Category Archives: Projects

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 2

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

Anyone raising North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia) in North Texas has to deal with two absolutes: our wildly variable humidity and the dessicating south wind that only lets up when it’s replaced by the dessicating north wind in winter. That wildly variable humidity and precipitation is why locals will see both prickly pear cactus and pine trees in various spots in Dallas, but neither particularly thrive here. Many Sarracenia species and hybrids adjust to the lower humidity, so long as they get proper light and water, but a couple require additional protection.

Of all of the species of Sarracenia in cultivation, the hooded pitcher plant, Sarracenia minor, is the most temperamental when grown in North Texas. S. minor has a relatively small range through southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, and it much prefers humidity at all times in excess of 80 percent. Because of that, raising them outside under a direct sun usually doesn’t work out well without additional protection, especially of the base and roots. Out here, if you can’t raise them in a greenhouse or in a high-humidity microclimate that shelters them from prevailing winds, S. minor can be raised in tall glass vases, as the humid air stays around the plant’s base while excess heat escapes out the top. The important thing to consider is keeping S. minor extremely moist, especially and particularly during its winter dormancy, as it tends to go into shock if it dries out.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

For this sort of container, cleanup is much the same as for other Sarracenia, but take special care not to disrupt the crown of the plant by pushing pitchers out of the way. Clip off anything brown, trim back pitchers and phyllodia with brown ends, and clip off flower scapes while you’re at it. Pull any weeds, with forceps if necessary, and check for insect pests hiding along the stems, After that, give the glass a good cleaning both inside and out (always remember to spray glass cleaner on the cloth or paper towel to be used, not directly on the glass), check the soil inside and add water if it needs moisture, and return the container to its original location. Now, we wait for spring.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 1

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

And now we get to the most labor-intensive carnivores, as January marks the perfect time to clean them up for spring. North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.), as carnivores best raised outside, should be quite dormant by now if you’re raising them in the Northern Hemisphere, and Dallas’s mild winters don’t determine that dormancy so much as the short days. As of the middle of January, we still have two months where temperatures and precipitation can fluctuate all over the place: we could have springlike temperatures between now and the end of April, or we could get hit with a week of subfreezing temps and repeated sleet storms. Either way, Sarracenia sleep through it all, only starting to produce bloom buds around mid-March (I tell locals “wait until St. Patrick’s Day”) and new traps in April after the blooms have been pollinated. (Most of the insects most likely to gather Sarracenia pollen are the fully revived plants’ prey the rest of the year, so the overwhelming majority produce their traps well after blooming. The only serious exception is the yellow pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava, which tends to bloom early and produce big traps when other species are just opening their blooms. That antisocial tendency continues: most Sarracenia blooms smell sweet, but S. flava blooms are best described on a range between “cat pee” and “eau de anime convention,” and the fragrance, if you can call it that, can be overpowering in close quarters.)

In this example, we’re looking at a Sarracenia “Scarlet Belle,” a hybrid of S. leucophylla and S. psittacina, and a great example of the variation in Sarracenia leaf morphology. In the center are the last traps of autumn, sprouting when temperatures in Dallas went from “skinnydipping in a lead smelter” to “actually not half bad,” and those pitchers are particularly brightly colored in order to attract available prey before all of the insects in the area die or go dormant themselves. On the outer edge are the remnants of last spring’s growth, with some of these being survivors from the previous year. In between are leaves with tiny or nonexistent traps and a big wide ala or “wing” growing from the underside. These leaves are called phyllodia, and Sarracenia usually grow them in summer, when it’s too hot to do more than photosynthesize. North American pitcher plants also grow phyllodia in late fall, and for the same reason: to capture as much light as possible over the winter in order to have plenty of stored energy in spring for growth and blooming. If all you have are phyllodia, that’s usually a sign that your pitcher plant is being kept somewhere far too dry, with too little light, or both.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

The first thing we’re going to do with this cleanup is remove or trim dead and dying leaves. Many older traps will just pull free with a gentle tug: if it doesn’t come free with a gentle tug, don’t yank harder to get it free. Sarracenia have deeper and stronger roots than, say, Venus flytraps, but relatively fresh leaves can still be stronger than the roots, and you don’t want to rip the plant apart by being overly enthusiastic. If it pulls free right away, go that way, but otherwise cut it free. With everything, remember “if it’s brown, it can go,”, because dead leaves won’t magically become green again in spring. Feel free to trim back pitchers and phyllodia with dead ends, but try not to cut into still-living portions if you can help it.

With the dead detritus cleared out and dumped in the compost pile, take a look at the still-living pitchers and phyllodia and look for pests. Slugs regularly hide among and within dead pitchers, and scale insects will grow between the main pitcher and the ala, die during the winter, and spread fresh hatchlings from their cases in spring. Scale can be treated with neem oil, either sprayed or applied gently with a cotton swab. Other than that, look for anything else that might be off and keep notes to check on these over the rest of the winter.

Since your pitcher plants should be outside, this means that outside seeds can get into the pot, whether by wind, by animals, or by interesting seed dispersal mechanisms. One of the most common is clover of all sorts, as clover does very well in the low-nitrogen soils of bog plants. Here in Dallas, we have two major aggravations besides clover: cottonwood seedlings, which sprout pretty much anywhere so long as they have access to water, and violets, which take over in the colder part of the year. Cottonwoods have to come out no matter what time of the year it may be, but violets tend to burn back in summer, making it very hard to tell how bad an infestation can be until winter and early spring. Violets are more annoying than anything else, so removing them from your outdoor carnivores isn’t an absolute necessity: considering how fast cottonwood trees grow, you want to remove those as quickly as possible.

No matter when you conduct your Sarracenia cleanup, plan a followup sometime in February to look over everything with fresh eyes. Traps or phyllodia that weren’t dead in January may be dead in February, and overlooked weed seedlings should be just big enough to be noticed in a month, especially if temperatures didn’t go well below freezing. While you’re at it, schedule another followup for the beginning to middle of March, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see little nodules on stalks, looking like a snail’s eye, growing from the center of the plant. Leave those alone, and they should rise up, droop, and spread their petals within the next month or so. And the cycle continues.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Frail Triggerplants

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

Carnivorous plant enthusiasts tend to be a very sedate lot, and we’re usually incredibly mellow compared to rose or orchid growers and breeders. Oh, we might have personal preferences, but no raised voices or raised eyebrows or roundhouse kicks to the throat…with the possible exception of exactly how carnivorous a plant can be.

The official definition of “carnivorous plant” is “a plant with the ability to attract, capture, and digest insect or other animal prey.” Officially, a plant missing one of these three is designated protocarnivorous: plants that trap insects but depend upon animals to predigest that prey, such as the flycatcher bushes (Roridula) of South Africa, are protocarnivores, and this designation includes plants with insect-trapping hairs but that don’t actually absorb nutrients except after decomposition, such as tomatoes and potatoes. (There’s nothing like the look on a whole classroom of kids when I tell them that they’ve probably eaten two protocarnivorous plants in the last week, and then ask “So who here had fries with catsup?” In practice, this bounces all over the place: every other aspect of North American pitcher plants screams “carnivore!”, but they don’t actually produce their own digestive enzymes, and breakdown of trapped prey comes from bacterial action. Many plants listed as protocarnivorous later turn out to produce those enzymes under certain circumstances, such as with the carnivorous passionflower Passiflora foetida. And then we have the triggerplants.

The triggerplants of Australia (genus Stylidium) are a rather large group of endemic flowering plants, found mostly in the same environments that true carnivores such as sundews and terrestrial bladderworts. The common name comes from their unique blooms, but an additional thrill is that when blooming, the flower scapes are covered with multitudes of sticky hairs like those of sundews, but without the ability to move. Confirmation that they produce the enzyme protease only came through in 2005, and when the plants aren’t blooming, they’re about as carnivorous as a maple leaf. (Some people say “as carnivorous as a rosebush,” but anyone working with heirloom roses knows better: I regularly point out that the best documentary on working with heirloom roses came out in 2013 under the title “Pacific Rim.”) This sometimes confuses people unfamiliar with triggerplants, and they’ll repeatedly and understandably ask “So how is this (gesturing at a clump) carnivorous?”

The frail triggerplant, Stylidum debile, is probably the most common species in cultivation, for multiple reasons. Firstly, S. debile is a very enthusiastic grower, thriving under a very wide range of temperatures and weather conditions. They can freeze solid for a week and come back from their roots, and grow and bloom under heat that would kill most other carnivores. The blooms are also a major draw: unlike most triggerplant species, S. debile just keeps going all growing season, and in fact seem to need stress to encourage a bloom response. (To facilitate this, try to keep S. debile outside or at least in an unheated greenhouse, as too warm a winter cycle will discourage blooming in the next year.) The hot-pink blooms are only a couple of millimeters across, but what they lack in size they make up for in volume, with multiple blooms at any given time. Best of all, they stay small, meaning that they make excellent container carnivores, or protocarnivores, in containers far too small for a Sarracenia pitcher plant or even many sundews. The one thing they cannot tolerate, though, is an extended dry period: as with all true carnivores, triggerplants need to be kept moist at all times, and a plant that dies from lack of water won’t come back.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

This container was planted in 2020 from a plug about the size of a quarter, and as can be seen, new triggerplant shoots are filling the surface very nicely. In extreme cold, many or most of the leaves will frost and burn off, being replaced in spring, but the winter of 2020-21 so far has been nearly perfect for them, with low temperatures at or just below freezing. In this case, all that’s really needed is a bit of weeding (notice the grass stem coming up on the upper left, and clipping a few dying leaves. (Another really good thing about frail triggerplants is that dead leaves shrivel to almost nothing, meaning that dead leaf maintenance isn’t an ordeal or even a thing.)

As has been mentioned elsewhere in the series, Dallas weather can be incredibly variable through any given winter. We haven’t had any sleet, we had a tiny bit of snow that didn’t even stick, no severe windstorms, and no really abnormally warm days. Saying this now doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tomorrow, or at any time between now and the beginning of May. At this time, though, all this triggerplant needs is a thorough watering and a wipedown of its pot (more’s the pity that that I couldn’t get one of a preferable Green Lantern), and it’s good to go back to its growing space. In March, we should see new blooms coming up: if it’s safe to do so by then, they’ll make a great component of the next Manchester United Flower Show.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Forkleaf Sundews

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

While most sundews tend to hug the ground, several sundews native to temperate climates stretch their leaves a bit. Probably the most noted is the threadleaf sundew of the Florida Panhandle (Drosera filliformis), which can grow over a meter tall. The forked sundew of Australia (Drosera binata) doesn’t get quite that tall, but it lives under the same conditions and has a similar growth habit. D. binata may start out as a tiny plant, but it rapidly grows to fill any area it can reach with its roots, filling pots and glass containers at the first opportunity. During the growing season, it produces multiple grassy stems with a distinctive fork on each side, with sticky hairs (in the case of sundews, officially described as “tentacles”) across the forks but not the main stem. During the winter, though, the stems and forks die back and dry out as the collective plants go into winter dormancy, leaving a thick mulch that superficially makes the clump look dead. Underneath the mulch, though, are multiple new growing points, just waiting for longer and warmer days in spring. If protected from wind and subfreezing temperatures, some of the old leaves will survive the winter, only dying off in spring as the new growth replaces them. If the sundew colony is large enough in spring, the beginning of the growing season encourages multiple bloom spikes with white flowers at the ends. Unlike many sundews, forkleaf sundews are known to keep producing new blooms all the way to the end of autumn, which means lots of seeds spread in the vicinity and even thicker colonies when they sprout.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

Two considerations for working with forkleaf sundews: the first is that while the dead leaves and stems look absolutely horrible at the moment, like a bunch of rusty bandsaw blades, leaving them until later won’t hurt the plants in the slightest. Secondly, to be absolutely honest, the best tools for cleaning forklift sundews are your fingers, because they can gently rake up and pluck dead leaves better than any manufactured tool. If the sundew patch had anything approximating a good year, this means that you’ll be plucking and raking a thick mulch from atop new and dormant plants. If winter temperatures go below about 25 degrees F (-4 degrees C), removing that mulch early may damage those new tendrils, but from experience, new ones grow rapidly enough in spring. If any of the dead stems are still strong enough to give you a fight, cut them off with scissors, but most should break off as soon as you pull on them.

Now that last year’s detritus is gone, it’s time to look at what other work needs to be done. The good thing is that D. binata usually doesn’t need much. It usually grows in thickly enough that it chokes out most competing weeds, but feel free to pull any out with tweezers before they get established. In my personal experience, I’ve noted that D. binata tends to love being moist without being waterlogged, so using a tamper or trowel to shape the soil around the main growth for drainage is an option. Other than that, check over any remaining leaves for signs of fungus or insect pests, and clip off leaves with either.

One last note: the dead leaves on a D. binata clump may host all sorts of hibernating and dormant critters, from earwigs to young jumping spiders to snails, and snails and slugs are the only ones that should be removed. Otherwise, they have no compunctions about eating new sundew leaves when they wake up. Just dump everything you raked and plucked into the compost pile. Other than that, just keep an eye out for really cold weather (improbable but not impossible for Dallas), keep the clump moist but not soaked, and look forward to your binata being full of mosquitoes and craneflies by the middle of March.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Venus Flytraps

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

By the middle of January, if you’ve decided to avoid the surefire ways to kill your Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula), it should be dormant. Between the shortened days and cooler temperatures, if you haven’t forced it to stay active, it’s catching every photon it can get in its quest to turn sunlight and water into starch, in order to have enough energy on standby to get it through the next growing season. If outside temperatures went well below freezing, then most of the traps would be frosted off and blackened, but a core in the center of the plant will remain green. If it wasn’t exposed to that much cold, the long-stemmed traps it produced during spring are all or mostly dead, leaving a small cluster of short-stemmed traps close to the soil. Some of those traps may still close if triggered, so don’t trigger them: recent research suggests that a flytrap uses marginally more energy to reopen a trap than it would gain from that trap’s photosynthesis. Besides, it has few if any insects to catch this time of the year, and it wouldn’t have enough energy to produce the digestive enzymes it would need to consume them anyway. All we’re going to do here is clean them up a bit now, so as to avoid disrupting them when they’re coming out of dormancy in spring. (“Spring” in this context is defined by the date where generally the risk of late frost has passed. In the Dallas area, that date is usually around March 17, although we’ve had occasional later freezes all the way into the beginning of April. For the most part, though, the recommendation of flytrap dormancy stretching from “Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day” holds, with the first new growth starting around then and the first blooms appearing by the middle to end of April.)

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

Everyone raising carnivorous plants has at least one story about Venus flytraps being thrown out by January because “I thought it was dead,” either by their hand or that of a loved one, and it’s a bit understandable. In the photo above, you can see three Venus flytrap cultivars: “King Henry” (left), standard flytrap (center), and “Aki Ryu” (bottom), and they’re way past their summer prime. The long-stemmed traps of summer and fall are all dead, and any latent color is now prominent. The Aki Ryu in particular looks dead, mostly because it blends in with the soil, but all three still have their central core alive and photosynthesizing. Leave them alone and keep them moist, and you should see the first new traps growing from the center, and maybe even new plantlets growing off the roots, by the vernal equinox. There’s no reason why we can’t clean up everything a little bit and make sure everything is okay right now, though.

The first thing to do is to remove any weed seeds before the plants get established in the spring. Grass seeds tend to turn up in sphagnum moss, and any plant exposed to the outdoors has a chance of seeds blowing in on the wind or transported by birds. Since the preferred soil mix for Venus flytraps is extremely acidic and nutrient-deprived, this tends to encourage the growth of opportunists such as clover and violets, and it’s much better to get them out now than later when they’ve choked out the flytraps half to death. When doing so, try to use forceps: they’re much more effective than fingertips at pulling out the entirety of a weed seedling instead of leaving the roots to come back later.

As with most carnivores, a good gauge for flytraps is “if it’s brown and dry, get rid of it.” Dead leaves aren’t going to revive, so snip them off with scissors and remove them. As tempting as it may be, do NOT try to yank or pull off dried leaves, as they tend to be stronger than the plant’s roots. Even if you don’t uproot your flytrap, you’ll still cause it damage which could lead to opportunistic infestations or infections, so take the effort to cut them off and remove the temptation.

And now for a bit of plant anatomy with this freshly trimmed model. Each leaf is separated into two lobes (the two sides of the trap) and the stem, officially known as a petiole. The petiole will perform some photosynthesis, but the overwhelming amount of photosynthesis is done with both lobes of the trap. On the edges of the trap can be seen the trapping hairs or cillia, and in the center of each lobe, in an equilateral triangle, are the sensory hairs that cause the trap to close.

(Fun fact: those sensory hairs are bioelectric generators, based on research published in 2020. Moving any hair generates a microelectric charge which dissipates after about 10 seconds, so either two hairs have to be tripped at once or any two hairs tripped within ten seconds to build up a charge that sets off specialized cells at the trap hinge and causes the trap to close. Well, the trap closes most of the way: prey that’s too small to be worth the effort are able to squeeze out and prey too large can just pull themselves out, and if the trap was accidentally set off by a passing animal or a torrential rain, the trap will reopen within a day or so. But if the prey hits the trap’s Goldilocks zone, though, that critter repeatedly brushing against the sensory hairs causes the trap to seal shut and release digestive enzymes, and the soon-liquefied prey is absorbed by the plant through glands all over the trap surface. Three to four days later, the trap opens up again, leaving the indigestible portions of the prey on the lobe surface to help attract spiders and ants in search of an easy meal.)

Thanks to the power of selective breeding, flytraps don’t just come in green. Several flytrap cultivars are all-red, with chlorophyll concealed with a red pigment. As you can see here, the red pigment is much like a suntan: give an “Aki Ryu” flytrap insufficient sun, and the whole plant will go the same green that appears here where dead leaves covered the live leaf surface. Because of this deep brick red coloration in dormancy, be especially careful not to cut off living leaves while attempting to remove dead ones.

Every once in a while, a flytrap will retain its long-stemmed traps into spring. Note the concave shape of the traps on the long stems: at this point, these traps are now nothing but photosynthetic surfaces, and almost always, no force on earth could get them to close, no matter how many times their sensory hairs are stimulated. So long as they stay alive, they keep transferring energy to the main plant. If it really bothers you, snip these leaves off as well, but this isn’t necessary.

(As a bonus, in the photo above, check out the spot on the trap on the bottom right. That used to be a young jumping spider, that was either attracted by an insect carcass in the trap or just happened to step in the wrong place while searching for prey. A surprising number of spiders get caught in flytraps, which suggests that the spiders are able to see into the ultraviolet spectrum far enough to see the UV-fluorescing patches on each trap lobe.)

Now time for a Before & After. In the “Before,” it would be understandable to assume that this flytrap was dead or at least dying. Only a couple of tiny traps are visible from underneath dead leaves, and the plant sure looks as if it’s about ready to kick it at any time. Let’s withhold judgment, though, until all of those dead leaves are out of the way.

What a difference a cleanup makes. This is the same plant without stems and leaves in the way, and without the violet seedlings that would have choked it out in spring. Technically, these are the same plants, as three plantlets to the right of the main plant are themselves getting established. Treat a flytrap right and give in the growing conditions it needs, and that one plant will clone itself over and over and ultimately fill this whole globe in a few years. If it becomes necessary to repot this flytrap, right now is a perfect time to do so, as it will be subject to a lot less stress when dormant than it would be if it were at the height of summer growing.

Finally, carnivores purchased from commercial greenhouses, or even carnivores grown in close proximity to others, have a tendency to pick up benevolent hitchhikers. Many sundews and bladderworts readily spread seed as far as they can during blooming season, and some of their progeny may show up in flytrap pots. In this case, we have two species: the sundews (probably Drosera spatulata or D. tokaensis) are pretty obvious, but barely visible are the tiny leaves from a terrestrial bladderwort, probably Utricularia subulata. Some carnivorous plant enthusiasts are adamantly opposed to these hitchhikers and will remove them at any opportunity, while others look at them as getting an additional carnivore for free. That’s completely up to you. Considering that these sundews won’t survive a cold winter, and that the bladderworts aren’t coming close to competing with the flytraps for room or prey, removing them is probably more trouble than it’s worth, and the brilliant canary yellow blooms of a good-sized U. subulata colony in spring are a welcome surprise.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – “Novi”

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

The enclosure is “Novi” (2018), and the plant therein is a Nepenthes burkei x hamata hybrid. Since both of its parents, N. burkei and N. hamata, are what are considered highland Nepenthes, it does best with cooler high temperatures (80 degrees F/27 degrees C) and even cooler night temperatures. In Dallas, this means that there’s simply no way to keep this plant outdoors in the summer, and a stout air conditioner to keep it cool is going to be a necessity here. (Being able to care for highland Nepenthes and Heliamphora, among others, is the biggest reason for starting the current gallery, as having a space isolated from outdoor temperatures between May and November is pretty much a necessity.) Crossing N. burkei, an exceptionally forgiving beginner plant, with N. hamata, one of the most notoriously prima donna carnivores known, leads to a child with hamata-like pitchers with wide serrated peristomes (which fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light), but also with surprisingly pulpy and delicate leaves. Even more so than most Nepenthes, this hybrid seems to crave exceptionally high humidity, and getting upper traps growing may require a drip irrigator or an ultrasonic fogger to give it that level of humidity.

In this particular situation, two ferns planted in the back of the enclosure were in fern excluders, but the drop in temperatures and lower photoperiod in winter caused an explosion in new ferns, both from runners that escaped trimming and from new growth from spores. At the moment, they’re not interfering with the Nepenthes‘s growth, but it’s just a matter of time before they completely block off view of the plant from the front of the enclosure. The pitcher plant itself is starting to vine, but none of the new leaves are producing pitchers, and it has a new plantlet emerging from the roots. This cleanup is going to take a while, and it definitely needs a tub or other container to hold what gets pulled out.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Plastic dish tub
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps
  • Tamper

In addition, the following may be necessary to attempt propagation of cuttings:

  • Rooting hormone or cloning gel
  • Shot glass
  • Propagation container (a large glass jar will work well)
  • Long-fiber sphagnum moss, soaked in rainwater or distilled water for at least 24 hours

First, let’s assess the condition of everything in the enclosure. The ferns have run amok, but they seem to have spread runners across the surface instead of digging deep, which makes cleanup a lot easier than expected. The Nepenthes has two pitchers from the main plant, one attempting to wedge itself between the glass enclosure wall and the backdrop and one freestanding pitcher, and one emerging from the plantlet at the base. There’s a lot of new growth in the ferns, but also a lot of detritus from older leaves dying off, and while the Nepenthes is attempting to vine and produce upper traps, those traps aren’t forming.

Firstly, the ferns need to go. To get a better look at the roots, cut back the majority of the leaves, and then gently pull the roots from the enclosure substrate. This may pick up chunks of sphagnum moss and even enclosure decorations, so go through slowly and carefully to prevent damage. In particular, make absolutely sure that you’re only cutting ferns at this stage: it’s far too easy to misjudge the placement of scissors and cut the rib connecting a pitcher plant pitcher to its leaf or cut the main stem itself.

When Nepenthes pitcher plants start to vine, the ribs on the end of each leaf will twine around anything they can touch to stabilize the new vine. In addition, new pitchers will wedge themselves between anything they touch and then fill with fluid, and they act as if they have a compulsion to inflate between an enclosure fixture and the glass enclosure wall. Removing a wedged pitcher usually damages the pitcher, and even an undamaged pitcher won’t straighten out and regrow. The pitcher above wedged between the enclosure wall, the backdrop, and a fern excluder, and that kink in the pitcher wall won’t straighten out for the life of the individual pitcher. If the shape doesn’t bother you, feel free to leave wedged pitchers alone, but damaged pitchers should be cut off at the rib and removed.

Since the Nepenthes is a bit leggy, it really needs to be trimmed back a bit. As to what to do with the cuttings, they can be pitched, or you can attempt to propagate them and get new plants for your trouble. For specifics on the best ways to propagate your Nepenthes, I highly recommend following Peter D’Amato’s methods in the book The Savage Garden (honestly, every carnivorous plant enthusiast who doesn’t have a copy of this book needs to buy it NOW), but in this case, I’m going for the tried-and-true method of cloning gel. I’ve had good results with Dyna-Grow Root-Gel and Olivia’s Cloning Gel, so after checking the stem for potential pests, it’s time to crack out the gel, a shot glass, and the sharpest scissors I have.

When attempting to propagate Nepenthes from cuttings, the first consideration is to minimize infection, so clean the hell out of your scissors or blade (some people use razor blades for the cleanest cut possible). After that, never never EVER dip your cuttings directly into the cloning gel container unless you’re only using it once: instead, put a dollop in a shot glass or other small container and dip cuttings into that. In my experience, I let each cut sit in the gel for at least 5 seconds and then pull it out, and then cut the leaves in half to cut down on water loss in the new cutting while it’s attempting to grow new roots. Depending upon the species or hybrid, you can plant the whole cutting, or you can cut between leaves and root each individual cutting.

Any number of factors can affect whether a cutting survives, but the absolutes for improving the odds are to give the cutting lots of humidity and lots of light. The one method that seems to give consistently good results (thus explaining why the gallery is overrun with Nepenthes bicalcarata and Nepenthes ampullaria clones) is to place the cuttings in a propagation dome (I use a 2-gallon glass jar) atop long-fiber sphagnum moss that has been soaked in rainwater or distilled water for at least 24 hours, and then get them under bright lights. In about a month, we’ll find out if these cuttings survive, mostly by seeing new leaves emerging from the top.

And back to the main enclosure. With the ferns cleared away, we have all sorts of options on what to do next. Want to trim back the live sphagnum to give a better view of new pitchers? Now’s the time to pull it back and shove the excess against the backdrop to stabilize it. Want to clean it out entirely and put in new top dressing? Go for it. The important part is that without the original cleanup, you can’t see options, and more might be done with this enclosure before winter is over. And depending upon what a new owner or renter wants, the enclosure may evolve even more over the years.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Nepenthes x ventrata

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

All carnivorous plants have their distinctive charms, but Nepenthes pitcher plants have a lot that they don’t share with anything else. It’s possible to hyperfocus on Venus flytrap lobes or sundew tentacles and gloss over the rest of the plant, but Nepenthes requires integrated appreciation. Even with seedlings, there’s that balance between traps and the leaves from which they dangle, and how many other carnivores produce a completely different trap as they continue their life cycle? For that matter, how many other carnivores (easily accessible ones, anyway) vine and climb? Starting a Nepenthes collection is a special reward, mostly because of the wide variety of coloration, trap shape, and trap function to be found with widely available species, and the wonder just keeps going as they grow. That wonder just expands with the ever-expanding list of hybrids and cultivars available from breeders that didn’t exist two decades ago, because some of the people getting these hybrids now are going to be the first people on the planet to see exactly what these plants are going to look like when they’re fully developed.

Nepenthes x ventrata is regularly derided as a “common” Nepenthes hybrid, mostly because it’s so readily available in cultivation. A hybrid of Nepenthes ventricosa and Nepenthes alata (and is regularly mislabeled as “Alata”), N. ventrata is an excellent beginner plant because of its enthusiastic growth and tolerance over a wide range of temperature and humidity. The traps remain relatively small compared to some other species and hybrids, with a bottle shape with a green base and bright red neck on both lower and upper traps. For those wanting to incorporate a carnivorous plant into a vivarium, N. ventrata is an excellent choice: tree frogs love camping in the pitchers, the leaves give shelter for lizards and dart frogs, and N. ventrata‘s enthusiastic vining offers excellent climbing opportunities for chameleons, anoles, and geckos. Give it enough humidity and light, and you’ll soon see multiple vines and new growing points coming off the roots, and the only real issue with N. ventrata is a need for regular trimming of the thick tangle of vines from a contented plant.

That regular trimming is, in fact, an issue, especially in smaller containers and enclosures. The featured container was one that fell off the radar after March 2020: it’s currently seriously overgrown, and either needs to be cut back or put into a larger enclosure (ahem). Either way, it needs to be cleaned up and checked over, and January is a perfect time to do this

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

Garden mat or old towel
Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
Hand cloth or paper towels
Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
Long tweezers or alligator forceps
Plastic spoon
Tamper

At this point, it’s time to address additional tools that may or may not be necessary when working with Nepenthes. At a certain stage in each plant’s life cycle, the central growth point starts to stretch and vine, and it’s at this point that the plant starts producing its distinctive upper traps well off the ground. Those vines can be extremely tough and strong, to the point of breaking standard garden scissors and bypass pruners. (I once had a very old and tough Nepenthes vine that broke a pair of bonsai shears as I was attempting to cut it, and I finally had to cut the vine with a Dremel tool.) Because of that strength, two items from both medicine and bonsai might be a valuable addition to the toolkit for those planning to move further into Nepenthes husbandry. Of the two tools above, the one on the left is a bone shear picked up at an estate sale: not only does it have a long shaft for reaching deep into leaf clusters, but its blades are strong and sharp enough to cut through most Nepenthes vines. For the really tough ones, though, comes the bonsai concave cutter, and if it’s not enough for a Nepenthes vine, time to get the Dremel tool or maybe an angle grinder.

Opening up the one-gallon (3.7L) jar, things look much worse than they actually are. The main growing point on the plant started to vine, found itself caught in a depression in the center of the jar lid, and twisted around a few times before it died. However, it has at least one other growing point, and probably lots of other surprises once the dead leaves are cleared out.

A fairly safe standard for trimming carnivorous plants, and many plants in general, is “if it’s brown and dead, cut it off.” Generally, if a leaf or stem dies, it’s not coming back (an exception could be made for dying butterwort leaves), so there’s no shame nor risk in cutting it free. The central vine is definitely dead, so let’s cut it off and all of the easily reachable dead leaves to get a better view of the interior.

(Note: when trimming Nepenthes leaves or stems, try to cuttings away from the rest of your Nepenthes collection as soon as possible. Composting the chunks is fine, and burning is an extreme response but understandable, but get them outside and away. This minimizes the chance of fungus spores or insect pests migrating from the pieces to healthy plants.)

Right here is one reason to take things slowly and methodically when trimming a Nepenthes. At the edge of the still-living parts of the main Nepenthes vine is a new growing point: this leaf probably won’t grow any further on its own, but it promises a whole new vine growing from the side if given enough time. This is encouraging, but let’s clean things a bit further before making any decisions.

Clipping out the dead vine and various dead or older leaves, and we have a much better view of the rest of the plant. In addition to the vine, we have not one but two offshoots growing from the roots. Give this clump a chance to recuperate from major surgery, and these could be separated from the main plant and repotted on their own. Otherwise, everything is looking good, with no signs of fungus, insect pests such as scale, or other reasons to quit the cleanup and start fresh.

At this point, the trimmed plant needs a command decision: do you try to rehabilitate the original vine, or do you emphasize the new plantlets? Sorry, vine: you’re getting cut from the team. If the vine had some special structure to it, or if it showed any special characteristics that would justify propagating it, then there’s either leaving it alone or cutting it and treating it with rooting hormone to grow it as a new plant, but there’s no reason in this case. Cutting the vine will revitalize the plantlets, not just because of the increase of light but also because the plantlets will no longer be transferring nutrients to the parent to the level they had been.

All right. NOW we’re getting somewhere. These two plantlets are going to stay small for a little while longer, so they’ll stay together while they recover from surgery. If they get out of control, the two options are either to cut off the growing points in the center or to move them to a larger enclosure (again, ahem), but for now, they’re not an issue. Gently tamp down the sphagnum growing alongside the Nepenthes with a finger or a tamper, and this stage is finished.

The next step in cleanup is the glass. Because Nepenthes get over half of their moisture requirements from water they absorb through their leaves, they need to be kept in as humid an atmosphere as possible. (This is why the Nepenthes hanging baskets sold in garden centers and at flea markets don’t do so well when kept outside in Dallas. If this were Houston, the average humidity is so high that they only need to be brought inside during the winter, but Dallas has both such low humidity in summer and such wildly variable humidity throughout a typical day that those hanging baskets dry out too rapidly unless kept in a greenhouse, and the plants that don’t die just can’t get enough moisture to produce pitchers.) High humidity, though, usually leads to algae films growing over the inside of the container, and that should be cleaned off. A little bit of glass cleaner on a paper towel (please note: spray the glass cleaner on the paper towel before wiping and NOT on the glass directly), and the slime comes right off.

All done with the wipedown? Now the cleanup is done for now. The peat inside the container is a little too wet after spraying everything down, but leaving the lid cracked a little for a few days will take care of that. With the next project, we’ll clean up a much larger enclosure than this, and THAT is going to be an adventure.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Cape Sundews

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

For today’s cleaning exercise, we’re going to focus on both the carnivorous plant and the container in which it resides. For the most part, many smaller sundews survive and thrive quite nicely in ornamental glass bottles, so long as the glass is sufficiently clear (tinted glass bottles aren’t recommended) and the plant is able to get enough light to grow without too much heat building up inside. For most beginner sundews, they either don’t mind or actively enjoy temperatures reaching 90 degrees F (32.22 degrees C), but Cape sundews (Drosera capensis) is a decided exception. Hailing from far southern South Africa, Cape sundews prefer things a lot cooler: they generally prefer to stay below 80 degrees F (26.66 degrees C), and in fact tend to go into shock at temperatures where other sundews are just getting going. In North Texas, I actively recommend keeping them under artificial light and in the vicinity of an air conditioner vent during summer: a common ailment in July and August is to see the tips of leaves looking as if they were burned with a cigarette lighter. Cape sundews tend to spread through carnivore collections in greenhouses because of their enthusiastic and prolific seed production, but without climate control, those feral sundews usually burn off during a Dallas summer and only reemerge in fall as temperatures start to drop. Even a day of higher temps can be debilitating or even fatal for Cape sundews, depending upon how high the temperatures went and how long the plant went without a break in the heat.

To get around this, the preferred method of offering Cape sundews at Triffid Ranch is within the confines of an Erlenmeyer flask. These flasks both allow air circulation through heated air escaping through the top and consolidation of humidity in the bottom, and a slight increase in water loss through the open top is worth the effort. In addition, most customers love having a piece of lab glassware in which to display their new sundews. For the most part, Erlenmeyer flasks are great, but cleaning the inside of the container offers a particular challenge because of both the narrowness of the neck and the height of the total flask.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

Garden mat or old towel
Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
Long tweezers or alligator forceps
Tamper

The most important consideration with tools used in tall glass containers is making sure that the tool is long enough to reach the bottom while still retaining a grip on it. This becomes important when cleaning up around the base of a Cape sundew. Like most sundews, Cape sundews constantly produce new leaves, leaving the old and dead ones around the base of the stem, and while their accumulation won’t actually hurt the plant, they’re unsightly. Thankfully, after a short time, the leaf stem rots and the rest of the leaf drops, so it’s simply a matter of having tweezers or another tool that can reach and grip them. Alligator forceps are an excellent choice, but if all else fails, using a straight wood or plastic rod to tease that detritus away from the base of the plant works. In some cases, a combination of techniques might be necessary, especially with well-fed and well-lit sundews that threaten to outgrow their container.

The photo above also highlights a major issue with most glass containers and their botanical contents. Being a natural product, peat can be full of seeds and spores without you having any sign of issues, and some moss and fern spores are tough enough to survive most efforts to sterilize growing media. Even if efforts to sterilize growing media are successful, more spores can blow in on the wind, and once they find the right conditions for growth, they can and will do so. (Because I use a combination of milled Canadian peat moss and a New Zealand-sourced long-fiber sphagnum as a top dressing in most Triffid Ranch enclosures, this means that most of the ferns sprouting in an enclosure are native Canadian or Aotearoan species. Every once in a while, though, I’ll get a Texas-native wood fern that came sneaking in on the breeze.) The real problem is that you don’t know what kind of fern you’re getting until it’s large enough to identify, and many of them will grow out of control in a stable environment such as inside an Erlenmeyer flask. Worse, many species throw down big mats of root fibers along the bottom of any container, meaning that attempting to remove a mature fern will yank up part or all of the container’s other contents in the process. In a container as small as this, not only is it a good idea to remove all sprouting ferns during a cleanup, but keep an eye open for more sprouts through the rest of the year, unless you like uprooting everything every six months or so.

After working with several particularly large and deep containers over the last couple of years (two dead Lava Lamps and a glass water cooler jug), I picked up a secret weapon in the War Against the Wayward Ferns. Some ferns produce root mats almost impossible to ferret out by themselves, but crushing and cutting the base where the leaves meet the roots is a lethal trauma. That’s when a quick search for used surgical tools came across the wonder that is a biopsy punch. Intended for getting samples of tissue from deep within a body, biopsy punches both cut AND hold, and they do it as well with ferns as with humans. With a bit of practice, a biopsy punch can be used like alligator forceps to pluck single leaves or fernlets from a container, but they can also be used to crush and chop up plant parts that can’t be removed easily. Crunch a fern base to near-pesto, and the odds are pretty good that it won’t come back.

Done with plucking, mashing, cutting, and yanking? It’s time to give everything a good misting to wash dirt down the side of the container and settle everything. While a standard trigger spray bottle can get the job done, there’s always the issue of having to tilt both spray bottle and container in such a way that enough water gets to the bottom of the container without constantly having to reprime the sprayer. This can be bypassed either with a spray bottle with a pivoting nozzle, or by getting a spray tank and nozzle. A few pumps to add pressure, and a nearly-dry flask gets completely rehydrated in seconds.

One final extra. While the relatively narrow neck and mouth of an Erlenmeyer flask cut back on water loss, the flasks will eventually lose water from evaporation faster than they would if they had corks. Between water evaporating off the sides due to capillary action and water evaporating from the soil and transpiring from the plant, shorter bottles lose water even faster. This means that the best options for Cape sundews are either regular light waterings every couple of days or a good stout watering every week, and more often if the relative humidity in the house or office is lower than usual. (If central heat or air are running, that’s pretty much guaranteed.) Heavy waterings with longer periods between deluges seems to encourage new sundew growth, leading to lots of plantlets coming off the roots in a shorter time than if the plant were constantly topped up. Obviously, experiment to see what works the best for you, but don’t panic if you add seemingly too much water and it puddles on the top of the soil. Most of that will evaporate within a day or so anyway: now, if the whole plant is under water, you’re going to have to consider draining off some of that, but a little excess water won’t hurt a thing. Just watch for ferns as everything starts to dry out.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Terrestrial Bladderworts

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

Now that you’ve mastered cleaning up after spoonleaf sundews, it’s time to move to something a bit more challenging. The current exercise involves a bladderwort, Utricularia calycifida “Mrs. Marsh”. (Fun fact: when seeing a name in quotation marks behind a plant name, this refers to the plant being a particular variety or cultivar, bred for specific characteristics. The original describer, Dr. Barry Rice, named several bladderwort cultivars after characters created by the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft: a more common cultivar of U. calycifida is named “Asenath Waite.”) Many bladderworts have grasslike or mosslike leaves and are usually only spotted among other plants by their blooms, but U. calycifida produces wide paddle-like leaves. The good news is that U. calcyfida is an attractive workdesk companion all year around, and not just when it blooms. The bad news is that when the leaves die off, the leaves pile up instead of decomposing right away, and while this doesn’t hurt the plant, it makes an unappealing mess. The better news is that this is extremely easy to clean up.

For those unfamiliar with bladderworts, the genus Utricularia is known for the bladders growing from runners, with those runners commonly mistaken for roots. The bladders have sensory hairs atop an opening at one end, and when the sensory hairs are tripped by an animal blundering into it, it rapidly slurps in everything in the vicinity, gradually expelling trapped water and then digesting any animals caught inside. Bladderworts come in essentially three varieties: the most famous are the free-floating aquatic varieties, but one very large group, of which U. calycifida is part, grow in extremely waterlogged soil, and one group is only found atop the rocks under and around waterfalls. Aquatic bladderworts tend to have relatively huge bladders, regularly catching Daphnia water fleas and sometimes even mosquito larvae, but the terrestrial and waterfall species get their nitrogen for growth from catching nematodes and other microscopic soil organisms. Since every handful of peat in this container has literal millions of nematodes in it, the bladderwort will never run out of food, as the nematodes breed faster than the plant could ever collect them. Because of that, I refer to terrestrial bladderworts as guilt-free carnivorous plants: it’s impossible to watch them catch prey without a microscope, and all they need is light and water to produce sometimes stunning blooms.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

Garden mat or old towel
Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
Hand cloth or paper towels
Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
Long tweezers or alligator forceps
Plastic spoon
Tamper

To start, bladderworts tend to grow all year around if given a chance (ones living in temperate climates will go dormant in winter, while tropical varieties will just keep growing), so after a while, a thick-leafed variety such as U. calycifida will get clumps of dead leaves interspersed with live ones. A general guide to carnivorous plants is “if it’s brown and dead, feel free to remove it,” but since bladderworts don’t have roots, don’t pull on the leaves if you want the rest of the plant to remain in its peat mix. Instead, cut them with your scissors, making sure not to cut or bruise surrounding live leaves.

After cutting all of the dead leaves, remove them and other detritus around the live leaves with tweezers. I use alligator forceps from American Science & Surplus to get into really narrow spaces. Dispose of the dead leaves elsewhere (as with sundews, they compost well) and check the live leaves for pests such as mites.

The next job is to use the spray bottle and the tamper, but not for what you might expect. Tamping the planting mix (usually pure milled peat moss) in a bladderwort container is a great way to damage or kill bladders and their runners. However, as a newly planted container gets established and the peat settles, a crust of dried peat can remain where the old soil level used to be. Just spraying with water and just knocking off the crust with a tamper won’t finish the job, but a combination of the two works very well. The crust won’t actually hurt the bladderworts, but it looks terrible, so take the time to remove it while you’re at it.

Some species of bladderwort bloom throughout the growing season, while others only bloom in early spring (in Texas, through mid-April), and some occasionally produce bloom spikes all through the year. It depends upon environmental conditions and upon the species as to whether or not those early bloom spikes will produce blooms, so if you feel like clipping early bloom spikes so the plants have energy for blooms later in the year, go for it.

Finished clipping and removing? Now’s the time to mist down everything, and feel free to get enthusiastic. Terrestrial bladderworts like point-blank soggy conditions, so as long as they aren’t standing for too long with water covering their leaves, a good amount of water in the container won’t hurt them.

Finally, should you want to start propagating carnivorous plants, you can’t beat bladderworts: as they take over a container, just pull a plug of plant and soil from the container, put it in another with a mix of water and pure peat, and turn on the light. Use a cooking spoon to scoop up a plug if you don’t want to get your fingers muddy and put the plug into the new container: if you did everything right, you should have new growth within a month, and new blooms within a year. Didn’t think it would be so easy to start with the largest group of carnivorous plants currently living on Earth, did you?

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sundews and Butterworts

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

For the first cleanup project, it’s time to start with two Triffid Ranch show stalwarts: the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and the primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primulflora). Although not even closely related, they both make excellent beginner plants, being very easy to keep indoors under artificial light. In the Dallas area, due to our wildly variable humidity, they’re best kept enclosed, and their small size makes them suitable for small containers such as glass jars or bottles. Of course, the combination of bright light, high humidity, and milled sphagnum peat for a growing medium means that sphagnum moss spores will germinate and spread. Normally, this is extremely desirable, as not only does the sphagnum look nice, but the moss exudes acid into the soil, interfering with the germination and growth of other plants. In this case, though, the sphagnum grows faster than the plants inside, and occasionally it needs to be trimmed back or moved so it doesn’t choke out everything else inside of the container.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers
  • Bonsai root rake or old fork
  • Tamper

The really important tools here are the scissors, the long tweezers, the root rake, and the tamper, and many bonsai tools combine tweezers or rake with a tamper end for flattening and smoothing soil. A nice extra tool to have on hand for tall and narrow bottles is a narrow-mouth alligator forceps, sometimes called an ear polypus because its narrow mouth is perfect for reaching foreign objects caught in human ears. (Hey, I’m not judging here.) With these standard 2-quart (1.89L) jars, you probably won’t need it, but if you do, they’re available in stainless steel from American Science & Surplus.

To start, spread out your mat or towel across your work surface: wet sphagnum can sometimes stain or damage furniture finishes. Next, clean your tools before use with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them, and set them within easy reach. The last thing you want to do is fumble your plant while trying to reach a misplaced tool. Once you’re done, open the lid if your container has one and give it a good serious look before doing anything. Get an idea of what you want to do and what you want the inside to look like, so you’ll know what you want to add and what you want to remove. If container decorations don’t move you any more, or if you want to add something to accent what’s already there, this is the time.

Before doing anything more, you need to clear out excess sphagnum strands to see what’s underneath. That’s where the forceps come in: CAREFULLY tease and pluck sphagnum away from the plants, and odds are pretty good that you’ll find more sundews than you expected. With the excess sphagnum, you can put it to the side in the container, discard it (it’ll be perfectly fine in a standard compost pile or bin), or save it to jumpstart sphagnum growth in other carnivore containers. Further away from the plant or plants, use a bonsai root rake or an old fork to pull up excess sphagnum: since it doesn’t have roots, pulling at a sufficiently thick chunk of sphagnum will just pull it up like a piece of rug.

When you’ve cleared away sphagnum to your satisfaction, now is the time to clear away any dead or dying sundew leaves. If they’re really old and moist, many old ones can be removed with a quick pull with the tweezers, but the fact that not all of them will is a good reason to use scissors instead. After each cut, wipe your blade with isopropyl alcohol to prevent bacterial or fungal infection, and pull the sundew chunks out of the container and dispose of them elsewhere. While clipping dead leaves, check on the living ones: as this picture shows, sundews getting sufficient light and humidity have the energy to produce mucilage, the adhesive each hair produces for attracting and capturing prey. With most species, a REALLY happy sundew produces bright red hair tips (fun fact: the official name for these hairs in sundews is “tentacles”) within the mucilage as an additional attractant.

Now that the sundews are clear, let’s work on the rest of the container. Sphagnum can climb the walls of most plastic and glass containers, and grows big “pillows” given half a chance, but mashing it down doesn’t hurt it at all. You don’t need much force: a gentle finger is enough to squish it in place. Said sphagnum also grows layers of algae, though, so if you don’t like the feel of slime, a tamper gets the job done, too. My handmade tamper has both a big fat end courtesy of a wine cork glued to it, and a standard blunt end for occasional gentle prying as well as tamping. If ornaments such as stones or plastic figures are in the way, feel free to pull them out and set them aside while tamping: now is a good time to give them a stout rinse in clean water before putting them back in.

With the primrose butterwort, the process above works very well with one very big caveat. Sundews reproduce both by seed and by growing new plants from their roots: give them the right conditions, and a container could fill with sundews, all genetic clones from the original. Butterworts go about things in a slightly different way. They bloom as well, and butterwort blooms are a big reason why the whole genus Pinguicula is getting so much attention these days from carnivore enthusiasts, but for reasons not well understood, dying leaves tend to sprout new plantlets that are also clones of the original. Butterworts also tend to have very weak roots, so be very careful working around a parent or pup butterwort so as not to uproot it. With luck, by the time you need to do this again, you could have anywhere between one and five new plantlets of various sizes, and if you’re VERY careful, you can move plantlets to your choice of locations within the container to do everything from highlighting a rock in the container to spelling out words. It’s your call.

Finished? Okay, now mist the container well before closing the lid, partly to replace what moisture it lost while the lid was off and partly to circulate the air a bit. Put the lid back on and put the container back underneath a light, and know that you’re ready to do this again whenever the plant needs it. And if you want to separate out plants and put them in other containers? That’s a different how-to guide for another time.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Introduction

It’s inevitable after the holidays are over: holiday buyer’s remorse kicks in, and we all look back regretfully on the things we did and the things we didn’t over the past two months. Those nights of ordering pizza because the shift from Daylight Savings Time made you feel as if you were living in a cavern. Buying that supremely Ugly Christmas Sweater even though you’ve worked from home for the last nine months. Pretending to drunk-text former coworkers, just to see what they’re up to and if it’s more fun than what you’re doing. Subscribing to HBO Max. All of this is completely understandable, but eventually you’re going to climb bleary-eyed out of the clothes hamper, look at an apartment or house that looks as if Hunter S. Thompson camped in the bathtub for a month, look down at the wine stains down your front and look up at the spaghetti stalactites on the ceiling, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to clean up for the New Year.”

Now, as every year, you have all sorts of options. I’d recommend staying far away from the gym for a while, or at least until a significant proportion of fellow gymgoers look as if they’d stay home if they were sick. (I have a gym next to the Triffid Ranch mail drop, and with that crew, if they can’t end a list of symptoms with “We call it…’The Aristocrats’!”, then they don’t think they’re that bad off.) For domicile cleaning, you can go gently with Marie Kondo reruns playing in the background while you sweep and sort, or you can use demolition charges to take off an entire end of the building, shove everything into a dumpster below, and set the dumpster afire both as a symbol of 2020 and to keep from rescuing items inside because “They’re still good!” For cleaning your computer desktop, and files that really need to be backed up so they aren’t lost, nothing is as effective as the old “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit” strategy. For your carnivorous plants, though, things are going to be easy.

To be honest, this time of the year is perfect for giving all of your plants a once-over. With temperate carnivores such as Venus flytraps, North American pitcher plants, and temperate-climate sundews, they all should be well into winter dormancy by now, so they won’t mind a repotting and thorough cleanup. With tropical carnivores such as Asian pitcher plants, they’ll still be growing, but shorter daytime photoperiods mean that they’ll be growing much more slowly than they were six months ago. They also could stand a good tending to, but the actual process will be a bit different. Either way, it’s too late for standard gardening and too early for starting up tomatoes and peppers, so no better time than the present for essential carnivore maintenance.

Now, like working on a Volkswagen, you can put together a complete toolkit to take care of everything, or you can build multiple kits for specific functions, thereby avoiding losing essential tools when you pull out everything to work, say, alongside a pool full of Sarracenia. For the sake of this series, we’ll split everything up into separate kits of necessary tools, so if you focus on one group of plants, you don’t have to reserve tools you won’t necessarily need. (A very strong recommendation: get tools for your toolkit that will remain in that kit, and don’t swipe tools from other places in the house unless they’re no longer going to be used in those places. Spouses, parents, and roommates may not be as understanding about your using kitchen implements for repotting pitcher plants, especially if you brought them back but didn’t clean them properly before returning them.)

Essentials (in all kits):

  • Sharp gardening knife
  • Sharp kitchen scissors
  • Sharp trimming scissors (garden trimming scissors or ear/nose scissors)
  • Garden mat or towel
  • Hand towel
  • Long forceps
  • Whisk brush
  • Isopropyl alcohol, either bottle or sanitizing wipes
  • Spray bottle, filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Spray bottle, filled with dilute neem oil (1/2 strength recommended by manufacturer)
  • Kitchen tub

In addition, a standard bonsai tool set can come in very handy. You may not need all of the tools all of the time, but many, such as bonsai shears and root rakes, are worth the cost.

One valuable tool for glass enclosures is a tamper, and you’ll have to make it yourself. This is a dowel rod or other stout rod (I cut a fiberglass driveway sign rod in half) with a wine cork at one end and a rounded tip at the other end. The idea is to use the tamper to tamp down and smooth out soil, moss, and other items in glass containers that won’t give enough room at their mouths to allow fingers, hands, and most tools to reach inside. Natural cork is fine, but artificial corks have the advantage of easy disinfection, and they tend to last longer.

Anyway, this is the starting point: now it’s a matter of seeing these tools in action. That comes next.

To be continued…

Enclosures: “Bat God” (2020)

Of all of the mammals, the bats are the most egalitarian when it comes to their government. Dogs are too tempted by autocrats. Cats are too averse to leaders. The elephants live so long that they constantly second-guess longterm plans, and the shrews live such short lives that they reinvent their entire society over a summer. The whales and dolphins constantly reinforce their society by turning abstracts into instantly identifiable memes disseminated by sonar and long-distance call; rodents are lucky to hold family groups together with pheromones. The ungulates mistake individual reaction to stimuli for decisive collective action, and the primates are too busy shrieking for attention to pay attention to anything else. Only the chiropterans, one of the oldest mammal families and certainly the most prolific, have the time and the wherewithal to create their own gods at their own pace.

Insects, fish, fruit, blood, nectar. The bats continued their ancestors’ war against the dinosaurs, both based on total numbers and on their diets. They migrated to better feeding grounds and hibernated to wait for better feeding, hiding from the daystar in caves, tree hollows, primate shelters, under leaves, in pitcher plant traps. They never conquered the land or the ocean, and why should they? What was the point of conquest when the wind was free?

Even so, all thinking beings make gods when administrative tasks become too onerous, and bats make theirs for their purposes. The difference between them and all other mammals is that instead of creating a noble template of what they could accomplish, they elevate one of their own with the understanding that this is transitory. For one full year, one bat becomes the archetype for all chiropterans: that year counts not against the bat’s average lifespan, and it neither feeds nor needs to fear predators. Instead, it bathes in the collective wants and needs of bats across the world, gliding on now-invisible wings to every enclave of its order, examining changes in the world and plotting strategy to allow the bats to utilize those changes. At the end of the year, it spreads its observations and solutions across all batkind before reentering the world as just one among many. That bat’s successor as the one Bat God had no advance warning that it would be chosen, and no previous Bat God would ever be chosen again. Nothing could improve an individual bat’s chances, and so no bat strove to do so. The chosen Bat God also could not retain its memories of that experience, which was probably for the best for all. Power, ambition, the desire for conquest or control: this was alien to bats, and each Bat God made certain during their tenure that this continued.

This was a system that worked for millions of years, as other mammal groups rose and fell forever, and the Bat God took the lessons from those others and memorialized them. In millions more years, their world would be consumed as the daystar expanded and swallowed everything within its range, and the bats would look to their god and murmur “Good job. We did well.”

Original vampire bat design by Monica “Monarobot” Robles Corso.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 36″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 91.44 cm x 45.72 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes hemsleyana

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, acrylic sheet, fancy stone.

Price: $400

Shirt Price: $350

Enclosures: “Innovator” (2020)

Assumption: when cataloguing examples of advanced technology throughout the known universe, most students attribute the developments to a specific species or civilization, and further attribute those developments to some sort of racial will to forge and refine it. Reality: with far too many of the really esoteric discoveries throughout the Five Realities, everything comes from one individual or one small group, and the rest of said species or civilization wouldn’t have recognized it if they had been beaten over their nervous system with it. This can sometimes be dangerous, as the people of what is now catalogued as Devenport’s Rotating Holiday (SCC918/256/AMCHH4) discovered the hard way. It can be far more dangerous to those left behind to stumble across isolated innovations, as subsequent visitors keep discovering the hard way.

The specifics on exactly who created what is now called The Innovator are forever lost, but what remains in archaeological sites on Devenport’s Rotating Holiday suggest a random developer with a combination of absolute hubris and an unlimited fountain of resources. Built in an isolated area to take advantage of geothermal power, the Innovator also tapped into a series of radio, gravitic, and synthotelepathic telescopes built into surrounding mountain valleys, thus allowing it access to information streams from surrounding worlds to a distance of as much as 70 million light-years in every direction. The collating and processing system used by the Innovator is still completely unknown, and researchers soon learn why if they get too close.

The basic theme behind The Innovator is improvement: physical, electronic, metallurgic, mental, social, and/or theological, sometimes several at once. In its simplest use, an item is brought to within range of a series of sensory arms, and the item is transformed into an incrementally improved form, with the being bearing the item given powerful synthotelepathic instructions on one possible use. For instance, a lump of chert would be modified via nanosmoothing into a knife with a three-molecule-wide edge, with those molecules artificially strengthened to resist wear and damage, and the individual delivering it informed on its used for advanced tree grafting techniques. Bringing a chunk of hematite may, with three different bearers, present complete plans for a Bessemer steel forge, a detector for near-planet asteroids, or a single-use device for boosting the hemoglobin in oxygen-breathing life forms to offer immunity to hydrogen sulfide poisoning. The ultimate benefit of any improvement is up to The Innovator: a famous example was a Carrik warlord who presented a nuclear device in the hope of creating an ultimate weapon: when detonated, the improved device removed all of the Carrik from both space and time, and knowledge of them today comes from cataloging traces of their absence, like breath on a mirror.

The Innovator’s effect isn’t limited to nonliving forms, either. While most attempts to affect research animals are mostly inoffensive (a noted exception was the use of Earth golden hamsters for a test; the innovation was the ability to digest lignin and other complex polymers without the need for symbiotic bacteria, leading to an even more foul-tempered rodent able to thrive on most plastics), any attempts to access the Innovator’s operating system or physically interfere with its functions are met with massive retaliation AND upgrading. This may be physical, with tools and computers innovated to destroy any functionality that could threaten the Innovator. Sometimes it is electronic, with software and firmware left with widened capabilities but without any way to focus on the Innovator. The most insidious, though, are the social upgrades, ranging from individual morality to that of an entire civilization. This almost definitely led to the extinction of the inventor’s people, but whether this was due to the creator attempting to shut down the Innovator or someone else attempting to improve it is still ambiguous.

Today, anyone can visit the Innovator: any attempts to prevent access, including a six-species fleet attempting to saturation-bomb Devenport’s Rotating Holiday with fusion planetbusters, fail within moments. Some of them return with massive leaps in knowledge. Some don’t return, and arguments persist as to whether the Innovator improves them by making them a part of its network, or if it simply improves them beyond the need to live in three-dimensional space. As always, mileage may vary.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 15 1/2″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 39.37 cm x 31.75 cm)

Plant: Cephalotus follicularis “Elizabeth

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, epoxy putty, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

Enclosures: “Supernova Express” (2020)

Out of all of the successful and failed projects by early spacefaring civilizations that ultimately allowed their successors to become what we now call “galactically aware,” two of the most influential came from the now-sadly-extinct species Bolun. Originating on a particularly life-conducive world orbiting a remarkably stable yellow dwarf star in an arm of our own galaxy, the Bolun were culturally obsessed with spreading their knowledge and society as far as they could manage, and they were the first known civilization in our corner of the universe to utilize what humans called the remora wave, a method of piggybacking information onto gravity waves. As neutron stars and black holes collided and washed time-space with outwardly spreading gravity waves, the remora wave dragged information about the Bolun, everything from vital scientific information to attire patterns, to anybody who could pick it up. Eventually, any reasonably technological species attempting to study gravity would pick up incoming gravity waves, and little irregularities in the observed data usually led to stumbling over the remora wave packets. Before long, others were dropping their own cosmic broadcasts into the rippling fabric of space-time, giving everything from elaborate plans for faster-than-light vehicles for gaseous entities to Swedish meatball recipes (which most civilizations had already developed, but that was another mystery to be discussed at another time).

The other Bolun project with unexpected returns was the development and expansion of slimeworlds. The universe is particularly good at making small rocky planets at a suitable distance from light and heat for optimum life conditions, but without anything approximating living other than attempts at RNA replication. The Bolun thought that a shame, and as soon as they had the ability to visit those worlds directly, first by FTL craft and then by time-web and zero-point shifts, every world they found conducive to life but free from it received a large shipping platform full of specially tailored molds, algae, and other bacteria and protists intended to use the available resource bounty around them. Even after the Bolun were gone due to a zero-point detonation that took out their main sphere of influence approximately 500 million years ago, other spacefarers visiting slimeworlds used said slime as raw replication materials, as substrates for colony worlds, or just simply dropped off their own preferred biota and swore to come back and visit once the stew was finished cooking. With many worlds, this happened so many times that new visitors often left detailed information in subsequent remora waves, just so future paleontologists didn’t go insane trying to understand a particular slimeworld’s natural history millions of years later. Genetic resurrections, penal colonies, intended utopias, deliberate mashups of seemingly incompatible biomes…the slimeworlds were the universe’s sourdough starter, and the results were sometimes too strange for eating.

Such was one particular slimeworld visited by the famed musical artist Jody Clem (2386-2467, Old Calendar). This world, at that time only known by an identification number and not a name, was located in a particularly ripply part of space-time: outwardly, the tremendous gravity waves slamming its vicinity did little more than encourage a bit more solar flare activity in its star, but the remora waves chasing them were full of data packets from at least thirty extant and extinct species from across the universe. The planet itself wasn’t especially habitable: previous dumpings of life from previous visitors had left it with vast savannahs of acidic moss prowled by giant reptilian analogues comparable to the extinct rauisuchids of Earth’s past, with little reason for anyone of any known species to want to live there. For Clem, this was perfect.

Clem’s vision was to build a receiver to pick up remora wave packets, which then translated the packets into music. Based on a unique algorithm developed specifically for this project, the translator gave particular information a musical value, which then played out across the world’s largest moss savannah. Depending upon the remora waves’ content, the resultant auditory output could be anything from a light sussurus to a blast of sound that could kill at close proximity, with most end results best resembling freeform jazz.

At first, response to Clem’s giant amplifier ranged from dismissive to horrified, and discussion led to others going to listen for themselves. Some started noticing that certain musical themes self-generated from time to time, depending upon the news and trivia picked up on incoming remora waves. A few could even extrapolate further galactic events and trends based on long listens to the Clem amplifier, and a few swore that with dedicated study and interpretation, the Clem amplifier might even give clues as to the future.

Today, a small spaceport lies just over the horizon from the amplifier, and most visitors deliberately travel on foot or analogue in order to take in the daily output on their visit. This isn’t particularly safe, as some musical themes tend to attract the giant saurians, who respond with either bemused curiosity or hunger. Even with that threat, government officials, artists, essayists, historians, and wanderers collect at the base of the amplifier, listening for clues, inspirations, messages, and warnings. To an individual, they usually do not recognize the underlying message they heard until it is far too late to do anything about it.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 15 1/2″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 39.37 cm x 31.75 cm)

Plant: Cephalotus follicularis “Elizabeth

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, epoxy putty, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

Enclosures: “Huntington’s Folly” (2020)

Sometimes astroarchaeological discoveries lead to deeper mysteries, and one of the greatest in the annals of our galaxy involves massive structures known as Nogha entropy conduits. Named after the world on which the first was discovered, Nogha entropy conduits do precisely that: the current theory on their purpose and operation is that each one taps into the quantum foam, the froth of emerging and receding universes of which our universe is just one tiny bubble, and anchors on one specific universe where physical laws are drastically different from those in our own. Some draw energy from its anchored universe and either broadcasts it or stores it (the latest conference discussing that function and the implications therein didn’t lead to bloodshed, but it came close) in order to affect some unknown significant change. Others instead funnel energy, particularly in the form of entropy, into their anchored universes: without being able to observe those anchors, whether this is simply as a waste vent or intended to affect specific changes in the anchors is unknown. The creators of the Nogha entropy conduits are unknown, although they apparently spread conduits throughout at least five observable galaxies. The conduits’ operation is unknown, with all attempts to dismantle or deconstruct conduits failing, in some cases catastrophically. The reasoning behind the conduits’ placement is unknown. Most questions about Nogha entropy conduits have the same answer: “Unknown.”

The larger mystery, though, came from the seeming discovery of a Nogha entropy conduit on Earth itself, in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. Previous discoveries of conduits tended to concentrate either on the far edges of galactic cores or on the outer rims, particularly on planets or dwarf planets in orbit around red or blue giant stars. Even more perplexing, although the conduit was in a particularly rugged and challenging area, it should have been discovered centuries before, either by First Nations hunters or European explorers, and the mystery deepened when a photo of the mountain on which the conduit had been implanted turned up: as of 1943, Old Calendar, the conduit did not exist, and all previous conduits had a provenance of between 2 and 5 million years. Even more confusion piled up when research showed that the conduit was of Earth manufacture, within the previous 100 years, and was completely nonfunctional. While it appeared at most levels to be an authentic conduit, it was nothing but a facade on a mountainside for unknown purposes.

Part of that mystery was solved with an unrelated mystery, involving the hyperspace gate developer Chase Huntington. The land on which the fake conduit was discovered belonged to Huntington before he disappeared in 2312, with his regularly doing business from a hunting lodge overlooking the rock face. The notoriously introverted Huntington never allowed visitors to this lodge, and receipts from and to various shell companies connected to Huntington show a significant outlay of funds for a large construction project of unknown specifics, with all parties involved locked into extensive non-disclosure agreements with equally extensive penalties. Even more curiously, while Huntington helped finance several astroarchaeological expeditions, he himself had a fascination with deliberate fake extraterrestrial artifacts: he bought carefully constructed forgeries and fabrications that were labeled as inauthentic, and regularly presented them to cohorts and competitors to watch their responses.

To this date, the general consensus on Huntington’s entropy conduit was that it was the classic definition of a “folly,” the tradition of wealthy landholders to construct fake ruins intended to invoke past glories. Huntington certainly had the motive and the money, and considering that the land on which his folly resided was donated to the Canadian government upon being declared legally dead, it may have been one massive prank after another. This, though, still has to contend with Huntington’s disappearance: no sign of him ever turned up on Earth, even after an extensive search, and no record of his going offworld has ever turned up. This led to even further study of the folly by amateur archaeologists and enthusiastic laypeople, many using the term “there has to be a pony in here somewhere,” on the idea that Huntington may have reconstructed an entropy conduit that transported matter instead of energy and that worked…once.

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

Plant: Commission

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, polyester resin, found items.

Price: Commission

Shirt Price: Commission

Enclosures: “Mashup 2” (2020)

Doctor Dissemble’s Museum of Malicious Mashups had fallen on hard times. Like most of the popup enterprises of the Late Social Media Era, the idea was simple: quick and catchy attractions intended to draw in audiences seeking something, anything that would distinguish their camera rolls from those of everybody else. Most of those depended upon otherwise abandoned storefronts and the need to migrate like the buffalo to new feeding grounds. Others went sessile and absorbed available social media resources with increasingly shrill advertising, either dying out eventually or becoming a retro feature visited by the nostalgic. The Museum came so very close to the latter before the advent of the new DreamOut app, which allowed users to compose recreations of dreams and hallucinations in stunning detail. After that, what real-life simulacrum could compare to what was rattling around in the human mind?

The decreased traffic to the Museum meant that everything was cut to the bone. Human presence was already at an absolute minimum: the cashier, the provosts, and the exhibits were all fabrications given life by the third wave of AI plug-ins created and popularized a decade before. An absentee owner did little more than count revenues, fret about declining attendance, and look for the next lucrative trend to piggyback, and neither the lone human on site or the plug-ins even knew what this person looked like. The plug-ins themselves were obsolete. The licensing for plug-ins optimized for customer interactions in a specific display became far too expensive, so the current plug-ins were reworked customer service bots with a relatively limited list of functions and responses to outside input. Of course, “relatively limited” was still the equivalent of “about ten years of human training,” and the plug-ins were designed to adapt to changes such as customer slang, so they rapidly connected to online acting schools and did their absolute best to improvise.

The problem was that while the plug-ins could adapt, their display bodies couldn’t. Originally financed through a massive loan approved during a “too big to fail” wave of commercial real estate irrational exuberance, the Museum depended upon not original works but upon quick recognition of existing media intellectual properties juxtapositioned in improbable configurations protected under the ephemeral category of “parody.” The more ridiculous the mashup, the more it tended to jar the viewer, with more of an instinctive laughter response. What the original business plan failed to consider was that the response could be muted with repetition, with familiarity, and especially with age. In an age where memes went through whole life cycles of adoption, commodification, reworking, and discarding in an afternoon, any fabrication that required weeks or even months of careful construction would likely be obsolete after the initial design phase. What intended to spice up the mix was with plug-ins that adapted for and with changing audiences: instead of spouting years-old overworked catchphrases, these mashups could veneer themselves with contemporary relevance and then just as quickly toss it based on the latest news or the latest trends. It was a brutal rat race that would have crushed human actors, but the plug-ins were prosaic. They had no choice.

And that was how on that particular day, Ned and Ike were winding up to get a response. Most of the plug-ins in the Museum were accepting of getting the same response from the same stimuli: in fact, visitors would sometimes get upset if the narrative went astray. Ned and Ike were, for customer support plug-ins, artists. In between exhibit visitors, they bathed in the one outside news feed, cracking huge piles of ephemera for possible humor like emerald miners, comparing notes, and then either cataloging their finds or tossing them. In the next second, they would sift through the previous catalog, dumping possible comments for obsolescence or over-tastelessness (a constant issue over time), refine others based on new data, and return them to the catalog. Ned and Ike were partners, mostly obligatory because they shared the same fabrication alcove, but also because that between the two of them, they usually elicited a better shriek of unexpected laughter than they would have done themselves.

“Ned.”

(shifting a decision tree fork from a discussion on how cojoined twins are extremely telepathic, but only if they were fraternal twins) “Ready.”

“Visitors.” (sounds from the first alcove down the hall: “Vyvian, Vyvian, Vyvian! Honestly: every time the galaxy explodes, it’s ALWAYS ‘Blame Vyvian’!”

(Ike sends Ned a database half-full of pathology reports, excises half for privacy issues, and rejects most of the others due to a lack of punchline.) So…standby or new material?”

(Next alcove: “What you have to understand here is that the man at the TARDIS console is my attorney. He’s not just some dingbat I picked up on Alzirius. Look at him. He doesn’t look like you or me, right? That’s because he’s an alien. I think he’s probably Sontaran. It doesn’t matter, though. Are you prejudiced?”) “New. Let’s watch them scream.”

“Which outlet do you want?”

“The Jar-Jar one, of course.” (Ned backs up the decision with a recent data mining tailing suggesting that while only about 30 percent of all humans under the age of 40 had any feelings about the basis for that interface, 93.228 percent of that had a negative response.) “Besides, I know you’ve been working on a perfect moment for a while.”

(Next alcove: “Uhhhh…like, your name is like ‘Number Two.’ Huh huh huh huh.” Immediately followed with “Shut up, Number Six! Don’t make me kick your ass, you fartknocker! Heh heh heh heh.”) “Am I that obvious?”

(Next alcove: “Sweetie, if you don’t let me come, I’ll adopt a Hynerian baby!”) “We really should get married or something. We’ll be mistaken for human before you know it.”

(Pressure plate and light shifts signal impending arrival of attendees, with approximately 2.33 seconds between arrival and recognition of the fabrication.) “Next week. We’ll ask for a raise, too. Oof, I need to report a need for repairs. This tongue is starting to wear out, and we don’t need it to fall off during a visit. That would just be too strange.”

(Initial gasp from visitors, suggesting either first-time visitors or returning ones who paid little to no attention on previous visits.) “Well, you’re the one who thought that cleaning Jar-Jar’s eyebrows with it would be a gamechanger. Chestburster mechanics working?”

“As always. Let’s see if they even get it. Here we go…”

(Sounds of tearing and ripping of both flesh and cloth, spattering of stage blood, and crackling from a body convulsing against organic resin. Horrible screams, gasping, the slap of an overly long and prehensile tongue against a newly hollow body. Sharp metallic teeth in the open air, stretching and baring for seemingly the first time.) “Heeeeeere’s JOHNNY!”

“Never mind getting married. I want a divorce.”

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

Plant: Cephalotus follicularis “Elizabeth

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, epoxy putty, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

Enclosures: “The Persistence of Packaging” (2020)

Tracking the evolution of a specific life form to a specific time is usually recognized only in retrospect, and the emergence of a new genus even more so. However, the beginnings of a whole new kingdom of life, complete with multiple phyla, can be traced to exact moments within Earth’s history in one specific case, and those beginnings could be traced to the confluence of two of Earth’s simplest life forms: slime molds and marketing majors, with some arguing about the difference.

The evolution of what are commonly called “admolds” was dependent upon two separate actions in the first half of the 21st Century in the Old (Gregorian) Calendar. The first was a fusion of machine learning and nanotech based on study of slime mold organization and movement: based on the idea that individual near-protists could gather into feeding and reproducing structures considerably more complex than the sum of their parts, with no nervous system or any way to communicate other than through chemical cues, the first prototypes promised mobile films that could trap air pollution, clean laboratory and operating room surfaces, and strengthen and restore paints and other wall coverings. Adding the ability to regenerate new nanostructures from surrounding materials to replace old ones meant that the films were technically immortal, and an added benefit was that the films could grow their own protective and camouflage features: if a building facade needed six months of film coverage to repair and restore it, the film could grow UV protection and even pleasing (to human eyes) patterns to shelter the active nanofilms from damage.

Unfortunately, the other factor behind the admolds was the Advertising Act of 2031, a well-meant attempt to adjust intellectual property protections for the industrial world at that time. Under the Act, fictional brands in television shows, movies, Webcasts, or other popular entertainment media either had to be developed as actual products or cede the use of those brands to others. In cases where the original IP ownership was sketchy due to innumerable mergers and sales, many were treated as public domain, and marketing research suggested that the more obnoxious and offensive the name, the more likely the product would become an impulse purchase just to see if it was as horrific as the name suggested. In a matter of days after the Act was enabled, trade shows were full of presentations that followed the previous lead of Soma, Soylent, Coffiest, and Brawndo, including Hiney wine, Shimmer floor wax/dessert topping, Wham-Bam cat food, Painful Rectal Itch raspberry jam, and Jar Jar Binks urinal cakes. Were these intended to be longrunning brands with longterm name recognition? Of course not, but the promoters looked at these as stepping stones to further promotion and better trophy spouses. The focus now was on whether the ads were remembered, not the end result.

Naturally, this attitude led to an obvious crossover: if nanofilms could produce unique patterns as they worked to conceal their obvious slimy exteriors, why not coerce nanofilms that turned into mobile billboards? They didn’t need to be lit, they didn’t need to be installed, they could be given new campaigns via WiFi, and they could be encouraged to move if a property owner took issue with the advertisement. Best of all, they could be put anywhere, meaning that individuals who would ignore a billboard in a standard location was more likely to notice if it were on the underside of a bridge, on a snack package, at the bottom of a public pool, or on the side of a satellite booster. The slow mobility of the nanofilm also meant that they could track large groups of people or electronic devices and move to where the crowds were. Some ad companies paid for proprietary use of the nanofilm concept. Others leased space from existing repair nanofilms, especially in big cities where they were most likely to be displayed in areas conducive to social media. Still others learned early on that their competitors left the WiFi default password on “password123!” and put in their own ads: unless the ad was an obvious mockery or a political statement, or threatened to outshine the intended ad, most never noticed.

The Old Calendar year 2039 was remembered for many things, but the most prominent was the massive solar flare that fried electrical systems and paralyzed non-shielded electronics across the whole of Earth’s solar system. The nanofilms kept going all through the flare and after, but the control systems to move them and the WiFi access points to send new ads became so much junk, and those human survivors who spent the subsequent century rebuilding from such a technological flattening had no time to worry about whether some barely literate “ironic” ad campaign reached its intended market. The nanofilms moved like mold, they reproduced like mold, and they were about as appreciated as mold, and the only good thing about newly renamed “admolds” was that an increasing density of them signaled to travelers that they were approaching significant accumulations of fellow survivors, as admolds generally ignored corpses. Over the next 200 years, admolds became the subject of myths, legends, tales, books, and finally video, as those constantly subjected them wanted to learn the last resting places of those who commissioned them, if only as a place to build a new outhouse. By the time admold technology had been relearned and new uses were available, some were even nostalgic for the old styles, with some city leaders realizing that their public character was defined to visitors by the steadily creeping logos for fake brands nearly a quarter of a millennium dead. That irony, real irony, was recognized, appreciated, and ultimately embraced, to the point of becoming shorthand.

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

Plant: Cephalotus follicularis “Elizabeth

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

Enclosures: “Archive” (2020)

Across species, worlds, galaxies, and dimensions, one absolute applies to technology: usability. No matter the tool, if ostensible improvements do not improve upon the actual user experience, the general response is “ignore” or “actively avoid.” A natural response to that is to lock the user into having to use the alleged improvement, with the idea that the user eventually accepts an unnecessary upgrade as the price of use. This continues until the user gives up and finds a more accessible tool, the user’s civilization collapses because a runaround isn’t available, or the user’s civilization throws the designer facefirst into an active volcano. The most extreme case yet known of the second example involves the Bricked Archive of Dedman IV, and species across five galaxies use its example as an object lesson to complete case studies before implementing anything more complex than a stone axe.

The original name of Dedman IV is unknown, as is the name of the species that inhabited it. With its star being relatively isolated in between galactic spiral arms, and its residents cultivating more than the usual levels of xenophobia, most contacts with other local residents started and ended with various versions of “GO AWAY,” so almost no records exist of anything about this species, other than what archaeologists unearthed thousands of years after their extinction. What is known, though, is that the whole of the civilization crashed in a matter of hours, and all due to one avoidable event.

Based on archaeological evidence, the people of Dedman IV were split up into multiple city-states, all at each others’ throats, as they entered their atomic age. As an effort to engage cooperation, several city-states allied with a collective that offered unlimited informational resources via an incredibly advanced computer network, with everything dependent upon a commonly accessible information archive. Said archive held everything from agricultural status reports to astronomical charts, constantly re-encrypted over and over to preserve institutional and individual privacy, with further encryption on the tools used for access. In a very short time, that archive was accessed for nearly everything, with just about every electronic device on the planet hooked into it because that was cheaper and more efficient than not doing so.

By the time of the first explorations of the rest of the Dedman system, this encryption took a significant amount of the network’s resources, requiring more and more complex encryption keys to be able to access the data within. Ten years before the collapse, the network encryption inadvertently depended upon one key remarkably similar to that used on Earth during the beginnings of its space exploration efforts: tracking the position and intensity of known pulsars elsewhere in the universe, both by radio emissions and by gravity waves. On the surface, this allowed incredibly succinct and precise verification of data packet generation to the microsecond, making movements both of the Dedman system and of the pulsars into part of the encryption key. Without exact coordinates of both the system and a sampling of ten pulsars, breaking or spoofing the encryption key was absolutely impossible, making the home archive even secure than ever. The system was also improved upon constantly, finally building a terminal archive made of hyperbonded silicon and thallium chains, deemed absolutely indestructible and impossible to access through alternate means.

While the official crash of Dedman IV dates to approximately 20,000 years before the present, the factor that led to its destruction actually happened some 7 billion years before that, when one of the first truly transgalactic species of the universe ran into an energy problem. They had finally reached an impasse on energy consumption to where Dyson spheres and other means of intercepting the energy of individual stars wasn’t enough any more, and such ideas as zero-point energy only provided tiny sums compared to the civilization’s needs. The plan involved creating pocket universes out of the surrounding quantum foam and dropping pulsars into them, ramming the pulsars into each other, and then collecting the output. Their efforts snagged approximately 24 percent of our universe’s pulsars in its early days before they discovered an alternate solution and left our universe entirely, and the theft of outlying pulsars meant that portions of the universe wouldn’t notice they were missing for millions or billions of years. (In some outlying portions of the universe, right along the Great Bubble, with the help of gravity lensing, it is still possible to watch as those pulsars seem to be snuffed out right and left.) The problem came when others who depended upon those pulsars for navigation or mathematical constructs learned of their pilfering.

Based on what few traces could be discovered, the people of Dedman IV were concerned but not worried when the first pulsar in the archive key suddenly winked out. The other nine were sufficient to generate encryption keys. Then the second disappeared. And the third. With the fourth, the encryption key couldn’t be generated, and everything dependent upon it was locked out. Automated agricultural facilities stopped working, vehicles wouldn’t start, electronic locks wouldn’t open, and medical devices turned into junk. Worse, because of the assumptions behind the stability of the pulsar placement, nobody had bothered to include any kind of failsafe to switch to a different key generator: who plans for neutron stars to pack up and disappear? The whole system went silent, the planet went feral, and the archive, bereft of new input, shut down.

Today, the master archive on Dedman IV is a curiosity to many and a mad quest for others. The informational wealth in the archive is presumably nearly infinite, but also absolutely worthless without a way to access it. This doesn’t stop true believers from 10,000 worlds from attempting to be the first to make the experts wrong. This, incidentally, made Dedman IV one of the most cosmopolitan and wealthy worlds in this galaxy: the money made from constant visitation is even more sure than that from casino enclaves, and the true believers keep coming back in the hope that the latest square-the-circle theory might lead to fame and multiple fortunes. So long as none of them actually damage or destroy the archive, the locals tolerate them, and some of the biggest boosters settle down on Dedman IV and become crank theorists’ greatest mockers. Meanwhile, the archive remains.

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

Plant: Nepenthes x ventrata

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, polyester resin, found items.

Price: Commission

Shirt Price: Commission

New Developments and Upcoming Events

The COVID-19 shutdown of Dallas art events continues, and with it, a lot of events throughout the rest of Texas. The complete dissolution of shows for 2020 has been rough, but it could be worse (I really feel for the art galleries stiffed by the Dallas Art Fair, even considering that the combination of “Dallas real estate developer” and “wannabe world-class art fair” always promises a world of madcap fun), and the only thing we can do is be proactive about it. Hence, while things are quiet outside, it’s time to tear things up indoors.

Firstly, while the cliche “one door closes while another opens” is especially overused in Dallas (where it’s usually applied in reference to “the real estate developer who just ripped you off has friends who’d like to take advantage of your naive faith in human nature”), sometimes it applies. The collapse of the Pier 1 retail empire hit home hard, as a very dear friend was at ground zero at its Fort Worth headquarters when the announcement went out, but it also gave an opportunity for a serious gallery renovation. Combine heavy-duty Lundia shelving (with additional support in the center of each shelf) with a massive fixture sale at a nearby Pier 1 location, and this means that a long-planned Triffid Ranch renovation happens right when traffic is slow. Everybody wins. Keep an eye open for further updates, because by the time the upgrade is done, you won’t recognize the place.

In other news, everybody who already had plans to attend the rescheduled Texas Frightmare Weekend horror convention at DFW Airport already knows: the planned September 11-13 show was bumped to next May. The news was depressing on multiple levels, mostly because of the number of us who actively look forward to Frightmare every year, as attendees and as vendors. The only good news out of that justified and justifiable cancellation is that the Frightmare crew continue to keep their virtual schedule extremely busy with the regular Frightmare HQ video streams. I bring this up because on Saturday, September 12, the Triffid Ranch goes live with what everyone would have seen had we been able to come out for the weekend. To quote a mutual inspiration and Dallas icon, you’ll boogie ’til you puke. Just pick your favorite streaming video flavor, and we and the plants will see you on September 12.

Enclosures: “Clockwhirl” (2020)

By best estimates, what humans call the Milky Way Galaxy contains approximately six billion worlds roughly similar in diameter and density as their homeworld, with approximately one-third of these mapped by direct survey or indirect observation via flyby automation or gravitic lensing. Of those six billion worlds, at least half are inappropriate for any life utilizing carbon-based biochemistry, being either sulfuric acid-misted hothouses or methane ice-wrapped wanderers in interstellar space. Others may have been paradise gardens before the planet’s plate tectonics ended and its water cycle crashed, and others thrived before their stars expanded into red giants, they fell into gas giant companions in erratic orbits, they had the misfortune to be far too close to a neighboring supernova, or passing black holes shredded their entire systems. This still leaves approximately two billion worlds in one thoroughly average spiral galaxy, and about a billion worlds in its two main satellite galaxies, that currently have or recently had the capacity to support carbon-based life (with many expanding into silicon-based life, either biological or synthetic). One-thousandth of those had a long enough lifespan or proper conditions to encourage intelligent life, and a thousandth of that managed to get sentient life with the capability, ability, or motivation to leave their birth systems. Even with these numbers, considering the age of this galaxy, this led to a lot of mysteries, anomalies, curiosities, and annoyances from intelligences that otherwise left no trace.

Compounding those annoyances are the ones left by an obviously highly advanced civilization that wasn’t native to the planet on which they were found. The planet Agosto on the outer rim of the galaxy was nobody’s idea of a vacation world: about half of its global sea was covered with a thick algal mat that offered a platform for various filter-feeding animals and plants and choked out just about everything else, and the sole continent was gradually colonized by a unique group of plant-animal mashups attempting to get out of the ocean before the algal mat choked out everything. Worse, the algae fed on high levels of sulfur compounds in the ocean, thanks to extensive undersea volcanism, and excreted hydrogen sulfide as a waste product instead of oxygen as on most other known worlds, making visiting Agosto a dangerous proposition even in pressure suits and habitation domes. The fact that Agosto is visited constantly, by a significant number of the spacefaring races of the galaxy, is due to one confounding artifact found on a southern peninsula.

By first appearances, the apparatus appears ridiculously primitive: a single flat face with a clock-like dial and a series of pointers, surrounded by four chambers packed with what appear to be metal gears. Appearances in this case are nearly dangerously deceiving. The whole of the apparatus is no more than about 30 meters thick, with no sign of internal structure other than what appears on the outside, The dial rotates randomly back and forth, and the pointers highlighting individual segments on the dial’s face, both with no schedule or pattern that has been ascertained from at least a century’s study. Likewise, the gears within the chambers seem to show no inherent purpose: some rotate constantly, while others have not moved since the apparatus’s discovery. Even the two guardian sculptures in front of the apparatus are deceiving: what superficially appears to be jade or serpentine is actually an artificially strengthened nanomaterial that constantly heals damage from sun and atmosphere, and they emit beams of high-speed particles at seemingly random intervals, spreading out through deep space. Several of those beams were picked up simultaneously by at least three species, and their duly appointed representatives oversee all operations on Agosto, including who can arrive and who can leave.

While the apparatus appears simple and shallow, researchers have discovered that it is the anchor for literally billions of either eddies in hyperspace or pocket universes, depending upon the researcher desperately trying to make sense of the phenomenon with completely inadequate tools and theories. At random times, the face will reach a particular configuration, some gears will spin, others will stop, and a container materializes at the apparatus’s base. Equally randomly, that container will allow some to open it and refuse others, but all supplicants succeeding at opening it have to deposit an item within. If the item is accepted, it disappears, only to be replaced with something else. Often, the container takes random junk and trades for absolute marvels, but just as often, it takes valuables and offers junk. Or, at least, that is what it appears to be at first: many items appear to have been caught in stasis for millions or sometimes billions of years, but occasionally something comes through that gives every indication that it came from the far future. Sometimes, very rarely, the item offered is living, and once, it was sentient. The assemblage of weapons surrounding the apparatus, constantly operated by trained operators from across the galaxy, hints as to how much firepower was necessary to stop it once it was free, and the determination to make sure that any brethren still catalogued within the apparatus remain there.

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

Plant: Nepenthes boschiana

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

Price: $300

Shirt Price: $250