Category Archives: Thursday is Resource Day

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 7

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

Listing holiday shopping options wouldn’t be complete without a shameless plug for the other half of the gallery, Caroline Crawford Originals. Many visitors to the gallery bypass the jewelry to get to the plants, but the wise ones take the time to stop and see what Caroline has to offer. Alternately, she has her own show and event schedule separate from Triffid Ranch events: last weekend was a little too cold for the plants at the Frightmare Collectibles Christmas Horror Market, but jewelry never sleeps.

For those wanting to see more, both the jewelry and plants will be open on December 24 from 2:00 pm to 7:00 Central time, and we’ll reopen for the post-holiday crowd for the last Weekend Carnivorous Plant Tour of 2020 on December 27 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Admission is free and masks are mandatory. And yes, there will be a LOT more jewelry on display at both.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 6

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

So now it’s down to the wire. Thanks to the previous year making every day a holiday shopping day as far as shipping volume is concerned, every online store worth its salt refuses to make any promises as to whether any purchase will arrive before December 25. Here in the States, the screaming in UPS and FedEx locations is positively deafening, because recent efforts to scuttle the US Post Office mean that both UPS and FedEx are trying to pick up the slack. If it’s not local, you’re probably not going to get it.

It’s at times like these where the default response is, indeed, “buy local.” That’s completely fair, but this also depends upon discovering what’s available. For the vast majority of the Twentieth Century, this would involve some heavily overworked Arts & Leisure section writer at the local newspaper deliberating between legitimate local treasures and what family friend of the editor or publisher needed a holiday bailout and didn’t want to have to pay for advertising. Today, the raw information is available, but the old “I didn’t know what I was looking for before I saw it” phenomenon is more pronounced than ever, and that section writer was laid off about four years ago to preserve the publisher’s holiday bonus. Thankfully, you have a terminally embittered former weekly newspaper writer turned carnivorous plant rancher more than willing to help carry some of the slack.

The only issue with “local” is “whose local?” Sadly, this means that this list is going to be horribly Dallas-centric, but this has two effects. The first is that for those already living in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, you have options for gift shopping that you might not have had before. The second is that for those who don’t live in the area, you now have additional pressure to do so. You’re welcome. Even if all you want to do is visit, when it’s safe to do so, now you have options on what to see besides South Fork (hopelessly dated), Jack Ruby’s nightclub (demolished decades ago), or the Texas School Book Depository (only interesting when a lone woman, answering to “Missy,” walks by once a year in November to look up wistfully at the sixth floor windows). I mean, don’t let that stop you from doing that anyway: if you go by the Book Depository, just tell Missy that her grandson says hello, okay?

Numero uno, as Dallas’s greatest superhero would put it, a little goes a long way, and Dallas’s restaurant scene is so much more vital and varied than it was, say, 20 years ago. It’s also in a particularly precarious situation because of COVID-19, and without eternal vigilance, it could be overrun with Applebee’s and Twin Peaks and the whole city becomes indistinguishable from Lewisville. Thanks to the wonders of modern point-of-sale processing, so many good restaurants offer both hard plastic and electronic gift cards, and you know at least one person who is going to NEED a dinner cooked by someone else in the next month. This means hopping on that phone and talking to the crews at Blu’s BBQ (Texas and Memphis barbecue), Flying Fish (Cajun seafood), Bistro B (Vietnamese), Tasty Tails (New Orleans seafood), Maple Leaf Diner (Canadian), Sababa (Middle Eastern), Chubby’s (classic comfort food, with the best strawberry cheesecake in the city), JC’s Burger House (burgers), or Del’s Burgers (more burgers, as well as excellent homemade root beer) about your efforts to spread the wealth.

Numero two-o, all that food means having something to read while eating, and while most people are perfectly happy to slog through Facebook, the idea is to amp up your experiences. The first, most obvious choice is Interabang Books, survivor of both bookstore wars and the tornadoes that hit North Dallas in 2019, as the best choice in the area for new books. Equally important for those looking for more graphic persuasions, I’ve been friends with Keith Colvin of Keith’s Comics for half of my life, and part of the reason why Keith’s Comics stores are going strong while other deeper-pocketed competitors blew up and scattered on the wind a decade ago is because of each store’s wide selection of graphic novels. (I highly recommend asking for a copy of Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club collection from Dark Horse Comics; for most, it’s a source of entertainment, but for others, it’s a source of never-ending self-aware horror.)

Numero three-o, you may or may not be surprised by the recommendation of the holistic health and wellness studio HeyyHealer, but there’s a specific reason. Namely, Triffid Ranch regulars may remember Christian “Doc” Cooper at various events, particularly the last Midtown ArtWalk at the old Valley View location before everybody in the mall got our eviction notices. Well, Doc has been busy with succulents, particularly red and yellow dragonfruit cactus, and his succulent arrangements are exclusively available through HeyyHealer. It’s all about taking care of your friends, coming and going, and if you’ve seen some of Doc’s arrangements, you’ll get that extra joy of having it all to yourself before you pass it on.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 5

Considering that 2020 for so many people has been less about “I wish I’d lived in a cave all this time” than “that nuclear waste dump is seeping into my perfectly pristine prehistoric cavern and poisoning all of my dinosaurs,” the constant requests to help others outside of immediate family can be rough when you don’t know if you’re going to need assistance yourself in a few weeks. It’s even harder when we’re watching cultural anchors such as restaurants and nightspaces collapsing through no fault of their own other than “it’s dangerous to gather in large groups and socialize,” especially with those where video streams and takeout simply aren’t an option. If you’re in that situation or bumped up against it, no pressure whatsoever: I’ve been there so many times that all anyone has to do is mention the years 1986, 1991, or 2001 and watch me twitch. This week’s Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions guide is for those with the means to help out, big or small, and who want additional options.

Firstly, if you want to go big to tackle the biggest need, contributing money to your local food bank is a great place to start. Right off the bat, considering the number of people unemployed or underemployed since last March for whom food security is a real issue, even a tiny amount makes a huge difference to an individual or a family that otherwise would go hungry. Dedicated newsfeed doomscrollers might have caught the coverage of the tremendous lines in Dallas waiting for their individual turns for help from the North Texas Food Bank, and many of us immediately turned around and donated what we could. With the likelihood that anything approximating a downturn in COVID-19 cases may not happen until next March, and that so many businesses can’t even consider reopening until after those cases are under control, that’s where Triffid Ranch money left over from paying bills has been going. Having been there, I want to make sure that anybody needing a hand up has it now.

Feeding our own is a priority, but then there are others. Donations to local animal shelters are just as important, even with the increased numbers of adoptions from stay-at-home workers, because the bills have to be paid after the adoptees leave. That goes double for zoos and aquariums where animals can’t go home with the keepers to save on maintenance costs. From Dallas, consider a contribution to the Dallas Zoo Annual Fund, especially to assist with animal care and keeper pay at the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park. (On a personal note, the plan back in January was to make a contribution to the Annual Fund to cover food costs for the Dallas Zoo’s crocodile monitor. Now, though, with the Children’s Aquarium shut down for the duration, caring for the Aquarium’s albino alligator, Australian lungfish, and one of the largest alligator snapping turtles in captivity is just as important.)

For the last decade, Triffid Ranch shows and events have flyers from Bat World Sanctuary to highlight one of Texas’s gems, and things are getting tight for the sanctuary crew, too. With the impending release of a new Nepenthes enclosure intended to highlight bats’ contributions to carnivorous plant lore, it’s time to up the contributions there, too. We’re all in this together.

One of the things that’s hurt the most about 2020 wasn’t just the collapse of Triffid Ranch shows, but also the opportunity to bring plants to schools and museums to share with folks whose sole exposure to carnivores is online. Skype a Scientist is a new organization intending to take advantage of technology: it connects virtual classrooms with a serious need for new stimulation with scientists happy to lecture on their specialties, with an emphasis on classrooms where the funding might not be available otherwise. If any one organization makes me giggle “I love living in the future,” Skype a Scientist is it, because I would have done just about anything to have had access to this sort of resource when I was in school.

Finally, while it may be obvious, the International Carnivorous Plant Society not only keeps members of the carnivorous plant community connected and informed, but its efforts to protect carnivorous plant habitat and genetic diversity are needed especially now. (As an extra for those of us having to make lots of PayPal payments, the ICPS may be chosen as a preferred PayPal charity, with 1% of sales going to the ICPS for its education programs. Considering how much glassware I purchase annually, I’m hoping that this helps, and there’s no reason why more people can’t do it, too.)

As always, if it’s just not possible to contribute to these or any other charity, don’t sweat it: times are rough for everybody, and this is not about guilt. The important part is that we’re all in this together.

Next week: Buying (Dallas) Local

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 4

Now that the holiday season is running in earnest, it’s time to talk about books. 2020 has been a kidney stone of a year, and my wife regularly tells an anecdote related to her about how the best way to dislodge a kidney stone is by riding rollercoasters. While I’m suspect of the medical accuracy, there’s something to be said about giving unorthodox treatments a try.

When visitors to the gallery ask “where did you come up with this?”, I can’t really point to any one thing and say “This one thing caused this one thing to pop out of my head and make a big mess on the floor.” The advantage of starting the gallery this late in life means that I had 40-odd years to pick up little things and roll them around before starting. The influences on the backstories behind each new enclosure? That’s easy: that’s what a sordid youth spent reading everything I could find from Harlan Ellison, John Shirley, Ernest Hogan, and Saladin Ahmed will get you. Everything else, though, comes from dribs and drabs from any number of sources, some of which has been rattling around in the old brainmeats since the early 1970s. The enclosure One Giant Leap, pictured above? That came from a dream right after watching the landing of Apollo 17, which is the only lunar I still remember. And that’s the one where I can point out the specific inspiration.

If any particular good has come from 2020, it’s been the opportunity to read, and a lot of really good volumes collecting past inspirations and influences hit bookstores this year. Among many others:

Just about 30 years ago, at the beginning of my dubious writing career, I came across a singular book on a much more realistic exploration of an alien world than had been presented in most fiction. No capture, no bringing back, no killing and stuffing of alien life forms; no beaming down a ship’s entire command staff and one lone hapless organ donor. Instead, we all got a singular look at an alien ecosystem with essential rules (none of the animals ever evolved eyes, so their main senses were sonar and heat sensors across their bodies) and a backstory that the exploration of that world by humans would take nothing but paintings and leave nothing but perceptions. Nearly three decades later, Wayne Barlowe’s book Expedition ” is finally back in print, with a glorious cover (the painting in the original edition was printed so the painting in question was split by the binding) and a very high-quality reproduction of the original 1990 edition. Even better, this one comes in both hardcover and paperback, meaning that those searching for a copy for decades can snag a hardcover for considerably less than collectors and speculators were offering on eBay.

It’s hard to state how much of an influence Ray Harryhausen was on so many aspects of the fantastic these days: so artists, writers, filmmakers, and academics point to at least one of his films, and sometimes many, as saving them from the life of a meth dealer or weekly newspaper music critic. (To this day, Valley of Gwangi is one of the two films that makes me unapologetically weep at the end, the other being Alien.) The National Galleries of Scotland definitely felt that his filmography was worthy of a full exhibition, and the catalog for Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, full of anecdotes from his daughter Vanessa, is available for perusal even for those who can’t consider travel these days. For those who can, the exhibition runs until next September, and a boy can dream.

It’s been a very long strange trip over the last 25 years, when a chance encounter with the first issue of a comic titled Johnny the Homicidal Maniac introduced the general public, or at least the public unfamiliar with the late, lamented goth magazine Carpe Noctem, to Jhonen Vasquez. His most famous creation, the Nickelodeon cartoon series Invader Zim, came out six years later, and the Chris McDonnell book The Art of Invader Zim goes into detail on what probably qualified as simultaneously the oddest series ever released by Nickelodeon and by far one of the most long-lived as far as popular support is concerned. This one has particular personal appeal: friends describe my marriage as especially disturbing Delenn/GIR fan fiction, as my poor long-suffering wife acknowledges every time she asks “So what do you want for dinner?” and I give her the only appropriate answer.

In one aspect of life, kids today really DO have one thing easy: the number of television shows with movie-quality special effects is nothing short of incredible, as fans of The Mandalorian and The Expanse can attest. When I was your age, laser effects were done in-camera, planets were paintings, and spacecraft were built one bit at a time. Martin Bower was and is one of those spacecraft builders, getting notice with such shows as Thunderbirds and Space: 1999 and then moving to film projects such as Alien and Outland. The volume Martin Bower’s World of Models is an essential reference for those looking to return to the retro world of practical effects: because when the server farm seizes up and the software crashes, sometimes the best way to get something to shoot is to build it, one piece of polystyrene at a time.

Finally, it may seem odd to include a coloring book in this collection, but Coloring Space 1 is by the artist Christopher Doll, a longtime friend and fellow troublemaker whose live painting Twitch stream has been a source of great peace through this foul year 2020. Chris continues in a space art tradition with a very long history, and it might behoove a few book editors to look at some of his space and fantastic art, because breweries sure like it.

Next week: reasons to shop in Dallas.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 3

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

If anyone had cared enough to ask me back in January about the essential fashion accessory of 2020, “facemasks” probably would have rated somewhere below “glow-in-the-dark codpieces” and slightly above “a revival of bellbottoms.” (Honestly, my fear was “Panama Jack T-shirts, the Next Generation” would be the definitive fashion statement of the new decade, and so my inherent cynicism once again torpedoes fame, fortune, and that honorary degree from the University of Phoenix.) To be fair, those of us who inhaled the Misha Nogha novel Red Spider, White Web 30 years ago had our suspicions, but when we weren’t running around in cloned sharkskin armor, either, it was easy to assume that this was a future that wasn’t going to happen. Until it was.

Back in March, masks were purely a matter of survival: something to block off particles and aerosols of yecch from making contact with your respiratory system. In the first few days of the pandemic, we were too busy screaming “CORAL!” to worry about making a statement, but by the end of 2020, face masks were a previously inaccessible surface for expression, advertising, and letting your fellow humans know that backing off was a really good idea. Even with impending COVID-19 vaccines, facemasks may be the fashion statement of the decade, as they also do wonders for fending off flu and air pollution, hiding silent comments, and adding to headphones and books the notice to public transit users that the wearer isn’t interested in a conversation. All of these are laudable uses.

The question, as always, though, is “which one?” Not all masks are created equal, but we’ve definitely gone beyond the early stagest of throwing ideas up against the wall and hoping something sticks. Now with minimum standards for quality and coverage, it’s all about longterm comfort, allowing the focus to go next on art. Because of that, and because I share sympathies with lionfish and blue-ringed octopi on warning passersby as what they should expect, the pile of new masks to rotate through keeps growing.

(And on a sidenote, a little extra on washing masks that’s only obvious in retrospect. While washing them in a standard laundry load works for a lot of them, handwashing usually increases their effective lifespan. In addition, for those of us of the male persuasion with particularly slow-growing facial hair, shaving takes on a particular focus when wearing a mask because of hair follicles catching on the inside and pilling the fabric. That’s why I wash masks every day after use, with a bit of shampoo to degrease and disinfect, then hang them up to dry over the rest of the day. It’s easy, efficient, and much gentler on fabrics than tossing them in a washing machine. But that’s just me.)

As mentioned, the pile of masks keeps growing, because the selection keeps growing as well. I’m hoping to be able to turn everybody onto Triffid Ranch poster masks soon, but until that happens, here are several designs that will both help keep you safe and surprise your neighbors at the same time. This also gives me an opportunity to return to my modeling days of the early 1990s and do selfies that don’t scare children and small animals. (The model background, by the way, is an absolutely true story, but it’s been published elsewhere if you want the details.)

To start, old friend and paleoartist Scott Elyard is back to his usual hijinx, and that includes introducing unsuspecting passersby to the Devonian arthrodire Dunkleosteus.

You may be most familiar with Dr. Lisa Buckley for her Bird Glamour postings on Twitter (which are essential viewing for anyone interested in both stage makeup and bird plumage coloration, and she has an extensive collection of masks on Redbubble dedicated to ornithological ostentation. Her main research is on ichnology (the study of tracks, trackways, and other trace fossils), and who could resist having a map of Bellatoripes fredlundi tracks across one’s face?

Chelsea Connor already has my heart due to her unrelenting love of anoles, but her mask design is the best answer to the question “is that snake venomous?” ever made. (I have a great appreciation for the venomous snakes of North Texas, and spotting a big cottonmouth basking alongside drainage ditches near downtown Dallas is always a highlight of the day. I also agree without reservation that the best way not to be bitten by a snake, venomous or not, is not to do anything dumb enough to allow a bite to happen in the first place.)

In addition to creating comics (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, I Feel Sick, Fillerbunny) and TV shows (Invader Zim), Jhonen Vasquez creates masks. So many masks. In particular, the Space Jerk design was essential for starting my new day job, so I can blend in among all of you other filthy human bloatlings until the day I finally escape this horrible planet long enough to blow it up. But perhaps I’ve said too much.

Finally, Mónica “Monarobot” Robles Corzo is already justifiably renowned for her frankly stunning Mesoamerican interpretations of kaiju and other monsters, and you’ll have to wait only a short time to see one of her works incorporated into a new Nepenthes hemsleyana enclosure out at the gallery. (If you know anything about N. hemsleyana, you’ll have a hint as to what to expect, and I guarantee that you’ll still be wrong.) She’s taken her distinctive style to mask design, and both the Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc designs are personal favorites around the gallery during both porch sales and weekend plant tours. And if the Shin Godzilla print is more up your alley, who can complain?

Next week: books. Lots of books. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, December is going to be rough enough, but January is going to be a month for staying home and reading.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 2

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

This week in Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions, we’re going to talk about food. Now, for Dallas folks, I could bring up local joys such as The Maple Leaf Diner, Tasty Tails, Sababa, and Blu’s Barbeque, but that’s not fair to everyone else, and the idea of these gift options is that they’re open to everyone, regardless of travel options and lockdowns. Instead, we’re going to talk about heat.

Texas cuisine has a reputation for revving the Scoville scale, but what makes it work is an understanding of the flavor that the heat complements and compliments. That’s an overriding concern with most vendors at ZestFest, the largest spicy foods show in the US: any idiot can dump a kilo of ground Carolina Reaper pepper atop an otherwise perfectly good hamburger and post video of the subsequent prolapse on YouTube, but the artist knows when just a little gets the job done and when the chef needs to take the controls of the Titanic and yell “Full speed ahead! Let’s turn that chunk of ice into margaritas!” Therefore, some suggestions on all aspects of that joy, starting with where to start when you don’t know where to start.

When starting with good and hot food, it’s often best to go with someone who knows what they’re doing and trust their assessments. Just like following a film critic with whom you may not always agree but who makes you contemplate going into new cinematic territory, you may have to poke around and find someone with a similar appreciation of heat, and my personal guru in that regard is Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness. Recently, he’s been expanding into reminding people of Cajun remoulade and horseradish sauces, and his recipes are never boring. Best of all, if going through online listings doesn’t work for you, his cookbooks are dangerous to read in bed unless you look forward to drowning in a pool of your own drool. May I recommend his recipe for peri peri sauce?

In a lot of circumstances, you may just want something easy: you’re not in the mood to or not able to make a full fiery dish, or you want to kick up something that everyone else in the family wants to keep bland. (Speaking from experience, New England-style clam chowder is always improved with a good dose of Tabasco or sriarcha sauce, but I don’t dare spice it to my preference for guests.) That’s why keeping tabs on a good shaker bottle for your own augmentation comes in handy, and Defcon SaucesMalum Allium spicy garlic powder is an excellent addition to roasted vegetables, particularly broccoli and Brussels sprouts. My beloved wife Caroline, who admits that she can’t handle much heat, has a love for Malum Allium, but also for the Feisty Fish Rub from Mom’s Gourmet. We go through a lot of spices (mostly because we eat a LOT of roasted vegetables these days), but we keep coming back to each of these, and we’ll probably have a more extensive list for 2021.

And for those who want to go past merely eating hot and want to grow hot, there’s really good news on that front, too. Specifically, while a lot of really good seed suppliers offer excellent pepper species and hybrids, you can’t go wrong with the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and its wide range of pepper seeds. Personal recommendation: my favorite variety from the Institute is its Numex Halloween: not only does the foliage go deep purple-black with sufficient sun, but the peppers go from black to orange as they ripen, and they’re now an essential part of my notorious goth salsa recipe. But don’t pay attention to me: go wild and try something that surprises you, because that range of seeds includes some doozies.

Well, that’s it for this week: things are going to get interesting, what with American Thanksgiving and all. Feel free to expand upon this list in the comments, too: half of the fun is in the sharing.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 1

Many moons back, back when the Triffid Ranch was purely a venue that popped up at local shows and events, this site ran a regular series of recommendations for annual gift-giving, on the idea of spreading the wealth and giving further recommendations to venues that needed wider exposure. Starting the brick-and-mortar gallery, along with day job obligations, cut into opportunities to continue, but the ongoing kidney stone and appendicitis cosplay known as 2020 gives whole new opportunities to pay back old favors, hype up respected friends and cohorts, and generally spread the wealth. It may have been a rough year, but that makes helping out your friends that much more vital.

To start off this series, which will keep going every Thursday through the end of the year, it’s time to start with the regular question brought up at Triffid Ranch shows: “Do you ship?” The reason why you don’t see a handy online store on this site is because of the size, heft, and relative delicacy of the enclosures and containers available for sale, and the inability to guarantee that any of the finished enclosures could survive a trip through any currently available delivery service. Even if any given enclosure could handle hauling, lugging, flying, and disembarking, there’s no guarantee that the plants would. (It’s enough of a white-knuckle ride to drive them around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to make deliveries.) I may not be able to ship, but it’s time to look at carnivorous plant dealers who do.

With that in mind, below is a basic list of excellent carnivorous plant dealers with whom I’ve had good encounters in the past, and some of whom for whom I’d take a bullet without hesitation. All are very good about the plants they offer, and for those looking for particularly exotic species should give them all a viewing. These include:

  • California Carnivores: on this side of the Atlantic, it’s hard to talk about the carnivorous plant hobby without bringing up one of the oldest and largest carnivorous plant nurseries in the United States. Owner Peter D’Amato has probably done more to promote carnivores in the US than anybody else in the last 30 years (his book The Savage Garden is still one of the essential texts on carnivorous plant care), and his crew gleefully expand what we know about carnivores as often as they can.
  • Black Jungle Terrrarium Supply: Located on the opposite side of the continent from California Carnivores, Black Jungle already has a justified reputation for its variety and quality of dart frogs, but it also carries a wide selection of carnivores, including an enthusiastic collection of low-elevation and high-elevation Nepenthes pitcher plants.
  • Sarracenia Northwest: Back to the West Coast, Sarracenia Northwest is one of the gems of the Portland area. While its regular open houses aren’t happening under current conditions, its online selection is always full of very healthy plants (one Brocchinia I purchased six years ago is so enthusiastic in producing pups that if it turns out to qualify as a unique cultivar, I’m naming it “Martian Flatcat”), and the newsletter stories of Sue the Sarracenia Pup are worth subscribing all on their own.
  • Pearl River Exotics: One of the reasons to check out Pearl River is for its regular Nepenthes presales, with a great combination of pure species and hybrids.
  • Carnivero: A relatively new carnivorous plant nursery, Carnivero is already a good reason to plan a road trip to Austin once the pandemic is over. In the interim, Carnivero’s online selection is always interesting, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of their unique Nepenthes hybrids before too long.
  • Jersey Devil Carnivorous Plants: Lots of people who don’t know any better make jokes about New Jersey, and folks in New Jersey make jokes about the Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens are a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since this strange trip began, because of its variety of endemic carnivores and orchids, and Jersey Devil pays special attention to the Barrens’ most famous carnivore, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. (Keep an eye open for next spring, because I want to be the first Texas carnivore dealer to carry Jersey Devil specials.)
  • Plano Carnivorous Plants: It’s a common misconception that the Triffid Ranch is the only carnivorous plant dealer in the greater Dallas area. Not only is this not true, but when customers ask about particular plants that I simply don’t have room to carry, I send them to talk to Dylan Sheng at Plano Carnivorous Plants. Dylan is a little more than a third of my age, and I want to be just like him when I finally grow up.

Well, this is a start: in the interim, take advantage of the relatively calm weather this week and get in your plant orders now, before it starts getting cold out. You won’t regret it.

Thursday is Resource Day

They say that you learn as much from experiments that failed as experiments that succeeded. I don’t know who “they” are, or if they’re related to every emergency medical tech’s nemesis, “Some Guy.” Like Some Guy, “They” tell you to do, say, or act in a way that immediately threatens life, limb, or sanity. The difference is that Some Guy is more active. Some Guy tells you to pee on an electric fence, and when you do it, he disappears, leaving you to explain the situation to family, spouses, or law enforcement officials. They simply stand back, whispering ideas, and let you take the hit yourself. They tell the absolute truth, and They have no reason to dissemble or fabricate anything. The problem, of course, is that you only learn this when you’re trying to explain to your wife exactly WHY the cat’s head is shaved on only one side.

Ginkgo seeds
The power of They particularly presents itself with any of the culinary arts. You’ll hear a murmur of “They say that canning tomatoes is easy,” or “They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with Buddha’s Hand citrons.” What THEY never tell you is the details, so you have the learning experience, and they never will. They always hide in the background while you do something “easy”, like extracting honey from honeycomb, and vanish when you look over your shoulder, covered in honey and waving an electric uncapping knife over your head like Toshirô Mifune, and yell “So what do I do NOW?” And that’s how They got me to try frying ginkgo nuts.

It was inevitable that They were going to get me once again, and I heard the bullet before it got me. A few months back, a confluence of factors led to further study of ginkgo trees, which led to contemplations of the proper way to roast and eat ginkgo nuts. “People have been doing it for thousands of years,” I thought. “Nobody would be doing it if it weren’t worth the effort, right?”, They whispered. I’m sure They were just as persuasive when convincing Napoleon that invading Moscow in the winter was a good idea, and it might have been so if They hadn’t left out just a few teeny tiny details.

Procuring fresh ginkgo nuts itself wasn’t a problem. Being this close to Chinese New Year, many local grocery stores have at least a few mesh bags of ginkgo or “white nuts” on hand, and many of the Asian grocery stores in the vicinity sell ginkgo nuts in bulk. I knew that the nutmeats are toxic unless cooked, and that some people have issues with contact dermatitis from working with or eating them. Okay, that’s a start. I came across a lot of fascinating recipes for using the nutmeats in stirfry and in soups, but not much on their preparation. Most started with “get a skillet, put one tablespoon of oil in the bottom, heat until the oil starts to smoke, and add nuts.” Yeah, They left out a few details that made the experience a lot more interesting.

Ginkgo seeds

The first thing to consider is that the shell of a ginkgo nut isn’t particularly tough. It’s not as thick as, say, that of a pistachio. However, it makes up in ability to retain pressure what it lacks in armor, which means that a critical failure leads to a small steam explosion. Picture a popcorn seed popping, only with sharp shells going in one direction and a green lump of what looks like slug snot flying in another. Do that in an open skillet without a lid or cover, and your kitchen rapidly resembles the scene of a Drazi loogie-chucking competition. Oh, and popcorn merely burns a bit when a freshly popped kernel flies out and lands on your hand. Ginkgo nutmeats fly out and stick.

Lesson #1: ALWAYS KEEP A STOUT LID ON ANY PAN USED FOR FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Since They didn’t warn about detonating nut hulls, it stands to reason that They wouldn’t say anything about the type of oil necessary. That’s because They didn’t say a damn thing about how hot those ginkgo shells would get when resting on the bottom of the skillet. To get enough heat to cook the nutmeats sufficiently, the shell tends to scorch. If the shell is scorching, then it stands to reason that the oil will smoke. Well, it might appear to do so, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools and children. In a classic example of “failing to master the basics before moving to experimentation,” I thought “I really like chili oil, and I can only imagine that it would improve the flavor of the ginkgo nuts.” And with the same hubris, General George Armstrong Custer went to Little Big Horn.

Nearly 30 years ago, I found myself in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, going through Nuclear/Biological/Chemical warfare training as part of US Army Basic Training. At the end of the day, while wearing protective masks, all of us were marched into a chamber loaded with CS gas, told to take off our helmets and masks, and the drill sergeants waited to see our reactions. Not only did the indescribable pain of a lungful of CS gas teach us all the importance of getting on our masks in future encounters so we’d never have to deal with this again, but it still haunts my occasional nightmares. Even better, since I was the “nice guy” in the platoon, I knew that the drill sergeants were waiting for us to bolt for the door, where they’d ask a herd of semi-paralytic teenagers such vital questions as “What’s your name, Private?” and “What’s your First General Order?” before letting us through. Therefore, I stayed in for about twenty minutes, not realizing that two groups had entered and left past me, waiting my turn for interrogation and release.

I’m not saying that chili oil smoke compares to CS gas. Among other things, exposure to chili oil smoke still allows you such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control. However, I now know how grizzly bears feel.

Lesson #2: NEVER USED CHILI OIL WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Because They never whispered a word about the use or misuse of chili oil, They also got great mirth from the realization that a standard kitchen stove fume hood wasn’t going to be enough. The smoke detectors in the house went off. The cats ran to hide in the bathroom. The Czarina didn’t say anything, other than to open up the windows and turn on the industrial-grade venting fan in the garage. Asking her “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” didn’t do a whole lot, either, and I now know exactly how long it takes for a bruised spleen to stop aching and pulsing.

Lesson #3: ALWAYS HAVE GOOD VENTILATION WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Finally, the house cleared, and since the outside air was running just about freezing, the command decision was made that we’d vented as much smoke as possible. I swore that if I ever used chili oil again, I was to do it outside. The current batch was finished anyway, so I poured it into a bowl, waited for the nuts to cool, and started to dig in. Before that, though, it was time to turn off the fan, close the windows, and reset the heater, because while it wasn’t going to get brutally cold, the great outdoors weren’t going to get any warmer.

The next morning, I woke up to find one of the cats in one of the windows opened for venting. Specifically, Cadigan was letting me know her supreme displeasure in discovering the one window I’d missed. Did she make her displeasure known before dawn? Oh, of course not. Her amusement just increased when I looked at her and told her “Okay, cat. You’re getting a job or you can move out.”

Lesson #4: ALWAYS CLOSE THE WINDOWS AFTER FUMIGATING THE HOUSE WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Not only are They really good at avoiding complete information, but They’re also good at passing on what seems to be good advice. Since I’d received several warnings that ginkgo nuts needed to be cooked because the raw nuts are toxic, I worried about the nuts that hadn’t popped. “What if they’re only medium rare, and I turn purple and explode?” Reasonable, but They gave a suggestion: “why not put the unpopped nuts into the microwave? A minute or so should settle the matter, right?” In retrospect, this was a classic example of the Texas demonstration of an individual’s fitness for public office: “Hold my beer and watch this.” Again, remember what I said about fools and children.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite meals when left to my own devices was an egg and cheese sandwich. Pulling out a skillet and frying up the eggs was too much effort, and I discovered very rapidly that putting two or three eggs in a bowl, covering it with Tillamook cheddar, and putting the mess into the microwave was a lot more fun. I knew that leaving the bowl uncovered was an impending disaster, so I covered the lot with a good stout plate, set the microwave for about 4 minutes, and let it rip. I didn’t have to listen for the oven’s beeper: instead, I listened carefully for the aftermath of the outside of the yolks cooking faster than the inside. After a time, enough steam pressure built up inside that the yolks exploded, and THAT was my Pavlovian cue. I also knew enough to let things cool down, because I didn’t want red-hot egg yolk spattering me when the yolk ruptured while being moved.

These days, I look back on that recipe and remember Dallas musician Jeff Liles‘s crack in his first Cottonmouth, TX spoken-word album about a sandwich “grabbing my heart like a fist.” Even though I haven’t had one in nearly three decades, those sandwiches taught me very valuable lessons about microwave oven science. Namely, when something starts going off in the oven with very sharp reports, don’t assume “Oh, my wife is storing 5.56 mm ammo in the microwave again.” You cut the power. Thankfully, I had a top, too, but the ginkgo nuts built up a bit more pressure before detonating. The successive percussions didn’t take out the cover, but it did look like Yog-Sothoth took one long sneeze in the bowl. The nuts were still edible, but they were missing something. I think what was missing were the seedling embryos’ souls.

Lesson #5: NEVER PUT GINKGO NUTS IN THE MICROWAVE.

Will this escapade stop me? Oh, hells no. Another batch later, and practice makes perfect. Just so long as They don’t convince me that the best thing to wash down ginkgo nuts is a durian smoothie, the Czarina won’t kill me in my sleep this week.

The News:
From a botanical and mycological standpoint, the understanding of organism migration, with and without human help, keeps offering up more surprises. For instance, discovering that the death’s cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is spreading across the planet, isn’t news. I can see that every time the fruiting bodies emerge from the thatch in my front lawn and threaten to block out the sun. (Go ahead and laugh. After three steady days of rain, you’d think I was growing Prototaxites in the front yard. It’s also endlessly engaging to note that many plants, including orchids, depend upon a symbiosis between the plant and a similarly unique fungus, which fuse the plant’s root system to the fungus’s mycellia network. In this case, the plant supplies carbohydrates while the fungus provides nitrogen from various sources. Those “various sources” can include decaying organic matter (hence the fungus in my lawn feeding on grass thatch, dead leaves, and the occasional squirrel dropping), but in the case of the eastern white pine tree, its symbiote gets its nitrogen by capturing and absorbing springtails and other insects that it catches and digests.

The real surprise, though, is coming. As a recent article in Slate by Cat Adams notes, A. phalloides is now found on every continent but Antarctica, mostly due to the transport of spore- or mycella-contaminated soils to new locales. The kicker? Its expansion across the planet involves it not being so fussy about its oak symbiote as other fungi, and it moving to support different oaks as well. Considering that the one absolute component of North Texas flora is its wide range of oaks, the surprise is that A. phalloides hasn’t taken over the entire state. Which it probably has.

Likewise, most people today don’t consider the noble bottle gourd other than for its shapeliness, a few look at its historical value, and very few consider its origins. Those who do, though, have a great story to tell. Based on DNA analysis between known North American bottle gourds and those of Asia and Africa, it appears that the bottle gourd came across the Atlantic on its own, instead of being transported by humans. Obviously, the “how” is an interesting question, but it’s not impossible: it’s very easy to see bottle gourds and other squash species being transported via flotsam rafts in floods, as it seems to work very well for other species. The “when”…well, that’s a question where I suspect that the answer will be even more entertaining than anyone realized.

The Reading:
Now that the snow and ice are gone and we can be reasonably sure that the Dallas area won’t be hit with crippling temperatures for the rest of the year, it’s time to start plotting and scheming plans for miniature gardens and arrangements. This means lots of time in the work area, building new frames and setting up new enclosures, so it’s time for inspiration. When contemplating taking a series of enclosures to a new level, it was time to dig out my copy of High Aztech by the exemplary Latino science fiction writer Ernest Hogan. Part of this is because I’ve been proud to call Ernest a dear friend for 25 years now, and part is because his view of the resurgent Tenochtitlan of 2045 offers a lot of room for experimentation. As he’s always pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the past if you’re using it to build the future, and I already have some serious ideas involving Mexican butterworts and futuro-Aztec backdrops.

Likewise, most reading material should have a soundtrack, so it’s time for suggestions in that regard. This week, check out the new album Down Time by DJ earWIG. It’s not necessarily greenhouse music (as related many times, my preferred greenhouse working music is a bit more lively), but it’s excellent music for reading, writing, studying, and generally expanding the cerebrum beyond all normal limits.

The Store:

I’m of two minds about beekeeping these days. While I certainly support anyone raising and caring for honeybees these days, I’m nostalgic for my beekeeping days back when I was in high school, but not so much as to get my own hive. That said, I know that at least one hive is in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, considering the number of honeybees who come out to drink water from the Sarracenia pools, slurp up nectar from the fresh blooms in spring, and collect by the dozens in the traps in fall. This is the time of year where I start looking fondly at the Dadant beekeeping equipment catalog, not because I want to spread myself further with my own hive, but because I missed the smell of fresh wax and propolis more than I knew. One bee suit…one suit wouldn’t be bad, would it?

The Event:

Any excuse to head out to Fort Worth is a good one. Whether it’s causing trouble at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History or wandering about in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, I look forward to reasons to make the road trip. February 20, we have a humdinger, as author Amy Stewart presents a chat on her new book The Drunken Botanist at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas. Considering how much I enjoyed her book Wicked Plants, I may skip out of work early to make sure I can make it.

Thursday is Resource Day

The absolute best thing about February, other than that it’s blessedly short, is that it’s a good month for planning and organization. The Christmas holiday season is over, everyone’s recovered from that stress, and one of the better ways to fend off cabin fever is to plot out the next few months’ activities. In our house, that mostly involves upcoming shows and events, especially now that the Czarina went freelance at the end of last year.

Triffid Ranch booth at FenCon X

Among cohorts, “So when’s your next show?” only yields to “So what shows are you thinking of doing?” when it comes to talking shop. Anyone doing trade shows, conventions, or art shows asks the same questions. Sometimes, it’s because the person asking it wants to wander around as an attendee instead of as a vendor, and wants to hear some options. Some want to expand into new events and venues, and need options in order to make an informed decision. Some want the war stories, so they avoid wasting time, money, and energy on a waste of a show. And others just want to compare notes. Either way, in these tight economic times, we’re all looking to minimize the risks: the last thing any of us can afford is to get stuck with another FedConUSA, so we share information as best as we can.

I’m often asked by people why I show plants at science fiction conventions, and I can say with complete honesty that it’s because of the crowds and the scientific leanings of said crowds. Within people who regularly attend such conventions, they ask how I choose paricular shows, and I admit that science goes right out the window when I go for gut instinct. I also warn that my opinions shouldn’t dictate another vendor’s decision. Oh, I can name at least a good dozen factors with shows and events that trip my internal alarms, but what might set off my gag reflex might set off another person’s salivary glands. Some folks prefer the thrills of first-time shows, while I’m extremely cautious about any event that doesn’t have, at minimum, two years of history. I’ve had extremely bad experiences with “charity” events, but just because I didn’t sell a thing at the event and received no support from the organizers after my booth fee check cleared doesn’t mean that someone else might do well. There is one factor, though, that I warn everyone in the trade show and art venue circuit to avoid, and I can sum it up in all of two words. Just two.

You’re going to laugh.

Unless you’ve been exposed to this before, I know you’re going to laugh.

The only reason you won’t laugh is if you’ve been a vendor at a show where these two words were a major part of the promotion. If so, you’re too busy screaming in rage and horror.

Those two words? “Live DJ”.

Now, to start, this isn’t a slam against actual DJs. We’re talking the DJs who regularly play clubs and intermissions between live music events. I have nothing but respect and love for my friends who do this for a living, on everything from hiphop to electronica, because much like standup comedy, I know hard it is and how I don’t have the skills for it. One slightly mistimed song, or one that breaks a theme that’s lovingly kept people dancing for the last hours, and you’re done. The good ones know why they’re there, and know that if they have a reputation for being one of the Good Ones, it’s because they understand their audiences, and get a thrill out of a venue that’s packed to the gills.

For years, I used to complain about the loudness in most clubs, and how it made communication in anything other than text message or semaphore flag nearly impossible. Of course, I talk too much, so for me, anything that inhibits my twenty-hour vowel movement crimps my style and threatens my reputation. A DJ friend explained to me, though, that a club environment that’s too quiet is a club environment that’s crashing. The main source of income for most clubs comes from alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, preferably consumed in mass quantities, and talking gets in the way. The standard volume in a dance club precludes small talk, so patrons have one of two choices: drink or dance. You drink, you feel full of confidence, and you get out on the dance floor. You dance, you get tired and/or dehydrated, and it’s back to the bar to get more fuel. If alcohol isn’t your thing, then most clubs carry lines of various energy drinks that both encourage dancing and offer enough of a markup to be profitable. When you either run out of energy entirely or meet someone that encourages a different use of that energy, the idea is then for you to get out of the way, since you can’t just sit around and talk, and make room for newcomers who bring in additional revenues for the club owner. Turn down the music and you destroy that dynamic, and the club eventually changes the locks and puts out a “For Lease” sign.

Now, consider this dynamic with any kind of retail venue. Even the local Hot Topic turns down the volume to a dull roar, because customers and retailers need to be able to communicate. Ever notice that auto dealerships and optometrists don’t have DJs playing every day? That’s because the salespeople working those markets need to be able to communicate nuance: what this product does for you and how it’ll do it, and that’s absolutely impossible when screaming.

That’s one reason to avoid any show or event with lots of loud music, but that isn’t foolproof, either. Many live music events have vendor spaces out front or along the edge, but the organizers (the good ones, anyway) understand the need for customer communication. That’s why, at the big downtown music festival, the vendor booths are all along the edge. About the only ones close to the speaker stacks by the stage are those where customers are happy to point and throw money, such as for T-shirts. In those sorts of events, even the food vendors are further on out, both to avoid the crush of bodies and to hear a customer’s requests.

No, the other reason why I run screaming from any event that advertises a “live DJ” is that, without fail, none of these ever have a real DJ. Without fail, it’s always someone who thinks that being a DJ would be such a cool opportunity because it’s a job that doesn’t entail work. The costume is identical: plaid shortsleeve shirts over an “ironic” pseudo-vintage T-shirt, Cory Doctorow birth control eyeglasses without lenses, moustache and beard that resemble a kid’s attempts at learning to blow bubble gum on a dusty playground. The Target-purchased trilby that he insists is a “fedora”. Ex-girlfriend’s jeans and filthy Converse sneakers. Oh, and a smirk that only the wearer’s mother would think was cool. The idea here isn’t to get people to dance: it’s to shove the DJ’s musical tastes or lack thereof down everyone’s throats. fresh from the DJ’s brand new MacBook Pro. Odds are, he’s spent months nagging everyone he knows about being given a chance to play something other than his little sister’s birthday party, and he’s been given this opportunity so the organizer’s phone is no longer full of pleading and whimpering.

So here’s what happens at any kind of trade or craft show where this noxious pest is allowed to hold court. Crowd piles in, and he starts up his carefully crafted playlist of Nineties-era whiner rock. The crowd gets comfortable, asking vendors questions, and the sussurus of conversation starts to overwhelm the godawful music, so the DJ turns it up. The crowd gets louder in order to be heard, and the DJ gets louder still. By this time, the DJ is already flummoxed that passersby aren’t throwing undies at him instead of noting the chorus from Beck’s “Loser” and asking “So…is that an offer?” The music gets even louder, and any request, civil or otherwise, to turn it down is met with verbal negatives or hand gestures. By this point, the crowd leaves, the vendors are nearly homicidal, and the DJ cranks up the music even louder to impress the cute girl on the opposite side of the venue. (She isn’t paying attention: she learned years ago how to block out lousy music at college parties.) Finally, the music finally stops when the vendors pack up and leave or when the organizer literally pulls the plug, leaving our DJ sobbing “You people are so RUDE!” as he stomps off.

“And how many times have you had to deal with this?”, you may ask. Well, let’s just say that this is why I’m so leery of first-time shows until I can wander the grounds as a potential customer. I escaped before the Creed retrospective got too thick, and I’ll also note that with every show that featured a pantomime DJ of this sort, the organizers never had a second show, mostly due to vendors bringing up some variation on Proverbs 26:11. Correlation may not equal causation, but I like to call this “dodging a bullet”.

The News:
Because I raise and sell carnivorous plants, I’m constantly exposed to the misunderstandings among the general public about what carnivorous plants do. I understand the apprehensions among kids about getting close to Venus flytraps: all they know about the plants is what they’ve seen on television and in the movies, and that’s generally not positive in the slightest. After years of seeing CGI flytraps that swing back and take chunks out of the unwary, they’re understandably concerned that the flytrap won’t pull itself out of the ground and chase them down the hall. At the very least, they see the trapping hairs on the edges of a flytrap leaf and assume that they’re sharp, so I regularly explain “Want to get an idea of how strong those hairs are? Reach up and touch your eyelashes. That’s how strong they are.” I did this once in a school lecture, and even the “too cool for this” kids were surreptitiously reaching up to check it for sure.

The biggest one, though, is a regular complaint among the carnivorous plant community, and that’s the automatic assumption that these plants will magically wipe out every insect and other pest within the time zone. I’ve complained about this before, where I gently have to explain that no, a berm of Venus flytraps around a house won’t act as a deflector shield against invading arthropods. As with the kids, most of this is understandable, as [interesting plant] + [potential practical application] + [youth of customer] = [one hell of a lot more interesting than a potted mum]. It’s the people who won’t take the hint that asking the same question eighteen slightly different ways won’t give a different answer. And then there’s just the squick factor of oversharing of pest issues, such as with the hipster who came up to my booth last year, saw the word “carnivorous plants” in the banner, and yelled “Cool! Got anything that will control bedbugs?”

When it comes to dealing with insect and other arthropod pests, we’re losing, we’ll always lose and we lost the entire war the moment our distant tetrapod ancestors climbed out of Devonian rivers. I liken the efforts to keep our domiciles, our bodies, and our foodstuffs free of exoskeletal invasion with the efforts to keep your bike from being stolen when parked in public. If they’re determined, really determined, they’re going to get what they want, so the secret is to make their objective difficult enough that it’s not worth the time. This requires understanding the problem and the real solution as opposed to the hoped-for one, which often requires more study than glancing at the back of a can of Raid before blasting away and screaming like Bill Paxton in Aliens.

(A slight digression. Having a lot of friends in different fields means that I’m able to compare notes with people in all sorts of interesting avenues of study, and we all have the one catchphrase or movie quote that we have thrown at us day in and day out by people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of life on Earth to make that comment. Dentist friends hear half-remembered quotes from Marathon Man all day long. Antarctic researchers already know all of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing by heart, after having it quoted to them over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaur references don’t begin and end with Jurassic Park. Myself, I’m so desperately sick of Little Shop of Horrors quotes that I’d fall over dead from joy to get one reference to Bill and Josella Masen. Since I only know one entomologist, I’m constantly looking for new references, because I can only imagine that they’re nearly homicidal from years of Starship Troopers references yakked at them. It’s time for all of us to expand our cultural horizons, folks.)

This is why I’d like you all to meet Gwen Pearson of Charismatic Minifauna, who forgets more about insect, arachnid, and crustacean issues every night when she goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn. In particular, she’s constantly looking for new material on humanity’s war with the Class Insecta, including new Center for Disease Control warnings about the misuse of pest strips and injuries related to insecticides used for bedbugs. I’m not saying that reading one of her blog postings will eliminate your very ingrained and justifiable phobia of small critters with more than four limbs, but it will make you consider the why of your reactions to said critters. Also the “who,” but that’s a different story.

The Reading:

Three years ago, I was lucky and honored enough to have one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had, by way of an article on carnivorous plants in reptile and amphibian vivaria for Reptiles magazine. Having been screwed over by some of the most aggressively incompetent editors in the science fiction community (Hi, Charlie Jane!), working for Russ Case and his stable of editors at Reptiles was a joy, only improved by getting a payment check exactly when promised. There’s very little about my old writing career about which I’m particularly proud, but that article for Reptilesthat is one I’ll cherish for a very long time.

In the meantime, I may have to get to work on further pieces. Reptiles and its sister magazines were recently bought by I-5 Publishing, and one of the first actions by I-5 was to update the magazine’s Web sites. Hence, not only is the new Reptilesmagazine.com easier to access and view, but the magazine itself is available in digital versions for phones and tablets, free with a standard subscription. My previous article isn’t available save for references, but it may be time for a revised and updated view based on new information.

The Store:
The Dallas area has a lot of interesting secrets, which usually have tiny hints that they even exist. One of those is the little storefront here in Garland at the corner of Plano Road and Walnut Street that simply reads “BONSAI” from the sign out front. On the weekends, it’s closed, with the parking spaces filled from the laundromat next door, so the joy comes from visiting the website for Dallas Bonsai Garden. Tools, supplies, soil, and whole plants, at remarkably reasonable prices, and if you live in the area, you can call in an order and pick it up to save on shipping. Of course, all orders over US$75 come with free shipping, so it’s completely your call. All I can say for sure is that I have plans for a hon non bo project that requires properly shaped ginkgo trees, so Dallas Bonsai Garden is going to be getting quite a bit of business from me this year.

The Event:
Finally, you have longrunning horticultural groups in Texas, and then you have the Heart O’ Texas Orchid Society down in Austin, running strong for nearly a half-century. I bring this up because the Society’s next Orchid Rodeo is scheduled for March 22 and 23, and I’ve needed a good excuse to visit Austin’s Zilker Botanical Garden and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden therein. Not only is flying from Dallas to Austin a superior experience to driving there, but this will be after the national nightmare that is SXSW. Win/win, all the way around.

Thursday is Resource Day

So last week started with a new haircut. For those who don’t understand the significance of this, one needs to consider my tonsorial history. Much like the cleaning of my office, hair in length, color, and style tends to remain in stasis for long periods before a sudden and very drastic explosion of activity. The last run went on for a very long run: nearly 15 years, in fact. I realized the other day that I have old and dear friends who have never seen me with anything other than my exploded white locks, and these are people who’ve known me for nearly a third of my life.

That tonsorial history, well, that’s a story in itself. I can say with authority that I don’t know what my natural hair color is any more, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. I started out light blond, and since my sister and I are the only blondes in a family rotten with gingers, we’ve both gone for red-shifted artificial intelligence at one time or another. Since 1987, it’s gone from red to white, to black, to red again, and then platinum for the last 14 years. Most of the transitions required chopping or shaving to get rid of the previous traces, so the styles went from “Uncle Duke” bald all the way to “long enough to sit on”, with a Mohawk for a very short time in 1994. (I have nothing but admiration for those who can pull off a good ‘hawk, because I don’t have the right skull for it. Well, that and my hair makes very good Velcro when contacting the stubble.) Yes, go ahead, make the obvious fannish joke about these sorts of drastic revampings: when I came home after the latest cut, I had to warn the Czarina “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”

(Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve made a habit of scaring the hell out of many of my childhood role models, all completely by accident, and the hair was usually a factor. With the last big change, I’d threatened for several years that it was going to happen, and nobody believed me, so I waited until I was a guest at Readercon, a big literary science fiction convention held every year in Massachusetts. The guest of honor that year was Harlan Ellison, and the high point of my whole professional writing career was for Ellison to see me with shoulder-length red hair in one panel, see me completely shaven six hours later, and tell me “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!”)

In any case, a week later, the ongoing habits associated with long hair are slowly fading. Swinging your head around when brushing your teeth so as not to get toothpaste in your hair. Shaking like an English sheepdog in the shower, and still needing two towels to sop up the water afterwards. Checking bike helmet buckles to keep from snagging. After a decade and a half, these habits will take a while (they took long enough to get established), but it’s worth it just for the expressions on people’s faces.

The News:

A regular discussion I’ve had with friends and co-workers on the future of the American space program involves the disconnect between how so many of us fortysomethings half-remember the enthusiasm for space exploration versus the reality. Yes, the perception is that the US was completely space-crazy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that was true…for kids. Now that those kids are all middle-aged, we can either mumble in our Metamucil about how we’d have those bases on Mars and manned missions to Saturn by now if we just had the will (what is now referred to in political circles as “the Green Lantern theory“)…or we can do something. Planting seeds, say.

As far as planting seeds, there’s a lot we can do, and some of that seed-planting is literal. With talk about various countries returning humans to the moon and staying there, nothing beats agriculture for both atmosphere cleansing and food production. New data confirm that the lunar poles contain large amounts of water ice, and the lunar regolith has most of the trace elements necessary for proper plant growth. The bigger issues lie with lower lunar gravity and a lack of shielding from solar and cosmic radiation on the lunar surface, which require well-designed experiments to ascertain how well food plants can handle the stresses. So why not let the general public get involved with said experiments?

That’s the idea behind NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge, encouraging students to design and test their own growth chambers and relay their results back to NASA. Obviously, no single experiment can take into account all of the variables faced by the first lunar or Martian farmers, but at least the Growth Chamber Challenge might mitigate or eliminate some of the more pressing concerns.

The Reading:

The Financial Times Book of Garden Design

While rampaging through Galveston Books at the beginning of the month, I dug out some surprises, but none so ultimately fascinating as a book entitled “The Financial Times Book of Garden Design“. If the book were newer, I’d have assumed that it was either a deliberate oxymoron, along the lines of “The Starlog Book of Grooming and Hygiene” or “D Magazine’s 158 Favorite Rehab Clinics”. As it was, I picked it up on a lark, assuming that it was a vanity offshoot of the main magazine. Some of the more hubristic projects coming out of once-successful magazines can be great entertainment in their own right: very few people remember the line of science fiction novels to be released by Wired back in 1996, but you can’t go into a used bookstore without tripping on the piles of CDs, books, and comics pumped out by OMNI staff throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and some of that was actually enjoyable.

To be honest, The Financial Times Book of Garden Design is a bit of a vanity project, in that Financial Times actually sponsored and designed a series of gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in the early 1970s. Even today, Financial Times keeps very close tabs on horticultural news in the United Kingdom, and those roots go deep. This book isn’t just a time capsule of English garden design from four decades ago, although it’s an excellent guide for comparison to today’s styles. More interestingly, it’s a compelling view of a time in publishing where such strange side-projects weren’t done for tax reasons or for what might be construed as money laundering, but because the editors and publishers thought they were doing a very legitimate and honorable public service by sponsoring such a project. Considering how badly magazine publishing is imploding these days (one of my favorite practical jokes to scare writer friends is to drop idly “You know, I’ve been thinking of starting up a magazine for newsstand distribution. You don’t know of anyone who might be interested in financing it, do you?”), this book is a similar time capsule from a time where the costs of editing and publishing a book like this, through a successful magazine company, practically would have come out of petty cash.

The Store:

With the possible exception of the old-style Swiss Army knife and the Leatherman, most blends of essential tools become less than the sum of their parts. Having been given all sorts of doohickeys and extras by well-meaning cohorts and relations, the one multitool that gets continuous greenhouse use is my Victorinox Climber. That’s especially true for various gardening multitools: with most, the unused tools actually get in the way of the ones used regularly, and when the regularly used tools dull or break, the whole collection is worthless. Most serious gardeners have a bucket or bag full of various tools, and they never bother with most multitools because of both cost and economics of scale.

That’s why, when several friends brought up the Crovel Extreme II, I had to laugh. ThinkGeek has a regular category of dubious tools for those who half-prepare for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, and I generally look at those who stock up on weapons and Spaghetti-Os for the upcoming armageddon with generally the same expression as for the transhumanist crowd wanking about The Singularity.
Namely, if these are the people who are supposed to be the grand survivors of the crash, let’s make absolutely certain that the crash never happens, eh?

Let’s get off discussion of ridiculousness and talk about the practicality of a combination crowbar/shovel. Effectively, the Crovel Extreme II is a fusion of pry bar and standard US Army trenching shovel, with all of the limitations of having one at the end of the other. I could see some of the merits of having a pry bar in tight situations (having to break old cement overspilling in a planter bed, for instance), but the real eye-opener is the price. US$140, plus extra for the cover and the “super steel spike”, when a wrecking bar from the hardware store and trenching tool at a garage sale can cover most jobs so much better?

Besides, anyone in the know laughs at the dolts waiting for an upcoming zombie apocalypse. It’s obvious that the real threat comes from triffids.

The Event:

We’re now three weeks away from the next North American Reptile Breeders Conference event at the Arlington Convention Center. The Triffid Ranch won’t have a booth there for many reasons, but don’t let that stop you from coming out for the festivities. Between this and the upcoming Dallas Repticon, the herpetologically inclined in the Metroplex have a lot going on this year.

Thursday is Resource Day

After a very long absence, it’s time for a return of an old feature: “Thursday is Resource Day”. Each week, expect a selection information and commentary on upcoming events and developments, most of which might not justify a full posting. As always, suggestions are welcome, and feel free to add to the discussion in the comments.

The News:

Firstly, the biggest concern in North Texas right now is the nightmare known as “cedar fever”. Every January, the indigenous Ashe cedars (actually junipers, but let’s just run with it) start disseminating pollen on the winds, and I use the verb very deliberately. This year, the cedar pollen rates are at the highest ever recorded, both due to the ongoing drought and to the wild fluctuations in temperatures this winter. Nearly four years of an extensive regimen of allergy shots keeps my reactions to the pollen to a dull roar, but friends and cohorts have it bad this season. I know this because after they finish clawing out their eyeballs, spit-polishing them, popping them back into their sockets, and then wiping waterfalls of snot off over my day job desk, they all ask “What can we do to kill those damn things?”

I’ve tried to explain that the current suggestions are futile. Juniperus ashei is a tenacious opponent, and nearly any potential treatment makes things worse. The trees are resistant to many herbicides, and everything other than the fleshy cones, commonly assumed to be berries, is intensely toxic in turn to almost everything that tries to eat it. The foliage exudes natural herbicides that both kill other plants and inhibit the germination of seeds stuck underneath, so burning it or cutting it down just encourages the ready growth of dozens of new trees. Their roots run both wide and deep, allowing them to compete with mesquite, and a mutant variety previously only found in valleys along the Brazos River is even more drought-tolerant than its parent. This gives it an extra advantage on both overgrazed ranchland and areas where everything else was stripped for development. Oh, and I mentioned the voluminous gouts of pollen so thick that they can be mistaken for smoke, right? Combine all of these factors, and even taking off and nuking the entire state from orbit does nothing other than remove the potential competition. Thankfully, the Ashe cedar isn’t as flammable as eucalyptus, thus sparing us the additional brushfire hazards currently facing California.

The only good news to this is that the situation may be controllable before too long. We don’t want to wipe out the Ashe cedar (among other things, the cones growing right now are a major food source for wildlife through the winter, and the trees themselves are essential habitat for songbirds and other denizens), but getting it under control would spare a lot of asthmatics that much more pain. Thankfully, a new paper in Nature suggests that soil fungi and other parasites help keep any one species in species-diverse areas under control, which also suggests a course of action. Let the Ashe cedar get too far out of control, and the appropriately applied fungus might help it die back to tolerable levels. Now to find a readily accessible and fatal species of fungus to spread around.

The Reading:

Speaking of gymnosperms fending off fungus attacks, several months back, I was lucky enough to meet Peter Crane, former director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, as he was conducting a publicity tour of his new book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot. The book goes into considerable detail on the history of this singular genus, including its uses by humans over the centuries, the reasons why it does so well as a city tree, and its very peculiar form of reproduction. Among many interesting observations is that the ready ability of the leaves to fossilize (and Dr. Crane includes photos from his extensive collection of fossil ginkgo leaves dating back to the Permian Period, with one specimen confirming the presences of ginkgoes in Antarctica before it froze over) is tied to the aggravation of raking up and bagging ginkgo leaves in autumn. Both fossil and extant ginkgoes had so much resin in their leaves that a pile of gathered ginkgo leaves would weigh almost twice as much as those from most commonly encountered trees. Buy this book now, or miss out on some fascinating history of this tree both in and out of Asia.

And here’s one to drop on friends: Ginkgo biloba, referring to the two-lobed split leaves found under certain growing circumstances, is one of four species of animal or plant referred to by its full genus and species Latin names as a common, instead of one or the other. This puts the ginkgo in the company of Aloe vera, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Boa constrictor. Even Escherchia coli gets an abbreviation.

The Store:

Having searched for a full decade, I have yet to find a resource comparable to the loons at American Science & Surplus that ships outside the United States and its territories. For friends and readers outside the US, this just means that you need to find a USAnian friend and ask, very nicely, to receive and then reship AS&S packages to them. As a quick perusal through the print and online catalog will tell you, AS&S collects and sells a ridiculous number of items to those with unorthodox expectations of what to do with them. Myself, considering the number of experiments I plan to run with sterile tissue propagation while the Triffid Ranch is on hiatus later in the year, I already have a list of glassware for flasking and isolating meristem tissue samples.

The Event:

Finally, if you’d told me thirty years ago that Dallas would get a reputation for something other than obsessive shopping and Presidential assassinations, I’d have laughed in your face. Hell, if you’d asked me that fifteen years ago, even a few well-placed kicks to the ribs couldn’t stopped my giggling. We Dallasites tended to get incredibly insecure about this, too: legitimate criticism about the city, such as when Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La” while visiting us during the 1984 Republican National Convention, tended to get an oversized response that could only be described with the invention of the word “butthurt”. Mike’s been dead for nearly 17 years, and I suspect that he still has a note in a file somewhere that if he ever returned to Dallas, he wasn’t to be taken alive.

That was then, and Dallas and Fort Worth are drastically different cities today as compared to 1984. As the Intertubes facilitated the killing stroke on the concept of the shopping mall, we had no choice but to reinvent the city. It’s not perfect (among other things, we still have an understandable instinct to hide interesting places and events from excessive public view so the SMU crowd doesn’t overrun and ruin them), but now the Metroplex has a lot of reasons for outsiders to come in, instead of locals having lots of reasons to live elsewhere.

One of those reasons starts this weekend. Okay, so Irving isn’t technically part of Dallas, but this year’s ZestFest still qualifies as one of the best reasons to come to North Texas in January. Hundreds of vendors, thousands of products, and one huge celebration of all things spicy. Speaking from long experience, I can make two recommendations: firstly, get out early, preferably on Friday afternoon or evening if you can, because the Irving Convention Center packs solid by about 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Secondly, get a stout basket or cart, because no matter how badly you tell yourself “Oh, I won’t find anything worth buying out here,” you WILL wear yourself out unless you have something with which to haul around your purchases. You WILL find something to your tastes, and you WILL regret not bringing it home if you don’t buy it right then. You have been warned.

Shoutout: The Savage Garden Revised

The Savage Garden Revised

Ten years ago, I was at a bit of a loose end. I had just moved back to Dallas from Tallahassee, freshly married and freshly unemployed. With plenty of free time between nonproductive job interviews, the only option to stay sane was to stay busy. Returning to writing simply wasn’t an option, and that had taken up a little more than a third of my life at that point. Finding a new life path was rough, but it beat returning to the one I just left.

Shortly after I moved to Tallahassee, I had my first exposure to carnivorous plants in situ, with the indigenous Sarracenia pitcher plants and sundews on the grounds of the Tallahassee Museum. While fascinating, not once did I think of raising my own outside of the Tally area. After all, how would I learn how to keep them alive?

Right after I got back, though, everything changed. An errand to the local Home Depot for poplar boards for bookshelves led to a quick look through the gardening section, and on a shelf was a set of cups full of carnivorous plants. Not just Venus flytraps and not just the few species of Sarracenia I knew from Florida, either. Strange sundews, butterworts, cobra plants, and Asian pitcher plants lay in those cups, and I snapped up an example of every last one. Keeping them hale and healthy couldn’t be that hard, could it?

A week later, as the sample flytrap and cobra plant were fading, I realized that I needed assistance. Back then, that meant making a trip to either a library or a bookstore to find reference material, and in Dallas that meant either of the two big chain bookstores. I was no fan of Borders, but one did reside between me and that Home Depot, so I gave a shot at finding something in its Gardening section that might help. That’s when I found the one book that changed the rest of my life: The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. In the intervening years, I’ve built up as complete a carnivorous plant reference library as is possible, and that original copy of The Savage Garden, stained and battered, still holds a place of honor within that library.

It’s no exaggeration when I tell beginners that The Savage Garden is the first book they need to purchase before raising carnivores. To this day, I scour used bookstores for copies to give to friends, and I hand them over with a wild-eyed grin and an exhortation of “Let me tell you about my church.” Is it my fault that many also became carnivorous plant addicts? Maybe, but I did warn them that Ministry’s “Just One Fix” is my gardening theme song.

Part of the reason why I recommend The Savage Garden over any number of others isn’t just because its author is owner and operator of California Carnivores, one of the largest carnivorous plant nurseries on the planet and definitely one of the largest in North America. I recommend it for its accessibility, especially for beginners who can’t tell a cultivar from a colander. (In fact, I first encountered the word “cultivar” among its pages.) As beautifully written and illustrated as they are, Stewart McPherson’s volumes are a little too technical for anyone starting out. Everyone in the field could cover Adrian Slack‘s dinner tab until the end of time and we couldn’t come close to returning the favor he did us by reviving the popularity of carnivorous plants in the 1970s, but his books are just a touch dry. The Savage Garden, though, is the book you need to get the most out of Slack’s, McPherson’s, and in fact everyone else’s volumes on carnivores.

And the next fix is in. A new revised version of The Savage Garden, with 48 additional pages on new species and hybrids unknown when the original was written in 1998, is currently available for preorder. Considering the veritable explosion of information on carnivores available since the original came out, this is going to be an event. Get yours now, because you can’t borrow mine.

EDIT: I’ve already ordered my copy, and now it’s all about waiting. And yes, it WILL be the subject of a review on this site.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a while since the old Snail Mailbox was opened and cleared out, but oh the wonders therein. The periodical market may be coughing up blood after the demise of Borders, but I can still point to quite a few magazines that make the old model still worth paying for.

To start, yes, Facebook is now overloaded with single-subject obsessives with all of the depth and critical thought of a movie poster, and poking through a Timeline is a bit like being stuck in traffic behind that character with the station wagon held together with bumper stickers. However, sometimes you need to sift through a mountain to find gold. I can’t remember which friend turned me onto Florida Gardening magazine, but the first issue reminded me of everything that I loved from living in Tallahassee a decade ago. Of particular note is a cover story on the gardens of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which was still under construction when I came through the area in 2008.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Jay (Jake) Carter’s end column, “The Exterminator”, because his certainty about the intelligence of local vermin matches mine. To quote, “I am ill equipped o do any real damage to the world’s pest populations. However, the image I am presenting to them is one of a crazed killer who will go to ANY lengths to get rid of them, even if the effort ends in my accidental poisoning or I blow myself up.” Oh, I empathize. The rat trap atop the roof, apparently carried there by a hawk that snatched the rat inside for an early morning snack, is proof of that.

Likewise, the newest issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived just today, and seemingly half of the issue is full of new carnivorous plant cultivars. That’s in addition to a study on bladderwort functions, and Nigel Hewitt-Cooper‘s guide to raising Drosera regia. The last is of particular note, considering my mistaking D. filliformis for D. regia, and it may be time to try raising this beauty under Texas conditions.

And then there’s vindication. My subscription to Gothic Beauty is nearing its end, but I still go through every issue from cover to cover. Of especial interest was a letter to the editor complimenting the “Gothic Gardening” columns in back issues: it’s just a real damn shame that the columnist was fired by the publisher in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, isn’t it?

Thursday is Resource Day

Believe it or not, today is a beautiful day for miniature garden discussions. It isn’t just that Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens keeps giving me all sorts of interesting ideas for projects. It isn’t just that the new issue of Reptiles and the new issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived on the same day, and they always inspire. No, it’s because I promised Janit that I was going to get around to giving her a guide to several very unorthodox books that should be essential in any miniature gardener library, and I might be able to get that written up this weekend.

As a taste, though, I’d like to pass on word about an event this weekend that should be essential for any serious miniature gardener. Squadron, our friendly neighborhood mail-order plastic model kit supplier (quite literally, as its headquarters is right down Highway 190 from my house) hosts the regular model kit expo EagleQuest, and EagleQuest XXII (PDF) starts tomorrow and runs until Saturday evening at the Embassy Suites Dallas Hotel in Grapevine. I’ll explain later, but any serious miniature gardener NEEDS to be out here if necessary. The cross-pollination will do both miniature gardening and plastic kit modeling a world of good.

Likewise, here’s a tip for those needing miniature gardening tools. Micro-Mark, one of the best sources for modeling tools out there, is holding its annual summer sale, with lots of specials. Again, I’ll explain later, but I’ll leave you with one word: Milliput. If this stuff isn’t already your best friend for construction, repair, and modification, then let me introduce you and hope you have lots of babies.

And before I forget, the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adult museum event tonight, with the subject tonight being “Space Cadets”. This also ties into gardening in its way, because arriving early means getting a good view of the Leonhardt Lagoon and surrounding environs, which is just rotten with animal and plant life right now. I’ll explain exactly why this is so important later, so don’t worry about taking notes.

Thursday is Resource Day

Now here’s a brain-breaker for you: studying how the production of cocaine is different from that of its chemical cousin atropine, in order to show how tropane alkaloid production differs among the plant families that produce them. In related news, Southern Methodist University just announced the formation of its new horticulture department, answering directly to its business and journalism schools.

Things To Do In Galveston When You’re Dead

The Czarina and her best friend are absolute suckers for visiting Galveston in the off-season, but I’ve had to beg off their previous trips because of Day Job and plant schedules. (We love each other dearly, but sometimes our taking vacations by ourselves is the only way the other can get anything done without interruptions, such as starting an idle conversation that ends sometime around 3 in the morning.) However, hearing about the new Amorphophallus titanum bloom at the Moody Gardens Rainforest Pyramid in Galveston means that I may have to tag along on the next trip. Besides, how could I resist visiting a plant nicknamed “Morticia?

Thursday is Resource Day

The first week after two big back-to-back shows (one of which was purely the Czarina’s play) gets a bit crazy, especially when you look over the back lot and realize that it’s starting to resemble a location set for a George Romero movie. The grass is high enough to hide Buicks, the roses beg for deadheading, and the hot peppers require their own ZIP codes. The only joy in Mudville comes from having a relatively cool spring: we have yet to go above 33 degrees Celsius, which we broke last year toward the end of April. It’s coming, though. It’s coming.

Hence, the weekend will be dedicated to shoveling, dumping, pruning, trimming, and mowing. I’d like to invite gardener friends over for dinner without their looking out back and shrieking in despair.

With that in mind, we only have a couple of interesting resources to bring up this Thursday, but it’s all connected to horticulture in some way. It’ll have to do until the next post, right?

Firstly, I didn’t know that Carl Mazur of the International Carnivorous Plant Society had a blog, but Zone 6b: Growing Carnivorous Plants In Cold Climates is out there and it’s definitely worth reading. This week, he brought up a very intriguing point on wondering why Sarracenia oreophila produces traps and then blooms once it emerges from winter dormancy, instead of the other way around as with other Sarracenia. I have a suspicion as to a particular factor, but I’m going to need a low-light camera in order to document it. Yet another experiment on the creaking and swaying pile.

In completely different news, nearly anyone who has ever worked a customer service position has an appreciation for the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, if only because the film envisages a world where the customers actually saw an increase in IQ. (I spent nearly three years with a headset jammed onto my ear, and started referring to some of the language used by our most enthusiastic customers as “Conversational Ichthyostegid.” There’s really nothing quite like explaining to a cell phone customer that said phone was cut off because the last payment was reported as an unauthorized use of the paying credit card, only to be told “That’s not fair! I didn’t make that payment! Smitty told me that he’d pay my bill if I slept with him!”) Because of that, I’m quite impressed with a working Brawndo sports drink fountain, because we could have used that at my previous day job. After all, it has the electrolytes plants crave, even if nobody knows what electrolytes are. (And am I the only person on the planet who has noticed that Monster energy drinks and SuperThrive smell suspiciously alike?)

Finally, one of these days, I’m going to put together a postcard comparable to Tom Wilson’s famed form letter about the film Back to the Future, covering every last repeated question. No, I don’t have any man-eating plants. No, I don’t have any plants that can eat your ex-spouse. No, I don’t have any Audrey 2s, and I’m also fresh out of Delvians, Vervoids, Krynoids, or Vegetons, too. However, after a quick visit to Leilani Nepenthes in Hawaii, I’m finally going to sell triffids. This way, when the occasional person asks if I have a triffid available for sale, I can give that person a John Cleese glare and tell him/her “Here’s your plant, NOW BUY IT!” (I just hope they don’t get too big, because I’m not looking forward to branding season.)

Well, enough of that. Back to the linen mines.

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a little while since the last time we had a good “Thursday is Resource Day” entry, and this one probably won’t be a good one. It, however, should be enough to get everyone through until the next one, as things are starting to pile up around here. Seriously, blame the plants, because our recent run of warm weather woke up everything, and I’m now up to my armpits, almost literally, in “Pink Lemonade” blueberry flowers.

Anyway, to start off, things got very interesting in the Dallas/Fort Worth home and garden show market all of a sudden. Ever since the original company running the Texas Home & Garden Shows shut down and was bought out, both the programming and the general lineup at the shows has been progressively worse and worse. Remember a while back, when I was joking about organizing and starting the “Manchester United Flower Show” for gardeners under the age of 65? Over the last few months, it was seeming more and more reasonable.

And then, completely by luck, I discovered the Great Big Texas Home Show, being held this weekend in Arlington. Any home and garden show that offers a refund for dissatisfied customers already piques my interest, as does the list of exhibitors. Were it any other weekend, I’d brave the horrors of Cowboys Stadium parking to come out for this and check on exhibitor’s space for smaller vendors.

Unfortunately, this is a bad weekend. To attendees of the show, understand that the vague grinding sound you hear in the back of your head is the sound of my molars doing their best impersonation of the New Madrid Fault in sheer jealousy. I’m being a responsible grown-up, though, and continuing to get ready for the second Triffid Ranch show of the year at All-Con in Addison. It’s now late enough in the season that the flytraps are emerging from dormancy, the Sarracenia are starting to bloom, and we’re reasonably assured that we won’t see any more freezing weather until next December in North Texas. Hence, it’s time to party. Come on out and watch me regale the younger attendees with tales of what science fiction fandom was like in the days before the Internet, and maybe check out the plants, too.

And now for a bit of fun. I’m constantly asked “Why raise carnivorous plants?”, and the long story involves growing up in Michigan with its extensive mosquito and horsefly herds. You’ve heard the old tale of how Arctic mosquitoes can drain a person of as much as a pint of blood per hour? Spend some time around Alpena or Manistee, and you’ll realize that this isn’t idle speculation. My paternal grandmother lived up in the woods of Northern Michigan, and I remember her buying Deep Woods Off by the case. Hence, when I was first exposed to Monty Python at the age of 11, I had particular appreciation for the saga of the mighty mosquito hunter:

Well, thanks to our unusually warm and mild winter, our early spring, and several bountiful and extensive rainstorms, the mosquitoes are out about three weeks earlier than usual. I’d even be worried about their being more fruitful than usual, if every last one in the vicinity wasn’t heading straight for my sundews and butterworts. I still note that carnivorous plants will never replace standard pest controls for dealing with insects, but carnivores have one morale advantage over sprays, mosquito dunks, and flyswatters. Namely, you can look over a hale and hearty Cape sundew, leaves covered with trapped mosquitoes and fungus gnats, and make “AAAAAAAAAH! HELP ME! IT’S GOT MY LEGS!” screaming noises as the leaves embrace the bugs for the first and last time. And oh how the situation from my childhood is reversed.

Just shut up and watch

All I can say is that some people have the BEST jobs.