Posted onJune 1, 2022|Comments Off on Hemsleyana In the Belfry
It could be the increased circulation in the gallery, especially after discovering that the break room had its air conditioning vent shut off for a very valid reason. It could be that this winter was cold but not THAT cold. Heck, it could be that the crowds coming to gallery events since the beginning of the year are considerably lacking in energy vampires. Whatever the factor, there’s an explosion in new growth among the Nepenthes enclosures, with the most spectacular showing with the Nepenthes hemsleyana in the enclosure Bat God. For the first time since the gallery moved here from Valley View Center, this beast of a pitcher plant finally started producing upper traps.
For those unfamiliar with N. hemsleyana, this is an Asian pitcher plant that goes through a fascinating change once it starts producing upper pitchers. Before this point, the lower pitchers it produces are short and squat, pretty much identical to those from its cousin Nepenthes rafflesiana: in fact, until last decade, this plant was considered a rafflesiana subspecies. When the first upper traps form, though, the plant stops secreting digestive enzymes into the fluid in the bottom of each pitcher. Most species of Nepenthes also fluoresce strongly along the lip or peristome under ultraviolet light: N. hemsleyana doesn’t do a thing. This is because in lieu of attracting insects into its pitchers, hemsleyana attracts bats.
The wooly-haired bat Kerivoula hardwickii isn’t trapped by the pitchers: far from it. These tiny bats are some of the smallest in Asia, and they would regularly be bullied out of other nesting sites by larger and more aggressive bats. Instead. K. hardwickii roosts inside of the upper pitchers. The bats get roosts with a minimum of parasites and no predators, and the plant gets both a regular supply of bat guano but, thanks to bats’ fastidious cleaning habits, a supply of bat fur. Both are excellent nitrogen sources, with the fur being more of a slow-release form, which gives the plant more than enough nitrogen and phosphorus to grow.
What is equally interesting is how the bats know that N. hemsleyana pitchers are a suitable roosting site. Right where the lid of the pitcher meets the lip are two very distinctive flanges or fins, and these reflect back a very distinctive sonar signature to the bats emitting it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the knowledge of this particular sonar signature isn’t instinctive, but that mother bats teach their young the significance of that pingback.
Anyway, this is just one of many surprises turning up in the gallery, all available for viewing when the new gallery debuts. With luck, this hyperactive plant will produce more upper traps: since they don’t produce digestive enzymes, they can’t be fed with insects, but offering the opportunity for visitors to feed the hemsleyana orchid food pellets could be just as interesting. Just don’t start calling the gallery “Stately Wayne Manor.”
Things got very interesting over the last week: new greenhouse, torrential rainstorms, a possible book deal, setting up an online press resource, the possibility of getting a degree in Museum Studies…I really, really need to discover a vaccine for sleep, because those three hours I’m getting just get in the way. In the meantime, it’s time to put up a regular marquee of Triffid Ranch events, just to stop the number of calls where the caller refuses to leave a message. And so it goes.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who celebrate. While the rest of Dallas focuses on excessive drinking (this incredibly NSFW piece, and I’m not kidding about it being NSFW, should be the city’s anthem today), my personal anthem is a bit more traditional. (Of course, the song needs to be flipped for me: my father was a Scot Catholic and my mother an Irish Lutheran, but you know how it goes.)
Today marks a strange anniversary in these parts. December 9 marks a solid 30 years since I was let go from a job I hadn’t started at yet, when A.H. Belo, the parent company of the Dallas Morning News, bought up, shut down, and stripped out the competing Dallas Times Herald. At the time, my dream to work for the Times Herald (a dream held since my days as a Times Herald paperboy during the summer of 1980) finally realized itself as a mailroom position, back in the days when the mailroom was a potential gateway to a regular byline. The Sunday before I was supposed to start, I was having dinner with my then-girlfriend when the one and only Barry Kooda came by and asked “So, you getting a copy of tomorrow’s Times Herald?”
“Why? What’s up?”
“Tomorrow’s the paper’s last day. It’s shutting down.”
“Awww, no! I’m supposed to start work there tomorrow!”
“Well, I’d blow that off if I were you.”
I admit that I was angry about this for years, and not just because of the various details leading to that buyout and shutdown. For the next six months, the bus stop in downtown Dallas where I’d depart for various job interviews was right across the street from the old Times Herald building, so I got to watch the hurried stripping of the building’s marble facade and signage, the demolition of one wall to pull out the presses and other heavy gear, the crumbling of everything else, and even the overpainting of the scar where the building shared a wall with a parking lot with a mural particularly insipid even for 1990s Dallas. By the end of 1992, the effort to sanitize Dallas of any intimation that it had anything other than one daily newspaper was so successful that any trace of the Times Herald was one discovered accidentally, like discovering the stepping stones in your garden were unused gravestones. After a while, the only mentions of the Times Herald anywhere were in obituaries, such as when star columnist Molly Ivins died in 2007, and even then.
One of the things about starting a career as a science fiction essayist is that you can’t help but be immersed in the concept of alternate realities. The real fun is noting that the real changes occur due to the little things that set off the avalanches (remind me to tell you the Dallas Blade Runner preview screening story one of these days, if you haven’t read it already). A few years of little things, and the stories between two alternate timestreams go off further than with the blockbuster event. Today is a day to celebrate this, starting with the death of the Times Herald.
A few years back, I realized that my entire professional Day Job career was one massive case of dodging bullets, to the point where friends joke about renaming me “Neo.” Positions and companies fell apart, but staying, in the long run, would have been worse. Most of the time, the transition was painful — these things usually are — but necessary. Considering the current plight of print newspapers, there’s no guarantee that the Times Herald could have survived another five years had Belo picked its teeth with the bones: even if it had lived to see the 21st Century, the thought of celebrating 30 years’ employment there is considerably less appealing today than in 1991. More importantly, if things had lasted this long, I wouldn’t have had a minor writing career ending in 2002, which wouldn’t have led to my moving to Tallahassee to get away from it, which wouldn’t have led to my first encounter with a carnivorous plant in the wild. If the Times Herald had survived, I might have a minor journalistic career, but the Triffid Ranch never would have happened, and the people and places associated with the Triffid Ranch are so much more emotionally satisfying than anything I ever could have done while still working as a pro writer. I know I’ve made more money selling and trading carnivorous plants than I would have made in writing: two shows this year alone eclipsed my total writing income over 13 years, and the friends made in the process are people I’d never give up for the dubious promise of literary or journalistic success.
In his essay “Driving In the Spikes,” the author Harlan Ellison noted that most of the time, there’s no need to get revenge on those who wronged you, because they usually do something to themselves so much worse than anything you could do, and so much more satisfying. Instead of being overly petty, my picture has appeared in the Dallas Morning News multiple times, all of which making me feel like GWAR on the front cover of Tiger Beat, and all without paying for a print copy once in the last 30 years. That’s not a bad legacy with so many other things to focus on instead, and considering the Morning News‘s current financial and circulation issues, the real irony would be if the paper finally shut down or sold for parts a year from today, after all of the reasons why anyone would worry about a daily print paper in this age finish becoming irrelevant. And so it goes.
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Regular visitors at the gallery might note that the space’s break room is a bit loaded with, erm, interesting decor. Ever since the traveling show days, friends have gifted me with all sorts of plant-related toys and accoutrements, all of which are now up on a series of shelves circling the ceiling of the break room. It’s loaded with all sorts of cultural detritus: Monster High Venus McFlytrap, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Groot, Treebeard, Zhaan, Medphyll (still my favorite Green Lantern after the obvious contender), and I’m trying to figure out how to get a Pink Bunkadoo seed up there. The overwhelming favorite, though, involves one Dr. Pamela Iseley, former botanist in Gotham City and currently married to one Harleen Quinzell.
And the collection keeps building for various reasons, but the Poison Ivy figures, toys, Lego playsets, and other petrochemical recreations have one aspect that appeals to a carnivorous plant rancher. As opposed to the default, Poison Ivy figures don’t automatically come with Venus flytrap-inspired accessories. In fact, what surprised me was finding a spare McDonald’s Happy Meal figure from 1993 that featured Ivy in a vegetation-festooned car that had not a flytrap-inspired claw, but a carnivorous bloom. Honestly, I couldn’t have been more surprised if it had a working triggerplant bloom on the front.
And how does this work? Well, a lot better than many toys from that time. (Please excuse the squeaking: I’m now exactly twice the age of this toy, and I squeak and rasp when I move too much these days, too.)
A little penetrating oil (something that won’t attack aged plastic), and this goes up on the shelves, next to the ever-increasing collection of DC Bombshells Ivy figures. Now I’m looking for a figure of (extremely NSFW) Frank, but only if it comes with a voice chip.
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Posted onNovember 5, 2021|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Wimberley, Texas – 3
After writing about carnivorous plant issues on this site for the last decade, it’s always funny when unrelated discussions lead right back to the subject at hand. A week ago, the subject was on bee burn, where Sarracenia pitcher plants catch more stinging insects than the plant can digest, particularly at the end of the growing season. A little trip to the Texas Hill Country, specifically to the town of Wimberley, independently demonstrated why.
Shortly after the actual wedding ceremony was over, when everyone sat down with beverages of their choice, we found ourselves surrounded by paper wasps. They weren’t aggressive, but they were persistent, and gentle shooing didn’t do much to convince them to go elsewhere. They weren’t just going for open drinks, either: they were going for particular pieces of clothing or jewelry, and even particular shades of lipstick. After a few minutes of consideration, Caroline of Caroline Crawford Originals, official wedding jeweler and spouse of nearly 19 years to your humble chronicler, discovered that all we needed to do was set out a spare glass full of something sweet at each table, and the wasps left us alone to get a good drink of margarita sugar syrup or Sprite. In the process, we were making our own artificial Sarracenia without realizing it.
The explanation for the wasp invasion was easy. While larval wasps are enthusiastic carnivores, adults are nearly invariably sweet-tooth acolytes, with a diet mostly made up of nectar, honeydew from aphids and scale insects, and whatever other sugary treasures they can find. (That attraction to sweets applies also to more derived wasps such as bees and ants, which explains how you get ants.) To this end, the members of the angiosperms, the plant order comprising flowering plants, that don’t depend upon wind for pollination depend upon insects, and nectar is an extremely effective way to employ insects’ services. Between sugar and bright patterns visible under ultraviolet light, we have approximately 90 million years of co-evolution between insects and angiosperms, and all of the pitfall carnivorous plants use one or both to capture prey.
What’s going on now is the end of the wasps’ life cycle, at least involving these. Most paper wasps designate one female as a queen, and she promptly finds a spot in a woodpile or compost pile to spend the winter before reemerging in spring. The others keep going on as long as they can find food, but with local flowers fading for the year, the competition with solitary and gregarious bees and the occasional indigenous hummingbird gets intense. By the end of October in Texas, the few paper wasps that haven’t become food for birds, spiders, or praying mantises are desperate for any available food source, which is why they come running to uncovered soda, wine, or mead. Since wasps see mostly in ultraviolet light, they’ll also check out any item that fluoresces under UV in the hope of catching a spare bit of nectar missed by everything else, and most humans would be amazed at how many items of clothing, jewelry, or makeup pop under UV. Eventually, that runs out, and the few wasps that don’t die of starvation will die with the first serious cold snap. That cold snap arrives in Wimberley this week: the odds are really good that these wasps will be dead by the weekend, but as the political writer Charles Pierce says every Friday about dinosaurs, they lived then to make us happy now. And so it goes.
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Posted onNovember 4, 2021|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Wimberley, Texas – 2
On a recent trip to Wimberley, Texas, you’d think there would be a lot of time to photograph Texas flora, and that would be true if there wasn’t a wedding going on. There was still time for a few snaps, but a more extensive look at the plants of the Hill Country requires more time, preferably during blooming season in spring. Even so, there was plenty to see.
Mangueys aren’t necessarily native to the area, but they grow extremely well in Central Texas. Not only are they impressive additions to rock gardens, but their tough leaves and sharp spines discourage everyone but humans from messing with them.
Want a touch of international floral history? Here’s why prickly pear cactus were introduced to Australia: members of the genus Opuntia are hosts for the cochineal bug, the source for the colorant carmine. Said bugs produce a white fluffy camouflage to protect against wasps and other predators and parasites, and by the end of the growing season, it can get a little thick.
Wimberley may be in the middle of semi-desert, but with suitable water harvesting capacity, it can be awfully friendly to other tropicals. This little pond at the wedding site both utilizes local limestone (usually so festooned with holes and small tunnels that it’s often sold in aquarium shops as “holey rock”) and just the right amount of water lilies and papyrus to make it magical both during the day and when lit at night.
While one of Texas’s many clichés involves it being covered with cactus (particularly the saguaro, which is only found in Arizona), cactus is just part of the wide range of trees, shrubs, grasses, and herbs growing in the state’s desert and semidesert regions. Most cactus spread their seeds via fruit-eating birds, and sometimes there’s no telling what will show up where. This little one was underneath a combination of “cedar” (actually Ashe’s juniper, Juniperus ashei, the source of winter allergies throughout the state) and mesquite, so it might not last long, but it just might if the area around it is cleared by fire or human action. Either way, good luck to it.
To be continued…
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Okay, so last weekend, two of my best friends got married. They’d been connected via a wide net of mutual friends and acquaintances for the last three decades, but they first met in person while attending the very first Triffid Ranch open house in 2015, and it’s all been downhill from there. They eventually set a time and a place for a wedding celebration, and the time was the one time where the place was at its absolute best. The place was the town of Wimberley, Texas, due west of San Marcos, south of Austin, and right in the middle of the famed Texas Hill Country in the center of the state.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been to Wimberley, but it had been, erm, a little bit of time since the last visit. Wimberley was on the map for decades due to its art galleries, particularly those showcasing its glass artists, as well as its bonsai nursery. The last reason I’d had to be in Wimberley in the last third of a century, though, was for the long-defunct Wimberley Hillacious bicycle race, competing through the 1980s as a worthy competitor for the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred bike race in Wichita Falls. (The Wimberley race was in October, thereby bypassing both the brutal heat of summer and the equally brutal cedar allergy season of December and January. However, it was a bit more of a challenge both because of its impressive hills and the equally impressive headwinds, and a 10-mile race in Wimberley was as much of a workout as the 50-mile in Wichita Falls.) Let’s just say that Wimberley has changed just a little bit since then.
In the last 33 years, Wimberley became a lot less isolated, particularly as far as Austin gentrifiers were concerned. (As we discovered on our second night in town, when the wine mom getaway contingent in the adjoining lodge room decided to climb atop the building and stomp across the roof at midnight. The next morning, they gave every indication that “being so hung over that they couldn’t remember their names when checking out of the hotel” was a default state.) Back in 2011, the area was hit particularly hard by the last big statewide drought, with water having to be shipped in by truck to keep people from dying, so most new businesses and subdivisions had extensive water harvesting towers, as did schools and hotels. Likewise, highways and sideroads were recently expanded as much as possible to handle the increased traffic, giving Wimberley the same general vibe as areas around Dallas in the Eighties. On top of everything was the realization that the gap between the usual summer heat and the influx of cold winter weather was going to be extremely short in 2021, and the Halloween festivities in town gave a note of fervency, because the period between needing sunscreen and hats and needing heavy jackets and gloves wasn’t going to last for long.
To cut to the punchline, the wedding went through without problems, from the bagpiper opening everything to most of the guests coming in costume because of the season. (The bride was so far away from being a Bridezilla that we all joked about asking the piper if he could play an appropriate theme for her arrival.) Yeah, the best man looked as if he stole Boris Johnson’s toupee, but that couldn’t be helped thanks to the lack of humidity. 10/10; would attend again.
For those with Sarracenia pitcher plants in the Dallas area, we’re rapidly coming up on that time of the year where the plants start slowing down and slipping into winter dormancy. In the meantime, though, the plants take advantage of the light, warm temperatures, and available insects as much as they can. Autumn is traditionally when Sarracenia plants produce their largest, brightest and most vibrant pitchers, and this coincides with many prey insects needing to finish their life cycles before impending cold kills them. Alternately, many insects, such as paper wasps, are now at loose ends: their nests have produced all of the new wasps that they’re going to produce, and one or two of those wasps will find a good spot in a woodpile or compost pile to hibernate and perpetuate the species. The rest, though, will wander off from the nest in search of food. Adult paper wasps predominately feed on nectar and other sweets, and they face increasing competition from moths, bees, flies, and every other insect facing starvation as flowers die off or go to seed. As October ends, the voluminous nectar produced by Sarracenia becomes about the only source of nectar in the area, and many insects that would otherwise stay away find themselves caught at the bottom of a pitcher, buried among both the still-living and the dead.
A point of further research on Sarracenia growth is exactly how much additional nitrogen and phosphorus plants get from insects caught at the end of autumn. While many of the pitchers grown the previous spring die off when the plant goes into dormancy, the autumn pitchers may look a bit ragged over the winter, but they still remain green into the next spring. This is a vital part of that dormancy: every last photon those pitchers can catch over the winter contributes to a storage of starch in the plant’s rhizomes, allowing enough energy to bloom once winter is over and then produce the first spring pitchers. The surprising part isn’t that they stay green even in remarkably cold weather: during last February’s week-long Icepocalypse, temperatures that killed so many other plants freezerburned the tops of pitchers at the Triffid Ranch growing area but left everything below them intact. What’s surprising is how, well, juicy those pitchers were. When trimming back severely damaged fall pitchers at different times over the winter, not only were so many of those pitchers completely packed with trapped insect corpses, but they dripped impressive amounts of what could be called either “compost tea” or “insect broth” out of the cut ends, A note to grad students seeking a research paper topic: check exactly how much of this carnivore compost tea is produced over a winter, how much nitrogen and phosphorus is in that digested soup, and how much of a difference in growth this makes to the parent plant in spring.
As mentioned before, the main insects trapped are nectar-eaters: bees, wasps, flies, moths (much more so with Sarracenia leucophylla pitchers, because of their fluorescence under moonlight), male and female mosquitoes, and ladybugs. (Some may have issues with ladybugs and other beneficial-to-humans insects being caught by pitcher plants, but the overwhelming majority seen on an anecdotal basis in Dallas-area pitchers are of the Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis, which are an invasive pest. And so it goes.) It stands to reason that the nectar would attract other animals attracted to sweets, limited only by the size and diameter of the pitcher attracting them. And when the pitcher is large enough to handle really large prey, things get interesting.
Over the last few weeks, a Sarracenia leucophylla hybrid intended for upcoming plant shows started producing really impressively sized pitchers, with one pitcher with a mouth nearly two inches (5.08 cm) across. That pitcher opened approximately two weeks ago, and then bent in half and fell over in a storm. The cause of that failure was from what I euphemistically call “bee burn,” In native environments, Sarracenia process trapped prey by drawing up water in their pitchers both to drown prey and to encourage bacterial action that digests the insects and allows the residue to be absorbed through digestive glands on the inside of pitcher. When the humidity is extremely low, as tends to be a problem in North Texas in October, the plant cannot draw up enough water to process trapped prey, meaning that it rots and kills off portions of the pitcher wall. (I call it “bee burn” not only because the main causes are from collections of bees or wasps caught all at once, but because bees and wasps have strong enough jaws to tear a hole through the damaged pitcher wall and escape. This can make displaying plants at events extremely entertaining.) A quick observation confirmed that the pitcher failure was caused by just that.
The surprising part was that the pitcher wall had actually ruptured when it folded over, revealing the exoskeleton of the insect causing that case of bee burn. As opposed to the expected large wasp, a glint of metallic green peeked out. What had this pitcher caught that contributed to its failure?
Whatever it was, it was big, at least in comparison to most of the insects caught by a typical Sarracenia pitcher.
At this point, both the corpse and the surrounding pitcher wall had dried to the point where a dissection of the pitcher side was easy, and most of the corpse popped out.
The victim wasn’t immediately obvious to most, but it was one I recognized. It was a particularly large Cotinis mutabilis, a local scarab also known as “peach beetle,” “green June bug,” and “figeater beetle”, the first and last common names coming from its attracting to ripe or overripe fruit. This last summer, because of the unusual rains in August in particular, was a good one for a lot of fruit trees, especially peaches, and a neighbor’s peach tree became quite the target for local squirrels. Since the squirrels are really good about plucking a fruit, taking three bites out of it, dropping it, and getting another, this brought out a following wave of peach beetles to clean up the mess. A few turned up in raincatcher meshes after heavy rains in August, suggesting that they had as good a year as the peach trees, and apparently one laggard in October decided to check out the sweet scents coming from this pitcher and trapped itself.
The good news is that the beetle turned to soup, but not before its decomposition damaged the pitcher plant. The better news is that at least it was a peach beetle and not one of the local ox beetles. Considering a typical ox beetle’s strength, I’d be surprised if even a late-season pitcher would be strong enough to contain it.
If any good came out of events on last Saturday, it was that respiratory arrest stopped by mid-afternoon, and we were healthy and active enough to consider going out for a special event at the Dinosaur Company in Allen, just north of the gallery. The Dinosaur Company specializes in both life-sized prehistoric animal reconstructions, both static and animatronic, as well as presentations and workshops on various topics. A dear friend has worked there for the last year, and when she noted a few weeks ago that the Allen facility was offering a date-night lecture on dinosaur reproduction and nesting, well, that was all of the excuse we needed. Loaded up on antihistamines and bringing out the requested picnic dinner, we both got a very, VERY up-to-date lecture on what’s currently known on dinosaur courtship, mating, nesting, and hatchling care, but we also got a tour of the back storage area, full of existing reconstructions awaiting repairs or reassignment.
The worst part about being in a huge warehouse full of life-sized dinosaurs and pterosaurs and giant-sized arthropods isn’t the realization as to exactly how big some of them are. The worst part is that you stare at them for a moment, and all sorts of smartaleck comments come up about expressions, colors, and placement. This isn’t to disparage the Dinosaur Company in any way, or to badmouth any of those constructs, because they’re absolutely beautiful. It’s just circumstances, you know?
“HOLD YOUR HORSES! Let me get dressed first!”
“Okay, in or out. I’m not holding the door open all night!”
“Oh, dear. I swear, there should be a law.”
“HOW much? For an OIL CHANGE?”
“Don’t give me that. You knew what I was like when you married me. All three times.”
Anyway, as far as the connection to the gallery, we’re in tentative talks about an upcoming paleobotany lecture, focusing on carnivorous plants and the tantalizing hints of their presence in the fossil record. Yes, there will be a lot of time set aside to talk about Australian pitcher plants.
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Along with everything else coming down this weekend (and let me tell you, full-bore asthma fits at my age aren’t fun, and that’s on top of emergency greenhouse repairs), one of the issues resolved was discovering why a large mailing of posters, courtesy of Adeline Robinson Art, was returned “Insufficient Postage.” (Let’s just say that the automatic US Post Office kiosks offered to “expedite” mailings may only list “large envelope” categories, but the Post Office treats padded mailings as “packages.” And people wonder why I’m contemplating training carrier vultures to deliver the mail.) Well, that’s been resolved, and for those wondering why you have a Triffid Ranch poster in your mailbox this week, that’s why. For everyone else, should you know a reporter, freelancer, or other sculp[tor of the language arts who might need a poster, send their address this way. Send your address, too, while you’re at it: we have plenty.
For those coming to the site via William Wadsack’s article in Community Impact, welcome, and rest assured that we’re having an open house on Saturday, October 9 if you’d like to stop by and view the gallery. (This weekend, the gallery will be closed for my mother-in-law’s memorial service.) For those coming from elsewhere and encountering the article, please forgive the fact that your host is one of the most unphotogenic individuals this species has ever produced: I give nobody any grief about this, because I don’t think Annie Leibovitz could take a positive photo of me. Now you understand why (a) there’s been a dearth of new videos on the site and (b) I make a point of staying on the other side of the camera whenever possible, if only to keep from scaring children and small animals. For everyone else, please carry on.
And we thought August was interesting, eh? (He wrote, currently staring down a dire wolf skeleton mount at the Cincinnati airport, where he was transferred from a trip to New Jersey because Philadelphia experiences Dallas-level thunderstorms, too.) While nothing is quite as exciting as this time last year, the gallery and environs have their own thrills this month, and it’ll keep going through the end of the year.
(To begin, a lot of people came out to the last big open house to remember Caroline’s mother Nancy, who made an impression every time she came out to the gallery and said hello. We won’t be having an open house on October 2 because of her memorial service the previous day, but anyone who wishes to remember her is welcome to gaze upon a red spider lily, her favorite flower and one she grew from her own mother’s bulbs, and give her the best tribute any of us could.)
As for gallery plans, right now, we’re plugging along. Even with that awfully hungry-looking dire wolf looking down the airport concourse, we’re making plans. Even after Texas Frightmare Weekend and the Day Job road trip, we’re still gunning for the last Triffid Ranch Porch Sale of the month, on September 25 from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, probably indoors so we can avoid the last of the seasonal heat.
After that, October should be much of the same. We’re still making the most plotted road trip of the year in October, to crash Armadillocon 43 in Austin on October 15 through 17, and that’s going to require a LOT of plants. We’re even plotting a pre-Halloween event the week before: since two dear friends are getting married on Halloween proper, that has to take precedence.
In related news, as expected, the Triffid Ranch didn’t make the Dallas Observer Best of Dallas Awards in 2021, either in staffer-selected options or in the Reader’s Choice. No big deal, to be honest: we won in 2017, and that’s good enough. Next year, though.
And in final developments, now that things are starting to stabilize, it’s time to get back into local art shows and events, starting in November and December. What better time to get word out than when the dire wolves are on display and the Sarracenia are asleep for the season, eh?
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Apologies for relative quiet on the site this week, but it’s been a bonecruncher this week. For those who haven’t heard the news, Caroline’s mother Nancy died last Sunday, the day before her 88th birthday. The backstory is better suited for the next newsletter, which is going out later this week, but without Nancy and her ceaseless support and love, the Triffid Ranch as it is today may never have happened. Everyone who knew and loved Nancy is invited to come out for this weekend’s Carnivorous Plant Weekend on September 4 and 5: she always loved to come to events and talk with people who had heard her stories via Caroline, and she was always tickled that friends and customers were willing to come to Triffid Ranch events to meet her and not her dingbat son-in-law. The family is having a formal memorial soon, but as a much-missed friend put it about his own mother, you should never go with too few words, and I know several friends coming out who will have great stories.
(And on an unrelated point, Nancy always got a kick out of news coverage about the gallery, particularly our 2017 Dallas Observer Best of Dallas award, and today is the last day for voting in the Dallas Morning News Best in DFW reader’s choice awards. We last talked with her just a few days before she passed, and she got great enjoyment over discovering that the Triffid Ranch managed to get nominated in the first place. I have no delusions that the gallery would win, but she had fun with the conceit, and if we did, I could say with a completely straight face that I couldn’t have done it without her.)
Posted onAugust 4, 2021|Comments Off on “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”…
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Because the July heat set in, and because reasons going back to December 1991, I’m not saying that you HAVE to nominate the Triffid Ranch for the upcoming Dallas Morning News Best in DFW Awards. I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of categories in which the gallery would qualify. I’m certainly not asking anyone to vote as often as allowable under ballot rules. However, if you vote, you have until midnight on Wednesday, July 28, 2021 to get your nominations in. If you’re undecided, then feel free to come out to either of our two Porch Sales this week, either on Sunday, July 25 or on Saturday, July 31, both from 10 am to 3 pm, to look around. And thank you in advance.
Posted onMay 7, 2021|Comments Off on “A man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
Along with everything else that’s going on, it’s time to note that this little WordPress word salad turns a full decade old on Sunday, May 9. As with a lot of other things in my distant past, had anyone told me in 2011 what things with the Triffid Ranch were going to be like in 2021, efforts to check that person’s sanity, preferably with an oil dipstick, would have been necessary. Thanks to everyone who stuck with this little road trip for all these years, and fond memories of those who fell off, for various reasons, since that start. Now let’s make plans for 2031, starting with arranging for more events this month.
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Posted onMarch 4, 2021|Comments Off on An Important Note About COVID-19 Safety
By now, most of the world knows about Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement about ending the current COVID-19 lockdown and relaxing mandates on both mask use and social distancing in indoor spaces. In response, many businesses through the state have announced that they are continuing to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines on both, and the Texas Triffid Ranch stands with them. Until the CDC recommends that enough individuals have been vaccinated that masks and social distancing are no longer necessary, both will continue at Triffid Ranch events for the foreseeable future. Both indoor and outdoor events will require mandatory masks over both nose and mouth, and anyone refusing to respect this will be asked to leave.
With care and consideration, this won’t be an issue soon, especially based on current reports of vaccine production and distribution. However, both as someone who has lost several dear friends to COVID-19, and someone whose track record of past respiratory distress makes him a prime candidate for demonstrating “anybody can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes TALENT,” the current mask requirement for Triffid Ranch events is not negotiable, so please don’t. On the brighter side, it’s possible to be both safe and stylish, as demonstrated with the examples above, and we enthusiastically welcome mask wearers at future events. Thank you very much for your assistance and consideration in this matter, and here’s hoping that masks and disinfection won’t be necessary before the year is out.
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As part of efforts to make 2021 better than 2020, the efforts begin this week to clean up the computer desktop, which was taking on disturbing parallels to fiction. This entails cleaning up lots of redundant folders, removing applications that shut down back in 2014, and trying to get something laughably close to a decent image archive. Lots and lots of oddities turned up, including the below weirdness on Buddha’s Hand citrons, so keep an eye open for images that nobody has seen since the Aughts, and maybe we should be thankful for that. Anyway, enjoy.
Among the more chronologically pedantic, December 31, 2020 isn’t just the end of a particular year in the Gregorian calendar, but also the end of a particular decade. Working on the idea that the calendar had no Year Zero, the Twenty-Teens didn’t end when the last few seconds of 2019 rolled through the clock. No, what we get is Year Zero at the end of each decade, where everything is in flux, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, and the actions in that year help determine what the next decade are going to be like. Think of it like a cloned cat: the reason why you can’t make an exact clone of a beloved cat is because so many of the factors that made that cat unique happened in the womb. Change the food, change the stressors the mother cat had during gestation, change any number of a multitude of factors that might cause a particular gene expression, and you have a clone that’s a genetic copy of the original, but otherwise looks and acts nothing like its progenitor.
With that concept in mind, the way 2020 went, we’re going to start out with a cat genome and get the cutest, cuddliest 40-foot Gila monster with bat wings and laser beam eyes that you’ve ever seen. For some of us, this is a feature, not a bug.
The last thing to be said about 2020, from the Triffid Ranch’s perspective? This was a year to change plans, to pivot away from video (kindasorta), and to get ready for new weirdness. If you think the gallery has changed from where it was five years ago, back in the old Valley View locale, that original gallery was such a huge jump from where things were at the end of 2010. The phrase “quantum leap” is horribly overused by half-bright marketing majors whose grasp of the concept is exceeded by the coliform bacteria in their guts, but that’s pretty much what happened over the last ten years, and now it’s a matter of seeing if this trend continues for the rest of the coming decade. Until we have a better idea of what to expect, and whether that involves blasting Harkun troop carriers out of the sky as they try to take back their former planet, take care of yourselves, and keep watching for new developments. There are still a lot of enclosures to build and stories to tell.
Right now, the greater Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is in our default December weather system: generally sunny and mild, with temperatures at dawn flirting with freezing and temps at dusk considerably higher, with very good chances for surprise frost, snow, and even sleet. Because of that, many of our native plants and the best-adapted of our introduced species base their winter dormancy on photoperiod instead of temperature. A lot of people here do the same thing the closer we get to the winter solstice. Not everything follows that schedule, and for a few, it can be lethal.
The character shown above is a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), a very common lizard ranging through most of the southern United States, with Dallas and Fort Worth marking the western edge of its range. Besides its fame for changing its skin color between brilliant green to deep brown, thus its common name “American chameleon,” Carolina anoles are also famed for their refusal to drink water from standing sources, preferring to lap dew and condensation from leaves and just about any other available surface. In the Dallas area, even considering their intense territoriality, they tend to collect in surprising numbers, and they’re out on any day warm enough to allow them to move in the afternoon. Not only are they adept vine and bush climbers, but thanks to lamellar pads on their toes like those of geckos, they also skitter across vertical wood, brick, and even glass. If they can get a purchase, they’re extremely hard to catch, which is why I don’t catch them: half of the fun with the anoles in and around the greenhouse is getting them trusting enough that I can get close enough to touch, and one big male that loves camping in a potted grapefruit tree has a thing about puffing up his dewlap and challenging me when I’m using the hose, solely so I’ll set the hose sprayer to “mist” and soak him down so he can get an evening drink.
While their climbing skills are legendary, apparently they have limits. For reasons related elsewhere, Venus flytraps in the Dallas area are best grown in glass globes, brandy snifters, vases, and other tall glass containers so they get the high sunlight, high humidity, and good air circulation they crave. Those glass globes tend to create a pitfall trap for them: either due to the angle, the temperature, or both, anoles this time of the year have a problem with climbing into glass containers and being unable to climb out, especially when chasing the same insects that the flytraps already attract. In busier times, this wouldn’t be an issue, between regular waterings twice a week in the summer and the regular Porch Sales, any trapped anole might spend hours inside a globe before being rescued. This time of the year, though, with the flytraps going dormant and checkups every week, a trapped anole could be injured or even killed by remaining in a plant globe, especially if nighttime temperatures went to or below freezing. The odds of this one ending up in another globe are pretty poor (unlike many people, anoles tend to learn from their mistakes), but that’s no guarantee that it won’t happen to another.
With this in mind, it’s time for a homework assignment. As mentioned before, anoles are exemplary climbers, but they need something to climb other than the underside interior of a glass globe. Lots of objects qualify, so long as they neither contaminate the soil inside the container, block off light to the flytrap, nor spread diseases. In this particular case, all of the globes waiting for spring now have a sprig of bamboo rising above the lip, just in case. It’s not much to do, but it should be enough to save anoles, jumping spiders, and the occasional mouse from a slow and undignified death. For those with Triffid Ranch flytraps, and for those just following my growing recommendations, consider doing something similar, just in case. And so it goes.
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If anyone had cared enough to ask me back in January about the essential fashion accessory of 2020, “facemasks” probably would have rated somewhere below “glow-in-the-dark codpieces” and slightly above “a revival of bellbottoms.” (Honestly, my fear was “Panama Jack T-shirts, the Next Generation” would be the definitive fashion statement of the new decade, and so my inherent cynicism once again torpedoes fame, fortune, and that honorary degree from the University of Phoenix.) To be fair, those of us who inhaled the Misha Nogha novel Red Spider, White Web 30 years ago had our suspicions, but when we weren’t running around in cloned sharkskin armor, either, it was easy to assume that this was a future that wasn’t going to happen. Until it was.
Back in March, masks were purely a matter of survival: something to block off particles and aerosols of yecch from making contact with your respiratory system. In the first few days of the pandemic, we were too busy screaming “CORAL!” to worry about making a statement, but by the end of 2020, face masks were a previously inaccessible surface for expression, advertising, and letting your fellow humans know that backing off was a really good idea. Even with impending COVID-19 vaccines, facemasks may be the fashion statement of the decade, as they also do wonders for fending off flu and air pollution, hiding silent comments, and adding to headphones and books the notice to public transit users that the wearer isn’t interested in a conversation. All of these are laudable uses.
The question, as always, though, is “which one?” Not all masks are created equal, but we’ve definitely gone beyond the early stagest of throwing ideas up against the wall and hoping something sticks. Now with minimum standards for quality and coverage, it’s all about longterm comfort, allowing the focus to go next on art. Because of that, and because I share sympathies with lionfish and blue-ringed octopi on warning passersby as what they should expect, the pile of new masks to rotate through keeps growing.
(And on a sidenote, a little extra on washing masks that’s only obvious in retrospect. While washing them in a standard laundry load works for a lot of them, handwashing usually increases their effective lifespan. In addition, for those of us of the male persuasion with particularly slow-growing facial hair, shaving takes on a particular focus when wearing a mask because of hair follicles catching on the inside and pilling the fabric. That’s why I wash masks every day after use, with a bit of shampoo to degrease and disinfect, then hang them up to dry over the rest of the day. It’s easy, efficient, and much gentler on fabrics than tossing them in a washing machine. But that’s just me.)
As mentioned, the pile of masks keeps growing, because the selection keeps growing as well. I’m hoping to be able to turn everybody onto Triffid Ranch poster masks soon, but until that happens, here are several designs that will both help keep you safe and surprise your neighbors at the same time. This also gives me an opportunity to return to my modeling days of the early 1990s and do selfies that don’t scare children and small animals. (The model background, by the way, is an absolutely true story, but it’s been published elsewhere if you want the details.)
To start, old friend and paleoartist Scott Elyard is back to his usual hijinx, and that includes introducing unsuspecting passersby to the Devonian arthrodire Dunkleosteus.
Chelsea Connor already has my heart due to her unrelenting love of anoles, but her mask design is the best answer to the question “is that snake venomous?” ever made. (I have a great appreciation for the venomous snakes of North Texas, and spotting a big cottonmouth basking alongside drainage ditches near downtown Dallas is always a highlight of the day. I also agree without reservation that the best way not to be bitten by a snake, venomous or not, is not to do anything dumb enough to allow a bite to happen in the first place.)
In addition to creating comics (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, I Feel Sick,Fillerbunny) and TV shows (Invader Zim), Jhonen Vasquez creates masks. So many masks. In particular, the Space Jerk design was essential for starting my new day job, so I can blend in among all of you other filthy human bloatlings until the day I finally escape this horrible planet long enough to blow it up. But perhaps I’ve said too much.
Finally, Mónica “Monarobot” Robles Corzo is already justifiably renowned for her frankly stunning Mesoamerican interpretations of kaiju and other monsters, and you’ll have to wait only a short time to see one of her works incorporated into a new Nepenthes hemsleyana enclosure out at the gallery. (If you know anything about N. hemsleyana, you’ll have a hint as to what to expect, and I guarantee that you’ll still be wrong.) She’s taken her distinctive style to mask design, and both the Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc designs are personal favorites around the gallery during both porch sales and weekend plant tours. And if the Shin Godzilla print is more up your alley, who can complain?
Next week: books. Lots of books. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, December is going to be rough enough, but January is going to be a month for staying home and reading.
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This week in Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions, we’re going to talk about food. Now, for Dallas folks, I could bring up local joys such as The Maple Leaf Diner, Tasty Tails, Sababa, and Blu’s Barbeque, but that’s not fair to everyone else, and the idea of these gift options is that they’re open to everyone, regardless of travel options and lockdowns. Instead, we’re going to talk about heat.
Texas cuisine has a reputation for revving the Scoville scale, but what makes it work is an understanding of the flavor that the heat complements and compliments. That’s an overriding concern with most vendors at ZestFest, the largest spicy foods show in the US: any idiot can dump a kilo of ground Carolina Reaper pepper atop an otherwise perfectly good hamburger and post video of the subsequent prolapse on YouTube, but the artist knows when just a little gets the job done and when the chef needs to take the controls of the Titanic and yell “Full speed ahead! Let’s turn that chunk of ice into margaritas!” Therefore, some suggestions on all aspects of that joy, starting with where to start when you don’t know where to start.
When starting with good and hot food, it’s often best to go with someone who knows what they’re doing and trust their assessments. Just like following a film critic with whom you may not always agree but who makes you contemplate going into new cinematic territory, you may have to poke around and find someone with a similar appreciation of heat, and my personal guru in that regard is Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness. Recently, he’s been expanding into reminding people of Cajun remoulade and horseradish sauces, and his recipes are never boring. Best of all, if going through online listings doesn’t work for you, his cookbooks are dangerous to read in bed unless you look forward to drowning in a pool of your own drool. May I recommend his recipe for peri peri sauce?
In a lot of circumstances, you may just want something easy: you’re not in the mood to or not able to make a full fiery dish, or you want to kick up something that everyone else in the family wants to keep bland. (Speaking from experience, New England-style clam chowder is always improved with a good dose of Tabasco or sriarcha sauce, but I don’t dare spice it to my preference for guests.) That’s why keeping tabs on a good shaker bottle for your own augmentation comes in handy, and Defcon Sauces‘ Malum Allium spicy garlic powder is an excellent addition to roasted vegetables, particularly broccoli and Brussels sprouts. My beloved wife Caroline, who admits that she can’t handle much heat, has a love for Malum Allium, but also for the Feisty Fish Rub from Mom’s Gourmet. We go through a lot of spices (mostly because we eat a LOT of roasted vegetables these days), but we keep coming back to each of these, and we’ll probably have a more extensive list for 2021.
And for those who want to go past merely eating hot and want to grow hot, there’s really good news on that front, too. Specifically, while a lot of really good seed suppliers offer excellent pepper species and hybrids, you can’t go wrong with the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and its wide range of pepper seeds. Personal recommendation: my favorite variety from the Institute is its Numex Halloween: not only does the foliage go deep purple-black with sufficient sun, but the peppers go from black to orange as they ripen, and they’re now an essential part of my notorious goth salsa recipe. But don’t pay attention to me: go wild and try something that surprises you, because that range of seeds includes some doozies.
Well, that’s it for this week: things are going to get interesting, what with American Thanksgiving and all. Feel free to expand upon this list in the comments, too: half of the fun is in the sharing.
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Posted onNovember 5, 2020|Comments Off on Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…
Because (a) my current presence in North America is due partly to overly enthusiastic celebration of Gunpowder Treason on its 300th anniversary, (b) I still bow to nobody in my appreciation of Alan Moore, and (c) I am a hopeless fan of Violet Carson roses:
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We’re finally coming upon the end of the growing season here in Dallas, aggravated by the surprisingly cold temperatures of the last week in OCTOBER. One more Porch Sale on October 31, and then the tents go into storage, the Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps go into winter dormancy, and we shift gears until next spring. (For those unfamiliar with Dallas autumns and winters, you’ll be glad we did, too.) That doesn’t mean that the Triffid Ranch shuts down with it. It just means that we’re going a drastically different route than what had been planned back in January.
To begin, it’s time for a short break, and everyone is going to be worrying about larger things around Election Day than one carnivorous plant gallery. Therefore, the first week of November is one of rest and recharging, as well as the opportunity to get the gallery into winter order. In previous years, the weeks until American Thanksgiving would go into multiple shows at the end of the month, but with half cancelled until next year at best and the other half simply not happening at all, it’s time to, as the old saying goes, put your bucket down where you are.
The first big change is that as opposed to the regular Saturday night Nightmare Weekends Before Christmas shows that have been going since 2017, the gallery will be open on Sundays in November and December, exact times to be announced soon. As always, a maximum of 10 people will be allowed inside the gallery at any time, or as at a time when Dallas County drops its current lockdown restrictions, and masks are mandatory. No messing around with this, either: anyone trying to enter without a mask will be asked to wear one or leave.
The other big change is one planned for the middle of March, but understandably curtailed due to conditions. Before the big office lockdown, we were getting ready to announce the availability of enclosure rentals, for those who wanted a carnivorous plant enclosure for offices, classrooms, bars and restaurants , or popup events, but who didn’t necessarily want to buy one. Again, details will follow very soon, but as restaurants and offices start reopening, it’s time to guarantee a little bit of green over the winter.
Finally, it’s time to expand the knowledge base a bit and get back into virtual lectures. Another aspect of the current COVID-19 collapse is that the museum, school, and arboretum lectures and presentations that used to be a staple through the year aren’t happening, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to do one anyway. This means that it’s time to get a lot more use out of the new iPad and put together more videos on plant history, behavior, and husbandry, including more than a few new tools and techniques for those working in much colder climes than these.
One last thing. This November will also see the return of the regular Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions posts that have been on hiatus since the gallery opened: I have a lot of neat friends with a lot of neat and inexpensive items that they’re offering this season, and it’s time to boost the signal as much as possible. Now let’s see how well we get through November.
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Posted onJuly 15, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
Shameless plug time: Dallas has a lot of restaurants, ranging from the corporate to the ethereal, and one of our best draws for visitors is our only Canadian restaurant. I’ve hyped the Maple Leaf Diner for years: when the old gallery was at its Valley View Center location, the Maple Leaf was right across LBJ Freeway, and it became a regular locale for grabbing breakfast before one of the old Valley View ArtWalks, meetings with old friends after gallery tours, and regular Wednesday night dinners with my in-laws. Everything on the menu is both authentic and worth trying: I can state with authority that the Maple Leaf’s Belgian waffles are the best I’ve ever had this side of Toronto, and it’s the perfect place to introduce Texans to the Euclidean idea of poutine. Short of being greeted at the door by Rick Mercer, it’s the best chunk of Canada you’ll ever find this far south.
Anyway, one of the minor draws of the Maple Leaf is the east wall, covered with all sorts of kitschy tourist souvenirs from Our Home and Native Land, including a souvenir plate of Canada’s flower emblems, the provincial equivalents of state flowers in the US. It’s a little out of date, as it only lists “Newfoundland” instead of “Newfoundland & Labrador” (not to mention nothing about Nunavut), but it still shows off the Newfie flower emblem and beloved flower of Queen Victoria, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. For years, the plan was to bring in a purple pitcher plant or ten on July 1, Canada Day, just so the staff and customers could see one in the pulp, and possibly go into a discussion of the carnivorous plants of Canada. (Oh, trust me. Canada has a lot of them.) Unfortunately, there was always one minor disaster or another that prevented that from happening, especially after Valley View closed and we had to move gallery locales. 2020, though, was going to be the year that we actually pulled it off. I was sure of it.
Well, in 2020, it happened, kinda. Right in the middle of a pandemic, right after the Maple Leaf reopened for takeout and curbside service, Sarracenia purpurea came to the Maple Leaf, even if only long enough for quick pictures and a staff ogling before my masked presence had to clear out for safety’s sake. (Their safety, not mine.) Next year, though, once it’s safe to do so, expect a lot more.
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Posted onJuly 10, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: the HVAC Edition
Very much as with home ownership, commercial property leasing is one of those things where beginners often don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. For the last three years the Triffid Ranch has been in its present location, most issues with that location were relatively easy, especially compared to its first space. (There’s nothing quite like discovering that the owner of Valley View Center was refusing to let the Dallas Fire Marshall inspect the fire suppression system, right on the heels of the air conditioning system blowing out during the hottest November in Texas recorded history and said owner refusing to repair it for a full month.) It’s the little things that surprise you, and if you’re lucky, they reveal themselves just before they become catastrophic failures. Such is the story of the Triffid Ranch air conditioning system.
With many commercial properties in the state of Texas, any improvements to the property other than common areas (driveways, parking lots, access ramps, and the like) must be paid for by the tenant. Necessities such as electricity are maintained and updated either by the property or the utility supplying it, but everything else falls to the purview of the renter. Want to replace bare concrete floors with carpet or wooden flooring? That’s on the renter. Replace fixtures such as sinks and toilets? The renter. For the most part, we cheerily go to work, installing break areas, adding lighting, and doing all sorts of other things to make the space liveable and pleasant, and the question is always “how badly do you need this?”
And this is where the air conditioner comes in. When we moved in, we knew the gallery’s existing air conditioner was a bit, say, chronologically challenged. When installed back in 1987, the individual who paid for it went with the absolute cheapest system s/he could get, which meant a system that cooled the front vestibule, where Caroline’s space is currently located, and a side room that was apparently an executive’s office. Everywhere else, you got what you got, which meant that summers required lots of fans. This also meant that between May and October, that little unit was pretty much on day and night, just to keep the inside area liveable. Things weren’t helped by what could be called “enthusiastic nonmaintenance”: when we moved in, the air filter on the AC unit apparently hadn’t been changed in years, said filter was held in place with two old AC-to-DC power adaptors originally used for a long-removed security system, and the previous tenant had managed to get a ridiculous amount of glitter and most of a blue feather boa into the vents. (That story comes later, because it’s even weirder than you’d expect.) When we had problems with the system three years ago, a thorough cleaning improved the situation somewhat, but we knew that eventually the whole unit would need replacement. In Texas, having an operational AC unit, even one as kludgy and obsolete as this on was, was a necessity for survival for three months out of the year.
Even before the days of COVID-19, the plan was to replace the AC in the gallery before the summer heat got going, as open houses during the summer were already a bit sultry when the place filled with people. However, circumstances led to an acceleration of the plan. Just before the July 4 holiday, the whole old AC unit froze up, leading to water leaking from underneath the unit, and an inspection led to the discovery that the unit coils were rusting out. It may have remained intact through the summer, and it might not have survived July. The compressor on the roof was just as old, just as rickety, and just as ready for failure, and replacing the indoor unit would likely lead to a failure compressor, again in the height of the July repair season. After consulting with our AC rep (anyone needing contact info is welcome to ask), the plan was to replace the whole mess with a new, larger indoor unit and a new compressor, offering nearly twice the cooling power with considerably lessened power consumption. More importantly, because of the surprisingly cool and rainy weather in this first week, switching it out quickly was imperative.
The upshot? The unit still needs some additional work to bring everything up to code, but the difference is amazing. Even in the worst heat, not only does the new unit do so much more to cool the main gallery area, but IT DOESN’T RUN ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Obviously, the real acid test will be to check its performance during a packed open house, which may be a while, but this takes pressure off both attendees and the plants. The plants, in particular, appreciate the sudden coolth. Now let’s wait until it’s reasonably safe to have indoor events to test the system’s limits.
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For friends, cohorts, and relations outside of the Dallas area, a tribute to the flower emblem of Newfoundland & Labrador. For those in the Dallas area, it’s time for breakfast takeout from The Maple Leaf Diner, serving the absolute best Belgian waffles to be found this side of Toronto. And yes, when I pick up my waffles, I’m bringing a purple pitcher plant, just so the owners get a little bit of home.
Posted onJune 29, 2020|Comments Off on 100 Years of Ray Harryhausen
A lot of people will be making note of how today would have been Ray Harryhausen‘s 100th birthday, and they all have good reason to note his influence on them, creative and otherwise. My sole contribution: every last enclosure I design has a scoop of wonder added by a six-year-old who first encountered Harryhausen’s work via the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights back in 1972. The 53-year-old who pays rent on the place regularly has to explain to that six-year-old that the odds are increasing small on any place like the Forbidden Valley still existing in this age, and that films like this are about the only way we’re going to see non-avian dinosaurs. That’s when the six-year-old says “Okay, if the Forbidden Valley doesn’t exist, why can’t we make one?” You can’t argue with kid logic like this, so I’ll probably be building Forbidden Valleys, with all sorts of wonders hidden in them, for the rest of my life. (A 25-year-old tenant who was lucky enough to interview Mr. Harryhausen when he came to Dallas vaguely wishes he knew the whereabouts of the interview tape, as the magazine for which it was conducted and then spiked is long-dead. The 53-year-old just notes that everything that he said was better collected in books and videos that deserve wider recognition, so it’s not going to get pulled out in my lifetime.)
Posted onMay 29, 2020|Comments Off on Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests
In efforts to improve both sculpting techniques and enclosure design, the Triffid Ranch library is full of books offering inspiration and advice on miniature perspective, ranging from the Vietnamese art of Hòn non bộ to entirely too many guides on practical special effects from the 1970s. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of going directly to the source for reference, which presented itself with a maintenance trip to my late father-in-law’s ranch in West Texas.
The ranch in question is atop the Edwards Plateau, which makes up a significant portion of the border of the Brazos River as it meanders through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The Plateau is on a thick base of limestone and sandstone dating to the Pennsylvanian Period, almost exclusively marine deposits but occasionally showing thick layers of conglomerate from the erosion of long-vanished mountains. Even the thickest layers are only about a meter thick: most are less than a centimeter thick, and many are paper-thin. Several roads lead the length of the ranch to the Brazos, and the limestone at the highest elevation is thick and strong enough to have supported two quarries that ran until the late 1960s. The rest, well, not so much.
Anyway, many of these ancient seabeds were shallow enough that they supported all sorts of life, as evidenced by innumerable fossils of crinoids, brachiopods, and horn corals. No vertebrate fossils have turned up, but plant fossils are abundant, usually consisting of Lepidodendron and other land plants apparently washed out to sea during floods. Some of the layers are so thin that they suggest ultrashallow lagoons that came close to drying out. All in all, the ranch collects about 50 million years of the history of Texas, just waiting for someone other than me to interpret what it says.
Because of those ultrathin layers, I’d wanted to get photos of these for scale, in attempts to replicate this in enclosure form for future projects. Not only was this shoot intended for reference on lighting and accessory arrangement, but it’s also an opportunity to offer a slight distraction in trying times. Enjoy.
And finally, as a direct opportunity to aggravate Ethan Kocak of The Black Mudpuppy, it’s time to prove that if he wants to mess with us on horrible mashups, some of us will mess back:
Posted onMay 12, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores
For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.
Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.
Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.
When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.
Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.
Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.
Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.
This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.
As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:
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Posted onApril 24, 2020|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: April 2020
A solid month after the COVID-19 lockdown started, and everyone understands my hometown’s unofficial motto: “So…aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” For those having issues with shelter-in-place orders, I sincerely sympathize and empathize with your plight, and here’s hoping that the Triffid Ranch can help take the edge off. For those suddenly finding ourselves with the opportunity to live our preferred hours, “If I’m not back in my coffin by sunrise, I turn back into a pumpkin,” there’s a lot to do. Hang on.
To start off, the virtual Manchester United Flower Show on April 18 was an experiment in terror, but it also worked. Yeah, the video froze at the beginning (a glitch in its iPad app means that everything freezes if texts or other notices come through, requiring a hard restart to get everything going again), but it was a grand start. This, of course, was the beginning: the archives are up on Twitch, and expect new installments every Sunday evening. (During the duration of the lockdown, don’t expect any Saturday evening virtual open houses for one very important reason. I refuse to make anyone choose between Triffid Ranch streams and those of Panoptikon Dallas, myself included. Dallas’s best goth club is having issues with the lockdown as well, the DJs and crew are friends, and the Friday and Saturday night playlists are a great comfort in the gallery late at night.)
And on the subject of virtual events, it only gets better next week. Until March, the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year was the planned Texas Frightmare Weekend horror convention that traditionally runs the first weekend of May. Frightmare has been moved to September, and we’re all awaiting word as to whether it’ll be safe for the show to run then (and whether we’ll all be wearing masks and not just for costuming), but Grand Poobah Loyd Cryer decided that if we couldn’t have the show in May, we at least needed something. That’s why, starting on April 25, the new Frightmare HQ streaming show promises to give everyone a taste of what makes TFW such an event. The first broadcast runs on April 25 and runs through the weekend of May 2, and those who missed out on the last virtual open house get a good look at the inside of the gallery starting at 2:00 pm Central Time. And yes, if you can’t watch live, the archives will be available on YouTube and Twitch.
In other developments, it’s official as of today: the governor of Texas signed an executive order today that allows non-essential business to conduct pick-up and delivery business, which means that the Triffid Ranch is back to limited operation. Because (a) customers cannot enter the premises, (b) only curbside delivery is allowed, and (c) the gallery is currently full of plants that had been potted in anticipation of the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo show scheduled for March, we’re going to try something different. All enclosures listed in the Enclosures Past & Present section are available for purchase at any time (just schedule an appointment for pickup or delivery), but most of the sales at shows such as Oddities & Curiosities and Texas Frightmare Weekend were for smaller, individual plants and containers. Because setting up tables and letting customers go through a complete inventory isn’t an option, it’s time for a Sunday Flash Sale. For the foreseeable future, from 12 noon until we’re out of plants, the Triffid Ranch front porch will have one specific species or group available, all generally identical, and all for the same price. Check back each Saturday to find out what the Flash Sale special is going to be, and call or write to reserve a plant once the special is announced. For those who want to drive by first, we accept drive-up visitors, but everyone will HAVE to stay in the car while doing so. (On my side, it’s masks and gloves all the way around, with containers cleaned before the sale starts.) For obvious reasons, the sale starts with tropical carnivores, but expect to see Sarracenia and other outdoor carnivores in the next few weeks once growing season gets going.
Well, it’s not the same as normal operations for an April, but things could be a lot worse. After all, three years ago, the gallery was a packed-up mess after its relocation, and it took six months of work to get it ready for its official reopening. If we survived that, we can survive anything.
Posted onApril 12, 2020|Comments Off on Welcome To Your Career In The Arts
For the last several years, I freely admit that I blatantly stole a beautiful concept from the artist and musician Steven Archer, famed for his involvement with Ego Likeness, Hopeful Machines, and Stoneburner. In addition to his other endeavors, any of which make us mere mortals want to eat his brain so we can steal his powers, Steven also shares particularly disturbing failure videos and gifs, usually involving faceplants and setting idiots’ knees afire, all of which beg for one specific soundtrack, for his followers and interested passersby. The punchline is the same with each video or animated gif: “Welcome to your career in the arts.”
Part of the reason why so many of these are so funny isn’t just in being glad that we aren’t as unlucky, unskilled, or foolish as the individuals in said videos. It’s that for anybody with an actual career in the arts, we watch the videos, wipe our brows, and sigh “So it’s not just me.” So often, no matter how hard we prepare and what we try, it’s Faceplant City, and most of us just brush the concrete dust off our noses, spit out the broken teeth, and get up to do it again. Compulsion is a wonderful thing.
And so it goes. Since before the beginning of this foul Year of Our Lord 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was to jump up the number of Triffid Ranch shows, lectures, and open houses, including an expansion outside of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Well, you can call COVID-19 “The Rona” or “Captain Trumps,” but every artist, musician, and writer in town saw the implosion of venues and events and called it “The Devil Vomits In My Face Once More.” You wipe off your eyes, reach for a towel and an eyewash station, and start again.
And to follow the old adage “when God closes a door, He also opens a window,” it’s time to see if if the next few weeks constitute defenestration or flying. The original plan was to hold a major open house, the Manchester United Flower Show, on April 18, if the current shelter-in-place order for Dallas County would allow it. Since that order runs until at least the beginning of May, this wouldn’t happen anyway, and a lot of folks understandably don’t want to risk crowds even after the order is lifted. We can’t have a traditional open house, and a lot of people outside of Dallas regularly mope (but mope in a cute way) about not being able to get to an open house anyway, so it’s time to make things virtual.
With the recommendation and inspiration of Christopher Doll of Breaking Fitt’s Law and Pete Freedman of Central Track, both essential reading, the Triffid Ranch is going to Twitch. The Eventbrite invitations will go out soon, but we’re going to try a video open house starting at 6:00 pm Central Standard Time on Saturday, April 18. Just as with the in-person open houses, this will run until about 11:00, thus allowing folks in varying time zones a chance to jump in. If this works out well and it doesn’t lead to a terminal curbstomping, we may have more in our current time of crisis, and probably way beyond. Not only will this give friends and interested bystanders a chance to see the inner workings of carnivorous plant blooms, but it gives a chance to confirm that the sole proprietor has far too much in common with the late Rik Mayall’s most famous character. See you then.
Posted onApril 3, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 3
Even in better times, Texans and tourists rushed out every spring to view the return of the Texas bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, bringing family, loved ones, and pets into the mix. This didn’t always end well for the bluebonnets: the plants themselves are reasonably tolerant of abuse, but the flowers are very easily crushed. This was really a problem for actively trafficked areas: for the most part, bluebonnets are common enough and widespread enough that the species can handle the occasional trampled cluster. In these days of social distancing, that dose of blue, purple, and green is even more important than ever, as is the need to give everyone a chance to see them who wants to do so. Please, please be careful when taking family photos in bluebonnet patches, if only by sticking to the edges and not flattening the whole thing. Most importantly, clean up after your pets, unless you want that kind of karma in an age of security cameras everywhere. Everyone else will thank you for this in the future.
For everyone who has followed this little trek so far, thank you very much, and keep an eye open for future posts. Bluebonnet season is just getting started, and there’s no telling what we could find among the undergrowth in a week or so. No telling at all.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 2
One of the things that amazes so many initiates to Texas bluebonnets is exactly how much animal life can reside inside one bluebonnet clump. No, not bluebonnet rattlesnakes: a thriving field of bluebonnets captures dead leaves and other debris to feed detritivores, and the leaves provide sustenance for a whole legion of foragers and grazers, while the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators that themselves depend upon the flowers’ pollen and nectar. With those herbivores come predators to take advantage of the largesse, and bodies of predator and prey themselves feed the detritivores. It’s a short-lived cycle that ends when the plants die off and burn back in May, but it’s absolutely essential for a wide variety of fauna, mycota, and other flora to continue their own life cycles. Give the land a chance to cool and rest over the winter, and the cycle starts all over in spring.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 1
For those outside of Texas, and for everyone sheltering in place, the Texas wildflower season started about the time we all started self-quarantining, and it now gets going with the beginning of bluebonnet season. Lupinus texensis is a denizen of poor soils throughout the state, growing thickly on roadsides, fields, industrial parks, and anywhere where nitrogen is at a premium. Part of their appeal is the tremendous clumps of blooms at the height of the season, but also their transitory nature: by the end of April, they generally burn off and deposit seeds for next year’s crop. By July, most people who hadn’t witnessed the waves of blooms in April would never have known they existed: the stems and flowers turn to powder and are overgrown by grasses and other summer flora.
Because of this temporary display, many bluebonnet habitats throughout Texas will not mow until the bluebonnets and other wildflower species go to seed. With the bluebonnets come legions of wildflower tourists to get photos of family and/or loved ones among the bluebonnets, in addition to utter idiots fussing about bluebonnet rattlesnakes. This is all fine and good, but these photos generally avoid one important fact: L. texensis is a fascinating plant when seen from the ground, to the point of seeming unbearably exotic.
It’s easy to be flippant about plant blindness, the cognitive bias that prevents people from seeing the plants in their everyday environments. It’s an understandable heritage of being taught over and over to look for the animals in various environments: look back on the number of pictorials of exotic environments and then consider how many focused solely on the plants and ignored the animals. You might be considering for a while: everything from National Geographic foldouts to dinosaur books focus on the animals big and small, with the accompanying flora a sidenote at best. The phenomenon of plant blindness is even worse with documentary films and videos: show a field of Sarracenia pitcher plants, and interest only perks up when the viewer sees tree frogs in the pitchers. On a personal level, I deal with this at Triffid Ranch shows on a constant basis: not only do people look at an enclosure in a quest for the animal they’re sure is inside, but after being told that the enclosure holds nothing but plants, they check again just to make sure. Plant blindness isn’t innate and it isn’t genetic: it’s a learned behavior, and it’s one that can be broken with enough practice.
This is why, in the tradition of Sir David Attenborough, it’s time to go among the bluebonnets. Expect more pictures in the very near future: after all, bluebonnet season is only just starting up, and they’re going to get thick in the next few weeks. Most importantly, though, try to remember that plant blindness. Don’t focus on anything else: focus on the plants. Note the foliage as well as the blooms. Only this way can you break the curse of plant blindness.
The best-laid plans, and all that. The old Chinese curse about living in interesting times definitely applies through this month, and apparently beyond. The news about the Dallas County shelter-in-place order requiring all residents to stay at home unless conducting essential business is now international news, but the subsequent mandatory orders applying specifically to Richardson and Garland are just as big a deal. Right now, the Dallas County order will be up for review on April 3, the Garland order until at least April 7, and Richardson cut to the chase and set its order to run until at least April 29. Any way you look at it, anyone in the greater Dallas area isn’t going anywhere, especially since local police are empowered to ticket and/or arrest anyone running about without good reason.
And how does this affect the Triffid Ranch? Quite honestly, it stops everything for the next month, and directly affects the rest of the year. Unlike the twerp at the mail drop last Monday who wanted to argue that the Dallas County order didn’t apply to him because of one tiny issue that he assumed invalidated the whole order, the orders aren’t up for debate over here. As anybody in US Army Basic Training learns on the first day of Nuclear/Biological/Chemical training, you do NOT take off your mask until someone with the proper authority gives the proper “ALL CLEAR” signal. You may be melting in the heat, and you may want the freedom to take it off and relax, but it’s there for a reason.
So what this means is that every Triffid Ranch event scheduled for March, April, and May has been rescheduled, delayed, or otherwise put on hold. The planned April 18 Manchester United Flower Show open house is delayed. This also means that all appointments will have to wait until Richardson’s order is lifted, although remote consultations are still open. (If anything, if you’re looking for a custom enclosure, the delay should give it plenty of time to get established by the time you’re able to pick it up.) Among the important events:
As always, keep an eye on the Shows, Lectures, and Other Events page for changes to the schedule: everything depends right now on how well the COVID-19 situation flattens out, and what gets scheduled against what. Until then, stay safe, stay distant, and we’ll see you when we see you.
Posted onMarch 15, 2020|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: March 2020
Well. Skip out on one update in February, and look at what happens. All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi…er, I mean, all of those years of mental preparation for the collapse of human civilization, and here’s what it comes down to. No zombies, no Daleks, no mutants, no dinosaurs, no asteroid impacts, all of the rampaging highway raiders in Mohawks and bondage pants are riding mopeds…there’s a very good reason to stay home until this is all over.
Very seriously, for all of the “Love In the Time of COVID-19” jokes, March just got very interesting around the Triffid Ranch. Being open solely by appointment, social distancing was already enforced before everything went down, and a lot of those appointments may now be run virtually. (Yes, that means finally getting my Skype account up and going.) I was literally in Austin for 15 minutes last weekend when the City of Austin announced that it was shutting down the SXSW art and music festival, and cancellations rapidly spread through Texas, especially after Dallas County set up a ban on gatherings for more than 500 people on March 13. I was last-minute scheduled for a one-night presentation via the Corpsepaint Show at Gas Monkey Live on March 13, so there was that. All-Con was on its second day when Dallas County ordered its shutdown, with all of the vendors having to pack up and go home at about 11:30 Friday morning. Then came the list of events that were being rescheduled because there was no guarantee that COVID-19 would abate by the planned date. The Deep Ellum Art Festival. Fan Expo Dallas. When the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo shuts down, you know people are taking this seriously.
To their eternal credit, the organizers of the Oddities & Curiosities Expo touring shows and Texas Frightmare Weekend have been on the case. Not within an hour of the Dallas County announcement, the Oddities & Curiosities crew were up and rescheduling shows, with the Dallas show moving from March 28 to June 27. Texas Frightmare Weekend is still starting on May 1 until further notice, but Loyd Cryer and his faithful crew were already running contingency plans and reassuring attendees and vendors that if anything changed, they’d know as soon as humanly possible. To their greater credit, both shows understood that a lot of us vendors were going to be hit badly due to the number of March shows shutting down, so they both posted lists of vendors so interested bystanders could buy from them directly until the situation was under control. In the interests of solidarity with cohorts and friends, go check them out and buy mass quantities, or at least let friends know that they’re out here:
With all of this, it’s hard not to bring up my home town’s unofficial motto: “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think about Dallas?” All I can say is that while we’re all staying home, with good reason, keep an eye open for interesting updates: since the gallery is reasonably isolated and I have plenty of time that was previously taken up with show preparation, it’s time to write up all of the plant care guides and other ephemera that had been put off for months and sometimes years. At least, that’s the idea. We’ll see how it goes from here. Until then, stay inside, stay safe, and rest assured that if you get a newsletter from me, it’ll include more content than far too many of the ones flooding your email box right now. And so it goes.
UPDATE (3/16/2020): I just got word from Jason at Curious Garden about Saturday’s carnivorous plant workshop, and it’s being rescheduled for a date after all of our current self-quarantine. This news wasn’t unexpected, but it came just as the City of Dallas ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, and gyms within city limits. It’s getting strange out there, folks, so take care.
The end of any year in the Gregorian calendar that ends in a “9” always ends the same: innumerable alcoholic amateurs assuming that they’re channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, massive disappointing clearance sales with clothing stores acknowledging that styles WILL change and soon, and the continuing war between pedants on whether a particular decade ends at the end of the “9” year or the end of the “0” year. Personally, since 1970, which just never rolled over and went away until about 1987, my attitude has been that those “0” years are transition years: the decade that was dies tonight at midnight, but the beast won’t die until the signal travels all the way through its bulk and reaches its tail, and it’ll thrash around for a while in the process. We now have a year to find out what the Twenty-Twenties are going to look and sound like, and we shouldn’t worry about the exact date of death. What matters right now is that as of midnight on January 1, the Twenty-First Century is now one-fifth over, and we should start behaving like it. Want a semantic cause? Start insisting that those still using the term “turn of the century” need to emphasize which one.
There’s no question that 2019 was a year of transition, of what the author Harlan Ellison referred to as “the hour that stretches.” Harlan’s 1988 collection Angry Candy started with an introduction discussing all of the friends, cohorts, heroes, and fellow travelers he’d lost by that point, and how the sudden conga line of mortality directly affected his storytelling. At the time I bought that collection when it came out in hardcover, I was nearly 22, so I had no real grasp of his pain: now, I’m the age he was when Angry Candy was published, and I understand far too well. You may not recognize the names of Jeb Bartlett or Rob Fontenot or Laura Huebner, or of my father-in-law Durwood Crawford, but they made the world just a little more fun and a little more kind, and they’ll always have a spot in the Triffid Ranch pantheon of heroes alongside Adrian Slack and old Harlan himself. (And I have to leave a little room for my late cat Leiber, as his life stretched across nearly a third of mine, and not hearing his happy chirps when I’d look at all of the cat fur in the vacuum cleaner and scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” has left the house just a little darker and lonelier, no matter how much Alexandria and Simon try to fill the gap.)
As far as accomplishments are concerned, this was a good year because of their sheer number. This was the first year a Triffid Ranch enclosure was entered in a professional art exhibition, and the first year of making more than one trip outside of Dallas to show off enclosures. (Next year will be even more fun, with at least three shows in Austin, one in Houston, and the first-ever show outside of Texas in New Orleans in August.) This was a year for workshops, and a year for presentations, and a year for rapidly changing directions. This was the year, a decade after the first halting Triffid Ranch shows, where I never regretted quitting professional writing less, because those workshops and presentations did more actual good than writing about long-forgotten movies and books ever did. Expect a lot more of those in 2020, too, because the life of a carnivorous plant grower is always intense.
With that year in transition comes a few unpleasant but necessary sidebars. 2020 is going to be a year without Facebook: after a lot of thought about Facebook’s accessibility for friends and customers versus the company’s issues with security, its never-ending throttling of Page access to subscribers unless the Page owner pays for “boosts” (and the ever-decreasing reach of those boosts thanks to ad blockers and the company’s own algorithms), it’s time to leave early so as to avoid the rush. Social media access continues with both Instagram and Twitter (just search for “txtriffidranch”), but the rabbit hole opened every time someone sent a message that lowered Triffid Ranch Page posts if I didn’t respond immediately to yet another discovery of that idiotic Santa Claus Venus flytrap video just takes up too much time. Besides, if you’re wanting news on what’s happening with the gallery, that’s what the newsletter is for.
Anyway, thank you all for sticking around, for coming up and asking questions at presentations and lectures, for buying enclosures so I have room to place new ones, and for coming out to open houses. You’re appreciated, and just wait until you see what’s planned for 2020. The first open house of the year is on January 25: you won’t want to miss this one.
Due to a death in the family, this Saturday’s Nightmare Weekend Before Christmas has been cancelled, but expect a full return to form on Saturday, December 7. If you’re really nice, I might even sing for the occasion:
Posted onNovember 21, 2019|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: November 2019 – Special Edition
A lot has happened in November so far, and more is gearing up for the rest of the month, in what the author Harlan Ellison called “the hour that stretches.” November has always been an, er, interesting month in my life, what with layoffs, moves, new jobs, and more than a few deaths. November 2019 follows in that tradition, and the plan is that the window that opens when the door closes is a greenhouse vent and not an airlock. Yeah, it’s been one of THOSE Novembers.
Anyway, the practical upshot is that appointment availability for Triffid Ranch consultations just became a lot more open. The Nightmare Weekends Before Christmas Saturday night open houses starting on November 30 remain unaffected, but now the gallery will be open a lot more often during the week, too. Just excuse the mess: the events over the last two months (of which no more will be said) interfered with new projects, so the idea now is to rectify that situation. Among other things, this frees up storage space, it gives new homes for older plants to stretch out, and it gives more reasons for all of you lot to come out to multiple Nightmare Weekends to see what’s new THIS time. If you’ve had an eye on a particular enclosure but haven’t made the move to take it home just yet, this may be the perfect opportunity.
And the rest of the year? That’s dedicated both to a wedding anniversary blowout (17 years as of December 28, and people still assume that we’ve been married for weeks) and to getting ready for 2020. This includes a stem-to-stern renovation of the gallery, other essential updates (after all, we’ve been in the space for three years as of February, so we have plans), and scheduling for the largest list of outside events yet. Among other things, a quick perusal of the calendar revealed that next Valentine’s Day falls on a Friday, and between this and Leap Day on a Saturday, it’s time to call some people and plan a multi-venue event. As always, details will follow as they happen: if it doesn’t happen, you’ll never know about it.
Speaking of venues, if you’ve attended an open house and never stepped across the doorway to our neighbor Visions of Venice, consider yourself encouraged to investigate. Besides being the absolute best business neighbor a boy could ever want, the amount of crossover interest between carnivorous plants and Italian glasswork continues to surprise me. Even better, the storefront is open during the week, so don’t be afraid to head out during a lunch break with a whole group of coworkers and peruse the stock of masks and chandeliers. (Yes, they actually go together. Don’t argue with me on this.)
Finally, before loading up the van and heading out to Austin for this weekend’s Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show at the Travis County Exposition Center, a little note: some of you may have noticed that the new URL for this Web site changed to http://www.texastriffidranch.com within the last week. It’s a funny story as the old URL still works, and you’ll have to come out to one of the Triffid Ranch events for an explanation. In the meantime, if you haven’t been exploring through the archives in a while, please indulge your curiosity, as WordPress and Google are fighting over whether or not this is new content. Besides, you don’t have anything better to do the week before American Thanksgiving when you’re trapped at work and everyone else is taking off on early vacations, right?
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There’s usually nothing quite like the Monday after a big show, and with two shows this last weekend, I was expecting a humdinger of a Monday morning. I had no idea. For those catching the news, the north Dallas area was hit by multiple tornadoes on Sunday night, and the damage is still being assessed. To cut to the chase, the gallery was fine: aside from a power outage, everything was in good shape after a quick morning inspection. (People regularly ask about the odd electric clock running in the gallery that still lists the date as sometime within 2000. This is my blackout clock. It’s an easy way both to tell that the gallery was hit with a power outage and to determine how long it’s been back on. After last April’s horrendous storm and subsequent power outage, I’m seriously thinking about getting an emergency generator, just for the freezer.)
The rest of the area, though, isn’t as lucky. The big tornado tore a divot through residential and business areas just south of the gallery, running roughly parallel to LBJ Freeway. Apparently the neighborhood in which I lived at the end of the last century was hit very hard, as was the shopping plaza where I had my old mail drop between 1997 and 2012. North Haven Gardens came pretty close to being wiped off the map, and the main tornado then hopped Central Expressway and took out the gallery’s local Home Depot. Another tornado touched down just east of the gallery, disintegrating both a train crossing and all of the trees in the immediate vicinity. It’ll probably be a few days before anybody gets a good assessment of the damage, but the good news is that tornado sirens and phone alerts worked and no fatalities were reported.
(One aside: not only are we fine, but thanks to the City of Garland keeping up proactive maintenance on power lines, we kept power all through this. The only scary moment came after returning the rental truck for last weekend’s shows: this marks two times in my life that I’ve viewed a funnel cloud from the underside, and it’s a phenomenon I’d be very happy to leave to experts.)
In the meantime, if things go quiet, it’s mostly from helping friends and neighbors dig out from the mess. Thank you for understanding, and normal snarkiness will resume shortly.
A little side-project tied to the October gallery open house this weekend: with the exceptions of side-trips to Tallahassee, Portland, and northeast Wisconsin, next December marks 40 years in North Texas. In that time, I haven’t done a lot of things either expected of me or intimated that it might be in my best interest. I’ve never been to South Fork or the 6th Floor Museum, I haven’t been to Six Flags Over Texas since 1982, I haven’t gone to a high school football game, and I have yet to come across a rattlesnake in the wild. (I had to go to Tallahassee for that.) One of the things I’ve wanted to do besides come across a seven-foot Western diamondback, though, was to eat prickly pear cactus fruit until I fell over, and that’s now checked off the bucket list.
The prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is a regular component of the Texas experience. Technically, the Dallas area isn’t the eastern edge of its range (Opuntia is found growing along the Gulf Coast into the western coast of Florida, often growing in the crooks of mangrove trees), but Dallas marks where the pine trees of East Texas are supplanted by cactus. In our area, they tend to show up in poor, well-drained areas such as along culverts and bridges, and they’re just cold-tolerant enough to survive most Dallas winters. The cactus has not only been a food source for humans for centuries (the pads and fruit are referred to in Spanish as nopales and tuna respectively), but if you’re lucky, you’ll see little tufts of what look like white cotton lint on the pads. Those tufts are camouflage for the cochineal bug (Dactylopius coccus), the source for the cloth and food dye carmine. (That little bug is the main reason why prickly pear was a major invasive pest in Australia, but that’s a story for later.)
Anyway, prickly pear fruit is much like apples: just because it looks ripe doesn’t mean that it is. I’d been watching a lone cactus clump near the bike path I take to the gallery, telling myself that this would be the year that I harvested that patch. In 2017 and 2018, someone else harvested the whole lot in early September, probably realizing afterwards that nice purple tuna had all of the flavor and consistency of aquarium gravel at that point. This year, though, they stayed until mid-October, and a preliminary test suggested that the whole clump was ready. Tuna don’t have the vicious spines that the pads do, but they’re still covered with irritating hairs to dissuade cattle and other big herbivores, so it was time to go out with kitchen tongs and a big bag.
Now remember those irritating hairs I mentioned? Those need to be removed before eating. The traditional way was to burn them off, either in a campfire or in the flames of a gas stove, but silicone hot mitts also work very well in removing hairs without getting a handful. (Trust me: you do NOT want these hairs stuck in your skin, as they can take days or even weeks to pull free, and tweezers tend to break them.) Whichever you choose to clean them, a good rinse with water, and they’re ready for processing.
A lot of recipes are available for prickly pear fruit, but I knew exactly what their fate was going to be: sorbet. After coming across a good recipe, the next trick was to puree them, as the skin adheres to the pulp when they’re this ripe. Even in the initial testing with a smoothie maker, the juice was flavorful enough that it would have made a great breakfast juice. The plan, though, was to go further.
The final juicing yielded about four liters of liquefied fruit, and then came the real joy: straining. Prickly pear seeds never stop tasting like aquarium gravel, and they’re packed in enough that they’re a threat to the teeth. This meant that a new colander got quite a workout. (Friendly warning: not only will prickly pear fruit juice stain just about anything it touches, but expect at least some seeds to get through unless you’re straining through cheesecloth. Just be prepared for that.)
The next stage started after the juice chilled in the refrigerator for 24 hours, and that involved an ice cream maker. Some enthusiasts prefer making a prickly pear sorbet at relatively warm temperatures to keep up the consistency: others recommend freezing it hard so a spoon takes off shavings. However you want to do it, make sure your ice cream maker is well-cleaned, check it regularly if it’s electric, and make sure it has plenty of ice in the bucket.
The end result? Well, the end result went into ramekins and then into the freezer, and those attending this weekend’s open house gets to try it firsthand. It’s not as outré as horse crippler cactus ice cream, but if it’s popular enough, this may have to be a regular addition to the October open houses. That is, if I don’t eat it all myself.
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Posted onAugust 23, 2019|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2019 – 1
At the beginning of the year, the plan for 2019 was simple: more shows, more unique shows, and more shows outside of Dallas. The execution, of course, involved both finding these shows and getting to them. Texas’s geography and geology entails lots of fields and scrublands between cities, and its meteorology requires being able to get between those cities as quickly as possible, especially in summer. The new touring Oddities & Curiosities Expo offered opportunities to test both geography and meteorology, and after last March’s flabbergastingly successful Dallas show, it was one of the best options for getting practice in touring.
One of the absolutes on out-of-town shows, besides the guarantee that one small but vital item will be left behind by accident (in this case, a DC-to-AC inverter for the battery powering display lights), is that you should always take any estimates of travel time and throw them through a wall. The vast majority of the trip between Dallas and Austin was as uneventful as can be expected in August: hot, sunny, and dry, and much of the perpetual road construction on Interstate Highway I-35 was complete or in its final stages. What neither I nor many other vendors expected was the near-perpetual traffic jam to the north of Austin, one that exists for no readily discernible reason, so a nearly three-hour cushion to get the Triffid Ranch booth set up turned into a frantic ten-minute rush to get plants out of the heat before the doors to the Palmer Event Center closed for the night. Thankfully, the Expo crew allowed lots of time the morning of the show to get established, so after everything cooled off overnight, it was time to get going….
To be continued…
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