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Here we go again…

The last six weeks have been the most stressful in the gallery’s history, and thanks to yet more situations impossible to delay and unable to be predicted (which will be hysterically funny in retrospect) the October 9 Porch Sale has to be rescheduled again. Since the whole caboodle will be in Austin next weekend, this means that the next open house will be opening on Saturday, October 23, running from 10 am to 3 pm. Honest to Elvis, this next one will happen if it kills us, but not right now. Thank you very much for your understanding.

Leonhardt Lagoon at Dallas’s Fair Park

Leonhardt Lagoon at Fair Park

I’m regularly asked why I stay in Dallas, all by people who have never so much as visited. Yes, it’s hot during our seemingly never-ending summers. Yes, Highland Park produces people so plastic and artificial that they’re just waiting to declare war upon the Daleks. Yes, we’re not known as a haven for artists, writers, or musicians, or at least the work ethic-challenged wannabes waiting for their first million-dollar contract, no matter how hard some city leaders try to turn us into another Portland or Austin. Sometimes that’s the biggest appeal, though, because Dallas forces you to appreciate the little bits of beauty and protect them. Such is the case of the Leonhardt Lagoon in the middle of Fair Park, just south of downtown.

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon lilypads

Leonhardt Lagoon

Lagoon sculpture

No, the previous photos aren’t left over from a celebration of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. The singular lagoon sculptures therein were created by Dallas artist Patricia Johanson, who wanted to renovate the lagoon with structures evocative of ferns and duck-potato. Not only are they open to the public (in fact, the park encourages people to climb onboard and view the indigenous plant and animal life close-up), but the portions not easily reached by humans are full of basking turtles on most sunny days.

Lagoon turtle

The vast majority of the turtles in the lagoon are the native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), which feed on insects, fish, carrion, and water plants. Get up high, though, and be surprised at the mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) staying out toward the center. The real fun, though, comes in winter, where walking out onto the platforms might startle a still-active snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) into ducking back under a platform.

Lagoon turtle

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Not all of the wonders around the lagoon are natural. Half my life ago, Fair Park hosted the “Rameses the Great” exhibition of Rameses II artwork and artifacts, and the biggest trace was this commemorative stone left behind in 1989.

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Jumbo

Likewise, the former Dallas Museum of Natural History building adds a bit to the lagoon’s feel. Back in 1986, construction in downtown uncovered the nearly complete remains of a Columbian mammoth, and volunteers restored and assembled the skeleton at the Museum. (Until the recent move to the new Perot Museum in downtown, that skeleton was one of the highlights of the Texas Giants Hall on the second floor of the old museum.) “Jumbo” is a bronze sculpture intended to give a life-sized view of how the mammoth appeared in life, perpetually overlooking the lagoon but not quite able to get over there for a drink.

Lagoon cypress

And since the main draw of the lagoon is the flora, it’s hard not to notice the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) growing along the banks. T. distichum is a native Texas tree, if not necessarily a native Dallas one: it’s usually found to the east and the south, where wetlands tend to stay wet in the summer. Thanks to the shape of the area, though, the lagoon has a humid microclimate that sustains and encourages the cypress, and it tends to grow much larger here than in most places in Dallas where it’s been introduced.

cypress cones

Cypress knees

The famed “knees” of bald cypress are more formally known as pneumatophores or aerial roots, which allow the roots to absorb oxygen in otherwise completely anaerobic conditions. These are also seen in mangroves and other mud-loving trees, but they’re not quite as impressive. The knees in the Lagoon’s cypresses range in size depending both upon their proximity to the lagoon and their proximity to the rest of the landscape: lawn mowers tend to keep them trimmed before they get too tall.

Cypress roots

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

Honey mesquite

Across from the bald cypresses, off Jumbo’s left shoulder, is this little garden space, featuring a real Dallas native. Mesquite is so common as a shrubby tree in the Dallas area, especially in overgrazed former cattle land, that even many natives don’t know how big it can get given half a chance. Most guides go on about the medicinal uses of mesquite, and you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without someone talking about getting a cord of well-seasoned mesquite for the grille or smoker. Me, though, I just appreciate the big trees for what they are, and appreciate the shade they offer in the middle of summer.

Petrified log at the Lagoon

Finally, here’s a mystery right on the edge of the lagoon. As mentioned before, the whole of Fair Park was constructed as a World’s Fair exposition ground for the Texas state centennial in 1936, but a lot of history disappeared in the years after the city of Dallas took over the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas. Of particular note was this petrified log. Some stories relate that the north entrance to the fairgrounds featured an arch made of petrified wood, and this log has a concrete peg at one end that supports the idea (pun intended) of it being part of a larger monument. At the same time, though, nobody can find any definitive proof that any such structure existed. Yet the log exists, and it’s been sitting in that same space by the lagoon for the last quarter-century as proof. Anybody up for borrowing a time machine for a little while to take pictures of it in its old location? Or is it some silent sentinel from an unknown civilization in Texas’s distant past, just waiting for the right event to wake it up?

Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?

Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.

Image

Vulture in Garland

20120525-185152.jpg

And this is why I stay in Texas. Garland: come for the Zombieland jokes, and stay for the vultures on the neighbor’s front porch. It doesn’t get more bluecollar goth than this.

NARBC, King of the Monsters

A few months back, I described the joy of the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, complete with hat-tips to friends in the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society. At the time, the idea was to make plans for next year, because the NARBC only came through the Dallas area once per year, right?

Yeah, I thought that as well, until reading the newest issue of Reptiles magazine brought up a mention of an Arlington NARBC show at the end of August. It had to be a typo, right? We couldn’t be looking at a repeat of the biggest reptile, amphibian, and accoutrement show of its kind, and on Shirley Manson‘s birthday, could we?

Yep. August 25 and 26, at the Arlington Convention Center. Six months later, the cycle continues.

Now, as tempting as this would be for this year’s show, what makes life even better is the option for next year at that time. Next year at roughly the same time is LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 WorldCon, down in San Antonio, and friends and former writing compatriots have already started nuhdzing about my showing plants down there. Well, aside from the distance (mostly involving hauling plants in our famous Central Texas heat), there’s the near-impossibility of finding any vendor information on the site, and similar events run by the same people are notoriously unfriendly to any vendors selling anything other than books. Before the NARBC came up, my response was pretty uniform: “If I wanted to burn a weekend and a month’s pay listening to a herd of reactionary old people screaming about how the universe changed without their express approval and consent, I’d go to a family reunion.” Now, I’m welcoming. “Oh, sure, you could go to San Antonio with about 700 people who will arrive with one shirt and one $20 bill, and not change either for the next week, to an event run by many of the same people who ran the 1997 WorldCon. (And that’s a story I’ll tell for another time.) Or, OR, you could come up here and hang out for a weekend with anywhere between 3000 and 6000 of the coolest people you’ll ever meet in your life.” The choice is clear.

(And back to the subject of Reptiles, I’d like to recommend this new issue, just for the exceptional article on care of three-toed box turtles. Some of you may remember Stella, the world’s meanest box turtle, and her unrequited love affair with our cat Leiber. I can’t say that all three-toed box turtles have her level of personality, generally as vitriolic as it was toward humans, but I can definitely say they’re exceptionally intelligent and fascinating reptiles.)

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012: The Aftermath

Like the swallows of Capistrano, every year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009 starts and ends the same way. After spending weeks getting ready so nothing goes wrong, Friday morning opens and then EVERYTHING goes wrong. Grumble, grouse, contemplate going back to bed and not coming out until Monday morning. Rise above it, open up at 5:00 Friday evening, and then spend the entire weekend wishing that the party could keep going for the rest of the week. Come home and collapse, making plans for the next year as unconsciousness slides in. Repeat as necessary.

If there’s one big reason why I’m so enthusiastic about Frightmare, it’s because this show has one of the most interesting audiences I’ve ever seen. Quite literally, there’s no telling who may show up and say hello at the Triffid Ranch booth. Biology majors. Dentists. Stilt walkers. All of them come screeching to a halt and look surprised when they see a carnivorous plant vendor at a horror convention. I repeat: they’re the ones who are surprised.

By way of example, below is my dear friend Mischa Jordan, having left Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and Booga at home for the weekend in order to pose with a Nepenthes arrangement. Not only was she surprised to see an N. alata up close, but she was even more surprised to see the big stein it was in. (For obvious reasons, this arrangement was named “The Mullet of Metal”.)

Mischa Jordan with the “Mullet of Metal”.

Other than the initial difficulties of getting to the convention hotel and getting back out, thanks to ongoing road construction around DFW Airport, the only issue the whole weekend came from the lighting in the hall hosting the dealer’s room. Combine that with getting familiarity with a new camera, and I’ll state for the record that I plan to leave photography to the experts. Even with that aggravation, and lots of frustration with light levels and autofocusing, just look at the expressions on everyone’s faces.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

As always, talking with the kids at shows is one of the great joys of setting up booths at said shows, and I had a real surprise. Among other guests was Madison Lintz, best known for playing “Sophia” in the cable series The Walking Dead, and she took a break on Sunday from signing autographs to wander around the dealer’s room. Not only was she intrigued by the plants in the first place, but she had no idea that the Atlanta Botanical Garden has a large carnivorous plant collection, including a Nepenthes collection. Since she mentioned that her teacher back home was offering her extra credit if she came back with interesting science information from Texas, I gave her my last spare copy of the May 2011 issue of Reptiles. If she becomes the Tippi Hedren of carnivorous plants when she gets older, well, it’s all my fault.

Madison Lintz

As of last check, the crew at Texas Frightmare Weekend still doesn’t have a complete count of the attendance, but I’m glad nonetheless that we were in a much larger space in a much larger hotel than in 2011. Between the Czarina and myself, when asked if we were going to be out for 2012, our simultaneous response was “Oh, HELL yes.”

More photos to follow…

Have a Great Weekend

I wonder why all of the “Sounds of the Nineties” radio stations leave this song out of their playlists? Not enough impotent whining to interest the programming directors, I guess.

Introducing Hemidactylus turcicus

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

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

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

Hemidactylus turcicus

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

Hemidactylus turcicus (closeup)

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

Introducing Lonicera japonica

Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica

At the moment, the North Texas area is truly in the middle of spring. We’re past any reasonable chance of a freeze (although the area reached just short of freezing 39 years ago today, so it could happen), with about three weeks to a month before things start to get torrid. (Of course, as mentioned last year, it’s not truly summer until you can’t walk into a grocery store anywhere in the state without at least four old ladies accosting you to tell you “It’s HOT,” as if we always get snow flurries and sleet on the Fourth of July. Last year, I went grocery shopping early, because otherwise the place sounded like a pterosaur rookery.) When we aren’t being dragged to Oz by tornadoes (and the current count of last week’s April Madness was 17 in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area), the wind is mild, the sun tolerable, and the nights incredible. The evening air this time of the year makes the worst summers worthwhile, because it’s cool enough to get active while warm enough to leave the jackets and sweaters at home.

Right now, my best friend and I are getting particular mileage from those evenings, and I mean that literally. He bought a new Harley last summer, and spends the dusk and evening exploring exactly how far and how fast his monster machine will take him before he resigns himself to having to go home so he can get up for work in the morning. I’m no different, even if I’m on a mountain bike instead of a motorcycle. Back roads and bare paths, spooking armadillos and the occasional great horned owl because they didn’t hear me until we were close enough to touch…yeah, it’s that time of the year.

It’s during these perambulations that my best friend and I come into contact with one of North Texas’s most hidden-in-plain-sight invasive plants, usually as we’re buzzing right past. The air’s already clean, and then a quick whiff of fresh sweetness, and then it’s gone like a kiss from an ex-girlfriend. It’s Japanese honeysuckle season.

In all of my travels, the only other invasive plant I’ve come across that inspires as mixed a set of emotions as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) in Texas is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) in Oregon. In areas outside of Portland, Himalayan blackberry is an absolute menace once it’s established. It grows in huge clumps as much as eight meters tall. The canes are bandsaw blades with chlorophyll, and moving through a patch with anything other than plate mail is a great way to see how much blood the human body can lose at once. The plant gets established through seeds, cane tips, and runners from rhizomes, and extensive application of fire just encourages it. Gardeners and farmers spit and curse upon mention of the name, because clearing an established stand just means that the space is clear for a few birds to leave fresh seeds with their droppings and start the cycle again.

What makes it rough is that while the whole plant is a nightmare, the blackberries themselves are absolute heaven. At one point in the summer of 1996, my ex-wife and I stood at one spot in Washington State, right along the Columbia River, and picked berries for a solid hour without moving our feet except to get new containers. For most Portlanders, the Himalayan blackberry is becoming the New Zealand brushtail possum of local flora: yes, it’s wiped out whenever encountered, but summers also aren’t the same any more without local restaurants offering blackberry margaritas.

That’s about the situation with Japanese honeysuckle out here. Just whisper the name to gardeners, and wait for the shrieks. I understand that Debbi Middleton killed a big stand of the stuff all by herself, wielding a Garden Weasel like a naginata, in a classic battle that begs to be recreated by Peter Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mounted the tuber over her fireplace with the killing strike turned out toward the couch, so she could gaze upon it and snicker. When members of local garden groups get together to talk about the latest infestation, and they start mumbling “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit,” they aren’t kidding.

I understand. I sympathize. I join in with their justifiable wars against hackberry, greenbriar, and cottonwood seedlings. It’s just that I look at a clump like the one above, and remember how many times I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike in an attempt to stop and savor for a few seconds. Most people need a gallon of coffee to wake up in the morning. All I need is a bicycle, a bit of Hawkwind or Yavin 4 in the earbuds, and that insane scent in my nostrils to get me going. And so it goes.

Review: Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Machiavelli’s Lawn: The Great Writers’ Garden Companion, written and illustrated by Mark Crick
ISBN-10: 1847081347
ISBN-13: 9781847081346
Published: Granta Books (UK), 03/01/2011
Pages: 111
Language: English

Machiavelli's Lawn

When it comes to in-jokes, particularly extensive in-jokes, writers have two options. The better option is to write such jokes in such a way that the intended audience gets the humor, but that humor also gets those outside the loop. I say “better” because if the joke dies both with the in-audience and everyone else, the writer’s done. Science fiction is full of these failed attempts, where the only defense to a poorly written “comedy” is to yell “Oh, yeah? Well, I wrote this for the fans!” And what happens when the fans think that the resultant book or production is a pile of garbage?

The other option, rarely done well, is to ignore that urge to go for a larger audience. Go narrow and focused, and understand that 95 percent of the potential world readership will look at it like comedian Bill Hicks’s famed “dog being shown a card trick”. The trick isn’t to make the intended audience laugh. The trick is to be so good that it makes readers outside that vicious circle want to read the original reference and then go back to the in-joke. Occasionally, very occasionally, this works out, and the creator or creators are heroes in song and legend.

I won’t say that Mark Crick’s writers’ garden companion Machiavelli’s Lawn is going to appeal to 99 percent of the general readership. I can’t say that it’ll appeal to the vast majority of gardening enthusiasts. For those of us who spent far too much time reading things other than horticultural references, though, it’s a trip.

The conceit of Machiavelli’s Lawn is to write gardening guides in the style of various famous writers, such as Raymond Carver, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, and Pablo Neruda. That can be hard on its own, considering that the best material for parody is broad prose with a style about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail served at dinner. (This, incidentally, is why H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson are such an inspiration for aspiring parody writers as yet unable to work with the subtlety of Ray Bradbury or Mike Royko.) Discussing removal of tree suckers in the style of Bret Easton Ellis has its moments, but it’s not hard because Ellis’s style was practically a cliche from the second he started typing. Pulling off a parody of Martin Amis that was itself viciously funny (involving repotting an abused houseplant within a strip club) that’s more readable than an Amis story? Now that’s talent.

I might also add that Mr. Crick provided his own illustrations for this book with a similar mindset, as if the Ralph Steadman tribute wasn’t obvious. (I have to admit that I snagged this book because I first assumed that Mr. Steadman had moved from writing about wine and whisky to horticulture.) Here we also get treatments of Durer, Munch, Lichtenstein, Dali, and Robert Crumb, all distinctive and all appropriate for the essay being illustrated. If you aren’t familiar with any of these artists, don’t sweat it. Not knowing about them doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the illustrations. However, if you do…well, my Day Job boss is a proud Robert Crumb fan, and he got a good enough cackle over Crick’s hommage that he wanted to read the accompanying story just to get more context.

The problem here is that you have so many authors, and so many books, that could thrive under this sort of treatment that this book isn’t enough. In fact, I have one that’s been sitting in my head for a while, and let’s see if anyone’s sufficiently erudite to catch the reference:

“Amanda gets me a job as an arborist, after that Amanda’s pushing secateurs in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Amanda and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Amanda Thomsen.”

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

We made it to the end of March. No last-minute snowfall. No end-of-month freezes or frosts…yet. Oh, the trees and weeds are determined to wipe out all animal life with pollen, but that’s not quite the disaster of the big snowfall in mid-March 2010. And what do we get for our reward? Sarracenia blooms!

I once had an English professor who stated that everyone should write as if a new writer were given a total of three exclamation points to use over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t disagree, but I always felt that a better solution was inspired by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman”, with the writer relinquishing a year of life for every exclamation point used. Naturally, if this rather draconian example actually ever saw use, you’d see millions of YouTube and political site commentators dropping dead days after turning 15, but there you go. When it comes to Sarracenia, though, I willingly give up a year to emphasize the joy. In fact, let’s give up another one: THE SARRACENIA ARE IN BLOOM!

Sarracenia bud

The trouble starts with these little flower scapes. They’re usually an excellent guide to air and soil temperatures, and when I tell customers that the Sarracenia generally won’t be for sale until after St. Patrick’s Day, it’s because I’m waiting for these to come up out of their winter dormancy first. Since the various species in the genus Sarracenia usually depend upon the same insects as pollinators as for prey, they generally put out their bloom spikes first, and then start growing pitchers.

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

This isn’t to say that this is an absolute. Since many of the Sarracenia are still recuperating from last year’s drought, many stressed plants will forgo putting out flowers and concentrate instead on growing new pitchers. Incidentally, this photo was from a week ago, and the pitcher spike in the background is now nearly twice the size of its neighbor. If our current benevolent and humid weather continues, this one may have pitchers as much as a meter tall by the end of April.

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

But let’s get back to the blooms. A typical Sarracenia bloom is about the size of a ping-pong ball, with a large cap on the bottom. As with many other flowering plants, Sarracenia attracts pollinators with both color and scent. Sarracenia alata, the yellow pitcher plant, tends to have blooms with a rather cat musk smell, which both seems to attract cats and repel raccoons. Others range in fruity and rosy scents, including several that, as Peter D’Amato noted to considerable merriment, smell almost exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. I don’t laugh at him when he says this, because he was understating the case.

Now, the cap and the petals work together to capture insects, but not in the way you’d expect. The bloom’s anthers are within the cap, so insect pollinators have to force themselves through the petals to get to the flower’s nectar. The petals block the entrances merely by dint of hanging free, so the bug runs into the anthers repeatedly while trying to get out. The cap also captures pollen knocked free from the anthers, so the bug gets a Shake & Bake treatment by the time it finally gets out and goes to another pitcher plant bloom. (Among other things, this may help explain why Sarracenia species produce so many natural hybrids, as visiting insects are simply covered by the time they work their way out.) The plant doesn’t want to capture them permanently for their nitrogen: any carnivorous plant that captures its pollinators before said pollen can get to another plant isn’t going to be in the gene pool for long.

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

Not that this stops other plants in a clump (or, in this case, a nursery) from taking advantage of another’s pollinators. In this case, the little brown spots on the lip of this hybrid Sarracenia‘s pitcher are ants, all getting drunk and falling into the pitcher. Considering the huge colony of ants hiding out in the roots of a cactus on the edge of the growing area, this Sarracenia is going to feed very well this spring.

And now, back to the nursery. Among other things, it’s time to learn how to use this cell phone camera properly.

Introducing Cephalotus follicularis

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Cephalotus

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

Juvenile Cephalotus

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

Cephalotus follicularis

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

Introducing Lupinus texensis

The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.

Lupinus texensis

As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.

Texas bluebonnets

Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.

Fields of bluebonnets

To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.

More fields of bluebonnets

And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.

Introducing Drosera regia filiformis

EDIT: A lesson to everyone, learned at my expense. I was certain that I was looking at D. regia here, but Ryan Kitko and a slew of other friends kindly noted “I hate to say this, but I think you have a Drosera filiformis instead of a Drosera regia here. Thankfully, I had my original receipt on hand, and discovered that what I had been calling “Drosera regia” really was D. filiformis after all. That said, if Black Jungle offers D. regia, buy one at once, and also consider that D. filiformis makes a great mosquito snare in the greenhouse, too. And now I take that tasty crow and turn it into a sandwich.

Drosera regia

Way back in the Eighties, when pterosaurs soared through the skies, VCRs cost most people nearly a month’s pay, and nobody was embarrassed to wear spandex in public, I was a tropical fish enthusiast. No, scratch that: I was a tropical fish junkie. Let me loose in a well-stocked fish store, and you might as well tattoo “JUST ONE FIX” to my forehead. In that regard, letting me loose in northeast Wisconsin in 1985 was like giving William S. Burroughs a key to a smack factory and telling him “We’ll be back in a month.” In the days before the Interwebs, there wasn’t much to do in places like Menasha and Little Chute (then not known as the future home of Ellen Ripley) during the winter other than watch the snow fall and pickling one’s liver, so the fish shops were valuable bastions of sanity for those who couldn’t drink, couldn’t smoke, and didn’t want to follow in the traditions of fellow residents Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Me, I practically lived in several fish shops, where I learned the vagaries of community tanks, the basics of saltwater arrangements, and the allure of exotics such as discus and red-bellied piranha.

One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was “Don’t trust the fish books, because the fish don’t read.” This is something else that needed to be tattooed on my forehead, because whoo boy does this apply to carnivorous plants. Every once in a while, you come across the right conditions for what are generally considered difficult plants, and they’re nearly impossible to kill. In my case, the book-breaker was the king sundew, Drosera regia.

Two years ago, on a trip to Boston, I purchased a king sundew, cultivar “Big Easy,” from Black Jungle Terrarium Supply. Having heard about D. regia‘s notorious reputation for being difficult, I figured, with the hopeful arrogance of most horticulture students, that I wouldn’t botch it up too badly. The sundew went into the greenhouse in July, right after I got back, and it promptly went berserk catching mosquitoes and fungus gnats. It appeared to die off in September, but I also knew how many sundews play dead for a while before growing back from the roots, so I didn’t dump the pot right away. Over the winter, it sat outside, where it froze solid in our big week-long cold snap in February 2011, and it suddenly came back in March.

This time, it went into a tall ceramic pot with no drainage, and it seemed to do even better. The plant grew nearly a meter tall, and regularly seemed to reach out to grab my hair as well as its usual prey. The 2011 heatwave started, and it kept going. July and August blasted the earth, and it kept going. Finally, when things really dried out in September and October, it appeared to die back again, but I kept watering it from time to time to make sure. Finally, the pot broke during a rearrangement of plants in winter housing, and I took a closer look at the freshly sprouting mass. You can imagine my surprise at seeing eight new plants emerging from separate rhizomes, each the size of a coat button, acting as if the weather of the last year was standard operating procedure.

Drosera regia

There’s not much more to tell at the moment. Right now, seven of the eight rhizomes are in a propagation tank, and I’ll probably bring out a couple to this weekend’s plant show. The eighth is going to go back into the greenhouse, where I’m going to figure out whether this is a new tolerant cultivar or I just ended up hitting the right conditions for it. Reports will follow.

Have a Great Weekend

No matter how much you love your Day Job, it’s hard not to hum this song on a Friday when spring starts in Texas. The fact that this was sung by an old and dear friend doesn’t hurt, either.

False Spring

Want to drive a gardener insane? Drop the poor schlub off in North Texas this time of the year and watch the reaction. Oh, sure, it may SEEM that winter is over, with ridiculously warm temperatures and only the threat of rain and the occasional tornado. Combine that with the local garden centers being overloaded with fresh new herb and vegetable seedlings, and it’s as if the earth itself is screaming “Go ahead. Put in that row of tomatoes. Everything’s fine. I promise.”

Longtimers such as myself know better. As a general rule, it’s best to wait until at least St. Patrick’s Day before planting anything that’s frost-intolerant or moving citrus from shelter, but that’s not an absolute. Two years ago, the Czarina and I moved into our new house on March 10, just in time to catch our second big snowstorm of the year, and gardening junkies still talk about the bad freeze we had in Dallas at the beginning of April 1997. As a general rule, though, any plantings by March 17 are usually safe. In fact, in this town, I recommend staying home and gardening on St. Patrick’s Day, instead of dealing with the annual city display of vomit and other bodily fluids. It’s just a bit more rational, y’know?

That doesn’t stop the newbies, the thrill-seekers, and the apprentice village idiots. “The weather’s fine. I can put in those tomatoes, and they won’t frost off.” Some are so determined, you’d think they were auditioning for the part in a slasher film. “Oh, don’t worry. Michael/Jason/Freddy’s just a myth. Now let me plant these peppers, and we’ll go have sex in that abandoned Indian burial ground turned chemical waste dump during the full moon.”

This isn’t helped by the great tempters. Longtimers know that you should wait until the local redbuds are in full bloom before risking frost-averse plantings, but it’s so, so tempting when everything else is going mad. Due to our abnormally mild winter, the daffodils and paperwhites were beaten in the early blooming sweepstakes by flowering quince, followed by magnolia, dogwood, and crabapple. However, the real harbinger of false spring is the local weed below.

Pseudo-cilantro

I’ve heard this described as “cilantro”, by people who know a lot more about local weeds than I, and it certainly superficially resembles that most beloved and detested of cooking herbs. In North Texas, our local cilantro is considered a pest because it takes over in most poor soils. Out here, the textbook illustration of “poor soil” is any photo of a lawn, so you can imagine how insane people can get about wiping it out. Me, I generally leave it alone, because it bolts, drops seed, and dies early in the year, much like most of our wildflowers, and it’s only a pain in spring.

Oh, but is it a pain. Those purple-red flowers are attractive, but the mass of the weed tends to grow quickly enough that the local city inspectors are handing out ordinance warnings two days after a fresh mowing. Mowing through a clump leaves the whole neighborhood smelling like a great Mexican restaurant (should you have wild garlic in the back yard to go with it, as many people in houses formerly frequented by big dogs, mowing makes you uncontrollably hungry for fresh pizza), but many of the individual stems stay out of range of the mower blade when the others give their lives. This means that two days later, the yard is once again scraggly and unkempt, and who has time to mow three times a week?

I should also mention another aspect that makes this weed a beautiful menace. It forms big pillowy bunches, true, but those tend to conceal road trash, bottles, chunks of wood, or anything else that couldn’t outrun its growth. Because of this, the first mowing of the season can be more exciting than mortal man can tolerate. There was that big patch, for instance, that was hiding a nearly full plastic bottle of battery acid back in 1987, and thankfully I saw a corner of said bottle before running it down. Insert your very own “Sounds like an ex of mine” joke here, because I was thinking it, too.

The real danger, though, comes from those blooms. Drive past the front yard, and see those rich flowers. Drive down the street, and watch them taking over everything. Head down the highway, and catch that scarlet flash at 70mph. After a while, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that the long winter is over and start with the weekend garden regimen. Then, when the last big freeze of the season hits, this fake cilantro, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. It’ll come back for another two months, while you whimper over the blasted black mess that used to be a sturdy heirloom tomato.

The good news to all of this? I have a mulching lawnmower. I will make fake cilantro pay for tempting me like this.

The first Triffid Ranch show of 2012: ConDFW

In previous years, I’ve avoided attempting plant shows before April with good reason. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, we had such foul weather through February and March that I wasn’t worried about the plants freezing on their way to the event. Instead, I was more worried about my frozen corpse, still seat-belted into the van, being found in a drainage ditch halfway there. Last year, we had a solid week of sub-freezing weather in February, which may not sound like much to the denizens of higher latitudes. Out here, though, that’s begging for arriving at a show with a batch of sundews indistinguishable from a batch of frozen spinach.

However, my friend Amie Spengler nuhdzed and nudged at previous shows about ConDFW, a big literary science fiction convention that runs in Dallas in the middle of February, so the Czarina and I decided to take a chance this year. I still had sundews and bladderworts potted up in containers and ready to go from last November’s disastrous Friends of Fair Park show, and we figured “What could it hurt?” The weather coincided with our plans: lots of rain on Saturday, but otherwise exceptional weather both setting up and breaking down on Friday and Sunday. And who knew that carnivorous plants would be so popular among the Texas A&M student volunteers helping out here while preparing for Aggiecon?

Brad at ConDFW

Some folks came by just out of curiosity, or because they’d seen the Triffid Ranch booth at previous shows. Brad, though, came out specifically because he wanted carnivores. He left with a spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to go with the big grin on his face.

Beth at ConDFW

Beth is a very old friend, with my having first met her back during my science fiction writing days. She had a craving for green in February, too, as can be told.

ConDFW

Another happy sundew adopter.

Tiffany at ConDFW

And then there’s Tiffany from local gaming company Roll2Play. Tiffany’s main hobby at these shows is to gang up with the Czarina and leave me crying in shame and humiliation as they demonstrate that it is possible to kill at 30 paces with a sharp twist of the tongue. Thankfully for my fragile self-esteem, she took a small break from wielding her wit cannon, took pity on my runny nose and puffy eyes (it was from the flu, honest) and snatched up a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) before anybody else got to see it.

Medusa Head at ConDFW

A closer look at that medusa head. It wasn’t just that Tiffany loved the pot. She particularly loved the detritus within it, and threatened to kneecap anyone who messed with it. Time for me to hunt down a few more pots like this, I think.

And now it’s time to get ready for the next show of the season: All-Con 2012 in March. I’m even thinking of joining the costuming festivities after the main dealer’s room hours, with the obvious head explodey that goes with it. I can’t tell if 2012 is going to be a good year for shows, but if it isn’t, it won’t be from a lack of trying.

There’s always time for orchids

It’s always amazing what shows up at Gunter’s Orchids in February. (This is why the Czarina doesn’t worry about me when she goes out of town. Other wives take off on a week-long vacation in San Francisco and worry about their husbands doing things that require delousing, castration, or deportation afterward. Me, I go straight for the nurseries as soon as she’s on the plane, and usually in search of things to surprise her when she gets back. This Valentine’s Day, it was a beautiful Cattleya that she spotted as soon as she walked in the door.)

Orchids at Gunter's

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

And should I mention that Gunter’s has a regular orchid gazing event in the middle of March that’s worth the trip to Dallas?

A Cthulhufruit Boozeup

It’s now been eight years since my dear friend Allison Lonsdale introduced me to the awe and wonder that is the Buddha’s Hand citron. Or, as she likes to call it, Cthulhufruit. In the intervening four-fifths of a decade, I exaggerate not a whit when I say that Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis led me on quite the adventure. Trust me: orchids aren’t addictive. Citrus is addictive.

By way of example, finding a suitable source of Cthulhufruit for culinary experiments is much easier today than it was in 2004. Back then, the only hope for finding it in Dallas was during the two or three days of the year when the local Whole Foods had one, and that’s after getting past the managers apparently fired from Borders for arrogance and surliness. Now, the local Central Market tends to carry it in season, just as much to terrify the customers as for actual use. I still have a suitable supply of candied Cthulhufruit from a big cookup a year ago, so now it was time to go for another grand experiment. Now it’s time to make Cthulhufruit flavoring extract.

As mentioned in the past, I share one thing with my cousin Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and that is a complete inability to drink. I can appreciate the end-products of brewing and distillation, and I heartily encourage friends not to hold off on my account. Hence, the only reason why I don’t just say “Kids, today we’re making Cthulhufruit vodka” is because this really is for cooking. Now, if friends want to slam back a few shots, they’re welcome to it, but I understand from my best friend that this is a drink best sipped. When he tells me this, I just have to smile and nod.

Anyway, to start, you only need a few items before going to work:

3 ripe Buddha’s Hand citrons
1 2-liter glass jar with glass lid and rubber gasket
1 1.5 liter bottle of unflavored vodka
Sharp knife and cutting board

"If you go to Z'Ha'Dum, you will die."

To start, when choosing Cthulhufruit, your nose is your best tool. You want to buy one that is all-yellow, without any soft spots or mold, with a very clean citrus scent. As far as appearance is concerned, run amok, but remember that a lot of little tentacles will produce more essential oils than a few big ones. If you’re wanting to horrify friends and family, though, go mad and get the most horrifying one out of the batch. Other than that, avoid ones with brown bruising spots or ones that are obviously wilted or old.

The hold is full of leathery objects, like eggs or something.

Wash your Cthulhufruit well to remove any waxes or pesticides used on it in the orchard, and don’t be afraid to soak it in water for a few minutes to remove any dirt or dust collected during transport. Don’t soak it for hours, though, and definitely don’t use hot water. A five-minute bath should be fine.

Remove any moldy or soft spots

If you have to wait a few days between purchase and processing, put your Cthulhufruit in the refrigerator, preferably in the crisper. If it starts to mold, just cut out those soft parts with a sharp knife and toss them in the compost bin.

Remove the head and destroy the brain

At this point, it’s time to start slicing. The stem end needs to go. Until very recently, most Buddha’s Hand citrons were shipped with a little length of stem, mostly so they could be hung from the ceiling to freshen rooms. These days, with various nasty citrus diseases making the rounds, you won’t see any citrus leaves or stems on transported fruit, especially fruit that could be shipped to citrus-producing states in the US. Either way, you don’t want to leave that in your mix.

YOUR FACE, CLEAN OFF.

“Hasan…CHOP!”

Dismember your Cthulhufruit before it spawns

Starting from the stem end, get to slicing. Technically, you could mince up those Cthulhufruit in order to maximize the amount of surface area being exposed, but the idea is just as much for presentation as for efficiency. I generally slice until I get to distinctive tentacles at the blossom end of the fruit, and then separate those.

Hand-packing Cthulhufruit

Now take your clean glass jar, and wash it out if it isn’t already clean, and pack it with your freshly sliced Cthulhufruit. I generally stack the end slices in the center, leaving room around the edges for the tentacles.

Hand Packed Cthulhufruit

If you have more Cthulhufruit than you have room in the jar, don’t be afraid to put on the top and shake the hell out of it in order to get it to settle. Either way, that jar should hold three sliced citrons, unless you had a source for particularly big ones. In which case, I’m coming over to your house to eat your brain so I can steal your superpowers.

The choice pickling for Cthulhufruit

Now, some people may ask “Why use vodka? Why not use Everclear?” Well, that’s for several reasons. Firstly, most of the aromatics in citrons are both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble, so a good 90 proof mix works the best to get it all. Secondly, Everclear works best for making extracts of herbs and other purely alcohol-soluble spices. Thirdly, Everclear is ridiculously expensive, and vodka gets the job done for a much cheaper price.

As for the type of vodka used, that’s between you and the supreme deity of your choice. I’d recommend against flavored vodkas, because they’d likely overwhelm the more delicate notes that you’re trying to capture from the Cthulhufruit. My personal choice is Dripping Springs vodka, because I’m a Texas patriot, it’s very good vodka for the price, and it’s available in most liquor stores in North Texas. If you find anything better, please feel free to let me know.

Pour vodka over the sliced Cthulhufruit

Fill the jar right up to the rim with your vodka. If you have extra, that’s great. If you don’t, just do your best to keep the air gap at the top of the jar as small as possible. (I’ll explain why later.)

You say he was inside the bottle, sir?

Once the jar is full, seal it up. If you can possibly help it, use a jar with a glass or strong plastic lid, because you do NOT want this mix corroding a metal lid.

YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!

Finally, put this in a dark, cool place and don’t touch it for at least three months. In my case, I have the perfect place: the bar in the corner of the living room. It’s almost completely undisturbed all year round, and if anyone looks inside, won’t they be surprised?

When that steeping period is done, what remains is to drain off the vodka, bottle it, and put the extract back into a cool dark place until you’re ready to use it. It works very well in small doses, no more than a teaspoon, in fish dishes, and it can be used to complement the flavor of lemon and/or lime. This batch here is going to come in very handy with an experiment in kicking up a Key lime pie recipe I’ve been wanting to try for a while, and you can only imagine what will happen with adding it to lemon bars.

Now, I warned against leaving a large air gap at the top of the jar while the Cthulhufruit is steeping, and that’s for a very good reason. This new batch is being made because I left the last one steeping for a bit too long, with a little too little vodka. The oils and the vodka reacted with the oxygen in the air in the jar and some of the compounds oxidized: it’s still good for drinking and for cooking, but it adds a caramel-like flavor that drowns out the subtlety of many of the aromatic oils.

Giving up Nyarlathotep's share

Another factor to consider is that, no matter how good a seal, you’re going to lose a certain amount of alcohol from evaporation through the lid seal. In scotch production, this is referred to as “the angel’s share,” although I’m sure that no angel wants anything to do with it. Let’s call it “Nyarlathotep’s share” and leave it at that. The more vodka you have in the jar, the less Nyarlathotep’s share you’ll have by the time you’re ready to drain off the jar, and the less air that’s inside the jar to hasten oxidation. The above photo shows what happens after a year, and when you consider how much evaporation occurs through a whiskey barrel, now you understand why twenty-year and thirty-year scotch are so much more expensive than 12-year.

Cthulhufruit soup, anyone?

Another problem with leaving it too long is that the pulp tends to disintegrate slightly. Again, this doesn’t affect the drinkability or cookability of the extract. This just means that trying to strain the extract when bottling it isn’t going to work very well. I normally use a gold-plated coffee filter to strain Cthulhufruit extract, and after a year, the pulp sediment was just thick enough to jam up that filter.

For he IS the Kwizach Haderach

As can be seen, some of the vodka is absorbed by the Cthulhufruit pith, and Nyarlathotep’s share takes the rest. I plan to try both this and the fresh batch as extracts in different meals, and the rest of this one is going to friends. Now all I need is a new jar, a fresh Cthulhufruit, and a label reading “Specimen preserved in formalin, 8/20/1890”.

Ensuring marital bliss, one aneurysm at a time

The end of January, particularly this January, can be the most cruel of times for Texas gardeners. The wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity, one day below freezing and the next too warm for jackets, tempt even the most wizened souls to attempt something in the garden. Logic tells you that anyone planting anything frost-intolerant in North Texas before the middle of March is an idiot, and that your only options are putting in dormant fruit trees and maybe a batch of brassicas, such as bok choi or Brussels sprouts. One look outside on a morning like today, though, and logic gets shouted down: “C’mon. LOOK at it. We could probably get in a good two dozen orange trees and a row of tomatoes before lunch.”

It’s especially rough on me because of the weather. Having barely survived the big bout of flu that took us both down over the last two weeks, the Czarina listened to my coughing nearly to the point of vomiting and stated with authority “You are NOT allowed to get pneumonia this year.” Although I fear her proclamations as much as her elbows, I think she’s being completely unfair. If I get pneumonia, syphilis, Dutch Elm Blight, and kuru before May, I’ll have enough purchase points to get Captain Trips and hemmorhagic fever for free. The dealer will even throw in a couple of intestinal parasites and an ingrown toenail if I get in before the deadline.

The Czarina’s complete and total inflexibility on these matters is why I don’t tell her about some of the new projects I have planned. She won’t let me get a crocodile monitor, she won’t let me get a display case for a crocodile monitor, and she definitely won’t let me set up my orbital laboratory and death ray, even if I pay for it from my own allowance. Is it really my fault, then, that I spend my rainy day fund on new garden sculpture?

And yes, the sound you hear from the horizon is the sound of Czarina elbow piercing the top of my skull. You’d think I’d have learned after I told her I wanted to have a Meet the Feebles-themed birthday party just after we got married.

The Doom That Came To Dublin

I have to admit that, in my advancing years, I get increasingly tired of the foofarol concerning defunct cultural institutions when said institutions died for rational reasons. Namely, the crying and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over restaurants, stores, and other venues that died because potential patrons were being sentimental about them instead of, say, actually buying something. Much of this hatred comes from my science fiction writing days, where every magazine that shut down was greeted with the hysterics expected from the deaths of rock stars or celebrity chefs. Never mind that if the magazine’s fans actually bought a copy, or read anything other than the submissions guidelines page before defecating into the slushpile mailbox with their latest Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfiction, said magazine might actually still be around.

In a few cases, not only do I understand the urge, but I join in the mourning. Today is the day Dublin Dr. Pepper stopped production.

It’s hard to explain to non-Texans why a carbonated soft drink should be such a big deal, except for the fact that it was everywhere. For a very long time, the company was a major employer in the Dallas area, with its main bottling plant on Mockingbird Lane. Dr. Pepper was hyped as a hot as well as cold beverage in the Fifties, and you could still find little electric cup heaters with the logo (for dunking into a coffee cup) in garage sales when I moved here. Just about every venue that featured a soda dispenser had Dr. Pepper as a selection, and until about 1982 or so, asking for a “Coke” really meant you were getting a Dr. Pepper unless you said otherwise. It was even an official sponsor of the Dallas Cowboys, long before current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turned that credit into a joke.

And yes, I bought into it as well. When Coca-Cola went into its ill-fated fling with New Coke in 1985, I became a Dr. Pepper junkie. One of the many reasons I moved back to Texas in 1986 was because of Dr. Pepper: I was so miserable in Wisconsin that I spent many an hour in a horrible Burger King in downtown Appleton solely because that Burger King had Dr. Pepper on tap. Friends wanting to make bar crawls or concert runs just had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t drinking anything stronger than DP, and I think I managed to evade getting stomped at one of the last shows at the famed Theater Gallery in Deep Ellum outside of downtown Dallas because the skinheads saw that I was more straightedge than they were.

Times change, and they didn’t necessarily get better. The Dr. Pepper plant on Mockingbird was shut down shortly after the company was bought by what is now Dr. Pepper/Snapple/Cadbury, with lots of promises to renovate the historic landmark as a shopping mall or other general attraction. Those promises were lies, and the building was demolished in 1997. (I’d make all sorts of snide and perfectly accurate comments about the apartment building that went up in its place, but that always leads to at least one SMU brat crying about how mocking rich cokeheads, particularly with words of more than one syllable, is “class warfare”.) Long before then, the recipe changed from using actual cane sugar to the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup, with a corresponding loss of flavor.

Six years ago, the Czarina’s family and I made a summer vacation trip to Banff, Alberta, and everyone was shocked at how good Dr. Pepper tasted in Canada. I explained that it was because it was bottled in Canada, a country that neither subsidized its corn industry nor tried to embargo Cuba. The vast majority of the supply of this ambrosia in the US uses the loathed HFCS, but the tiny town of Dublin, Texas was allowed to sell Dr. Pepper with real Imperial cane sugar. It shouldn’t be any surprise that locals and visitors, given a taste test, were willing to pay premium prices for Dublin Dr. Pepper, and it should be even less of one that we addicts were willing to travel to get our hits. For one niece of mine, she forswore most birthday presents so long as we showed up with a six-pack of Dublin Dr. Pepper, in glass bottles, so she could ration it out while back in college.

And how does this involve a horticultural blog? Well, aside from the Texas history, it came down to a personal issue. Considering extensive and deep budget cuts to Texas schools and libraries, I understand all too well that lecturer speaker fees take money from already nearly nonexistent budgets, and I’d rather have that speaking money go into books, supplies, and teacher goodwill. Hence, when it comes to public schools and libraries in the North Texas area, my speaking fee for Triffid Ranch lectures was always the same: one bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper, preferably cold. It’s not quite on a par with Iggy Pop and the Stooges’s concert rider, but I like to think that I’m paying back just a little bit for the terror I inflicted when I was a student.

That was then. With the announcement that the Dublin bottler is shut down, with the corresponding loss of jobs to the Dublin area, I’m not just cutting out Dr. Pepper consumption in general. I have to find a new currency for school lectures. I’d go back to an old friend but the Eighties, but Jolt Cola is now made with HFCS instead of cane sugar, so what’s the point?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

As far as the Czarina is concerned, Chinese New Year celebrations outshine those for the Gregorian New Year, so she’s making extensive plans for the upcoming holiday. I don’t give her any grief, considering my annual outpouring of ancestral patriotism, and instead just smile and nod. A second New Year celebration that incorporates parades, dancing, and Buddha’s Hand citrons? What sort of monster would I be to complain?

Of course, like a dying weasel, the previous year has to get in one or two more good bites before going back to Hell. Or, as the Czarina notes, “The Year of the Rabbit lives up to its name. Ever notice how, when you try to put a rabbit back in its hutch, it’ll always kick and claw you one last time before you let go?” The fun started on Saturday, when an old friend of ours announced that he was coming back to town, and that he was throwing a party way out in Waxahachie. Waxahachie is an old Comanche name for “What the hell are you doing out there?”, so I fueled up the car, stocked up on food and drink (mostly for the party, but I wanted at least a little something for myself), and moseyed down the road a spell. About a mile away, the timing belt on the car decided to give up its life in sacrifice to the Lords of Chaos, leaving me stuck in the middle of long-dried Cretaceous seabed. At about midnight.

Oh, and did I mention that the Czarina was stuck at home with a bad bout of the flu?

If years and years of moviewatching actually did some good, it was in teaching me the importance of “never get out of the boat.” I knew better than to wander around in the dark instead of staying with my vehicle. Worse, one of the ranches down the road actually has castle towers out in front, and I already knew how that would turn out. I can’t sing, I look terrible in fishnet stockings, and honestly, Tim Curry doesn’t do anything for me. Suffice to say, the adventure actually started when the tow truck arrived, and I had the singular pleasure of hanging out with one of the flat-out funniest tow truck drivers I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve known some wits of the highway in my time. (As a recommendation, should you be stuck anywhere south to southwest of Dallas, I can’t give the guys at 3D Towing in Midlothian a high enough compliment. Fast, competent, honest, and exceedingly friendly on a Saturday night, and that’s hard enough to find anywhere.)

As of this moment, the car is locked up for repairs, including a replacement timing belt and a new radiator. Considering what I paid in repairs on my old car circa 2002, I’m not complaining, but let’s just say that I’ll be doing a few more plant shows this year to replace the chunk of liver and lights that this took out.

And then there’s the saga of the tree. Last summer’s insane drought was rough on most of Texas’s trees, but it demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of some introduced species. One of the big silverleaf maples in our back yard had been there since the house was built, and survived the droughts of 1980 and 2006 with aplomb. The one-two strike of our bad freeze in February and the drought all summer, though, stretched it beyond its tolerance, and it finally gave up sometime in September. And so it goes. I suspect that the woodpeckers are going to miss it more than I will, but there’s still something sad and diminishing about seeing what seemed to be such a gigantic tree cut up into lengths and stacked at the edge of the front yard, and the stack isn’t even chest-high. Better there, though, than landing atop the garage in our next big snowstorm.

Well, as another booster of local delights used to say, “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Here’s hoping that the Czarina is right and the new year really starts the week after next, because I’m looking forward to turning the Year of the Rabbit into hasenpfeffer.

Have a Great Weekend

Have a Great Weekend

Your choice: the official video on a really old VHS dub:

Or the single:

Either way, Bad News taught Spinal Tap everything they know.

“The holiday horror…the horror…”

For those who haven’t met Mary of Black Walnut Dispatch in your forays across botanical cyberspace, I regret that she isn’t my little sister. Anyone with as much of an appreciation for unmutilated crepe myrtles as she deserves an emergency adoption, and that goes double for discovering the world’s most Lovecraftian Osage orange tree.

Anyway, Mary recently posted her list of TOP TEN GARDENING GIFTS FROM HELL, and I can quibble about only one of these. I happen to be one of the few people on the planet who likes aerator sandals, but not for the stated reasons. Besides having some positive results with controlling June bug grubs, I keep my sandals as a promise to several editors and publishers from my entertainment media days. I swore a long time ago that if their faces caught fire, I’d only stomp out the flames with these sandals, after guaranteeing that the spikes were sufficiently rusty. Other than that, though, she’s right about everything else, particularly those horrible seed bomb bon-bons. Speaking as someone whose spouse and Day Job boss are dedicated chocovores, these are just cruel.

The funny thing about all of this is I’m not worried for about gifts for myself. After all, I’ve already let the Czarina know my very reasonable demands for gardening bliss, and I know she has alternatives if she can’t follow through. (She keeps mumbling in her sleep “A swift kick in the butt doesn’t even need to be wrapped,” and I suspect this is some arcane code for “Paul’s crocodile monitor is on its way”.) I just wonder, considering how insane everyone gets over outre gnome and zombie statuary, if an online catalog for gonzo gardening supplies and decorations isn’t in order. That and a couple of big shows for the horticulturally inclined: referring to it as the “Manchester United Flower Show”, so as to distinguish it from its competition, should work, shouldn’t it?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In the incessant kvetching about Dallas weather, I should bring up that we have a phrase for it: “If you don’t like it, hang around for ten minutes and it’ll change.” Last week? Subfreezing temperatures. This week? Rain and highs more suitable for Miami. I don’t recommend North Texas for anyone with respiratory issues such as a proclivity toward pneumonia, because if the pollen doesn’t kill you, the wild fluctuations in ambient temperatures will shiv you in the bathtub and watch you die.

That’s what hit Friday morning: sore throat, voice like a five-pack-a-day cigar smoker, and just enough of a fever to bring on some particularly interesting auditory hallucinations. Either that, or the cats really did learn how to talk. All I can say for sure is that I woke up late on Friday afternoon, fever burned out, and I did what any sane person would do. I started to clean the house.

Before I start into the details, consider the warring factions in my psyche that I inherited from both sides of my family. As mentioned previously, my father’s Scot heritage generally manifests itself as a thriftiness and frugality that comes dangerously close to packrat tendencies. Oh, who am I kidding? My sister constantly and bitterly complains about the two-seat hovercraft my dad bought at a police auction in the Nineties, and I refuse to get involved, partly because it’s none of my business and partly because I would have done the same thing. My mother, though, manifests her Irish/German/Cherokee heritage through control of her surroundings that pushes minimalism. The worst fight I ever saw them get into involved her donating his high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill, only some quarter-century later. What this means is that all of their kids collect…and collate…and make plans only to get delayed…and then BOOM!

(I’d like to note for the record that if I thought there was a market for it, I’d market a proposal for a comic book miniseries involving a nice Dunwich boy who married a nice Innsmouth girl, and the exploits of their adult children. It would be a combination of horror and comedy, and completely autobiographical.)

Anyway, one of the sore points in the house as of late was the office. When we moved in the spring of 2010, we were already horribly behind on getting ready for the move for various reasons, and I horribly underestimated exactly how many books I had in the library. Ever get that sick feeling when starting what should be a ten-minute chore that stretches into hours and days? By the end of May, that was my basic state of being. Get up, go to the Day Job, go home, pack, haul another truckload over to the new house, go to sleep, get up another four hours later…and all of this on top of getting ready for our big show of the year. After a while, you stop worrying about deciding where everything is supposed to go, and you focus on just getting it into boxes. Those then go into a back corner of a room somewhere until you can deal with them, which you never do because you’re too busy dealing with everything else that needs to be done during a normal workweek and weekend. I’d plan vacation time after Christmas to dig into it, and the Czarina would have her post-Christmas meltdown and decree that we were leaving town for our anniversary. Combine that with our mutual book addictions and the number of friends and bystanders who’d send odd plant- or dinosaur-related items that would go atop the pile, and it’s no surprise that witnesses would ask “Are you SURE that Hunter S. Thompson is dead? It looks like he’s been camping out here for the last month.”

"The back-alley ambiance was so foul, so incredibly rotten."

That last comment particularly hurts when your 11-year-old niece says it. Just saying.

I’d already planned to take the week after Christmas off and do nothing but focus on the mess. This included threatening the Czarina that if we went anywhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I’d tell the investigating detective “I didn’t defenestrate her, sir. I just threw her out a window.” Well, that’s what I told myself: one view of her rapier-sharp elbows and the word “please” was used quite often, and not just as part of the phrase “please don’t kill me”. However, something about reaching the terminal stage of Dutch Elm Blight made my mother’s heritage grab my father’s in a rather rude place and scream “Shove off,” and I started pulling stacked books off the shelves and alphabetizing them where they belonged. And filling boxes full of obsolte gardening catalogs for recycling. And tearing through an already-impressive magazine collection and deciding what I’d keep and what was going to Half Price Books.

One of the nice things about having a very comfortable relationship with the Czarina is that I can drop all sorts of worrisome comments and she doesn’t kill me where I stand. For instance, last week, I finally admitted to her that after book tour events in 2009 and 2010, I slept with a fan immediately afterwards, and she beat me to saying “And you were already married to her, weren’t you?” This way, when she came home on Friday evening and the first words out of my mouth were “It’s not what it looks like,” she just blinked at the piles of boxes and magazines and blinked instead of preparing to show me my own gall bladder. Then she looked at the office and screamed. Even better, it was a good scream.

And so it continues. The gardening magazine sale at Half Price brought in enough money that I could get her another Christmas present. I’ve cracked open and discarded boxes that I’ve been dragging around, still sealed in packing tape, since 1996. I now understand why so many dedicated bibliophiles now have PDAs or smartphone apps that track all of their books, because I discovered a good two dozen that I’d repurchased at least once because I couldn’t remember if I already had it. (These will be up for an upcoming Joey Box giveaway after the holidays. I promise.) The Czarina dances through the house, giggling about how she expected to find me dead in a crapalanche by now, and I just tell her that with the change in my pockets, I’m still worth more dead than alive. Best of all, remember my mentioning the odd dinosaur-related stuff received from friends and cohorts? We found a home for one of the biggest pieces.

First, a bit of preamble. The Czarina and I have been friends of Mel Hynes, the writer of the classic Webcomic Two Lumps, for nearly a decade, and Mel has a habit of surprising friends with really odd acquisitions that she finds via eBay. One day, she called and asked us to meet her at her apartment, because she’d found “the absolute perfect Christmas present for Paul.” I loved it, but the Czarina just looked sick and asked Mel “And what did I do to you?”

Part of the Czarina’s concern was that we really didn’t have a place to display it. It couldn’t go over the mantelpiece because of a beautiful glass display given to her by a mutual friend, and she was insistent that it didn’t need to go up in the living room. It then sat in my old office for the next five years, and it went into the back closet of the new office when we moved in. The Czarina kept making noises about putting it in the garage, but that required risking massive catastrophic crapalanches to get to it. Now, with the extensive bulldozing and palaeoarchaeological expedition going on, one path leading to bedrock gave me strength, and it came out. And when you see where it went, blame the Czarina for it.

Damocles the Nanotyrannus

Yes, this is a life-sized Nanotyrannus bust. Yes, this is in my bathroom. Directly over the toilet, in fact. I call him “Damocles”. This is a friendly warning: if I could do this much with a bout of Dutch Elm Blight, you’d best pray I never get smallpox.

Dream of the Blue Orchids

After hearing for months about the new Blue Mystique Phalaenopsis orchids and the outrage over the lack of permanence of said color, I’ll finally say it. Talk about a tempest in a shot glass.

Blue Mystique orchids

As most of the kvetching and moaning discusses, these aren’t marvels of breeding or gene manipulation, comparable to the black orchid or the elusive blue daylily. Instead, the Blue Mystique is a standard white Phalaenopsis orchid treated with a “special process” that leaves its blooms stained blue. This process only stains existing flowers and buds, so when that phal blooms next year, the blooms will be a standard white. Other than that, according to the promotional literature, this treatment doesn’t affect the plant itself in any way.

More Blue Mystique orchids

Personally, I don’t see the inherent issue with the “Blue Mystique” orchids. I guess some people are so obsessed with blue flora that they have no problems with blooms that look like they belong in the Ty-D-Bowl Man‘s girlfriend’s wedding corsage. At the same time, white phal orchids are about as good a beginner orchid as you can find. But are you willing to pay that much extra for a beginner orchid with a major selling point that’s temporary?

Have A Great Weekend

And for all of the retail drones out there having “Santa Baby” and other obnoxious holiday tunes shoved up their noses for the next 29 days, the only obligatory shopping season music that’s endorsed by the Triffid Ranch:

Curse of the Frugal

As mentioned in the past, at times, my paternal Scot ancestry and the habits associated with it are a curse. An absolute curse. I don’t mean just in the traditional ways, such as competing within the family to see who could knit the longest Tom Baker scarf with one’s nose hair over the winter. (We Riddells not only beat out everyone else in the vicinity on this, but also being able to knit whole tocques from a single eyebrow hair. See, there’s cold, there’s COLD, and there’s “preparing for life in Canada”.) I mean as in coming up with ideas to use available resources that come off as just crazy.

By way of example, this year set off combat shock in almost everyone involved in horticulture in Texas. The summer finished the job started by the particularly long and brutal sub-freezing snap back last February, and we’re now chopping and sawing and pruning the trees that didn’t make it. This also means that a lot of enterprising individuals are out picking through the spoils piles for wood. With dead pecan and mesquite trees, this means smoking wood for grilles and commercial smokers. For everything else, it’s firewood in anticipation of another bad winter. Texas generally doesn’t have weather that justifies stocking up on firewood, or even using a fireplace for more than a few days out of the year. After this last February, though, I don’t blame anybody a bit.

ER doctors and nurses regularly relate how so many of their most interesting cases involve someone telling them “There I was, minding my own business, when Some Guy came up and shot/stabbed/sodomized/defenestrated me for no reason whatsoever.” Well, there I was, biking to the Day job, minding my own business, when Some Guy threw a particularly vicious idea into my head. No provocation or anything. That idea was “You know, what’s to keep you from using this bounty to heat your plants this season?” And one thousand years of ancestral Riddells, from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, stood up and screamed “HURRAH!”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Czarina wasn’t there to save me from myself. Besides, give her an engineering problem, and she’ll spend the next six months researching every possibility and offering a plan that’s both cheaper and more efficient than anything I could come up with. Not that I’m complaining about this, but then she kvetches about how this took time away from jewelry design.

I’ll also note that using available biomass for greenhouse heating isn’t new, and the wonderful folks at FarmTek have a lot of commercial biomass heating solutions available for consideration. I’ve also been drooling over FarmTek’s radiant floor heating systems, too. The problem with having a very small nursery is that these solutions really aren’t all that practical, especially when most of my issues can be handled with a much smaller option.

The idea kept eating at me, though, and I started researching what the Victorians did to keep small greenhouses warm during bad English winters. That led me to reports of people using converted Franklin stoves with water boilers for supplemental greenhouse heating, and from there to the Good Time Stove Company, and its collection of refitted and repaired gas, wood, coal, and electric stoves.

Oh, my. Who else wants a steampunk nuclear weapon?

This is an idea that may have to sit for a while, at least until the Triffid Ranch gets a new greenhouse solely for tropical plants. Several friends with expertise in wood-burning heating point out that the worst thing about going with wood in severely cold weather is the “one a.m. feeding”, but I’m also glad to note that our current climate means that nights like those are rare. Now, cooling a large greenhouse is a bigger issue, and one that requires a more high-tech solution for Texas summers. And so it goes.

“Poised, Keep Cutting Away”

Ken Thompson at the Telegraph recently wrote a column that hit a personal spot of white-hot rage in my heart: the constant portrayal of gardeners, horticulturalists, and botanists in fiction as dull and dowdy. Naturally, he’s absolutely right: even with the ones intended to be interesting, most characters with a passion for plants have other major failings. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may have a brilliant detective mind, but she presents herself as a batty old woman much more interested in fussing over the garden and knitting. Nero Wolfe may be both a genius detective and an orchid fanatic, but he’s also a neurotic agorophobe who only leaves his townhouse when absolutely unavoidable. Freeman Lowell is insane, Edward Scissorhands is socially retarded, Tom and Barbara Good are summed up with a very evocative speech by Adrian Edmondson, and the less said about American botany student Perpugilliam Brown, the better. The only even remotely exciting horticulturalist in fiction in the last century? Well, I’m biased, but I’d have to say Bill Masen, for obvious reasons.

The reality is that Mr. Thompson is angry about this cliche, and for the right reasons. Anyone who thinks gardeners and botanists are a tweedy lot obviously hasn’t known a lot of them. Yeah, we’re obsessive and sometimes a bit scary, but I like to think in a good way. I just like to tell people about famed botanist W.D. Brackenridge, the first botanist to describe the cobra plant Darlingtonia. The story has it that he found himself in the area around Mount Shasta, California, chased by very hostile natives with an armful of Darlingtonia specimens, noting while running for his life that butterflies were very interested in the pitchers’ distinctive tongue. And let’s not forget John Gould Veitch: this guy was willing to take on samurai for his plants. Non-plant people might think carnivorous plant expert Stewart McPherson‘s obsession with tracking and photographing carnivores in the wild to be dangerous and risky, but there’s not one of us in the field who, if we got a call to accompany him on a new expedition, who’d say “Sorry, but I have to stay home and prune the roses.”

As a final note, think gardeners are dowdy and dull? Share the news that the US Air Force is open to bids on energy weapons for weed control. Just look at it at face value: energy weapons for weed control. Picture your next-door neighbor with a phase plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, and now picture the demented rictus of glee on her face as she sends hackberry seedlings and nutsedge back to Hell. You’ll never again wonder what she’s doing with that Garden Weasel, because she’ll probably go Akira Kurosawa on your liver if you give her any grief.

What has to aggravate Mr. Thompson and myself the most isn’t just that this perception continues. It’s that this affects not just the general public’s perception of gardening, but the perception by businesses that would sell to us. Science fiction enthusiasts rightly get bent out of shape over the presentation of Cat Piss Man as the archetype for science fiction fandom, but what do gardeners get? The assumption that nobody under the age of 60, unless s/he’s severely broken in some way, has any interest in gardening, so (with one very prominent exception) there’s no need to try to sell to anyone else. Walk into a garden center with a leather jacket or motorcycle boots, and the staff will tell you the restroom is in back and the other customers will tell you to put their purchases in the backs of their cars. (I say this from experience, and I even had one woman at North Haven Gardens in Dallas blow up on me when I told her that I didn’t work there, as if that was my fault.) While the gardening trade makes lots of noise about getting younger gardeners into the hobby, it’s still pushing books, magazines, and supplies almost exclusively to the septugenarians, even as I’m seeing more reptile and amphibian enthusiasts getting into horticulture by way of raising live bromeliads and ficus trees for arrow poison frogs and chameleons. The market is out there, and it’s as far away from the popular media cliche of the gardener as you can imagine.

Even better, it may now be time to push a bit harder and follow another respected English tradition. Not only do I figure that gardening needs a bit of a perceptual revolution, but it needs a full shakeout and the opportunity to go in strange and wonderful directions. I’m still collecting ideas and possibilities on where to go (I keep joking about starting a gonzo garden show called the “Arsenal Flower Show”), but it’s time to build a brand new Bromley Contingent for the botanically inclined. And what else did you expect from someone whose favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

It’s been a rough week at the Day Job, and tonight will be dedicated to roasting up pumpkin seeds collected from highly discounted Jack-o-Lanterns left over from Halloween. (The secret to successful collection and roasting will be shared soon enough, but let’s just say it involves gloves, a very sharp machete, and the phrase the doctor used when I got my vasectomy a few years back: “Hassan…CHOP!”) In the meantime, consider an example of priorities. Let’s say that you had access to cheap and effective time travel, where you could travel to any time in the past or future and return home without worrying about paradoxes or the Morphail Effect. Say that you had a week, subjective time, in your chosen chronal journey, and you could return a second after you left. Where would you go?

Okay, the rest of you can go catch Woodstock and try to stop whoever it was who framed Lee Harvey Oswald. Me, I’m going back about 50 million years ago. I understand that the Gamburtsev Mountains of Antarctica were pretty impressive about then, and I think I need a weeklong vacation in a good forest full of Wollemi pines.

A little foggy

As usual, the Czarina is overachieving, so she’s laid down the law concerning the upcoming holidays. Since we have Christmas and our ninth wedding anniversary coming within days of each other, she’s already making plans for giftgiving, not just for me but for the entire family, and she will not be stopped. The time between now and January isn’t a holiday: for her, it’s a military campaign. I just warn friends not to use the obvious Jack Kirby reference, because even though the comparison fits, as does the physical and temperamental resemblance, she really, really hates being called “Big Barda“. (Keeping up the geeky analogy, have pity for her. She’s obviously married to Ambush Bug.)

Because she’s so determined this year, the edict has come down from the mountaintop: a minimum of presents this year. It’s not necessarily due to finances, but because she has major issues with my getting her things that are interesting but not as functional as she’d like. Last August, for instance, I bought her a Fresnel lens for her birthday, which was much appreciated but not quite as useful as she thought…at least, without a big stand on which to focus it as a solar forge. Instead, she wants to take care of things that we really need. Since I fear her sharp and terrible elbows, I comply.

The problem is that most of my present wishes are inordinately practical, too. We’ve both been running our own businesses for too long: we look at the usual lovey items that married couples get each other, and snort “That’s okay, but what I really want is something that does something.” In her case, that’s relatively easy, because there’s always a surfeit of interesting stonecarving and stoneshaping gear out there. In my case, though, either my ambitions are a bit too expensive (a new greenhouse) or too esoteric (a full sterile tissue propagation facility). I have plans, but they require lots of planning.

And this is where Loch Ness Water Gardens comes in. I’d already been complaining about the lousy lack of humidity this summer and fall (one day, 80 percent relative humidity, and the next, down to 9), and misters simply weren’t cutting it. I’d been poking around for a while for commercial fog humidifiers, but most either had inadequate reservoirs or were too big for an operation like mine. More importantly, they didn’t have style. Worse, I’d found a few ultrasonic misters on the market, but they were mostly designed for reptile care. They were great for chameleon enclosures, but they wouldn’t cut it in a greenhouse.

I just recently came across the crew at Loch Ness Water Gardens via Twitter, and was already impressed with the company’s sense of humor. A quick peek through its offerings, though, and I was hooked. I didn’t know that ultrasonic foggers had improved to the point where they were available for pond applications, and discovering the five-disk pond fogger…well, that’s that.

Mind you, this won’t replace plans for a full evaporative cooling system further down the road. This will, though, keep things nice and sultry for when the temperatures aren’t quite as high, especially at night. Put this inside a good 100-gallon Rubbermaid livestock tank, switch out the LEDs in this with UV and deep green LEDs, and it’ll be the creepiest little greenhouse in Texas.

And just to finish the story, the Czarina already passed on what she wants for the holidays, and I’ll have a full month to mess with her head in the meantime. This is going to be too much fun.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In loving memory of the late Nigel Tufnel, here’s the best song on geology ever written.

Personally, I don’t worry about poor Nigel. He’s probably currently holed up in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming. Days filled with visiting the small-arms range with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, ultralight flying with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan (with Randy Rhoads in the control tower and Rick Nelson as flight crew), charm school classes with Sid Vicious and GG Allin; and let’s not forget those barbershop quartet sessions with Jimi Hendrix, Joey Ramone, and Andy Gibb. And then there’s his daily pantsing of his roommate from Memphis…

Introducing Maclura pomifera

Between the end of August and the beginning of December, I get the occasional query at the Day Job and elsewhere about “brainfruit”. Along the sides of roads, in the middle of parks, and across vacant lots, these strange green pods appear, sometimes dropping down into traffic. They generally range about the size of a softball, with fine crinkles and whorls across its surface. Even the ones hitting pavement usually roll away with little to no damage, and they generally sit for a time until wet and cold set off rot.

Osage orange

Look up at the right time, and be prepared to duck. The tree can sometimes grow to as much as 60 feet (18.28 meters) tall, but it usually remains shrubby throughout North Texas. It can be found in individual clumps of junk trees, full brush, and even as isolated trees in the middle of nowhere. The amazing thing about the tree is how well it blends in with everything else until it bears fruit: mixed in with a copse of hackberry trees, and it blends in perfectly for most of the year. See one with fruit, though, and everyone pays attention.

Osage orange bunch

This is most peoples’ first encounter with Maclura pomifera, known commonly by such names as “Osage orange,” “horse apple,” “hedge tree,” or “Bodark”. It’s a remarkably common tree throughout North Texas, and not just because it’s a native. While mostly forgotten today, M. pomifera used to be a valuable tree, both ecologically and economically speaking.

Before anyone asks, the fruit itself is inedible to humans: cut one open, and it’s full of fibrous pulp and seeds that resemble elongated cantaloupe seeds. They aren’t a particular choice of most animals today, either, regardless of the “horse apple” common name. However, based on dung samples, M. pomifera fruit used to be quite the treat for Columbian mammoths and ground sloths during the last ice age. Both would mash up the fruit, swallowing the seeds and passing them in their dung, thereby protecting them from squirrels, mice, and other possible consumers. Today, without the benefit of Pleistocene megafauna, those fruit either rot on the ground or are torn up by squirrels for the seeds, and treerat predation helps explain why the trees died back from their original range across most of North America to their last holdouts in Texas and Oklahoma by the time of the first European colonization of the continent.

If not for human intervention, M. pomifera might have faced the same crisis as the Wollemi pine. However, the various indigenous tribes through its range noted that its wood is remarkably rot-resistant. The wood is also both an attractive yellow-orange and incredibly tough, thus making it a desirable tree for woodworkers patient enough to shape it without wearing out their tools in the process. Fence posts, pilings, bowls and cups…I even have a pen given to me by the Czarina made from turned Osage orange, and it’s the most comfortable pen I’ve ever owned. The combination of strength and flexibility made it an excellent wood for bowstaves, and the original French name, “bois d’arc,” was rapidly corrupted into “bodark”.

Osage orange thorns

The common nicknames “hedge tree” and “hedge apple” come from a more recent use. Before the invention of barbed wire, nurseries grew Osage oranges for hedges around farms. As the picture above shows, M. pomifera puts out nasty thorns much like those on citrus, with much the same effect on anything trying to pass through a stand of them. (Also like citrus, the thorn points tend to break off in wounds, so should you find yourself punctured by one, make absolutely sure to get out that tip from the wound before it festers.) The standard mnemonic for planting them was “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” referring to letting them grow high enough to keep horses from jumping them, strong enough that a bull couldn’t shove its way through, and close enough together that pigs couldn’t squeeze through. Obviously, the popularization of barbed wire spread well beyond the open prairie, but Osage orange posts continued to be used, and the trees themselves found themselves going feral in most of their old pre-Holocene territory.

As to what to do with the fruit? This time of the year, plenty of well-meaning Osage orange fans relate how keeping the fruit inside houses and garages keeps cockroaches and other insects away. As someone who has watched big local palmetto bugs feeding on rotting Osage oranges, I call shenanigans, and I’d never even consider using them to drive off spiders or scorpions in any way other than with a good fastball. Should you want to encourage squirrels and chipmunks in your back yard, a couple tossed out every week offer hours of entertainment, and they also make great bait for those who want to exterminate the little vermin. And then there’s the obvious use: spread them out in the front yard when out-of-town relatives arrive, and tell them that Texas has a tradition similar to the Easter Bunny involving the “Thanksgiving Armadillo”. That’s the best use yet.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Autumn Edition

Most people don’t think of North Texas as a place running rampant with autumn color. We definitely don’t have anything to compare with the fiery sugar maples of Vermont or the canary ginkgos of Oregon, but we get a lot of interesting pastels. Get up high, as in the top floor of an office building or landing at DFW Airport, and you might be surprised at how much color other than “brown and dead” we get that isn’t easily visible from the ground.

Every once in a while, though, the place will surprise you. Halloween 1993 came in with record subfreezing temperatures, so we learned how many of our indigenous trees change color if given the opportunity. Crape myrtles, for instance, shift to a brilliant Tyrolean purple when hit with a good stout freeze before the leaves fall for the season. In tough years, though, sometimes the beauty can stun you, especially if you get up before dawn to look at the area first thing in the morning.

Texas-style autumn color

This, by the way, was taken from right on the border of Garland (yes, the Garland, Texas mocked at the beginning of the movie Zombieland) and Richardson, right on the edge of one of Garland’s many parks. Between the autumn foliage and the occasional armadillo scampering toward the woods, it’s sometimes worth the effort to get up early.

Closeup of autumn color

“Today on Handyman’s Corner…”

Things are getting interesting at the Triffid Ranch, so apologies for a lack of immediate updates. The Czarina and I are switching out computers (gently used PC so she can do bookkeeping, gently used Macintosh for me for several upcoming projects), so our evenings are punctuated with screams of triumph, rage, and exultation, often all at once. People listening to the racket outside would have every reason to believe we aren’t married.

Between this and our current run of late-season thunderstorms, things have fallen behind. I still haven’t had the chance to relate the story of Frank Garza of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs in Cleburne (although I will say that they’re the best hot dogs I’ve had since I left Chicago 32 years ago) or the final assessment on last weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science last weekend, but the’re on the way.

Anyway. Several friends (including the Dallas music legend Barry Kooda) are regular enthusiasts of the various local and statewide auction houses and excess inventory sales going on through the area, and these can be dangerous. This isn’t just because you can find yourself almost literally drowning in “great deals”. It’s because the ideas that come with them are so crazy that they almost make sense, and crazy ideas with logic behind them make the baby Czarina cry.

For instance, as related far too often in the past, this last summer was the worst in Texas history, both in temperature and in duration. In the process, I lost several plants that I’d had for years, mostly due to our record highs in low temperatures. Many carnivores, such as the cobra plants of Oregon (Darlingtonia) and the sun pitchers (Heliamphora) of South America need a significant temperature drop between day and night during their growing seasons, and that just isn’t possible through July and August without technological assistance. I won’t even start on trying to control humidity as well, because that story is getting really boring.

I was already working on possible solutions, and ones that wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of power or maintenance, when I went poking on Lone Star Online, a site specializing in auctioning off state and local government surplus. And there, there on the Group W bench, was a lot for two, count ’em, TWO Traulsen rotating food display cases. With a current bid of $75, no less.

Refrigerated case

One part of my brain knew exactly what was going to happen. Namely, I could hear the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheaths, drooling venom onto the floor as they prepared to wield sudden and bloody retribution for challenging her reign. Even if I argued “It’d stay in the garage! Honest!”, the cries of triumph and horror coming from the front of the house would be drastically different in tone, especially if they were followed with my sobbing. The other part, the part that always gets me into trouble, thought “Okay, it’s glass. It’s designed to keep up humidity so that pastries and other baked goods don’t go stale. If it can keep Key lime pie from turning into a dessicated mess, it would definitely work on keeping Darlingtonia and Heliamphora cool and humid. Now all I need to do is figure out how to upgrade the lights to high-intensity LED arrays to put out enough lumens to keep both plants happy…”

And this, friends, is why you never want to let your brain get you into trouble. It’s bad enough when I suggested to the Czarina that we could always buy a house with a pool so we could cover it with a pool enclosure and turn it into one giant greenhouse. She’s either going to scream in rage at my wanting to drive down to Austin to pick up a rotating pie and cake display case, or she’s just going to sigh in exasperation and tell her mother about it. Then I get two pairs of elbows coming at my already-compromised cranium.

For the record, I have no intention of driving down to Austin for these. I’m just going to keep an eye open for a local restaurant closing, and snag one then. Now all I need is a Possum Van to carry it home.

Discovery Days: Day Two

I’ll have pictures from this weekend’s Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters event at the Museum of Nature & Science after we’re done, but now it’s time to go back. Saturday’s crowd was extremely impressive, with a lot of kids stopping by on their way to see the mineral or light exhibits, and a lot of parents coming back after taking their very young kids to see the Bob the Builder Project: Build It! exhibit. (The only issue so far, and it’s really minor, is that the Triffid Ranch booth is right next to a big Bob the Builder display, with a motion sensor that makes Bob utter three inspiring messages when people walk by. The motion sensor was apparently damaged a while back by well-meaning kids walking on the display, so Bob goes off randomly, all day long. In other words, he’s just like me. Interestingly, a few buzzes with my scorpion detector, brought specifically to light up plant structures with UV, and Bob quiets down for a while.) Either way, everybody’s having a blast.

Although this has been like a typical show, where I’ve rarely left the booth, this encourages me to do more reptile shows. In particular, the turtle exhibit on the ground floor is full of the expected wonders, including softshell turtles and a huge Sulcata tortoise that begs for romaine lettuce. I won’t be ready for a big show right away, such as next February’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference show in Arlington, but I’m definitely getting lined up for the 2013 show. In the meantime, if the folks at the Museum want me to come back next year, or to participate in any of the Beer & Bones evening shows for adults, I’d have to be an idiot to say “no”.

Have a Great Weekend

A double feature, in commemoration of my first discovering this crew fifteen years ago this week:

The horror, the horror…

Lots of hyping of this weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park in this blog’s future, and I hope everyone can deal with it until after the show is over. In the interim, here’s something to give you an idea of what to expect. Last May, the exemplary local photojournalist Mike Kinney came out from our CBS affiliate to shoot some video, and this is what he got for his trouble.

And before anybody says anything, I know, I know: I have a voice that Fran Drescher finds nasal and annoying. I’m trying to rectify that, with an ice pick if necessary. However, considering that I’m also one of the few people on the planet whose driver’s license photo is preferable to real life, I chalk up the voice as yet another one of my character flaws. On the bright side, though, this is yet another bit of news reportage that states my name without starting with the words “convicted chainsaw murderer and cannibal” and ending with “…before being taken down by police snipers.” This annoys my sister to no end, and I plan to keep doing so for years and years.

Peppers so hot, they’ll give you superpowers

Even with the abysmal summer, one of the experimental successes this year was with moving beyond carnivorous plants and into Capsicum peppers as container plants. Specifically, thanks to the wonderful folks at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, I had a lot of experimental material. The heat and savage dryness managed to kill off some of the more promising plants early on, but you should see them exploding now that the heat has let off.

Now, I could tell you that the expansion includes crashing the 21st International Pepper Conference, scheduled for a year from this weekend. This depends upon how well I recuperate from the International Carnivorous Plant Conference next August. Instead, I’ll just relate that next spring, it’s time to try some more of the Institute’s specialty peppers under Texas conditions. As it is, I can’t recommend the NuMex “Halloween” cultivar highly enough, even if my plants never had the chance to bear fruit this year. The innumerable violet blooms were worth it.

Events past and present

Now that the Halloween insanity is over, you’d think that gardening season joins it. It may for those in northeast North America (my friend Joey Shea just sent me a picture of a little girl with a jack-o’-lantern atop a snowman, thereby setting the stage for The Nightmare Before Christmas 2: Oogie Boogie Strikes Back), but we’re still good for another four to eight weeks. Heck, now’s the time to get prepared for next spring, and I’ve already had my next-door neighbor give me some really odd looks upon watching me throw purloined bags of grass cuttings over my back fence. I tell him “it’s for the Czarina’s tomatoes next year,” but I don’t think he believes me.

Now’s also when lecture season really kicks in, before all of the temperate carnivores go into winter dormancy and the tropical ones need to move indoors. I’ve done a lot of talks and lectures in the last few years, but I have to say that last Thursday’s talk at the Episcopal School of Dallas had to have been one of the best of the lot. The only thing better than showing off carnivores to a gaggle of extremely curious and exceptionally intelligent kids is discovering that most had already been taking Latin, so they understood exactly why I started lapsing into Linnean binomial nomenclature. When discussing the four different and very distantly related groups of plants commonly referred to as “pitcher plants”, that’s vital.

(Sadly, I had no pictures of the lecture, even though the Czarina brought out the camera. She got a bit involved with passing around plants, and I don’t blame her. She also got great enjoyment off watching the girls in the front of the lecture room wince and make “eww” noises when talking about sundew feeding habits, because they were listening to every last word. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear from a few of them in a few years, making serious contributions to natural history after being inspired by those sundews.)

The only problem with the ESD lecture was that it was far too short, which can be a problem when discussing the sheer variety of carnivorous plant habits, environments, and capture and digestion strategies. This weekend’s Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters event at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park should take care of that. Look for the Triffid Ranch table within the lofty environs therein on Saturday and Sunday until 5 in the afternoon, feel free to let your kids bring grown-ups, and don’t be afraid to let the grown-ups ask lots of questions. I’ll probably be mute by Sunday evening, but it should be a blast in the interim.

And speaking of the Nightmare Before Christmas motif, we’re now 25 days away from the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show, hosted by Friends of Fair Park. If things go quiet between now and then, it’s because I’ll be at work on Capsicum pepper bonsai and iTerrariums. Look at it as a live rendition of the Day of the Triffids Holiday Special, and come on out.

Post-Halloween gold

I’m the first one to agree that making up caramel-covered onions and giving them out to the local kids on Halloween is a cruel and horrible trick. However, I also have a slew of friends whose idea of a perfect Christmas Eve is to sit around the fire and eat chocolate-covered habanero peppers. (And thanks to Teresa Floyd for the tip.)

Have a Great Weekend

No sleep ’til Halloween

Just a tiny observation, based on a trip to the grocery store this morning. Back eighteen years ago, my friend Joey Shea kept calling and writing to tell me about a new movie coming out from Tim Burton that I simply had to see. I was still licking bus station toilets clean to get the taste of Batman out of my mouth (to this day, Batman, Girl, Interrupted, and Free Enterprise are my faithful reminders of why I’ll sooner put out lit cigarettes in my eyes than return to film criticism), but this being Joey, he’s rarely wrong when it comes to movies. Well, he hyped up Batman when we first met, but if you can’t forgive your friends, who can you forgive?

Naturally, the film in question was The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s hard to believe today, but that film at the time made lots of heads go explodey, if only because the monsters were the nominal good guys. It definitely made Disney execs at the time go berserk, and the film was the redheaded stepchild of the Disney empire for years. (Even today, I don’t expect to see Sally included with the Disney Princesses, much to the regret of several nieces.)

At the time, I walked out of the theater with only one particular beef about the whole film. Namely, at the end of the film, when Santa fixes the damage caused by Jack Skellington’s addition of Halloween horror to Christmas, you see all of the children given Jack’s special toys welcoming the traditional Christmas replacements. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t one kid, somewhere, screaming and howling at the top of her lungs as Santa tried to take back the one decent Christmas present she’d ever received. Over the years, as I shared this observation, friends and cohorts agreed, especially since most of us felt the same way. Those of a certain age may remember the parental scoffing and cries of outrage over Kenner putting out an Alien action figure during Christmas 1979, but kids LOVED that stuff. The parental cries over how children would be permanently damaged by playing with “inappropriate” toys were especially funny: we knew those kids, and they could already taste-test specific brands of paste.

One of my regular comments upon seeing the changes in the world since my youth is “I love living in the future.” One of the reasons I say this so often is seeing how readily we as a culture have gone back to the old days of mixing horror and joy in everyday life. For far too many of us, our role models for stable and loving marriages were Gomez and Morticia Addams. Nobody’s bothered by the Monster High toy line as an alternative to Barbie. With far too many friends, I could suggest an evening of watching Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and they’d sniff “I didn’t know you were into documentaries.” I LOVE it.

And what does all of this have to do with gardening? Well, I was one of those kids who would have been demanding that Jack Skellington be allowed to do another Christmas now and then. I’m a bit too old for toys, but plants are a good alternative. I’m thinking it may be time to get more people together who feel the same way, and plan a garden show the likes of which this planet has never seen.

Because I’m vindictive, that’s why

Many moons back, I used to write a gardening and horticulture blog over at LiveJournal. I had a lot of reasons for shutting it down, and one of the particulars involved advertising. Spam comments were relatively easy to fend off, although you had some really clueless types who’d actually write to me to complain about how I’d removed their advertising and then blocked their accounts or IP addresses. No, I got tired of people trying to use me as a forum for selling their own stuff, whether or not I actually approved of it. I don’t have any problems with passing on word about venues and events that deserve wider recognition, nor with reviewing items I’ve purchased because I think readers might have an interest. I just refuse to do so without admitting the source, buying the product in question, and letting everyone know what’s up and why. Thanks to the dubious influence of one Dallas writer notorious for throwing tantrums about getting review copies and other swag, and then throwing larger tantrums in print because he didn’t receive enough swag, I generally decline review copies in general. If I’m writing a negative review, it’s because my own money was involved.

This is why I had quite a bit of fun receiving this letter two weeks ago:

Good afternoon,

I am inquiring about contributing a guest post on
http://texastriffidranch.com/. The website looks very clean and
well structured, I have specifically chosen you to reach out to as I am
looking to submit a high quality, professionally written guest post article
to place on your site based around living in Texas.

In addition to providing free, high quality content to your site, we also
perform a social boost through providing Facebook likes, Re-tweets, Diggs
and more to the post URL. We provide each one of our guest posts a minimum
of 50 social votes (a $100 value) which will help bring more visitors to
your site via these social channels, as well as provide social signals to
the search engines. These votes not only give your website more visitors,
but more authority and ability to rank as well.

That being said, I am looking to contribute content at no cost to either of
us as the value-add here is pushing out intriguing and fresh content for
your website audience, search engine visibility and social reach as well.
In return for supplying the 100% unique content, images and the social
boost; all I would like in return is up to 2 links within the author bio of
the post.

I look forward to your response,

Thanks,
[Slick]
[slick]@GuestBloggingNetwork.com

Confidentiality Statement –
By engaging in conversation through e-mail with representatives from
GuestBloggingNetwork.com, you agree not to disclose any confidential
information in connection to all negotiations and/or discussions with
GuestBloggingNetwork.com, or its subsidiaries and partners, to any third
party without the prior written consent of GuestBloggingNetwork.com.
Confidential information includes but is not limited to client identity,
marketing plans, forecasts, marketing strategy, financial information,
trade secrets, marketing materials, or any other information exchanged in
all present or future dealings with GuestBloggingNetwork.com.

I didn’t respond for a bit. I wanted to see if this was a blanketbomb solicitation, or if someone was planning to follow up to see if I was going to bite. I wasn’t disappointed:

Hey there,

A few days ago I reached out and sent you an e-mail about possibly
submitting a guest post for placement on your website. I wanted to send a
follow up e-mail because I had not heard back from you after I originally
reached out about the guest posting opportunity.

Please respond as soon as possible and I can either send over a guest post
article for review or we can brainstorm some quality topic ideas you would
be willing to host on your site.

Thanks again for your time,

[Slick] {slick}@GuestBloggingNetwork.com

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I learned about Hamilton Nolan’s solicitation over at Gawker.com to post links to advertisers. You mean 43a pays bloggers for advertising link placement, and GuestBloggingNetwork only offers 50 social votes (whatever those are)? What a cheapskate! Who the hell do these guys think they’re running: a science fiction media site?

Very seriously, I know perfectly well that many bloggers, either inadvertently or wilfully ignorant of conflict-of-interest issues, take regular payments. I also know far too many “reviewers” who are so thrilled to get any attention at all that they’ll give ecstatic reviews to anything that comes to them. (During a short stint as an editor, a good friend pointed out that one of my book reviewers was plagiarizing reviews from other writers and printing them as hers. Apparently, that was the only way she could keep up with the number of books she was receiving for review, and it was all so she’d keep getting more. She was fired on the spot.) It’s just that I know that my good word is the only thing I have here, so the general policy will be to as up-front as possible. If I plug an event or activity by friends, that’s because they’re friends, not someone offering money or “access”. And blatant, shameless pay-for-play is best reserved for SMU football.

Things To Do In Fort Worth When You’re Dead

I keep telling people that any excuse to go to Fort Worth is a good one, and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is packed to the gills with them. Of particular note is the latest installment in its lecture series, featuring Andrea Wulf, the author of Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Naturally, I’ll be there if I have to walk: I’m very familiar with George and Martha Washington’s contributions to horticulture, and I bow to nobody in my admiration for Thomas Jefferson’s horticultural experiments, but now I want to know what the rest of the US’s presidents were up to. I mean, if Richard Nixon was growing opium poppies in the White House’s Rose Garden, that would explain so much…

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 7

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores.

If you’ve been keeping up with the series so far, you might think that I’d never recommend that anybody keep Venus flytraps. That’s not true in the slightest. I’d never recommend them to beginners, for the same exact reasons I’d never recommend green iguanas, Sulcata tortoises, or Nile monitors as pets for anybody who’s never kept reptiles before. Venus flytraps are just as fascinating as any other carnivorous plant, but they’re just so particular about their light, their moisture levels, their potting mix, and choice of prey. I don’t tell a beginner “No, you shouldn’t get a flytrap.” Instead, I point out the merits, note the limitations on care and husbandry, and gently note that I know of a couple of carnivores much better suited for someone who’s never worked with one before. That person usually goes home with a Drosera adelae, and when I see that person again, s/he’s moved to any number of exotic varieties, and then starts experimenting with flytraps.

Back about eight years ago, a very short-lived trend started with bulk carnivorous plant sales to home improvement centers, and I’m glad the collapse of the economy stopped it. At the time, several companies offered carnivores to Home Depot and Lowe’s in the famed cubes of death, but there was one assemblage that just chilled the blood of anybody who knew enough about carnivores to be dangerous. Heck, it even scared me. This was a three-pack sampler, almost always with a Venus flytrap, an adelae sundew, and a Darlingtonia cobra plant jammed together into a cube.

For those who don’t understand, let’s put it into pet terms. Picture walking into a Petco or a PetSmart and seeing a one-cubic-foot package that contained a puppy, a parrot, and a pacu. The only thing they have in common is that their names start with the letter “p”, and these death cube collections of carnivores weren’t much better. As explained before in this collection of essays, Venus flytraps need high humidity and high lighting, but also good air circulation. The adelae sundew gets by on more constrained air than flytraps, as well as much less light, and it doesn’t need a winter dormancy period. The cobra plant needs a winter dormancy period, but it’s native to mountain seeps fed by snowmelt; most botanists consider it an alpine plant, as it needs cool water for its roots and the distinctive drops in night-time temperatures generally found in high mountains. You couldn’t find three more dissimilar species of plant if you tried, and like the puppy/parrot/pacu death cube, you might have one survive for a few months before it finally gave up.

Even with species of carnivore that live in the flytrap’s native or introduced ranges, you’ll find that they don’t exactly live together together. In the wild, flytraps may be found with a few species of sundew, but while they grow in bogs, they prefer more drainage than Sarracenia pitcher plants. Depending upon the species, many Sarracenia have no problems with their roots sitting in water (the parrot pitcher Sarracenia psittacina actually thrives on being submerged for a time in spring and early summer, and its traps apparently adapted to catching aquatic insect and tadpole prey while dunked), which is something that will kill flytraps in a matter of days. Flytraps like their soil kept constantly moist, but they cannot handle being waterlogged. Try to keep a flytrap in the same planter that best suits a terrestrial bladderwort or a Sarracenia pitcher plant, and you’re going to have mush before long.

As always, there are alternatives. In a large bog garden, putting flytraps so they remain at least six inches (16.24 cm) above the general water level works well, and the bog soil can be shored up to keep it from washing down into the rest of the bog during rains. In a large planter, I’ve actually had good results with putting a plastic tube at least six inches wide into the planter so the end rests on the bottom, filling it full of flytrap planting mix (the usual “one part sphagnum moss to one part silica sand” mix), and planting the flytrap above the general soil level for the other plants. In smaller containers and pots, though? Keep it by itself, but if various sundews start sprouting around it, leave them be. They won’t necessarily hurt the flytrap, and they can always be separated during repotting when the flytrap goes dormant for the winter.

Next: Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Pumpkins scream in the dead of night

Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.

That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.

Have A Great Weekend

“We can’t stop here! This is wine country!”

Tonight’s Jam 4 Bats event in Cleburne is still going on, but Chicago hot dogs aren’t the only dining experience touched by the crew at Bat World Sanctuary. Might I direct your gaze toward the new Bat World wine selection, each featuring a Bat World adoptable orphan on the label? (I can’t drink, but two dear friends of mine are wine enthusiasts without being wine snobs. I think I know what I’m getting them for Christmas.)