, we have a lot of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) in the Dallas area. As can be told by the name, they’re not native in the slightest: they apparently arrived in the US in Florida on potted plant shipments, and they’ve been steadily moving west since the 1950s. The first time I ever noticed them was in 1990, where large adults were taking advantage of porch lights on an old apartment of mine to snag insects. Today, they’re all over Dallas, where they’re usually only noticed when they wriggle away from approaching humans on brickwork and stucco walls.

For the ophidiophobes out there, the Medgecko is a much better neighbor than the Tokay gecko (Gekko gekko), which has tried and failed many times to become acclimated to the Dallas area. (Back in the Eighties, a popular suggestion for dealing with cockroach problems in apartment buildings was to buy Tokays and then let them loose in the apartment. Not only did this do nothing to the roach population, but those happy new Tokay landlords discovered that they had a beast that bit and bit hard when approached. Tokays also have the charming habit of getting directly over a person on a ceiling or wall, barking loudly, and then crapping on the eager upturned face trying to identify the noise. I’ve heard of Tokays becoming dog-tame, but I’ll believe it when I see it: I’ve had too many encounters with them.) H. turcicus is very skittish around humans, and most encounters with one consists of hatchlings getting into a house in search of new territory. A Medgecko may spend its entire life in a territory about three meters from where it was born, and most of its species’ prodigious migration is due to females laying their eggs on moving trucks and shipping containers (the eggs actually glue themselves to the chosen surface), where the hatchlings emerge hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the place of their laying. In Dallas at least, they don’t compete with indigenous geckos, and they do keep the bugs down a bit.

However, there’s always the joy of finding one inside, such as when the Czarina found a big adult in her bathtub a while back.

Hemidactylus turcicus

See the little dark patch in his abdomen? That’s his liver. H. turcicus is translucent enough that it’s possible to make out internal organs and stomach contents, and if you should be in front of a pane of glass on which one is resting, it’s actually possible to see its little heart beating. The translucency gives an idea of how delicate they are: many people come across them after they’d been captured by the local cat, usually with a leg or two broken and the tail removed. (The tail isn’t a big deal, as it auto-sheds at the slightest touch. It’s very rare to find a large one like this with a complete tail with proper markings, and most have tails the color of stale egg nog.)

Hemidactylus turcicus (closeup)

And before you ask, this little guy went back outside where he belonged. He couldn’t escape the bathtub, and now he’s ensconced in the greenhouse with others of his kind. Let them fight their war with the orbweaver spiders with one additional warrior.

It’s amazing what you can get done on a three-day weekend

You know, most people spend a three-day holiday weekend lazing about, or puttering, or maybe getting a few things done that the normal schedule doesn’t allow. Oh, we did quite a bit of that. Date night on Saturday night was a matinee showing of John Carter, so the Czarina finally got the chance to see what was the big deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s secondmost famous creation. (Because she still has pattern nightmares over seeing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch twenty years ago, I didn’t bring up the singular horror of continuing the conceit from Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” and suggest the idea of A Princess Of Mars as written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice. Mugwumps instead of Tharks, for instance. One of these days, though, I will, when she last expects it, and her scimitar elbows will wail in the night.)

Instead, time was spent with The Plants. Plural. A new shipment of Nepenthes came in, so I can compare the suitability of several new species and hybrids for Texas life, which meant Saturday morning was spent frantically repotting them in fresh sphagnum moss. Friday was spent cleaning up the last of the mess from Tuesday’s tornado April Madness, which included clipping dead Sarracenia leaves, repotting bladderworts and triggerplants, and checking on hot pepper seedlings. On the last, thanks to the kind folks at the Chile Pepper Institute and Dilly’s Chilis, this summer should yield quite a crop of both Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers for those with that sort of inclination. At least, that’s the hope, and if hope was all I needed, half of Texas would have been covered with Roridula gorgonias plants last September. And so it goes.

Anyway, pulling weeds and picking whitefly makes you ask all sorts of interesting questions, and now half of my best questions are ones that require my going back to school to get answers. Some are the sort that require so much expertise that I’d probably have a couple of Ph.D theses by the time I had them answered to my satisfaction. Now, I could be greedy and hang onto these, or pass them on to folks who can do something with them. Even if the only response is a quick smack to the back of my head, at least I’ll know that someone else considered them.

The first one was relatively easy. Deadheading the current crop of Stylidium debile made me wonder if any suitably dedicated botany grad student has continued sequencing triggerplant genomes to view interrelationships between the species and with other plants. Some work is available, but dating from back in the Twentieth Century, and this only nailed down close relations to the Stylidacea. I’m considering some molecular palaeontology, by comparing the various species within Stylidium of Australian origin with those in Japan and South America. I have absolutely no proof right now, especially no fossil proof, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Stylidium or its forebears had as much variety and range in Antarctica before it froze in the Pliocene as the genus has in Australia today. Comparing genes of Australian species to those in Tierra del Fuego won’t prove that the genus used Antarctica as a bridge for a time, but it may give some additional lanes of study for understanding how the flora of Gondwana evolved as the supercontinent broke apart.

And the other? Again, this requires expertise and resources that I certainly won’t be getting any time soon. Last spring, I had a bit of an accident with several propagation flats full of Sarracenia pitcher plants. In an effort to get a more dependable source for drainage material than standard horticultural perlite, I decided to experiment with Growstone, an artificial pumice made from recycled glass. Naturally, after the plants were set and starting to emerge from winter dormancy, I get a call from the retailer, letting me know that the batch I’d purchased had a problem keeping a neutral pH. In other words, it was just a little too alkaline for most hydroponic options, and was definitely too alkaline for most carnivorous plants. Of course, I learned this right about the time the drought and heat of 2011 really kicked in, so I wasn’t sure if the plants were dying because of high pH or because they hadn’t evolved to grow and reproduce in a lead smelter.

Well, cleaning up some of last year’s batch, something interesting came up with the plants planted with Growstone as a drainage medium. Namely, most of the Sarracenia that survived were stunted and twisted, and others grew incredibly slowly. Purple pitchers, Sarracenia purpurea, though, grew much faster than expected. At that point, I remembered previous reading on how S. purpurea spread all through the eastern seaboard of North America, and then took a hard left and spread into Michigan, Ontario, and Alberta. Of particular note was that they seemed to do rather well in marl bogs in northern Michigan, and marl is extremely alkaline.

And there started the queries. S. purpurea obviously had a higher tolerance to alkaline conditions than its cousins, but how much of a higher tolerance? Did plants in the Michigan marl bogs grow more slowly than ones in more acidic soils, and was the alkalinity the only factor affecting slow growth? Best of all, what gene did S. purpurea have that its cousins lacked, what did that gene do besides control alkalinity tolerance, and could that gene be transferred to other Sarracenia? Was this something that could be introduced via standard crossbreeding techniques, or is the pH tolerance gene sufficiently recessive that it isn’t expressed in other species?

Now you understand why I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Most people would use a gigantic windfall to quit their jobs or go on perpetual vacation. Me, I’d enroll in a school with an exemplary natural history and botany program, and I wouldn’t leave until I had my answers or a professorship, whichever came first. In the meantime, I do what I can, and pass on some of these questions to friends that can do something with them. I just tell those friends “Now, remember, after you get back with your Nobel Prize money, you owe me dinner, okay?”

Introducing Stylidium debile

When I started studying carnivorous plants nearly a decade ago, I had no idea as to the level of trouble I was going to get into by now. I could count the number of carnivorous genera on my hands, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too hard to master these, would it? Nine years and seven months after I saw my first Sarracenia purpurea in the wild, this has become the hobby with no end. When I tell new beginners that this is one of the wildest periods of research into carnivores since the Victorian Period, I’m not exaggerating. New species, new genera, new hybrids, newly observed behavior…and all taking advantage of the great and mighty Interwebs to disseminate that information.

It’s that great research tool that first introduced me to Ryan Kitko and the genus Stylidium, and I’ll owe Ryan for the rest of my life for his gentle tap on the shoulder and redirection. In particular, I owe Ryan for introducing me to the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, because this little monster quite literally changed my life even further. I don’t want just to visit Australia to see the vast majority of known Australian species. I want to see the ones in Japan and Tierra del Fuego to see their indigenous species, too.

Stylidium debile

Experts still argue as to whether triggerplants qualify as full carnivorous plants, or whether they should be shoved into the taxonomic dustbin known as “protocarnivorous”. They have the ability to capture prey via sticky threads on their flower scapes, and they definitely secrete the digestive enzyme protease. Part of the issue seems to be that triggerplants seem only to be carnivorous during their blooming season. The rest of the year, they’re about as carnivorous as a rose. The carnivorous aspect of the blooms, understandably, is outshone by the reasons for the common name for Stylidium. Yes, the flower scapes can snag tiny insect prey, but so can many other species of carnivore. How many carnivores have a column between their blooms’ petals that thwack insects with pollen?

While the common name “frail triggerplant” may scare beginners, I assure you that this refers to the thin, wiry flower scapes, and not to its being overly delicate. As an introduction to triggerplants, S. debile can’t be beaten. I mean this almost literally. So long as its growing medium never dries out, it keeps growing. It seems to bloom the moment the temperatures rise enough to allow growth, and it keeps blooming until the first serious freeze. Its pot freezes solid, as what happened with a batch of them during the big Dallas blizzard of February 2011, and it comes back in spring. It readily sprouts from roots, so its container rapidly fills with its distinctive ground cover. It chokes out most weeds, and crowds the roots of most others if given a chance. If its pot has any light leakage at all, those leaks are filled with new plantlets. During the worst of last year’s head and lack of humidity, when even the horsecrippler cactus were ailing, the S. debile pots were full of happy, steadily blooming plants that only had issues if the pot went dry for too long. And then you have those tiny hot pink blooms with yellow centers, just waiting for bugs to land on top so the column could whip forward and smack them with pollen.

Stylidium debile buds

Another common question I’m asked, half in jest, is “Do you have any real triffids?” (For the record, this is matched in the number of times it’s asked with “Do you have a plant that can eat an ex-husband/ex-wife?”) While John Wyndham’s carnivorous perambulatory flora are fictional, the triffid’s venomous sting actually has a slight parallel with the triggerplants’ columns. When set off, S. debile actually causes a bit of a disconnect. You see the column locked back in its “ready” state, and then see it touching the bug or intruding finger, but without seeing the transitional swing to get from Point A to Point B. A friend holding one of my first triggerplant clumps was so freaked out when she realized this that she dropped the pot, and I really couldn’t blame her.

Stylidium debile blooms

Other than the necessity of keeping the potting mix moist, S. debile is one of the most undemanding carnivorous or protocarnivorous plants you can keep. It thrives in full sun and partial shade, although it keeps blooming all year if given full sun. It can be left outdoors, in a windowsill pot, or kept in a well-lit terrarium. It doesn’t freak out and die if given a small bit of liquid fertilizer every month or so, and it’s relatively nonplussed as to water quality compared to most other carnivores. I don’t recommend it as a staple, especially during the summer, but it can tolerate the occasional watering with Dallas municipal water. It keeps growing under high humidity and dangerously low, during air quality alert days, and any plants that die off are rapidly replaced by new offshoots from the roots. In the six years since Ryan gave me my first plant, I have yet to see a single pest attack it, not even a green cabbage looper or stink bug. It even seems to repel squirrels, as I’ve come home to discover treerat rampages among the Sarracenia pitchers and the flytraps that left the triggerplants untouched. I keep mine in equal parts peat and sharp sand, and propagation consists of pulling the root ball from the pot, tearing or cutting it into chunks, and potting each new chunk in fresh peat. Best of all, when kids at shows ask me if they can set off the flytraps’ traps in order to watch them close, I instead show them the triggerplants and tell them “Here: setting these off won’t hurt a thing.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go bug Ryan about other triggerplants. I keep telling him that it’s no coincidence that my favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”, because I can look over my pots of S. debile and tell myself, honestly and truly, that I will NEVER get tired of them.

Introducing Cephalotus follicularis

At Triffid Ranch shows, the thirdmost common comment I get is “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” I usually try to help out as much as possible so as to prevent that in the future. The secondmost common comment comes upon viewing an iTerrarium, is “Finally: the only good use for a Mac, hur hur hur.” Since this invariably comes from some Bruce Sterling wannabe (Arioch help us) who both figures that no individual in human history has ever told me this and who desperately craves the attention he didn’t get from his parents, I usually smile and reply “You’re right. Macs suck…almost as much as Cat Piss Men.” The most common comment, though, is “Wow. I knew about Venus flytraps, but I didn’t know there were so many carnivorous plants.”

My response? “Oh, let me show you a few.”

The reasons why so many people never come across carnivores other than flytraps are multifold. Firstly, flytraps both move at a speed that surprises humans and have leaves that resemble mouths, so they become a direct manifestation of the highlights of the group. They’re also small enough to transport easily and readily reproduce via sterile tissue propagation, so they can be everywhere. Triggerplants only show off their speed when blooming. Sarracenia pitcher plants usually get too big for easy display in garden centers. Nepenthes pitcher plants just sit there and let the bugs do all the work. Sundews and butterworts move too slowly to get an immediate response. Bladderworts need a strong magnifying glass to view their prey capture: with terrestrial varieties, you both need to dig them up and put the trap structures into an electron microscope to see the detail. Flytraps are rock stars for these reasons.

Another reason why so few people see most carnivores is, to be honest, because they’re relative prima donnas. The Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum) cannot handle any root disturbance whatsoever, and only recently have carnivorous plant nurseries worked out methods to transport them safely. Only a few people propagate triggerplants, although that number, thankfully, is increasing. The cobra plant (Darlingtonia) is an alpine plant that both needs cool roots from snowmelt runoff and a significant temperature differential between day and night. (Considering that summer temperatures in North Texas really don’t drop much between day and night, the only really successful way to grow them would involve moving them into an air-conditioned area every night.) The sun pitchers of Brazil and Venezuela (Heliamphora) need cool conditions all year round. It’s the obverse for many of the lowland Nepenthes pitcher plants, which thrive under high heat and high humidity. Considering the specialized soil, humidity, and temperature requirements of many carnivore species, it’s no surprise that most don’t show up in most garden centers and nurseries. The employees at a typical home improvement center have a hard enough time keeping up with the care requirements for tomatoes and strawberries, and most potential customers understandably don’t want to take a chance on an expensive plant that may die a week after its purchase.

Half of the thrill of raising carnivores is discovering that their care and feeding is a lot easier than you’d believe. I’ve talked to serious orchid fanciers who tell me “Oh, carnivores must be hard to raise” at the same time they’re telling me how easy most Oncidium and Cattleya species are to keep, so long as you know their basic requirements. We then look at each other and say, almost simultaneously, “Yeah, but there are some that are slow growers.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That accusation definitely applies to Cephalotus follicularis, known commonly as the Australian pitcher plant and the Albany pitcher plant. As can be told, it’s a visually stunning plant…if you have a good magnifying glass when it’s young. The adult plants gradually grow pitchers about the size of an adult’s first thumb joint, but this can take years. Between this and a general sensitivity to root disturbances, most of the plants on the market are rather pricy, due to the time necessary to grow them to a decent size. This isn’t a plant to be purchased on an impulse, nor for anyone wanting a rapid grower.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That said, Cephalotus is a fascinating plant, and the Triffid Ranch now has a very limited supply of them, courtesy of Deryk Moore, the self-described “greenhouse gnome” at Sarracenia Northwest. Deryk is an absolute genius with Cephalotus (as are Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas, the proprietors at Sarracenia Northwest), and after some discussion with Deryk, I now have Cephalotus acclimating to Texas outdoor conditions. Thankfully, our humidity and cloud cover are more appropriate to Portland than Dallas at the moment, but I also know that Cephalotus can survive most Texas summers if given half a chance. Indeed, the only reason why my previous Australian pitcher died last year was because last September and October were lethal to native species, and it just couldn’t handle the severe lack of humidity before Halloween. Deryk recommends using African violet pots with Cephalotus, and what kind of idiot would I be to ignore his advice?

Cephalotus follicularis

Now, besides the little ones, I purchased an adult plant from Deryk. To quote Basil Fawlty, when anyone asks if this one is for sale, I hiss “THIS…is MINE” while grinning. Even the Czarina stays away when I grin like that.

More from our friend Echinocactus texensis

Echinocactus texensis

I thought that last year’s blooming season for the indigenous horsecrippler cactus was prodigious. I had literally no idea. The way they’re all going insane, I’ll be up to my armpits in ripe Echinocactus texensis fruit by the end of May.

Horsecrippler cactus closeup

Of particular note should be the areolae in this closeup, because it helps explain how the cactus gets its common name. When the cactus dries out in summer heat, it tends to collapse, and those big downward-pointing spines point up. On the edges of the cactus, these are sharp, long, and strong enough to punch through the bottom of a standard US Army combat boot, and I know this from experience. (In fact, I came awfully close to losing a toe when I did so. You do NOT want one of those spines breaking off, especially if you’re a few miles from medical assistance, and I’m just glad the spine creased my toe instead of spitting, and possibly splitting, the bone.) Considering the amount of local wildlife that would gleefully feed on cactus pulp without that additional protection, this level of armament makes sense.

Anyway, these are part of the ongoing Kared adoption program, and they should be an added inducement to see them at May’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show. If we’re lucky, any resultant fruit may even be ripening by then.

Introducing Strategus aloeus

Most friends know that I’m a defender of the odd animals in the garden. Others celebrate the bluebirds and the box turtles, but I’m the one who encourages the paper wasps, the Mediterranean geckos, and the occasional armadillo out back. That’s why these guys went back into one of the garden beds as soon as this picture was taken.

Ox beetle grubs

Mention “grubs” in North Texas, and you’ll get a few choice curses. The bane of most lawn obsessives is the grub of the June bug, Phyllophaga crinita, which feed on the roots of most of our local turf grasses. (Considering that Bermuda grass, widely considered a viciously invasive pest that probably originated the invective “Kill it with fire,” is one of the few turf grasses that can survive a North Texas summer, this should give an idea of how badly some gardeners loathe June bug grubs.) The big grubs up here, though, are from Strategus aloeus, commonly known as “ox beetles”.

The late-instar grubs can be the size of an adult’s thumb, and while they have sharp jaws, they’re otherwise completely harmless. They consume rotted organic matter, so most gardeners tend to find them in rotten wood, compost piles, and raised beds. They’re alarming, but having them in large numbers is a sign that you’re doing everything right with your garden. The handful in the picture above were collected solely by sweeping up leaf litter off my porch and onto a raised bed, which also revealed the wide tunnels they dig through the soil. Those tunnels manage to get humus and other debris into the local Blackland Prairie clay and loosen it up, going much deeper than earthworms or other detritivores.

What’s interesting for me is that the grubs are common, but I haven’t seen an ox beetle in thirty years. The beetles themselves are very impressive beasts, with a purple-brown shell and the males bearing small horns like a rhinoceros beetle. They apparently used to flock to streetlights in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but their descendants appear to have burned out that urge, and they’re only occasionally encountered. I’m certainly not complaining, as I’m perfectly happy to let their spawn turn my compost pile for me.

As far as predators are concerned, most larger carnivores (opossums, crows, raccoons) will eat the grubs if given an opportunity, which is why the grubs usually rapidly undulate deep into their burrows when disturbed. Fifteen years ago, I had a savannah monitor named “Steadman” (so named after regularly leaving his cage as splattered as a Ralph Steadman painting) who would practically do tricks for ox beetle grubs, but now I rescue them and feed the June bug grubs to the local mockingbirds. It seems to be a fair trade, and the ox beetles return the favor by loosening the soil around the roses and the tiger lilies. Again, I’m not complaining.

The reblooming of Antarctica

Discuss with friends or co-workers where they would go and what they would do if given access to cheap and effective time travel, and the answers are usually painfully expected. Well, they are if the idea is not to influence the timestream in any way. Get up next to the big stage at Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix. Check out the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas in November 1963. Sip champagne at the Battle of Hastings. Oh, you might have a few people who want to go further back, but only so far as to see a dinosaur or two. All of time and space to play with, and we’re still desperately limited to human experiences and human timescales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this. If given the opportunity, and knowing that (a) I was going to change our current history irreparably if I made any changes and (b) I was never returning to my own time, I can think of lots of entertainment. Joining the French Resistance in 1942, for instance.)

However, were some madman with a blue box to give me an opportunity to visit any place and any time in Earth’s past, for a full day, I can think of two options. The first is to find a nice hilltop around 108 million years ago, and enjoy a picnic dinner while watching the asteroid impact that produced the crater Tycho on the moon. The other would be to drop off anywhere in Antarctica about 50 million years ago and go sightseeing. Not only would I see things never viewed with human eyes, but I’d probably see lots of things that aren’t even suspected. First and foremost, flora unlike anything else on our planet, then or afterwards.

The popular perception of Antarctica as a frozen, alien waste contains a lot of truth, but we’ve only known the continent for a little over two centuries. With 98 percent of its surface covered in ice, kilometers’ worth in some areas, precious little other than the coasts, the famed Dry Valleys, and some areas in the Transantarctic Mountains, the vast majority of Antarctica has been icelocked for longer than the genus Homo has existed. Because of the ice coverage, most of the continent’s features are obscure. To put it another way, Antarctica has a lake the size of Lake Ontario in North America, and it was only discovered in the 1990s.

(And before I start, I’d like to apologize to any and all Antarctic researchers and explorers reading this, because I feel your pain. I imagine you’re as sick and tired of references to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, coming from people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of human civilization to ever make the connection, as I am to references to Little Shop of Horrors. Aside from legitimate reasons for doing so, I won’t bring up either for the rest of this essay.)

Naturally, that ice doesn’t prevent palaeontologists from making new discoveries, but it definitely gets in the way. Hints of the geological and palaeontological richness of Antarctica’s past keep emerging, particularly with dinosaur discoveries in the Nineties and Aughts (most notably with the Jurassic theropod Cryolophosaurus), but almost nothing is known about Antarctica’s animal life after the dinosaurs became extinct. Floral knowledge is even worse: thanks to pollen analysis and some fossils in accessible deposits, Antarctica was one of the last holdouts for the Wollemi pine until about maybe 5 million years ago. Today, only two flowering plants still live on Antarctica, mostly because so little of the continent ever reaches temperatures amenable to growth. For all intents and purposes, Antarctica is an entire continent above the tree line.

It also needs to be said that palaeontological evidence still only gives hints of Antarctica’s former zoological and botanical bounty. It’s possible to make informed assumptions about certain lifeforms based on studies of South America, Australia, and New Zealand, based on their former connection through the supercontinent Gondwana. For instance, just looking at carnivorous plants, considering their distribution through the rest of Gondwana’s territory and on pollen analysis of Australian sites, Antarctica probably had its own selection of sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Judging by their current distribution through the Pacific Rim, particularly in Tierra del Fuego, the triggerplants (Stylidium) may – may – have considered Antarctica home before the continent froze. The problem, though, is that without some sort of fossil proof, this is all supposition. Carnivorous plant fossils other than pollen are incredibly rare because they generally lived (and continue to live) in areas hostile to fossil preservation, and any surmisals on what survived where before the antarctic glaciation depends upon finding fossils that aren’t, as mentioned before, under two kilometers of ice.

In a strange way, this ties directly into important concerns over introducing the seeds of potentially invasive plants to Antarctica, because the one last time I’d like to visit for a day would be Antarctica 30 million years from now. One way or another, whether it’s by anthropocentric climate change, a change in the ocean currents that help keep Antarctica’s temperatures stable, or the continent’s gradual tectonic shift north, Antarctica is going to thaw. At that point, the whole land surface is the cliched but appropriate blank slate. As recent news concerning Silene stenophylla raised from 30,000-year-old seeds, some native plant seeds might survive the freeze and sprout again. Human-transported seeds could very easily get established, and will probably become extremely invasive for a time. The biggest vectors of new flora, though, will be the ones that have been around for millions of years: water, wind, and birds. And they’re going to go nuts.

This won’t be a sudden change, and we definitely aren’t going to see forests at McMurdo Sound in our lifetimes even if Antarctica’s entire ice sheet melted tomorrow. Most of northern North America is still recovering from the last big glaciation in the Pleistocene, with many soils still being nutrient-poor: some theories about the wide range of the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea compared to its relations lie with its encouraging animal life such as mosquito larvae and rotifers as a replacement source of nitrogen. (As such, if you’ve ever been to Newfoundland and Labrador, you’ll understand why S. purpurea is the official floral emblem and provincial flower. S. purpurea is perfectly suited for the bogs of Newfoundland, Ontario, and Michigan, as well as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.) And North America wasn’t covered with ice for 5 to 15 million years, the way Antarctica has been. Once it thaws, the whole continent will gradually green up, and all of those plants will most likely be descendants of traveling seeds dropped within the last few hundred years. With Antarctica remaining an island continent as Australia gradually runs into Asia and produces a whole new run of mountain-building, comparable to India’s formation of the Himalayas, I’d love to see what the forests of Queen Maud Land look like in another geologic era or so.

A hint of Stylidium debile

Five years ago, Ryan Kitko, a man I look upon as my smarter younger brother, first introduced me to the awe and wonder that encompasses the triggerplants. Some may argue as to whether or not the members of the genus Stylidium are carnivorous or merely protocarnivorous: all I can tell you is that the the multitude of tiny wasps and mites found caught on sticky threads on triggerplant flower scapes certainly don’t fuss about it. They’re too busy being dead.

Anyway, as usual, Ryan stirs me to action: he’s currently sharing pictures of the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, in his greenhouse. I was already planning to update plant care sheets on the main Triffid Ranch site on S. debile, and this encourages me to get those done and write a bit more about this nearly indestructible species. So long as the soil doesn’t go completely dry, S. debile is nearly impossible to kill. It can survive heat that can fell a mesquite tree, days of sub-freezing cold, hailstorms, gullywasher thunderstorms, extremes in high and low humidity, and even the gentle ministrations of squirrels, rats, opossums, and armadillos. It makes an incredible container plant, and neglecting and abusing it only makes it grow more luxuriantly and bloom more prodigiously. I can’t recommend the little monster highly enough: for me, it’s the anti-Venus flytrap, and one of the best beginner carnivorous plants you can ever receive. Thank you for introducing me to them, Ryan.

Ah, Nepenthes

Nepenthes pitcher plants are on my mind as of the last week, and not just because I’m researching plans for a new greenhouse. (The Czarina offered last year to build a new Nepenthes greenhouse, and not just so she can demonstrate that the claw hammers in the house get used on something besides my head. She one with a bungee cord wrapped around it that she calls “Mjolnir”, and you’d swear that she can throw it around corners.) Last year’s drought still hasn’t ended, we’re not exactly looking as if we’re going to repeat 1990’s or 2007’s record rainfalls, and I’m in need of a new growing area that maximizes humidity without drying up a municipal reservoir to do so. I’m also looking for something that’s not too big and not too small, but juuuuuuust right.

All of the carnivores suffered last year from North Texas’s ridiculously low humidity, but the poor Nepenthes just looked ridiculous. As a rule, both lowland and highland Nepenthes can squeak by with average daily humidity going above 50 percent, with their producing larger and more elaborate pitchers the closer the relative humidity goes to “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on”. This is why I’m viciously jealous of Hawaiian Nepenthes growers, and it’s not helped by the Czarina hinting that we could always set up shop in Galveston. Dallas’s air may be a bit thicker than it was when another resident with lung issues moved here, but it’s not sopping wet enough to keep the Nepenthes outdoors, much to my regret.

And the history of the genus keeps getting more interesting. Longterm carnivorous plant enthusiasts may be familiar with the Nepenthes “Queen of Hearts” introduced by the wonderful folks at Borneo Exotics, but not know much more than the basics about it. Well, it turns out that “Queen of Hearts”, cultivated from seed saved from a cleared forest in the Philippines, is a new species now named Nepenthes robcantleyi.

As is the case with many Nepenthes species, N. robcantleyi may be extinct in the wild, or examples may still be available in hidden areas of Mindanao. Fellow carnivore enthusiast François Sockhom Mey is keeping closer tabs on developments than I could, so I refer you to him. From this hemisphere, though, it’s time to get that greenhouse built, because I will have one on display by the time the decade is over.

Introducing Araucaria heterophylla

Norfolk Island pine with dinosaurs

It shouldn’t be any surprise by now that I love oddball plants, and my favorite oddballs are the ones that hide in plain sight. Every Christmas season, garden centers and grocery stores are full of live trees for folks who don’t have the room for a full-sized Christmas tree, or who want a live tree to enjoy after the season, or who just want something different with a touch of green in an otherwise dreary winter. You can find actual fir saplings available for sale, or rosemary pots shaped to look like a tree. The best one, though, is sold as the “Norfolk Island Pine”. This bushy little tree, Araucaria heterophylla, isn’t just a great live tree that looks good throughout the year, and that does remarkably well indoors. It’s also the most accessible link to a group of plants that were the dominant trees for a fair portion of the reign of the dinosaurs.

Norfolk Island pine

A. heterophylla is a member of the Araucariaceae, a group of now widely separated species of conifer that include the kauris (including the giant kauris of New Zealand), the monkey puzzle tree of Argentina and New Caledonia, and the Wollemi pine of Australia. Although increasingly endangered on Norfolk Island itself, these trees acclimate well, and are now found throughout the world. In that sense, they’re only returning to their former range, as the Araucariaceae used to be the dominant tree form through most of the Southern Hemisphere back when the southern continents were jammed together as Gondwana. Norfolk Island pines have a rather prehistoric appearance, which isn’t surprising since the group has been hanging around for nearly 200 million years.

As such, A. heterophylla is probably the only araucarid most folks in Texas will ever see: monkey puzzle trees need cool temperatures and high humidity to grow (which is why they do rather well in Portland), and Wollemi pine distribution to the US stopped shortly after they started. The Norfolk Island pine isn’t exactly suited for outside life in North Texas, either, as it does best with humidity of at least 50 percent. Seedlings and saplings also don’t do well with North Texas-level summer sun, although they thrive when given a good dose of morning sun and good indirect light for the rest of the day. The biggest issue with raising them involves moisture, because seedlings and saplings have a very particular Goldilocks zone of soil moisture. As most gardeners already know, the symptoms of too much water and too little are almost identical, and a tree in a completely dried-out soil mix is indistinguishable from one with terminal root rot from sitting in mud. Norfolk Island pines tend to do well in a very well-draining mix, but also one that stays moist. After the tree is at least a meter tall, that’s much less of a concern. (If a few branches go dull and dry out, this isn’t as much of a concern. If all of the tree goes dull green and brown, though, it very rarely recovers.)

Oh, and that’s another bit of fun concerning the species. Several araucarids qualify as some of the largest trees on the planet today, including the magnificent Tane Mahuta kauri of New Zealand. Norfolk Island pines don’t get quite that big, but given the right conditions, they can reach heights of 200 feet (60.96 meters). As stated before, they won’t reach those heights in North Texas, but they have no problems with reaching sizes too large for a windowsill if regularly fertilized. Kept under lower-light conditions and fertilized twice per year, though, they get wonderfully bushy, adding to the prehistoric effect.

And that’s where I’m going with this. Considering the amount of interest in prehistoric miniature gardens, you can’t get much more authentic than A. heterophylla for Jurassic and Cretaceous-themed miniature gardens. Keep them under the same light, heat, and humidity as most ferns, and you have a very resilient and attractive addition to the floral palette. Even in a standard pot, A. heterophylla is a preferable option to firs and other conifers for indoor plants. And if you live in a place where one would do well outdoors…don’t tell me about it, unless you want to hear the sound of my teeth grinding in impotent jealousy.

The Drooling Sundew

Contrary to the opinion of random passersby who want to come by at all hours “to look at the plants,” the Triffid Ranch isn’t a full-time operation. Oh, it’s a full-time operation, but it’s not the only jobs we hold. Especially during the winter, when all of the temperate carnivores are dormant and the tropical carnivores are resting, having a standard day job like everyone else is a necessity. Among other things, the day job provides health insurance, a steady background income, and a surplus of scintillant conversation from my co-workers. And no, I’m not exaggerating, because I work with a crew of truly unique talents, and we literally have no idea how much our mutual experiences can benefit the other. Ask the engineers circling the coffee machine about their weekends, and the responses sound more like plotlines to a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Anyway, compared to the professional musicians, semi-pro glassworkers, and enthusiastic amateur knifesmiths on board, my passion for carnivorous plants marks me as one of the Quiet Ones, and not the oddball in the back corner of the office who isn’t trying to drink himself to death every night. (And yes, I’ve worked in that sort of office. Remind me to tell you about my days working at Sprint one time.) Every once in a great while, though, I can fend for myself, and sometimes even bring something to the lunch discussions that leads to a good bout of Head Explodey.

By way of example, I recently brought a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to its current space in my cubicle, mostly because it was a needed touch of green next to a window full of brown. No, let’s be honest: BROWN. Even before the current freezing nights hit, everything was a uniform blasted tan out the office window from the drought, and it was about as pathetic and depressing as a Firefly marathon on SyFy. Indoors, under a good stout 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in a desk lamp, that sundew promptly perked up and started throwing off new leaves, and I fully expect for it to demand full rights from the UN by spring.

That little sprig of green got more than a few questions from co-workers and project managers, and the first question was “When are you going to feed it?” Since I knew that they’d be less than thrilled by my bringing in a tube of wingless fruit flies, I decided to demonstrate the one commonality between carnivorous plant and human: an appreciation for chocolate.

In his classic volume Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin understandably went a little crazy in his enthusiasm over Drosera of all sorts. This book details most of his experiments in understanding sundew mechanics and responses, and he discovered that sundews respond to two different stimuli in different ways. Firstly, the long sticky hairs (officially called “tentacles”) were sensory hairs in that they picked up the movement of prey caught in their glue, and consistent movement of one tentacle caused others in its vicinity to converge on the area, further trapping that prey. Secondly, specialized glands at the tip of each tentacle could ascertain the relative nitrogen content of the item trapped. If the stimulus was something relatively non-nitrogenous, such as a grass stem rubbing against the sundew’s leaf, the tentacles might respond, but the plant wouldn’t try to digest the intrusion. If the stimulus was high in available nitrogen but unmoving, such as a dead bug landing on the leaf, the tentacles wouldn’t respond right away, but they’d ultimately detect the morsel and move to claim it. And chocolate? It’s sufficiently nitrogenous that a sundew might mistake small pieces for gnats or other tiny insects, but without rotting or growing mold while digestion took place.

One of the reasons why D. capensis is perfect for this demonstration is that it’s one sundew that’s singularly enthusiastic in its feeding response. It doesn’t close on prey as quickly as some Drosera species, but its entire trapping surface wraps around prey, sometimes completely surrounding it. Even better, D. capensis‘s output of digestive enzymes is not just visible to the naked eye, but it’s voluminous. Put a mosquito on a Cape sundew leaf, and you get more puddling drool than a doorbell in the Pavlov house.

Anyway, since one of my favorite co-workers asked to see sundew trapping behavior, I pulled some leftover dark chocolate Halloween candy from the department stash (since it’s in a Halloween cardboard display, it’s referred to as “the candy coffin”), scraped off some crumbs, and sprinkled them on the sundew’s leaves. She was a bit disappointed by the immediate response, as she expected something more energetic. “Patience,” I said, “you have to give it some time. If that chocolate was moving, we’d see much faster movement, but it’s still not something you can see in a few seconds.” We left it alone and continued through the day, checking back every once in a while to verify the chocolate’s status.

This morning, my friend came in shortly after I did, and immediately visited the sundew. That’s when she viewed this.

Drooling Cape sundew (Drosera capensis)

Another reason why Cape sundews are great subjects to demonstrate active trapping behavior is that they’re extremely active compared to many other good beginner’s sundews. Note the several folded leaves, where the trapping surface actually folded in half to surround the chocolate. Even better, notice the one on the right that’s curled like a fern fiddleback? That one caught a chocolate crumb near its tip, and the shine down the leaf is digestive fluid. Yes, like most people, Cape sundews drool like fiends when given chocolate.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: I do NOT advocate feeding Cape sundews chocolate on a regular basis, and I definitely don’t recommend it at all for most sundew species. Don’t even think of doing it for most other carnivores. More importantly, as with people, the best results with sundews come from reasonably fresh dark chocolate, so spare the poor plant that dried-up Hershey’s bar that’s been in your desk since 1998. Absolutely importantly, keep the feeding to crumbs: your plant and your co-workers will hate you if you drop a whole Godiva’s truffle in the sundew’s container. As for everything else, anyone have any high school-age kids who want a science fair experiment on sundew sensitivity to different varieties and brands of chocolate?

Discovery Days: The Final Assessment

Last weekend, the folks at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park were considerate enough to invite the Triffid Ranch to display plants at its regular Discovery Days event on reptiles and other critters. This year, the “other critters” extended to flora, both by showing off carnivores that live in symbiosis with various reptiles and amphibians (in particular, a big display of Nepenthes ampullaria, based on its relationship with the frog Microhyla nepenthicola), so it was time to show off temperate carnivores before they went into winter hibernation and tropical carnivores before the new greenhouse goes up. Naturally, the Czarina wanted pictures.

"Introducing Carnivorous Plants" banner

The first sign that We Have Arrived: a literal sign stating who, why, and where. It’s probably time to write up a standard lecture rider that explains what we need at shows, probably plagiarizing heavily from Iggy Pop’s standard concert rider.

Bob the Builder

Being right next door to the “Bob the Builder” traveling exhibition meant that this guy right here was my nemesis and my salvation. “Nemesis” as in how every child under a certain age (I suspect below retirement age) wanted to drag Mom and Dad inside to see Bob, and “salvation” in that the kids and parents all went nuts over plants after they’d received their Bob fixes. The little disc at Bob’s feet was a motion sensor that normally set off one of three different affirmative comments. Apparently, so many little feet had tromped on it that the sound card went off randomly, and then it stopped working entirely by Saturday evening. I didn’t want to ruin the fun for the kids coming out to see Bob and Pilchard, so I filled in for that wayward sound card with the expected Canadian twist. Every kid should learn “Remember, if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy,” right?

The Texas Triffid Ranch at the MNS Discovery Days

A basic cross-section of carnivores and containers for display, along with a particularly ugly brute brought in to haul the big hexagon tank and scare wasps away from the pitcher plants. That beast could make a sundial run backwards, couldn’t he?

Paul

“Just because I only have nine fingers doesn’t mean my name is ‘Frodo’.”

Carnivorous plant books

Accompanying the main display was an additional table, giving plenty of room to show off a cross-section of the best books on carnivorous plants on the market today.

Magazines

The two magazines in the Riddell household that get read first, without question.

Paul

We were located right around the corner from a display demonstrating the fluorescence of scorpions. “Twenty bucks says I can hit the back wall with the next sneeze. Thirty if I replace the scorpion with a cockroach.”

And before anyone asks, yes, I’ll gleefully return for next year’s Discovery Days, or any other event held by the Museum that requests my presence. This was just too much fun.

Tell it to the bees

Tapdancing around the elephant: the Triffid Ranch has become quite the wildlife refuge as of late. The Czarina fills up hummingbird feeders in the evening and they’re half-empty within 24 hours, thanks to the (at least) three species of hummingbird visiting them as a regular foodsource. The Mediterranean geckos move inside the greenhouse in the evenings in search of water, and wait for their prey to follow suit. I figure that the anoles will take over the greenhouse during the day, especially when they see the new mister I put inside. I’ve even seen hints that Harold the possum sneaks inside for a quick drink of water, because he won’t close the greenhouse door. And then we have the bees.

Local honeybees scrambling for water

Somewhere within a kilometer of the main Sarracenia growing space is a hive of honeybees. I don’t know if they’re from a wild hive, or if a neighbor decided to domesticate a swarm. I’m not particularly worried, either, because they’ve done a spectacular job of visiting every last bee-pollinated flower in the area. It’s just that you can tell how hot it is based on how many bees are collecting in the pots: most evenings, anywhere between 75 and 100 bees can be found at any given time, and they may be even more prominent during the height of the day.

More honeybees

You may be asking about why they’re visiting pots instead of open water sources of all sorts, and you’d get several answers. The first is that bee tongues are very good at drawing up liquids via capillary action, and that capillary action works just as well in very moist peat as in a bowl of water. The second is that they can draw up that water without worrying about drowning or being snatched by an aquatic predator. The third? Well, it’s that this area is reasonably permanent, and bees are creatures of habit. Sure, they might be attracted to overflow from lawn sprinklers or condensation from car air conditioners, but those are temporary sources that are usually only available for short times during the day. The pots, though, will be there all day long.

Back in the mid-Eighties, my father and I kept bees in our back yard in Flower Mound, and we made a point of setting out a birdbath and keeping it full at all times during the height of the summer. The reason is that while gatherer bees may be collecting water to keep the rest of the hive hydrated, it’s also to keep the hive cool. When things get too hot inside the hive, you’ll see workers at the entrance, frantically fanning their wings to force hot air out of the hive. If the temperatures don’t go down, gatherers return with stomachs full of water, which they regurgitate on the floor of the hive. Between the fanning and the evaporation of that water, this is usually enough to keep internal temperatures stable until after dark. This requires both a lot of water and a steady source, hence the birdbath. On bad days, they could drain it in six hours.

That said, I think it’s time to set out a couple of shallow trays for the bees. They’re working hard enough as it is, and I definitely want to encourage them to come back once the fall growing season starts.

“And now on Handyman’s Corner, we’re gonna reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that anybody reading this reads Greenhouse Product News magazine, unless you’re running your own commercial nursery. For those who do, GPN is a free trade publication that offers US and international subscriptions, covering new developments in propagation and distribution for greenhouse operators. And for everybody else, it’s one of the magazines I read cover-to-cover when I get each issue.

Okay, so you’re figuring “Yeah, but you’ll read anything.” That’s all too true: when left without sufficient reading material, I’ve been known to memorize guides for wallpaper application and removal. (The summer of 1976 is one I don’t want to repeat, EVER.) However, you won’t believe some of the interesting stuff you’ll come across in an issue. Case in point, I just received the July 2011 issue Saturday, and immediately glommed onto the subhead cover story “Can Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnats?” Sadly, the article isn’t online yet, so let me give a synopsis for the fungus-gnat-impaired.

Every spring, I get calls from friends, cohorts, and co-workers at the Day Job, getting frantic about little black bugs that fly errratically around flowerpots and other soil-bearing containers. I explain, over and over, that these are fungus gnats. The most common genus in my vicinity, Bradysia, is completely harmless to humans, even if they are annoying. The grubs are pests when they eat the roots of potted plants, but the whole life cycle is so rapid that they’re rarely a pest for more than two or three weeks. In my case, I don’t complain, because the fungus gnats start up in my greenhouse right about the time all of my temperate sundews and butterworts come out of dormancy. Set out a few Pinguicula primulflora, which attract fungus gnats like a “FREE BEER” sign attracts fratboys, and the butterworts feed exceedingly well.

What’s a minor annoyance in a small greenhouse, though, can be a major disaster in a commercial operation, especially when the little vermin feed on particularly delicate roots of plants that can’t handle the attention. Commercial operations have many different ways to control fungus gnat onslaughts, and one of the more intriguing involved using fabric softener dryer sheets to repel them.

Want to know why I love GPN? It’s because the article starts “In fact, Bounce original brand fabric softener dryer sheets have been promoted to repel mosquitoes and ‘gnats’ in some magazines; however, there is no quantitative data to substantiate such claims.” The four authors (Raymond A. Cloyd, Karen A. Marley, Richard A. Larson, and Bari Arieli) then supply the quantitative data. Contrary to a lot of claims about homespun garden cures (*coughSuperThrivecough*), this apparently really works in laboratory experiments.

According to the paper, one of the major volatile constituents in the dryer sheets is a monoterpene alcohol called linalool, which is also used in cosmetics, apparently is the active ingredient in the fungus gnat repellent. Interestingly, the citrosa plant Pelagornium citrosum, commonly hyped as a mosquito repellent with only a small amount of data to back up those claims, is loaded with linalool.

Now, this leads to all sorts of interesting possibilities. The first is that enterprising young horticulture students should consider further research into linalool as a fungus gnat repellent, and possibly develop an improved delivery system over fabric softener sheets. The second is possibly a further evaluation of linalool as a mosquito repellent. The best one, though, is that when co-workers start nuhdzing about fungus gnats every spring, I’m going to their pots with a teddy bear and scream “The fungus gnats will die before my eyes, and they’ll know – THEY’LL KNOW – that it is I, Baron Snuggles, who encompasses their doom!” That should take care of the problem once and for all. (Hey, it worked when they were bugging me about dog’s vomit slime mold in their flowerbeds.)