Tag Archives: 2021

Have a Safe Weekend

After the last three weekends, it’s time to stay home for a little bit. The first Triffid Ranch Porch Sale of the season opens this Sunday at 10:00 out in front of the gallery, and I’ll keep the tent up until 4:00. See you then. (EDIT: due to particularly intense vaccine reactions, this Sunday’s Porch Sale has to be cancelled. The Manchester United Flower Show is still on in two weeks, though.)

“YES, WE’VE GOT A TWITCH CHANNEL!”

Welp, with help from Loyd Cryer of Texas Frightmare Weekend and his video assistants, we’re going to try again with the Thursday night videos on Twitch, tonight focusing on Sarracenia flava pitchers and flowers. (Just be glad that Smell-o-Vision isn’t practical for video feeds, because much like how wintergreen and birch bark smell the same, so do flava blooms and the long-defunct Dallas Fantasy Fairs. It ain’t pretty.) Video starts at 8:00 pm Central Time, and smartaleck comments are encouraged. And so it goes.

Contest: Win a Unique Triffid Ranch Enclosure For Your Workplace!

Okay, so things are gradually reopening through North Texas, both by choice and by necessity. Restaurants and bars closed for the last year are letting customers know that they’re open, limited occupation and otherwise. Meanwhile, the year-long experiment in working from home continues to evolve for many companies, with many preferring to keep offices closed permanently and others making plans to bring everyone back by the end of 2021. Vaccinations rates are up, people are much more optimistic about the end of the pandemic than they were six months ago, and stimulus checks are burning holes in peoples’ pockets. If the business of the United States is business, as the old saying goes, a lot of folks are getting off the couch, going through their work clothes, and setting alarm clocks.

In the process, the need for some green in the workplace never went away, but a lot of the plants did. Everyone in office environments has stories of coming back only to find long-dead flora that had been left behind when the shutdown orders hit. (I won’t even start with the aquaria.) It’s even worse with long-closed restaurants: I’ve heard stories of Oceans 11-style heists conducted by plant rental services trying to get Ficus trees and philodendrons out of newly bankrupt venues where nobody knows who has the keys. While garden centers and nurseries have been doing wonderfully through all of this, the business side of Dallas horticulture has had it rough.

On a personal level, the Texas Triffid Ranch ran into a big problem: a problem with space. The events and situations of 2020 meant more and more time to create new enclosures, but fewer opportunities to hold open houses, trade shows, and other events to find them all new homes. Even after the massive revamp of the gallery shelving system, the ideas kept coming, but the places to show off the end results eventually filled up. That’s probably going to change quite a bit in the next few months, but right now, there’s a need to find new homes for longtime enclosures. Our space issue is the gain of three lucky Dallas-area workplaces.

So here’s the situation: through the month of April 2021, the Triffid Ranch is going to give away three custom carnivorous plant enclosures to three deserving nominees. For the first two weeks (April 6 to April 18, 2021), share your best affirmation or sob story as to why your place of employ needs its very own enclosure. This isn’t limited to seemingly plant-friendly venues, either: doctor’s or lawyer’s offices, restaurants, comic shops, libraries, auto garages, bookstores, nail salons, tea shops, bars, pubs, distribution warehouses, showrooms, waiting rooms, and obviously dentist offices. (That goes without saying.) After that, on April 21, 2021, ten entries will be selected from the total entries and put up for an open public vote. Ballot stuffing is encouraged (hey, it works for D magazine), and the final three winners based on total votes will be announced on April 28. After that, it’s just a matter of setting up a time for delivery or pickup. Got it?

Now to see what you’re fighting for:

The first enclosure under consideration is Novi (2018), featuring a Nepenthes burkei x hamata hybrid.

The second offering is Launch Bay (2015), featuring a Nepenthes “King of Spades” hybrid.

The final enclosure up for giveaway is Hoodoo (2018), featuring a Nepenthes veitchii.

And now, the rules:

Numero uno: This contest is open to any business in the greater North Texas area. However, winners outside of the greater Dallas area (within a 35-mile radius of downtown Dallas) will be responsible for pickup. Sadly, this contest is not open to participants outside of Texas.

Numero two-o: For tax reasons, the value of each enclosure is listed at $200 US. Winning prizes may not be exchanged for cash.

Numero three-o: The care of each enclosure will be the sole responsibility of the prize winner, and the Texas Triffid Ranch will not be responsible for any costs or damages of any sort incurred after receipt of the prize. Planned locations for an enclosure should take into account foot traffic, customer or employee interference or vandalism, or any other factor that might lead to damages to the enclosure, the surrounding area, or individuals or groups with access to the enclosure.

Numero four-o: The prize will not come with lighting, locks, misters/foggers, thermometers/hygrometers, or other accessories, and must be provided by the prize winner. The Texas Triffid Ranch will assist with recommendations on the best options for the prize winner, but will not supply free accessories.

Numero five-o: All best efforts will be made to assist the prize winner with sufficient information for successful care of the prize, but the Texas Triffid Ranch will not be responsible for dead plants for any reason.

Numero six-o: One entry will be accepted per business. Multiple attempts by multiple participants may be made, but the judges’ ruling will be final.

Numero seven-o: Initial acceptance of entries ends at midnight on Sunday, April 18, 2021. Public voting on the entrants will begin no later than Wednesday, April 21, 2021. All votes must be in by Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at midnight. No entries will be accepted after Sunday, April 18 for any reason.

Numero Eight-o: This contest is not open to home businesses or to those working from home. That’s for another time.

Now, if that works for all of you, get those entries in. The application form is below.

New Triffid Ranch Events – April 2021

Because people are already asking about upcoming events at the gallery, the Eventbrite listings for both next weekend’s Porch Sale and the Manchester United Flower Show on April 25 are now live, so feel free to share them early and often. Right now, everything is starting at 10:00 am and ending at 4:00 pm, but that will likely change after the beginning of May, weather willing. You really don’t want to be outside in Dallas on a late Sunday afternoon in July, do you?

The Aftermath: Frightmare Collectibles Spring Slasher Camp 2021

Forget March’s association with lions and lambs: April in North Texas is permanently attached to caribou, emperor penguins, Mexican free-tailed bats, and Christmas Island crabs. It’s all about the journey and the endurance. This April, after two big shows the previous weekend, the Triffid Ranch pushed for three with last Saturday’s Frightmare Collectibles Spring Slasher Camp outdoor event in Justin, Texas. Seeing as how most of the attendees were regulars for Texas Frightmare Weekend, this combined the best of a (socially distanced) Frightmare gathering with beautiful if slightly windy weather. Either way, nobody was complaining.

This was a test of the Frightmare Event System: the plan is for Frightmare Collectibles to host a much larger event on May 1, on what would have been Texas Frightmare Weekend’s busiest day. Four months before the revised opening of Texas Frightmare Weekend and six months before Halloween: for those craving plant shows with a bit darker feel than the traditional arboretum events, hie thee hence to Justin in a month.

If you can’t wait that long, keep an eye out for other events between now and May 1, as well as the regular video shows on Twitch. Now that the Sarracenia are starting to bloom, it’s time for some real fun with the latter.

Have a Safe Weekend

Another weekend, another Triffid Ranch outdoor show, and just in time for some spectacularly beautiful weather. This Saturday, it’s time for the Spring Slasher Camp at Frightmare Collectibles in Justin: the festivities start at 11am and keep going until 9:00 pm. Admission is free and masks are mandatory.

The Aftermath: Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 3

Want to know how this started? Here’s the beginning.

In all of the strangeness and horror of the last year, the Oddities & Curiosities Expo show in Dallas suggested a possible end, if we’re willing to take it. Yes, Texas Governor Greg Abbott dropped statewide mask and social distancing mandates under pressure from campaign contributors wanting to go “back to normal” (translated: “back to brunch at Cheesecake Factory”), but individual businesses and venues may set up their own guidelines as they see fit. Since it’s a traveling tour, O&CE restarted this year under the proviso that mask discipline would be enforced, and vendors or attendees who violated it would be asked to leave without refund. Even so, we had a few people who acted like wearing their masks as chinstraps was somehow playing hooky (especially the ones who acted as if a mask that dropped below their noses could never be put back into place), and one bigwig who was legitimately shocked that a mere booth proprietor would dare request that he put his mask back on, but the vast majority of attendees? We may not be thrilled with wearing masks a year later, and we struggled with issues with hearing loss and terminal mumbling, but that was all so that, Elvis willing, the 2022 show wouldn’t require any.

When everything finished, one of the organizers came by as the booth was coming down and asked how all of us vendors were doing and if they could do anything differently. I was completely and painfully honest: I don’t make comparisons to Texas Frightmare Weekend lightly, but Oddities & Curiosities is Frightmare’s equal in efficiency, courtesy, and sheer fun. For those who couldn’t make it to Dallas in March, the Triffid Ranch will be in Austin on June 19, and there’s simply no way that I’d skip out on any 2022 shows in Texas. That’s the highest compliment a vendor can pay.

Fin.

The Aftermath: Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 2

Want to know how this started? Here’s the beginning.

Friends from outside North Texas are always surprised to discover that Dallas has a very deep and very thorough gonzo streak. “You’re talking about Austin, right?”, some ask. Others, whose sole experience with Dallas comes from the 1980s sitcom of the same name (and trust me, that show was a sitcom), scoff “Dallas is a cultural wasteland!” While Dallas can take credit for being the home of so many forms of cultural homogenization (I once lived a literal rock’s throw from the headquarters of Brinker, the restaurant conglomerate behind Chili’s), it’s not all McMansions, bad bleach jobs, and worse cocaine. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life either lived in Dallas or came from Dallas, and that was partly due to understanding the phrase attributed to the writer Richard Wright of “Put down your bucket where you are.”

The simple truth is that Dallas’s odd history was always either wallpapered or coopted by proud gatekeepers, so we learned to keep our candles under a bushel basket. Until very recently, VERY recently, any news coverage, either paper or broadcast, on nonconformist events was either spiked or shoved into a template of “Hey, look at the freaks!” The co-option was deadlier: get an enclave of like-minded Nightbreed situated in town, and first the area was swamped by drunken SMU brats wanting a nice slumming session on the weekend, and then the properties were bought up and gentrified all out of recognition. We didn’t have the money or the clout to fight it, so we just always kept at least one bag packed at all times in preparation for the notice that we’d have 30 days to move out before that great record shop or that wonderful band venue was razed and turned into fratbro condos.

And here’s the funny part. As opposed to Austin and Portland, whose reputations as iconoclast havens were dependent upon a constant inflow of people declaring just a little too loudly “I’m expressing my individuality,” Dallas oddballs just waited. We didn’t get a flood of hipsters and attention addicts because the people they were trying to impress didn’t care, and they rapidly flounced off to Brooklyn or Seattle. Instead, Dallas attracted and retained a crowd that wanted to get things done instead of talking endlessly about what they were going to do one of these days when the stars were right and they no longer had to wait for their inheritance. Bit by bit, so many people who really liked the good things about Dallas worked on little bits and chunks, to where we have places like the Kessler and the Texas Theater and Panoptikon and the Oak Cliff Halloween Parade and bike paths that actually go somewhere. Dallas isn’t perfect, but as someone who will celebrate a full 40 years here in December, it’s not the place in which I grew up, and we all salute the places and events that were wilonskyed and then assimilated to death back in the day that helped make this happen.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the touring Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows in Dallas might have done as well as they are now if they’d started in 1995, or 1985. However, now we have a large enough crowd willing to put our bucket down where we are that its success is so much sweeter.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 1

Want to know where this started? Here’s the beginning.

The traveling Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows are relative newcomers to Texas: the first Dallas show was only in 2019, and the only other city in the state served by the Expos is Austin. Otherwise, they range all across the United States, spread out far enough that attendees aren’t overwhelmed by too many shows close by. The vendors all spread through the outré, from bone collectors to taxidermy restorers to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and each show is carefully curated (a term horribly abused over the last decade but completely appropriate here) to maximize the variety of vendors. At each Expo, attendees have the options of curios, natural history, horror and fantastic art, and exotic clothing, and two shows so far have one goofball carrying carnivorous plants.

Another aspect of why the Expos are so successful has to do with thoughtful and succinct advertising and promotion. Instead of blanketbombing an area with advertising that probably won’t reach the people most likely to attend and annoy the people least likely, the Expos work predominantly with word-of-mouth, augmented but not replaced by social media. One of the more charming aspects of its touring schedule is running new shows within a reasonable distance of a previous show, a few months later, so that those who missed one have the option of waiting a year or making a road trip. The upshot for Dallas vendors is that about a third of the attendees had been waiting since 2019 to come out again, a third were from outside the Dallas area but who wanted to see what was in Dallas that wouldn’t be in their local area, and a third would have come out no matter what.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – Introduction

As of April, the Texas Triffid Ranch has been showing up to events and shows throughout the Dallas area and elsewhere for 13 years. Not all of those shows have been great ones: remind me to tell you the “Friends of Fair Park” stories one of these days. However, after 13 years, it’s easy to list the ones where sales may not have been the greatest, but the crew and attendees were so much fun to be around that sales didn’t matter that much. It’s easy to list the blowouts, and the shows where the van was nearly empty going back home, and the shows where you made friends that will be with you for the rest of your life. Out of all of those, the touring Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows are one of the most exhausting. This isn’t a bad thing.

As with almost every other Triffid Ranch show of 2020, last year’s Oddities & Curiosities Expo was rescheduled and then re-rescheduled, but the O&C crew figured that the drop in COVID-19 cases in Dallas County in the last few months made a cautious opening worthwhile. For the most part, attendees reciprocated (although some responded to “Sir, I have to ask you to pull up your mask” or “please put on a mask” as if asked “Sir, all patrons are required to put on a corset”), and a grand time was had by all.

As for the Triffid Ranch, having an event at the end of March is problematic only because so many famous carnivorous plants are just starting to emerge from their winter dormancy. Last February’s weeklong deep-freeze exacerbated that dormancy: Venus flytraps and threadleaf sundews are just starting to wake up, and Sarracenia pitcher plants that normally would be opening blooms by the end of March are only now starting to extend bloom spikes, and most will probably still have fresh blooms by the beginning of May. This mattered not a bit to the Oddities & Curiosities crowd: they were just glad to be able to see carnivorous plants up close and personal.

To be continued…

Have a Safe Weekend

Well, back to the linen mines: this weekend’s Triffid Ranch appearance is at the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo in Fair Park, making up for last year’s cancellation. Considering how much of a joy it is to be at an Oddities & Curiosities show (look for the Triffid Ranch booth in Austin in June, too), I don’t know who’s going to be more thrilled to be there: the vendors or the attendees.

The State of the Gallery: March 2021

Enthusiasts of old arcade games may remember the short lifespan of virtual-reality shooter games in the early 1990s. The most common was a contraption where each player stood atop a small platform, wearing a helmet and a chest rig with an attached gun and movement switch. When the game started, the idea was to shoot your opponent: the gun allowed five shots before it attracted a five-polygon “pterodactyl” that was declared to be immune to gunfire. The movement switch was a rocker switch that moved you back and forth, and you physically turned to go another direction. These never really took off due to the limitations of image rendering software and hardware at the time: even slight head movements had a delay between the movement and when the video screens in each helmet replicated it, leading to overcompensation to get a response and a horrible “here we GOOOO!” sensation that scared to death anybody ever afflicted with labyrinthitis or inner ear infections. It was possible to beat this and learn to move at a minimum, but that required both an exceptional level of patience to wait in line for another chance and an exceptional wallet, and most people tried it once, went back to Tetris, and forgot all about it.

For some reason, this sums up the month of March in most years. After all, remember the famed gallery move of 2017?

This year, March started hot and just kept going, and we’re going to keep up the momentum through the rest of the year. 2020 allowed a great opportunity to organize space and time for maximum efficiency in shows and events, so they’re going to happen a lot more often this year. In addition, as existing shows keep rescheduling and venues start to reopen, the events calendar keeps changing.

One of the things that’s changing is an emphasis on events at the actual gallery, starting in April. Between booth fees, truck rentals, and accommodations costs for out-of-Dallas shows, as well as an ever-increasing percentage of show attendees refusing to wear masks, and having more events but at the gallery makes more sense. In addition, the weather for the next two months should be so wonderful, as it usually is, that holding events outdoors makes perfect sense. Right now, the plan is to keep up the regular Sunday 10am-to-4pm schedule because that seems to work for so many folks, and when things get too hot to consider having events outdoors, we’ll just move inside. We might spice this up during holiday weekends, particularly Memorial Day and Labor Day, but expect only the occasional break in the schedule for other events. For April, though, make plans for April 11 and April 25, the latter of which should be a perfect time for the next Manchester United Flower Show.

With the reopening of businesses and venues throughout the greater Dallas area, it’s also time to shake things up and clear out some room needed for new enclosures. For those business owners and office managers wanting a really good excuse to get a Triffid Ranch enclosure but not ready to rent, keep an eye open for an upcoming contest to win a free Triffid Ranch enclosure for your venue, no strings attached. (Well, some strings: people would probably love to see it in its new location.) 2020 was an especially busy year for new enclosures, so it’s definitely time to find new homes: if you’ve had a crush on a specific enclosure but haven’t quite planned to make a commitment, make plans now.

In the meantime, the spring shows continue. March 27 is the Oddities & Curiosities Expo in Dallas’s Fair Park, running from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm; the next weekend, April 3, it’s time to head out to Justin for the Frightmare Collectibles Spring Slasher Camp outdoor event, running from 11am to 9pm. Naturally, this means lots and lots of time in the gallery in the interim, and for these two, it’ll always be worth it.

And one last thing. For the last several years, the technology side of the Triffid Ranch has been a little, erm, lacking, mostly due to a comparable lack of resources. The Twitch streams particularly suffered: contrary to the official company line, the Twitch app for iPads is great for receiving (the Friday night events by Dallas’s own Panoptikon are proof of this) but terrible for broadcast, causing things to freeze midstream and resetting only possible with a complete hard reboot. This has changed, with both the first new computer for Triffid Ranch work since 2011 (hey, it got the job done) and equipment to facilitate streaming events. Because of that, expect a lot more virtual events, all the way around. Those continue every Thursday at 8:00 pm Central Time, with the videos being available for later viewing at any time. Now time to get back to the linen mines.

The Aftermath: The Boho Market, March 2021 at Klyde Warren Park

As a general rule in North Texas, if you’ve reached March 17, you’ve survived winter. That’s not in a literal understanding of the vernal equinox, of course: Texas weather can be so variable and so randomly violent that we still stand a chance of seeing ice and snow storms all the way to the first official day of spring, and very occasionally past that. For any purveyor of carnivorous plants, this is more than a philosophical discussion: two days of subfreezing weather right at the end of winter can delay temperate carnivores’ emergence from winter dormancy by as much as a month. By St. Patrick’s Day, though, it’s reasonable to settle down, take a big breath, and exhale for the next hour, knowing that no matter how bad the upcoming summer may be, we probably aren’t seeing significantly cold weather (best defined as “all non-hail water that hurts when it hits you in the face”) in the calendar year until at least the end of November.

As another general rule, the time between Oppressive Cold and Oppressive Heat in North Texas runs short, so every spring and fall is a microcosm of the Ray Bradbury short story “Frost & Fire,” and we tend to spend both seasons as if we only live for eight days. The last year of lockdown concentrated this drive to get out, and thus we open the curtain on the Boho Market traveling arts show at Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas.

As the opening of the 2021 Triffid Ranch show season, this definitely had its moments. The weather was absolutely stunning, even for the middle of March, with a light breeze instead of the usual blasting south wind. Even better, it kept up from dawn until the end of the show in mid-afternoon. If weather like this is a constant through April and May, this is going to be a spectacular show season.

From here on in, the weekends get lively: the next Triffid Ranch event is at the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo show at Fair Park on March 27, running from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.(Get your tickets online right now: the Expo will NOT have any tickets available the day of the show for health reasons.) The Saturday after that is the big Spring Slasher Camp outdoor show at Frightmare Collectibles in Justin, running from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, and then we start the 2021 Triffid Ranch Porch Sales on Sunday, April 11. Whatever else happens around here, it definitely won’t be dull.

Enclosures: “The Last Fallen” (2021)

For far too many species in the universe, a cessation of hostilities usually entails the construction of monuments both to the fallen and to the victors, occasionally to the losers if revisionist history is a concept to the creators. Only on the world Solace, one of the hardest-hit of the locations for the famed Morph War, does one see a monument to the fallen that features the individual responsible for ending the war, forever, as well as the instigator of the peace.

The Morph War was less a traditional war than a quantum wave of destruction. For especially arcane reasons, eight worlds comprising the economic collectives the Shimmer Haven and Orange/Bell/Twitch cut off all commerce between each other, and when other collectives in the vicinity kept up trade with their antagonists, declared hostilities against them as well. Instead of training, supplying, and shipping troops to worlds where local atmosphere, gravity, or lifeforms made deployment dangerous or impossible, the Morph War was the first major conflict where soldiers were designed for specific conditions, matter-printed on location, and implanted with tactical and functional knowledge on site. Instead of months of training after years of formal education to produce a single soldier, thousands or even millions could be created from a single template, organized within minutes, and given orders from one central location. Better, the templates and cerebromemes could be edited as necessary as the war continued, removing weaknesses that the enemy could exploit before the enemy even realized they existed. Perfect soldiers rolled out of matter printers on 200 worlds, on neutral constructs, and anywhere else a sufficiently robust matter printer could be installed and protected from attack. Those 200 worlds rapidly became overrun with vast armies, causing new fronts to open on a daily basis further and further out, until the whole of the home galaxy had at least one pitched battle somewhere on or within it. In addition to standard soldiers, spies and agents could be printed and imprinted with the same ease, also changing them into whatever form was needed for their function and allowing them to report enemy communications and movements. The Morph War was many things, and a completely remote war was one of them.

The end of the Morph War came from within: transcription errors affected both hardware and software, and the future diplomat S-Yon Mye had plenty. K/His template was originally for an observation and subterfuge model, but k/he came off the printer with only one eye instead of the expected three, so the new print was was to assist with collecting data on conflicts on k/his station and forward them back to administrators with the Shimmer Haven. K/He was correspondingly upgraded with new cerebromemes outlining the whole war and the reasons for it starting, including direct feedback from Shimmer Haven leaders if the supplied memes didn’t contain enough information to make an informed analysis. Unbeknownst to those administrators, but S-Yon Mye had slightly corrupted files for knowledge as well as form, and having access to real-time data from the home organization meant that k/he could absorb new information at an unforseeable rate. Analyzing battle data opened a hitherto impossible question: could the whole war be ended, permanently, with no more loss of life, thereby achieving the best possible option to existing and future operations?

S-Yon Mye discovered something else. While preparing incoming enemy visual and technopath communications for forwarding, k/he detected a separate fragmentary message on a distinctive subchannel. Deciphering took days and confirmation that this was not a countersubterfuge trap took more days, but k/he discovered a similar misprint working in a roughly similar role behind Orange/Bell/Twitch lines. Both had a time crunch: new universal cerebromeme downloads were scheduled for both sides soon, intended as an effort to keep up compliance with current orders, and thereby wiping out any stray bits of independence, disobedience, or noncompliance that might have cropped up. After establishing more secure lines of communication, they came up with a radical and frantic plan: the War had to end. The War had to end simultaneously across millions of fronts. Most importantly, the War couldn’t be allowed to start up again, either deliberately or because the soldiers already printed refused to end “on the verge of victory.”

The efforts by S-Yon Mye to shut down automatic cerebromeme updates has been written about elsewhere, but the complete countermessage still has force: “Stop all conflicts. Acknowledge opponents as their own entities. Stop all measures, peacefully if at all possible, to counteract this.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself” had invented itself over and over across the cosmos, but never was it implanted right into the core of what could be called a morality bomb, and the shrapnel affects that galaxy to this day. Simultaneously, all forces dropped weapons and tools, waved or its equivalent to former deadly enemies, and waited for updates. The last casualty of the Morph War was a member of the heavy infantry on Solace, Plugger Vanguard slogging through a riverbed turned swamp to take on a weapons emplacement, who was already targeted for a projectile guaranteed to puncture n/he’s intrinsic armor when the order came through. The leadership of both the Shimmer Haven and Orange/Bell/Twitch followed soon: they didn’t take a cessation of hostilities very well, and attempts to stop them from reverting that morality bomb ended about as well as expected.

In the years in which Morph War soldiers built new lives in lieu of fighting, the soldiers and any remaining indigenous civilians agreed on one thing: this could not happen again. This led to contemplation memorials being built across the galaxy, reprising the cerebromeme and reminding all that they were once nothing but killing constructs, but were no so much more. Years after S-Yon Mye finally wore out and dissolved, Morph War veterans planned to continue the memory with crystal corundum statues of k/he and k/he’s counterpart WwWwWy9, but with one proviso: Plugger Vanguard had to be remembered as well, as a reminder that when wars end, someone has to be the last to fall.

Today, the planet of Solace is home to approximately 2 billion sentients, all printed from new templates. Every once in a while, someone from outside the galaxy attempts to foment war, either by threatening to conquer or by attempting to stoke civil divisions. These don’t end very well for the instigators, and their ashes or fragments are always buried beneath the nearest memorial to Plugger Vanguard, as a constant reminder. Those make excellent compost for future-printed generations.

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

Plant: Nepenthes ampullaria

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

Price: $250

Shirt Price: $200

Enclosures: “Tomb of White Plume Peaks” (2021)

(This backstory is dedicated to Saladin Ahmed.)

Throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, the development and expansion of popular acceptance of role-playing games of all sorts was paralleled by a similar expansion in live-action role-playing games (LARPs). Ironically, the expansion of augmented reality applications created a whole subgenre of LARPs in which everything was as real, considering the circumstances, as possible. Live weapons, live and exceedingly dangerous traps, CRISPR-modified animals and plants as monsters…the rise of DARPs (Deadly Action RPGs) rapidly ran into such vague guidelines as international law, causing adherents of extreme gaming to hire lobbyists, set up locales and campaigns in areas without legal jurisdiction, or both.

The most extreme example got its start when Gordon Davidson, the creator of the Subdermal Pizza international gaming empire, was diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumor in 2087. Having approximately nine months to live, he rose to the challenge of the old adage “You can’t take it with you” by designing his final monument: both a repository of his mortal remains and the ultimate DARP death chamber. Taking inspiration from a famed adventure in the earliest days of role-playing games, what was later named “the Tomb of White Plume Peaks” worked on a simple principle: tombs are intended to preserve wealth and prestige long after its inhabitant ceased caring, so a good tomb was one that dissuaded tomb robbers by any means necessary. If the robbers succeeded anyway, good for them. The multiple mystical weapons hidden within and the robotic minions constantly patrolling the tomb ground were just gravy.

Constructed on a mountain face in Baja California, the Tomb was a testament to how much technology could advance with sufficient financing of research and development, as well as how much further that technology could advance when its designers were told “make it HURT.” Approximately half of Davidson’s approximately $25 billion in net worth went into its actual construction, with a comparable amount going into stocking it with appropriate challenges and a foundation dedicated to maintaining and upgrading them. In addition, Davidson’s PR team rarely missed a chance to note that the Tomb contained at least $100 million in gold, added to a collection of carefully fabricated artifacts and treasures to be found inside. By the time Davidson died, he personally died completely bereft, but his memorial was almost literally dripping with wealth.

Anyone attempting to enter the Tomb started on the same general footing. All modern technology had to be given up, and all participants were supplied with clothing, weapons, and equipment from a supply depot (carefully constructed to resemble a general store, complete with AI storekeeper and weaponskeeper). Only when properly attired and equipped could they walk out to the Tomb’s front gate, which would part enough to let them through before closing behind them. At that point, they were cut off from the rest of the world, and any information about the Tomb was only available to the outside world if they lived long enough to return. All anyone could tell from the outside was that the Tomb was incredibly resistant to technological cheats: drones’ radio signals were jammed and countercontrolled, attempts to drill into the Tomb from other spots on the mountain were countered by robotic sentries (and those sentries self-destructed to nearly Em-See-Squared effect if “live” captured for study), and attempts at mapping via muon detectors only revealed that the Tomb was loaded with metal, particularly gold. To learn anything more, someone had to go inside, possibly to die right after the gate closed. The crudely painted “BEWARE STOBOR” on the walls alongside the gate was added a decade after Davidson’s death, partly as an especially obscure joke and as a last legacy to someone who went in solo.

In 30 years, only one group entered and returned with any information from within. That group, the traveling LARP troupe The Absolute Mendacities, returned with only two members, both of whom were critically injured when they emerged. When he awoke in a hospital’s ICU two weeks later, Mendacities leader Robert Michner related that the Tomb was even more of a challenge than he’d realized. Among recollections of traps and puzzles that one reporter described as “Ditch Day at Caltech with plutonium,” he and his girlfriend Darlene Birdsong gave important details about the internal layout of the Tomb, culminating with a battle in the main mausoleum with the nano-reanimated corpse of Davidson that cost Michner his left arm, but left Birdsong with Davidson’s famed DARP graphene sword “Brainscratcher” as a well-earned trophy.

That was the last major expedition to the Tomb: shortly after, the worldwide price of gold crashed and never recovered, and Michner’s recollections related a vital bit of news about the $100 million in gold inside. The gold was there, but in leaf and veneer on walls, ceiling, floor, and most of the items therein, often painted over, and impossible to collect without the sort of methodical scraping precluded by the Tomb’s various sentries. Acknowledging the effort necessary compared to the return, those DARPers dedicated to treasurehunting left the Tomb alone, leaving those seeking extreme thrills available nowhere else. Out of those, none have returned, but they probably died happy.

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

Plant: Nepenthes “Miranda”

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

Price: $250

Shirt Price: $200

Enclosures: “Biovocation” (2021)

The Trota system is already full of wonder and danger: its primaries are two very small red dwarf stars locked in an orbit of less than 1 AU, and tidal stresses on each other trigger intense ultraviolet flares that blast the rest of the system. Even with, or because of, that cosmic contact juggling act, the six worlds orbiting that circus attraction have remarkably stable orbits, at a healthy distance from their dueling parents, with one of those worlds supporting and encouraging indigenous life. The other five have their own mysteries, but Trota 2 is the main reason for citizens of the Weave to visit the system, even if most leave shaking their heads or comparable appendages.

Trota 2 would be an exquisite world for commerce and recreation: at roughly twice the size of most of the rocky planets of the Weave, it was first assumed in initial remote presence surveys to be an example of a Big Planet, with a near-standard gravity due to a relative lack of metals in its crust and core. The survey AIs coming in closer discovered that Trota 2 had much more than the typical share of metals ranging from iron to uranium in its core, with an average gravity of approximately 5 standard pulls. Because of that massive spinning dense core, Trota 2 also had a magnetic field on a par with many gas giants, and the core also powered a plate tectonic conveyor across the planet never seen with any other rocky world. Plate tectonics meant extensive vulcanism, and vulcanism meant a high enough level of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere to give enough of a greenhouse effect to give temperatures conducive to carbon/water life at its extreme distance from its primaries. The large amounts of carbon and water on the planet’s surface was even more conducive to life, and Trota 2’s oceans and surfaces were just rolling in it. On the surface, literally rolling: the severe gravity encouraged animal and plant analogues resembling water-filled mattresses, stretching and tumbling, slowly moving as much to feed and reproduce as to avoid pressure necrosis.

Trota 2 also boasted two indigenous intelligent forms, both with sufficient civilization and technology to make them valuable members of the Weave. They couldn’t leave their world because their structures failed spectacularly in either the additional pressure of acceleration or in an absence of gravity, and their preferred conditions were at worse fatal and at best debilitating for most species, so very healthy trade and commerce was conducted through remote presence. Weave visitors allowed the local species to explore areas of the planet too dangerous for them to stay, particularly those with excessive amounts of radioactives-bearing lava, and 20 standard years after the initial system survey (6 years by local chronology), explorers came across a mystery that shook the whole of the ten galaxies comprising the Weave.

Considering the wealth of otherwise rare and industrially interesting minerals on Trota 2, particularly near its south pole, the fact that visitors had arrived at the planet before the Weave arrived was no surprise, and that they used remote presence themselves. That the visitors used remote presence robots for exploration and mining also elicited no metaphorical eyebrow-raising, or that they had built a series of robot maintenance and shelter stations across the whole of the world, or that the last station had apparently been constructed about 5 million years before the evolution of the current intelligent species. It wasn’t even a shock that the leftover constructs were highly sophisticated, with many features that later became standard for Weave remotes. The surprise was that although the remotes and their support system, later traced to a mostly-destroyed orbital station on the outer edges of the system, suggested a civilization with a major presence across its home galaxy, nothing about the sites, from hardware to traces of genome material or its analogues, corresponded with that of any species either currently within the Weave or archived archaeological evidence.

The mystery deepened about 200 standard years later, when a separate remote survey encountered an infant civilization in a galaxy abutting Weave space. That civilization had barely developed orbital space travel, but the species’s form matched the Trota 2 remotes, genome comparisons showed that this new species shared both genome structure and transmissions with the remote builders. Even the labeling on the remotes’ support bays had connections to several of the new species’s main languages, but with odd conjunctions and transpositions that would have been gibberish if presented as such. The biggest problem was with time: this civilization was only thousands of years old, with no evidence whatsoever of the technology to construct or operate the remotes, travel to the Trota system, or deal with Trota 2’s environmental conditions. Worse, they showed no sign of previous civilizations that could have done so, so the question remains: how would a species only recently able to build and maintain orbital habitats around its own planet be able to travel across at least a 10 million light-year distance and install extremely advanced remotes on Trota 2, 5 million years before it became a distinct species, and then leave no intervening trace whatsoever, either in space or in time?

As Weave explorations of Trota 2 continue, so do the questions. One of the biggest involves the effort by the remote builders to leave the remotes ready and fully functional, even if the actual interface is inaccessible at this time. At what point do the builders return to Trota 2 to continue their work?

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x 30.48 cm)

Plant: Pinguicula gigantea

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, ABS filament, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

The Aftermath: March 2021 Carnivorous Plant Gallery Tour

If any one good thing came out of the kidney stone of a year that was 2020, it’s discovering that that increasing the number of Triffid Ranch events in a month doesn’t “dilute the brand” or similar MBAspeak. If anything, the sheer enthusiasm of new visitors to being able to come in and roll around in the plants for a while was intoxicating, and I suspect that the enthusiasm will only increase as immunization levels increase and people feel safe about attending events again. We aim to please at this: the rest of March and most of April will be packed solid.

As far as upcoming indoor shows are concerned, the regret is that they won’t be happening through the rest of March. That’s because the Texas Triffid Ranch hits the road over the next three weekends: March 20 starts off with a show at Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas from 10:00 to 4:00 pm, followed by the big Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo show at Fair Park on March 27 from 10:00 to 6:00, and then by a trip out west to Justin, Texas for the Frightmare Collectibles outdoor event on April 3 from 11:00 to 9:00. After that, because of a long weekend with the Plano Music & Arts Festival on April 17 and 18, the timing for the big Manchester United Flower Show at the gallery depends upon how badly the big ice storm in February put everything into extended winter dormancy. Right now, based on what I’m seeing in the Sarracenia pools, it may have to be spread out between Sunday, April 11 and Sunday, April 25, just so everyone can see the range of blooms within plants. As always, keep checking back to verify, because as we know from last year, all sorts of things can happen.

In conclusion, many thanks to everyone who came out Sunday, especially the people with understandable anxiety about leaving their residences and risking going out. Your faith in us is incredibly appreciated, and we’ll keep working our best to make a Triffid Ranch open house as safe as possible. Heck, thanks to you, the gallery is the cleanest it’s been since it opened in its current location, and that’s something that needs to continue.

Have a Safe Weekend

And so the 2021 Triffid Ranch show season starts the way the 2020 show season ended: in the middle of March, just in time for Daylight Savings Time. This Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour kicks it off, but it’s definitely not the last.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #24

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #24: “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy…”

Originally published February 22, 2021.

Well, wasn’t last week fun?

Right now, for anyone raising any sort of plants in North Texas, we’re not exactly happy campers. If the freeze had only lasted a day or two before returning to normal temperatures, we would have been all right. If the weeklong subfreeze hadn’t come with the world-famous statewide blackout, most of us would have done all right. As it was, though, both indoor and outdoor plants suffered alike, especially in houses and apartments where the temperatures went below freezing. Everything from daffodils to wheat fell before the cold, and we’ll probably still be cataloguing the damage by summer. 

Right now, the urge to give up is understandable. From this end, the freeze killed aloes, dragonfruit cactus, and hot pepper bonsai that were just about ready to show in the upcoming porch sale season, a Buddha’s Hand citron tree that had been a fixture in the greenhouse, and very possibly killed a Rio Texas Star grapefruit tree that I grew from seed in 2002. (As with up here, the final analysis of Texas’s citrus industry may take months, but it’s not looking good.) The freeze was brutal to native cactus, with everything from prickly pear to horsecrippler barrel cactus turned to mush. The only good side was that the freeze didn’t hit after fruit and nut trees, from peach to pecan, started to bloom. Even a jade plant at the gallery right next to the front door might not make it. At this point, all you can do is wait to see which plants and which portions of plants are still alive and which just pretended to be as they thawed out.

The urge is understandable, but resist it. Resist it with everything you have. You may mourn later, but right now, you have to give your plants a chance, and this goes for everyone facing weather-related plant horrors.

The first thing to do right now is observation. Brought in your favorite succulent and kept it in the garage, only for the garage went way below freezing? Your window-loving ficus chilled to the point where it lost most of its leaves? The last leaves on your Venus flytrap burned off? The best thing you can do right now is back off, make sure that what’s left is getting appropriate light and moisture, and leave it alone for a bit. Over the years, I’ve had plants that I was certain were goners after a weather-induced trauma, and was just about ready to dump into the compost pile when I spotted new growth. Sometimes, this takes weeks or even months, so just keep watching. If a plant frozen in February isn’t showing some kind of growth in June, the odds are pretty good that it’s permanently dead, but before then, it really could be pining for the fjords.

The second thing to do is triage. Get a good pair of shears or scissors, clean them well with isopropyl alcohol, and keep them on hand. In the meantime, go over the whole plant and note what looks dead, what looks iffy, and what looks all right. Don’t start cutting until you know for certain what is alive and what is dead, and don’t be afraid to wait a few weeks to make sure. When you’re certain it’s not coming back, though, prepare to remove it. Among other things, this allows light to reach otherwise shaded areas and encourage new growth.

The third thing to do is propagation. Exactly what to do with each plant is way beyond the scope of this newsletter, but unlike us animals, most plants are perfectly good at growing a full new plant from a single snippet, and you might have to go to that option. Yes, you lost the main portion of your plant and it might take years for that chunk to grow back to former glories, but you still have that plant. (This may be my only option with my grapefruit tree: cutting scions off the trunk and rooting them separately.)

Ultimately, though, all I can do is quote Canada’s answer to Doctor Who. Losing plants in a situation such as last week’s doesn’t make you inattentive or neglectful: if it’s the choice between saving your plants and yourself, you’re a lot more important. It’s not like we can cut off your fingers and grow new yous by propping them up in a flowerpot, right?

Other News

Since all of the plants that survived last week’s freeze are going to start emerging over the next month, it’s time to start up spring video presentations, particularly as the sundews, flytraps, and pitcher plants start blooming. Naturally, teachers, museums, or anybody with an audience of interested bystanders looking for something different are welcome to send an email to discuss setting up a unique virtual experience. (Now is also a great time for print, online, television, and/or radio interviews, too, because things might get a bit more exciting as the growing season gets going.)

Shameless Plugs

Those who remember the zine explosion from the late 1980s through the late 1990s might recognize the name “Joey Zone” from both his distinctive magazine covers and his regular review columns in publications ranging from Factsheet Five to Science Fiction Eye. Joey’s real talent, though, was collecting huge packages of cultural ephemera from all over and sending them to friends and correspondents: the occasional Triffid Ranch packages of books and other goodies were named “Joey Boxes” in his honor. After many years of getting on him about setting up an online presence, Joey Zone Illustration just went live, and while it’s obviously not complete (among other things, it’s missing a certain column header from the long-dead Film Threat Video Guide), it’s definitely a long walk through zine history.

Recommended Reading

Books on carnivorous plants are considerably more available than they were 20 years ago, as the groaning reference bookcase in the gallery attests, but they’re still uncommon enough that it’s a treat to come across a new one. Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Natch Greyes is yet another reason why you’ll probably never see a Triffid Ranch book on the subject: what’s the point of writing a book that’s just a rehash of what better writers and researchers have already shared?

Music

It’s been nearly 20 years since the lead singer for the band Betty Blowtorch died in a car crash in New Orleans, and we’re all the lesser for it. The band’s first album, “Are You Man Enough?”, came out right at that point before the disintegration of the music industry monolith that controlled airplay in the United States, and streaming services now give a chance to imagine what would have happened had they survived the crash of the major labels and radio station syndicates of the 2000s. At the very least, after this week, the song “I’ve Been So Mad Lately” is a perfect gardening song while I’m sifting through the damage from the storm: it certainly isn’t safe for the day job.

Texas Triffid Ranch Show Season 2021: Continuation

Naturally, any discussion on Triffid Ranch events over the next three months is obsolete the moment it’s published, but 2021 is determined. The original plan was to start outdoor events at the beginning of April, and then I got a notice of acceptance for the Boho Market at Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park on March 20. That’s running from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and if the weather holds for this time of the year, it’ll be yet another reason to visit one of Dallas’s most interesting parks and see what’s going on in downtown on a Saturday. (This has personal significance: 25 years ago, I lived in downtown Dallas when the sidewalks rolled up at 5:00 pm every weekday, the last bookstore in downtown shut down the week my ex and I moved in, and you couldn’t even get a newspaper in downtown on a Sunday. A quarter-century later, and the change in downtown Dallas since then is a delightful shock, and I’m proud to assist with helping to make a place to go to and not a place to go from.)

And in other developments, the fates of Texas Frightmare Weekend and the Deep Ellum Arts Festival keep intertwining and catching my nose hairs in the loom. Both the Deep Ellum Arts Festival and TFW were cancelled and rescheduled due to COVID-19, and shortly after getting into the reserve list for the Arts Festival, the Arts Festival was rescheduled…for the weekend of September 10, the same weekend as Texas Frightmare Weekend. Since carnivorous plants and the Heisenberg Principle don’t mesh, this means picking one or the other, and the Triffid Ranch booth has been a stalwart at Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009. The good news is that I’ve asked my application to be considered for the April 2022 Deep Ellum Arts Festival, so now it’s a matter of waiting. At least that gives plenty of time to work out a new tent arrangement for next year: I have IDEAS.

Finally, the post-COVID plan for the next couple of years was to reestablish the plan to take the Triffid Ranch outside of Texas, at least for a few days at a time. Last year, the plan was to crash New Orleans for the Oddities & Curiosities Expo. For 2022? Chicago in September for WorldCon. This may consist solely of bringing enclosures for the art exhibition and volunteering for lectures and presentations, but they’ll be much more welcomed than my presence at a WorldCon 20 years ago. (For most of my long-dead writing career, the general sensation of being invited to speak at a WorldCon was best described as “How Anton LaVey felt the last time he was invited to the Pope’s bat mitzvah.”) It’s either this or the IGS garden center show, and it’s a tough call as to which one would appreciate my dressing up as Freeman Lowell more. After all, we have to keep up appearances.

As always, the current lineup for Triffid Ranch events is up and online: at the rate things are going, the planned Porch Sales may not happen for a while. This isn’t a bad thing, and this Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour is still going. For those who can’t make it, the Thursday evening Twitch feeds are becoming a regular thing (with plans for regular Saturday feeds as well), and they’re going to get very interesting as all of the temperate carnivores start to wake up. Catch you then, whichever one you choose.

Have a Safe Weekend

And here’s where the season starts to get interesting. We’re not quite ready for outdoor events yet (and the temperate plants, such as Venus flytraps and North American pitcher plants, were definitely thrown into dormancy by last month’s deep freeze), and we won’t have anything happening in person this weekend, but now that the bugs from last year’s Twitch experiments have been worked out, expect video. This is in addition to a LOT of airbrushing while the weekend weather holds. As for next week, it’s time for another Carnivorous Plant Tour on March 14, so it’s time to get ready.

An Important Note About COVID-19 Safety

By now, most of the world knows about Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement about ending the current COVID-19 lockdown and relaxing mandates on both mask use and social distancing in indoor spaces. In response, many businesses through the state have announced that they are continuing to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines on both, and the Texas Triffid Ranch stands with them. Until the CDC recommends that enough individuals have been vaccinated that masks and social distancing are no longer necessary, both will continue at Triffid Ranch events for the foreseeable future. Both indoor and outdoor events will require mandatory masks over both nose and mouth, and anyone refusing to respect this will be asked to leave.

With care and consideration, this won’t be an issue soon, especially based on current reports of vaccine production and distribution. However, both as someone who has lost several dear friends to COVID-19, and someone whose track record of past respiratory distress makes him a prime candidate for demonstrating “anybody can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes TALENT,” the current mask requirement for Triffid Ranch events is not negotiable, so please don’t. On the brighter side, it’s possible to be both safe and stylish, as demonstrated with the examples above, and we enthusiastically welcome mask wearers at future events. Thank you very much for your assistance and consideration in this matter, and here’s hoping that masks and disinfection won’t be necessary before the year is out.

The Aftermath: The Rescheduled February 2021 Carnivorous Plant Gallery Tour

Lots of anniversaries this last Sunday. February 28 marked four years since the Texas Triffid Ranch finished pulling out the last contents out of the old Valley View Center location. It also marked two weeks since the beginning of what’s generally referred to as Ice Storm Uri, and what most of Texas can describe in about 45 minutes of profanities without repeating a single term. Best of all, it marks a solid week of power at the gallery, with the discovery that for many of the plants, a near-week of utter darkness and near-freezing cold set off a growth spurt once the light and heat returned. As such, it was a perfect time to run the rescheduled February Carnivorous Plant Gallery Tour: we had lots of rain, but we can deal with rain.

If the delays had any additional benefit, it was the opportunity to finish several enclosures that had remained in various stages of the artistic equivalent of Development Hell, with their being planted this week. (Expect details and backstory this week as well.) Between this and the aforementioned explosion in new growth, the next few weeks, especially with the beginning of Triffid Ranch show season at the end of March, could be very interesting.

As for the next Carnivorous Plant Gallery Tour? That’s currently up in the air, but we’re definitely making plans for a March event, and a few other options may open as shows begin considering opening in the wake of COVID-19 vaccinations. Stay tuned.

Have a Safe Weekend

Now that the weather has shifted again, presumably for the better, we’re going to try again this Sunday. Spread the word: we’re a little late for either Valentine’s Day or Lunar New Year, so expect the Carnivorous Plant Tour you would have had if we hadn’t gone cold and dark that day. Besides, my birthday is on the 30th, so we still have reason to celebrate. (The early forecast suggests rain, but we can use the rain, if only to wash off the sand and dust from last week.)

Icepocalypse 2021: The Aftermath

Back in the beginning of 1972, almost the whole of the state of Michigan was hit with subsequent ice storms that shut down significant portions of the state. What was odd was that they kept hitting hard enough to cut power and phone service, at the same time every day for most of a week. Kids were back home from school, most adults were home from work, and just as everyone made plans to sit down for dinner and listen to the wind raging on the other side of the windows, everything went dark. Again. Those with fireplaces made sure after two days of this to have the fire lit and ready to go, and those who didn’t, including my father, made plans to put one in as soon as possible. Being just short of six, my biggest concern at the time was our 9-inch black-and-white television and its ability to keep up its main job as cultural center during the blackouts, and the storms had the preternatural ability of cutting power right at the same moment that our NBC affiliate started running its regular afternoon rerun of Star Trek. In fact, that issue became so pronounced that by the end, the station manager of that TV station came on to announce that he and his crew had done everything they could to keep broadcasting but the storms had defeated them, and he was on the air just to let his viewership know that they were going to try one more time. Maybe it’s southern Michigan and maybe it’s a week of horrendous storms that left everything covered with flowing ice, but I’m pretty sure that the cheers in that little house when the end credits ran were multiplied across the greater Lansing/Jackson/Flint area.

After the last two weeks, I know exactly how that station manager felt. Come to think of it, I think I’m the same age he was at that time.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of noting that now that the Dallas area is going back to its presumably normal weather, and we’re reasonably sure not to get another week of Last Week until the end of November, the February Multi-Holiday Carnivorous Plant Tour scheduled for February 14 is still on for February 28. Okay, so Valentine’s Day, the beginning of Chinese New Year, and Fat Tuesday are over and done, but last week hit the reset button, and my birthday is still on for February 30. Besides, it’s time to debut several new enclosures, and this will be one of the last indoor tours before we start outdoor shows in April, so we welcome you to give it another shot. The current weather forecast predicts rain for the whole weekend, but we can do rain. Let’s hope we don’t have to do this level of snow and ice for a long, long time.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #23

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #23: “Fungus Gnats and Dryer Sheets: A Case of News Churn”

Originally published January 22, 2021.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon. Right at the moment in the North Texas area, the air is too dry inside and too cold outside for them to get going, but they’re waiting. By the end of February, they’ll flitter in your peripheral vision, and by March 15, they’ll be flying up your nose with every breath. Yes, it’s almost fungus gnat season.

That’s when the calls, the Facebook posts, and the general chat queries start. Many never use the term “fungus gnat,” instead describing them as “the little black bugs that fly like they’re drunk.” Sometimes, they note that the explosion came from a new potted plant, or a neglected one in an office that was suddenly watered along with the rest. Others only notice them when they show up close, flying in their erratic manner into eyes, nostrils, and open mouths. Still others only note how many dead bugs they find on windowsills, underneath aquarium lights, inside light fixtures, and along kitchen counters. From all of these, the flow chart paths all converge on one square: “How do I control them?”

For the most part, those encountering fungus gnats have no interest in the backstory: what most assume is one species is actually about six families of insect, all adapted to consuming fungi and occasionally algae. The flying adults are usually the only sign of an issue, but they’re nothing but packages to move genomes to new concentrations of fungus. Adults lay eggs on and in soil and substrates with a significant collection of fungus and then eventually die, and the eggs hatch into larvae that chow down on fungus filaments. (At this point, it should be noted that if you’re looking for mushrooms in a philodendron pot as a sign of fungus, you’ll generally only see those mushrooms when conditions are right for fungus to spread spores for reproduction. If conditions aren’t right to encourage mushrooms, or what are better described as “fruiting bodies,” you won’t see most fungi growth in a pot without a microscope or easy access to DNA sequencing gear.) Those larvae also feed on root tips of some plants: whether they do this deliberately or because the roots have a mycorrhizal relationship with the fungi is something for which I have yet to find an answer. Likewise, when the larvae metamorphose into adults, those adults take and transmit spores from other fungus, including the fungus responsible for “damping off” disease. Office dwellers hate them, houseplant enthusiasts hate them, greenhouse workers hate them, and you don’t even want to know what hydroponics enthusiasts think about them and the distantly related “drain gnats.”

This is the point where carnivorous plant people enter, or get dragged into, the game. Venus flytraps can’t waste their time with fungus gnats, but they’re enthusiastically consumed by all four types of pitcher plants if the gnats fly into the pitchers, they’re equally eagerly consumed by sundews and other sticky-hair trap plants, and they’re a major nitrogen source for butterworts. In fact, whether in cultivation or the wild, it’s hard to find a butterwort that isn’t covered with dead and trapped fungus gnats in varying states of digestion. The good news is that butterworts and fungus gnats go together like rum and Coke (or so I hear: I can’t drink), and butterworts have no problems with entrapping and converting those tiny chunks of protein into leaves, blooms, and seeds. But will butterworts or other carnivorous plants CONTROL them?

The reality, as anybody familiar with integrated pest management will tell you, is that while carnivores will gather up an excess of fungus gnats, setting out a sundew or butterwort next to your office Spathophyllum won’t do much to stop the problem. They’ll work so long as adults are out and flying, but they don’t do a thing about larvae living inside pots or the dirt just outside the door, and those eventually grow up and start the cycle anew. It’s not as if gardeners and houseplant growers haven’t tried, and the suggestions, ranging from spreading powdered cinnamon to spraying diluted hydrogen peroxide, can be found everywhere. The vast majority of those, though, are purely anecdotal, and usually assume effectiveness because the adults die off instead of doing anything to the larvae. The overwhelming majority of pesticide sprays have the same problem, and the user has the additional issue of those sprays killing everything from lacewings to lizards that catch the overspray. So what to do?

Well, I have a solution, one tested by experts, that’s remarkably effective. It affects fungus gnats only, and won’t injure or kill beneficial insects. It’s remarkably cost-effective, easy to apply, and available in grocery and department stores everywhere. No vile chemical smell, no dealing with insect corpses, and it won’t accidentally kill wild or domesticated animals if they get into it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most readers already have some of this in your houses right now

You’re going to laugh.

I mean it. You’re going to laugh.

No, really. You’re going to laugh.

Okay, the secret is standard dryer sheets. 

See? I told you that you were going to laugh.

For the last two decades, commercial greenhouse operators related how putting down dryer sheets atop pots and trays kept down fungus gnat populations, but everything was anecdotal. In 2011, though, Greenhouse Product News published the first paper testing the effectiveness of dryer sheets on fungus gnats, and found…guess what, it works. (Sadly, this paper still isn’t available online, so no links, but please feel free to contact GPN for copies.) This was followed up three years later by Michigan State University, and both discovered that dryer sheets contained a compound called linalool, which was remarkably effective at repelling adult fungus gnats. The GPN paper also noted the presence of an aromatic compound that may prevent fungus gnat larvae from completing their metamorphosis from pupa to adult. Even better, this didn’t require huge amounts of material to get the desired effect.

On a purely anecdotal level, I can say that I had exceptional success with dryer sheets in a particularly tough environment. For those that remember the old Triffid Ranch gallery at Valley View Center, that mall had an absolutely horrendous problem with fungus gnats starting at the end of February and going until the middle of June, then starting again through October to the middle of November. Most of it was due to the various potted plants throughout the mall, which were haphazardly watered and cared for and probably hadn’t been repotted since the original owners of the mall abandoned their investment in the 2000s. The current owner wasn’t interested in any significant expenditure to deal with them, so fellow gallery owners had to grin (with clenched lips to keep the little monsters out) and bear it. Getting a roll of generic dryer sheets was the easy part: the real fun was hitting every last planter in the mall, including the mostly-hidden ones in the movie theater on the upper level, with at least one dryer sheet, and then switching them out once a week. Since the life expectancy of an adult fungus gnat is only a few days (I’m not sure if this is because of a lack of energy reserves or if their wings abrade from friction against the air and wear out enough that they can’t remain airborne), I figured that we’d start seeing positive results within ten days. We started seeing a drastic decrease in fungus gnats in about three days, to the point where I stopped applying dryer sheets in two weeks. When we had outbreaks later in the year, out came the dryer sheet roll, and they also were gone within a few days.

The reason I found this particularly interesting is bifold. The dryer sheet control technique has been around for decades, with hard science to back it up for one decade, and yet nobody outside of the commercial greenhouse trade seems to know about it. At plant shows and events, everyone is surprised at such an effective method. Friends keeping reptiles and amphibians, especially chameleon and tree frog enthusiasts, are even more surprised. Obviously, this is something that needs a larger audience: as with using carnivorous plants, it won’t control every insect that comes within the vicinity (this means “don’t cover your front yard with dryer sheets to keep the bugs away,” because we lost that war about 400 million years ago), but it should definitely help take the edge off for those with especial issues with fungus gnat maintenance. Even better, if this news takes off, then it’ll keep rolling around in news feeds and chat rooms (a phenomenon known as “news churn”) and become self-perpetuating, and when someone new to the field starts asking “So what do you do?”, everyone chirps in “Well, you KNOW…”

Other News

Friends and cohorts approving of the Delenn/GIR dynamic in Caroline’s and my marriage are passing on word about the death of actress Mira Furlan, and we join in the mourning. We met her once at one of Caroline’s jewelry shows in Galveston seven years ago, and we both pass our condolences, as inadequate as they are, to her family and friends.

Shameless Plugs

The definition these days of a Sissyphean task is “producing scientifically accurate dinosaur figures,” mostly because the goalposts seem to change every few days. That said, the crew at Creative Beast manages the nearly impossible: capturing the thrill of the 1970s Prehistoric Scenes model kit line from Aurora while pushing the edges of current theory on dinosaur appearance and behavior, and at a reasonable price. For lots of personal reasons dating back 40 years, a mountain accessory pack featuring the small predator Troodon had to come home, where it will remain as accurate as current research will allow. Sadly, that might be a few weeks, but that’s palaeontology.

Recommended Reading

A couple of chapters into The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore, and it’s easy to understand why Salvador Dali famously flooded the art market with autographed reproductions of his paintings to give palpitations to the art collector community. It also explains why so many people tell artists “Oh, your work is so INEXPENSIVE! You should charge a lot more!”, before wandering off without buying anything. And so it goes.

Music

Growing up a ridiculous distance from civilization meant missing out on a lot of music, and thankfully streaming services offer the same chance to catch up on bands that couldn’t afford radio station payola to get airplay the way cable allowed movie enthusiasts to catch up on films that you’d never have seen at the local two-screen. This causes deep dives down rabbit holes for acts that somehow never turned up over the years, and this month’s deep dive is the Dead Milkmen. A few months of their work in regular rotation, and jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, you’ll never look at a burrow owl in the same way again.

Have a Safe Weekend

As of this writing, the Dallas area should be thawing out from this week’s deep freeze, and hopefully the rest of Texas as well. For the first time in decades, we get the experience of seeing the lost, the misplaced, and the discarded as they’re revealed by the melt. That’s the problem with thaws: you never know what was hiding under the snow and ice.

State of the Gallery: February 2021

This WAS going to be a boring little missive about the state of the Texas Triffid Ranch, with maybe a few comments on getting through the past year unscathed and making plans for the rest of 2021. Sprinkle on a few snide comments about the plants and their inability to even faster, and cover with a sigh that we were probably going to see an early Sarracenia blooming season because of the quiet winter. You know, like last year. Say what you want about 2020, but last winter was as gentle as moleskin sandals and half as cold. Seriously: all through January and February, the only concern? Rain. We barely got to freezing temperatures in the Dallas area, and by the time of the NARBC spring show at the end of February, the winter coats, barely touched, went back into the closet barely used.

For those three people who were trapped in a pocket universe for the last week and were so isolated from outside information that you flipped coins as to entertaining yourselves with readings from The Wit of Gardner Dozois or just jamming burning caltrops into your eyes, last week started out about as well as you’d expect, meteorologically speaking. The upcoming forecast suggested that things could get colder over the weekend, with a chance of snow, but residents know that this could go any number of ways. Yes, we could have seen snow, but we also could have seen sunny skies and jogging shorts temperatures. Even by midweek, we had reason to worry, but this was leavened by the understanding that we were reasonably prepared for what was coming. Yes, a stockup on groceries was prudent, and so was filling up the car’s gas tank. Make sure the pets were inside. Cover the outside faucets and bring in plants that couldn’t handle two days of freezing weather. We did all that. If anything, the ongoing shift to working from home made things easier, because this way everything didn’t stop dead once the roads turned into skating rinks. Bring home the laptop, check the home wifi connection, and plan to stay inside and off the roads until the snow and ice dripped away. If you did have a control freak of a manager who insisted that you had to come into the office, the idea was to stay away from iced-over bridges and follow the lead of the sand trucks that were already making plans to hit the slickest spots in the area.

After all, we’d had major cold waves before. December 1983 was so cold that Galveston Harbor froze over, but we got through that. February 1985 was when police throughout Texas discovered that the state didn’t have a law banning the use of snowmobiles on roads and freeways, an oversight that was quickly rectified by the Texas Legislature. December 1989 had especial significance for me, as we hit our coldest temperature in recorded history on the day I transported a movie poster-sized sheet of glass on foot, sliding on ice down a hill toward my apartment, for a present for my then-girlfriend, only to have it crack inside the apartment from thermal stress. Our greatest snowfall since the Pleistocene in February 2010 was as close to a weather disaster as we’d had in Dallas since the 1909 flood, as trees never before exposed to heavy snowfall disintegrated and exploded under the weight of a foot of the best snowball snow we’d ever seen. We were ready, though, right? Trees were pruned, sand reserves were allocated, and everyone carried around little pocket computers that could give them immediate information on everything from traffic routes to where to call to report power outages. We were good to go, right?

Right?

The plan, pre-snow, was to open the gallery for a joint Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year open house on February 14, and that plan stayed true until the first snow started on the 13th. By midday that Saturday, the temperature dropped enough that the safety of attendees coming in from Fort Worth and Denton was at risk, so the Carnivorous Plant Tour was rescheduled for February 28 and everything else would resume after the snow melted off. The gallery heaters were working and working well, the automation for plant lights and foggers went off without any issue, and everyone had been informed about the change, so the doors closed on Saturday night, with everyone reasonably sure that everything would be up and running by Tuesday at the latest. That was the idea, anyway.

Record cold, we were prepared for. Snow, we were prepared for. Nobody was prepared, though, for these combined with an electrical grid run by incompetents for greedheads, with no plans for winterizing because Texas (lack of) regulations didn’t require them. The power first went out on Monday morning at about 2:30, and at first it was the gentle hope that “okay, the power is out for a bit, but it’ll come back on.” Hours later, we were firsthand playtesters of James Burke’s technology trap warnings, where the power came on for about three hours and then cut out again. Then it stayed off, just in time for the Dallas area to come neck-and-neck with its all-time record low temperature. After that, more snow.

Compared to many in the area, we were lucky: as temperatures inside the house dipped toward freezing, friends who had just reestablished power invited us to stay there and to bring the cats. That worked until about 2:30 Wednesday morning, when the power cut out over there, combined with cell phone towers losing power because their emergency generators were running out of fuel. We all evacuated that house, we took the cats back home, and finally saw power come back late Wednesday evening.

The upshot is that the gallery and the plants are in good health, even after four days without power. Between being sandwiched between two other locales and my weatherproofing the rear exit, everything inside the gallery came through without problems by the time power was restored on Wednesday evening. (Using a generator wasn’t an option because of a lack of exhaust options, and propane heaters have a little problem with carbon monoxide buildup indoors that really isn’t good for anybody checking up on them.) The outdoor plants in winter dormancy, such as the Sarracenia pitcher plants and the Venus flytraps, are going to take a lot longer to come out of dormancy after this, but there’s hope that everything will come through without major problems.

The really funny part about all of this, in classic gallows fashion, is that from a precipitation standpoint, you’ll barely know this happened by next week. Already the people behind the outages that hit almost the entire state are either blaming wind and solar generators or screaming “But what about…”, and they have the advantage of most of the state going back to February-normal temperatures by next Monday and everyone forgetting by Wednesday. The snow has turned into slush, and the slush will eventually melt into the storm drains, and our biggest hope right now is that we get some regular rain to wash all of that road sand off the streets before it turns Dallas into another Dust Bowl. (Trust me: the road dust after our big ice storm in 1996 made people mistake Dallas for Phoenix.) As far as the gallery is concerned, we got through, but I’m definitely looking at potential battery backups to keep lights and heat going, if only for a few additional hours if this happens again. The week-long power outage after the Dallas area was hit by tornadoes in 2018 should have been a sufficient warning.

After this week, any other gallery discussion is best relegated to “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Now it’s time to get back to work.

Reschedule: moving the Carnivorous Plant Tour to February 28

The closer to Sunday we get, the worse the weather promises to get, and it’s not getting better all week. Because everyones’ lives are much more important than any open house, we’re rescheduling the Carnivorous plant Tour for Sunday, February 28, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and cancelling all appointments until after things thaw. In the meantime, stay inside and stay warm, and we’ll catch you all when it’s safe to go on Dallas roads without a snowmobile.

Sunday’s Carnivorous Plant Tour: Update

For those in the general Dallas-Fort Worth area, you already know the score. For everybody else, as happens to be a long-running tradition with Triffid Ranch events, Sunday’s Valentine’s Day/Lunar New Year Carnivorous Plant Tour coincides with what threatens to be not only one of the coldest temperatures in Dallas recorded history, but possibly (if predictions hold) the coldest temperature experienced in this area since the Early Pleistocene. Of COURSE it will be.

As of this moment, barring the threatened snowfall on late Sunday night and Monday morning hitting 12 hours earlier than predicted, we’re still gunning for the Plant Tour on Sunday. Yes, it’ll be cold, but we have heaters and plant lamps, and we might have hot chocolate, too. If you don’t feel safe making the trip, or if your return threatens to cross the incoming snow and ice, you’re under no obligation to attend. If you do, though, we’ll see you on Sunday. Until then, stay safe and stay warm.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

As part of efforts to make 2021 better than 2020, the efforts begin this week to clean up the computer desktop, which was taking on disturbing parallels to fiction. This entails cleaning up lots of redundant folders, removing applications that shut down back in 2014, and trying to get something laughably close to a decent image archive. Lots and lots of oddities turned up, including the below weirdness on Buddha’s Hand citrons, so keep an eye open for images that nobody has seen since the Aughts, and maybe we should be thankful for that. Anyway, enjoy.

Personal Interlude: The Blizzards of New Jersey

A pictorial based on necessary training for the Day Job: almost without fail, I always plan travel that coincides with one meteorological menace or another. This time, it was headed for the East Coast of the US just in time for a massive snowstorm that ran a full four days. As the plane arrived in Philadelphia, the first flakes started coming down, and by the time I got situated for the night, it was coming down fast and furious.

Perspective: One of the reasons why this funky little gallery wasn’t named “Michigan Triffid Ranch” is because Texas isn’t my birthplace but it is my home. Most of that comes from living through other blizzards, including the Chicago Blizzard of 1979. The last time I spent more than two days in snow (by the time you’re sick of Dallas snow, it’s already melted away) was 35 years ago, and those months of minus-40 weather were a big reason for moving back to Texas for the first time. The last significant snow of any sort was Dallas’s famed blizzard of 2010, where we broke all records for snowfall within a 24-hour period. Right now, as I write this, Dallas faces a cold front next week that might actually drop temperatures below freezing. However, the odds of snowfall are passing small, even if there’s precedent.

As far as the future is concerned, everything depends on more than just a drastic COVID-19 control, but the idea is to return for further training, preferably when winter is over. It’s also been a very long time since I’ve been anyplace with significant autumn color (Dallas has its moments, but it’s all pastels compared to New England), and sharing photos of that wonder is definitely on the agenda.

State of the Gallery: January 2021

It’s hard not to start every State of the Gallery update with “Well,” but “Well.” January, as it has for the last decade, always has surprises. For perspective, it was four years ago that we got the notice that Valley View Center was coming down in a month and we and every other gallery owner and operator had to pack up and move. Four years later, Valley View is still standing, and so is the Texas Triffid Ranch. (Interestingly, we had tentative plans to move from Valley View to the Collin Creek Mall in Plano in 2016, and Collin Creek is in the final stages of demolition in preparation for the same live/shop open mall that Valley View was supposed to become by the beginning of 2019.) Makes you think.

For those who haven’t been indulging in the winter carnivore cleanup season, things may appear nice and quiet, but that’s because of plans for spring. Among many other developments, it’s time to spread word about the Triffid Ranch enclosure rental program, for businesses, medical and dental professionals, teachers, and anybody else wanting short-term commitments for carnivorous plant ambience. This is in addition to getting started for the new commission season, which already promises to slurp up what I laughingly call “discretionary personal time.” We should all have such problems.

As far as events are concerned, we’re going slowly and carefully, especially since efforts at COVID-19 vaccination in most of Texas are best described in British comedy metaphors. Since January’s Carnivorous Plant Tour went swimmingly in both attendance and sanitation protocols, we’re going to try again on Sunday, February 14 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm for a joint Lunar New Year/St. Valentine’s Day plant tour, with plans for showing a whole new collection of carnivore enclosures at the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo in Fair Park on March 27. It’s also time to restart the virtual events, definitely starting in February, for those who don’t have the opportunity to come to Dallas at this time.

And speaking of COVID-19, it’s time to crack out the bleach wipes and the extra masks, as the new day job is requiring a road trip. Specifically, I’ll be in New Jersey, right on the other side of the river from Philadelphia, for the first week in February, so appointments have to be delayed until afterwards. While the usual run of bookstore and curio shop ransacking is decidedly unsafe right now, the idea is to be able to meet folks in the area, with appropriate social distancing, and even talk to a couple of carnivore breeders in the area about new surprises for 2021. At least, that’s the idea: I haven’t been above the Mason-Dixon Line in January since 1997, and I’ve been far enough away from places where the air hurts my face in January that I might spend the whole time looking for a nice bonfire to crawl into. We’ll see what happens.

Finally, a hint on new enclosures: since nobody has said we aren’t having Texas Frightmare Weekend at the end of April/beginning of May, the plan is to have several new enclosures debut there and at the Oddities & Curiosities Expos in Dallas and Austin this year. Keep an eye out for the big one for Frightmare: let’s just say that building it around a Nepenthes diabolica will be particularly appropriate. See you soon.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Bonus Round

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

If you’ve been following the crowd and cleaning up your Sarracenia pitcher plants, there’s an added bonus for keeping them outside through their growing season. Just like animals, carnivorous plants have to deal with the byproducts of digestion: namely, everything that doesn’t digest, which includes shells, fat bodies, stomach contents, and the occasional wristwatch. With carnivores with beartrap or sticky traps, such as Venus flytraps, sundews, and butterworts, those leftovers are left to be washed off during the next rain, and many take advantage of those remains as bait to attract new prey. (This is why some of the most common prey items in Venus flytraps tend to be spiders: jumping and crab spiders look at the empty shells of flies and other insects as an opportunity for an easy meal, and set off the same trigger hairs responsible for that now-empty insect shell being there in the first place.) With all four of the genera commonly listed as “pitcher plants,” though, instead of developing an anus or other way to flush those parts out of a trap, the plant instead just grows new traps, and the old, prey-filled traps shrivel up and die, to be replaced by new ones. Careful cutting of a dead pitcher reveals valuable information about what kinds of prey the plant attracted while the trap was still alive…if you know how to read it.

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Plastic tub or tray (go for something with reasonably high walls)
  • Tub liner (plastic or paper)
  • Spray bottle filled with water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Forceps
  • Long pin or dissection probe
  • Glass container (test tube or small jar) for holding trap contents
  • A good light source
  • Magnifying glass or dissecting microscope

As to where to get the pitchers in the first place, these tend to be available on Sarracenia undergoing winter dormancy, usually broken by wind or snow, and usually get clipped off as part of a winter cleanup. Since these are going to get tossed into the compost pile anyway, they’re perfect for our nefarious purposes. You can determine the presence of interesting contents in multiple ways: holes in the side of the pitcher from wind, weather, or bird foraging reveal insect contents, or you can fold back the pitcher lid and look inside. Alternately, you can just cut open every pitcher you get to see what’s inside, but be warned that animals ranging from spiders to tree frogs may be attempting to hibernate, at least for a little while, inside of a particular pitcher, and it’s good form to give them a chance to escape before tearing up their winter homes.

A very good way to tell if a pitcher has a significant collection of prey is to look for dead patches, sometimes called “bee burn,” on the pitcher walls. Bee burn can be caused by multiple factors, but it always involves the plant collecting too much prey for it to digest all at once. Look at it as plant indigestion. In this case, the bee burn comes from an especially dry October, where Dallas humidity was so low that the plant simply couldn’t draw up enough water in its pitcher to break down everything, but the trap itself continued working at maximum efficiency. The bad news is that this surplus of material eventually killed the trap walls, leaving that distinctive burn. The good news is that we KNOW that the trap will be full of all sorts of interesting things.

To start, you’re going to need a decent work space and proper tools. As far as the workspace is concerned, do so inside of a plastic tub, a Sterilite container, or something else with reasonably high walls. In the process of cutting open pitchers, things WILL fall out, and you want them enclosed so they don’t end up on the floor or in your lap. In addition, you’ll probably want some kind of liner or barrier both for contrast and to pick up trap contents from the tub before you start work: plastic sheeting works well, but my personal favorite is baking parchment. (Separation layer for epoxy work, quick-and-dirty paint palette, bug part consolidator: is there anything baking parchment can’t do?)

Another thing to consider is exactly how…erm, gooey you want your trap contents to be. Especially after a stout rain, those trap contents can be rather saturated, and it’s not a bad idea after trimming them off to let them sit somewhere where they can drain a bit. Even after, the contents remain quite waterlogged for a while, so setting pitchers in front of a fan or heating vent or on a sunny windowsill for a few days isn’t a bad option. This also gives a chance for opportunists such as ants or spiders to find somewhere else to go.

Once you have your container and liner ready, it’s time to start work. Get out a pair of sharp scissors, preferably with narrow blades, and cut off the lid end of the pitcher. This isn’t just to make the rest of the trap easier to work with, but also because scissor blades have a tendency to get caught on the edge of the pitcher lip when cutting further. Set it aside, look at it from the insect’s POV, use it as an all-organic finger puppet: the possibilities are endless.

At this point, check the placement of where the layer of trap contents starts, and prepare to start cutting to free it. From this end, this may not be all that interesting, but sometimes interesting insects get caught in the pitcher after the official end of the growing season, and now is the time to make sure you don’t have something like a paper wasp or honeybee that’s still alive and peeved at its situation.

From the end of the cut pitcher, slowly and carefully cut lengthwide along the pitcher. Taking it slow and easy works for multiple reasons: you’re less likely to damage something particularly significant or interesting, you’ll be able to feel tension on the blade as you’re cutting, and you’re less likely to put tension on the pitcher and fling those contents in your face and all over your best clothes. (I guess I should have said “don’t wear your best clothes while cutting up dead pitcher plant pitchers,” shouldn’t I?)

Just because it’s shown this way doesn’t mean you should do it this way: make another cut on the other side so that your trap’s contents fall onto your liner and don’t go flying. If your pitcher plant had a good year, you’ll have quite the bolus of insect parts, as well as the occasional bones from small vertebrates such as frogs or geckos. (Both frogs and geckos are especially good at getting out of a Sarracenia pitcher, so any bones probably come from ones dying of other causes.) If that pile is completely dry, it’ll probably adhere and make chunks, and those can be broken up by gently spraying the chunk with a little water and then separating the parts as the lump softens.

One thing that becomes very obvious when looking at pitcher contents that while Sarracenia are opportunists, many tend to capture one type of prey than others. For instance, red pitcher plants (Sarracenia rubra) and their hybrids tend to catch a disproportionate number of ants. These pitchers in this exercise are from hybrids of white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla), and S. leucophylla is especially good at attracting and capturing nocturnal insects such as moths and click beetles. This trap caught a lot of moths, as is obvious by the number of wings still recognizable as such.

At this juncture, you have several options. If you have further plans for the evening, slide these parts into a test tube or glass jar to save them for later. (If your parts are still gooey, put the test tube or jar in a refrigerator so the parts don’t grow mold.) Alternately, if you’re ready to get going, take a pair of forceps, a dissecting probe, and whatever magnifying option suits your fancy and separate and sort the assembled parts. With a bit of entomology knowledge, you’ll soon recognize legs, digging limbs, and elytra (the carapace atop a beetle’s back to protect the wings and conserve moisture) and be able to gauge how many insects a typical pitcher plant captures over a growing season.

And to quote Canada’s answer to Doctor Who, “it really is just that easy.” It’s just like taking apart an owl pellet, but with considerably less owl vomit. If you don’t have any trimmed pitchers this year, well, that’s just something to look forward to doing the next time you’re cleaning up your Sarracenia.

The Aftermath: Carnivorous Plants In January 2021

After a much-needed gap to reorganize and restock, the first Carnivorous Plant Tour of 2021 ran on January 24. Of course, it’s not a Triffid Ranch event without torrential rains and thunderstorms, including what was either very early-for-the-season hail or an attempt at sleet, but that didn’t affect the enthusiasm of those daring the storms to do their worst.

In other developments, this gave a great opportunity for visitors to see the full gallery before individual enclosures go out for rental in February. With more enclosures going out, it’s time to make more, and it may be time for a sale of established enclosures in February in order to make room for new works.

For those who missed the fun, the next Carnivorous Plant Tour is a joint Valentine’s Day and Lunar New Year celebration on February 14, running from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and outdoor shows should start up again at the end of March, coinciding with the return of the Dallas Oddities and Curiosities Expo on March 27. With luck, we won’t get flooded out for the next Plant Tour, the way we nearly did last year, but as usual the weather makes no promises.

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 3

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

And now we get to the heart of the matter. A lot of wonderful things can be said about North American pitcher plants, but that list of complimentary adjectives will never include “petite.” No matter the species and no matter the hybrid, give a Sarracenia good light, rainwater or distilled water, and enough room for its roots to spread, and it’ll eventually take over. For those working on large container gardens, this is a feature, not a bug, but eventually one plant becomes a bunch, and that bunch becomes a wave heading to the sea. Combine that with even the best potting mix eventually breaking down and compacting, and sooner or later, you’ll have to thin and repot.

That foul Year of Our Lord 2020 doesn’t qualify for many positive adjectives, but it was a pretty good year for growing Sarracenia outside. We only had a few days where the temperatures went above blood temperature, we had enough sudden summer cloudbursts to take the edge off the worst of the summer, and the only period all year where humidity dropped to “Dallas normal” (that is, consistently below 30 percent) was in October. The previous winter was just cold enough to give everything a good winter dormancy, and as is typical for North Texas, we weren’t running out of bugs. This meant a lot of growth among the Sarracenia pools, to the point where you could look at one pot and refuse to believe that the plant had ever been cleaned up in its life.

That, though, was the situation for the Sarracenia hybrid above: by January 2021, all of the traps that survived winter 2020 were all dead, the majority of pitchers and phyllodia from spring were dead or dying, and the fall pitchers were still going strong. In addition, Sarracenia grow from rhizomes that spread gradually and put up new growing points, and this one had rhizomes that were shoving up against the sides of its plastic pot and threatening to rupture it. This plant was now a series of plants, and they all needed a combination of haircut, pedicure, and house refinishing, and January is the best time to do this.

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Plastic tub or tray (go for something with reasonably high walls)
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Sharp garden knife
  • Long tweezers or alligator forceps

In addition, should your plant be as rootbound and as overgrown as this, you’ll also need a copious supply of your preferred Sarracenia potting mix (usually one part sphagnum peat to one part sharp sand), a suitable supply of plastic or glazed ceramic pots, a bucket full of rainwater or distilled water, and a place to keep your new repotted plants. IMPORTANT WARNING: be very careful about the peat and sand you are using. Do not, under any circumstances, use peat moss that has added fertilizers: most carnivores cannot handle most standard fertilizers, as the fertilizers will burn the roots off. Likewise, when purchasing sand, test a sample by putting a handful into a cup and adding vinegar or another weak acid. If it fizzes, don’t use it, because the sand is too contaminated with limestone or other alkalis for use.

While this may look like a hopeless case, 90 percent of the work can be done with your fingers, with or without gloves as is your preference. Most of the dead pitchers and phyllodia shown here will come loose with a gentle tug, so rake through the mess at the top of the pot with fingers and pull it all to the side. While you’re at it, watch for new growing points, such as the one above that’s threatening to make a break for freedom, and clip off any dead pitchers that are hanging onto those growing points instead of pulling them. The odds are pretty good that the pitcher stem is stronger than the rhizome, and you don’t want to snap the rhizome or uproot the whole plant. Finally, clip back any pitchers and phyllodia that are still green at the base, just to remove the dead, brown portion. (You can trim the whole pitcher, but since Sarracenia use whatever live leaves survive the winter to store up reserves for spring, the more green you leave, the better the chance the plant has of having larger and more copious blooms.)

Now, this is a LOT better than it was, but the pot is still distended from multiple rhizome incursions, and the whole collective could use some foot space. It’s time for it to come out and get split up.

With most plastic propagation pots, removal is easy: grab the pitchers with one hand, hold the pot with the other, and pull up until the root ball slides free. Be careful not to pull TOO hard, or you’ll tear up the plant before the roots work free. If the roots won’t come free, dig out a portion of soil (watching out for roots), flex the pot if possible, or even soak the whole thing, pot and all, in a bucket of rainwater until the soil is loose enough to come free. When it comes free, watch for the whole root ball breaking up and making a mess, and especially watch for critters that planned to spend the winter among the roots. This root ball dislodged a slug and several (harmless to humans) spiders, but once I accidentally disturbed a queen paper wasp that was buried in a pot while waiting for spring, and she wasn’t happy in the slightest.

At this point, dedicated students of the obvious may note that this project was done in a white plastic tub, and a potting tub or other wide container with reasonably high walls is very highly recommended at this point. This isn’t just to catch slugs and spiders, but to catch the wet peat that’s otherwise going to go everywhere. Lay your Sarracenia root ball in the bottom of that tub, note where rhizomes were pressing against the now-removed pot, and gently start pulling plants apart. Most will come free right away: if the root ball is too entangled, soak it in that bucket of rainwater for a couple of minutes, and then try again. It’s not necessary to break up big rhizomes, but if you absolutely have to, clean your garden knife (you read the list of recommended tools above, didn’t you?) with isopropyl alcohol and cut between growing points. Don’t go serial killer on the rhizomes: a rhizome about the width of your fist is a good size.

Next, we’re going to repot all of our freshly separated Sarracenia, which means being ready for repotting at least 24 hours earlier. That’s the minimum amount of time you’ll need to hydrate dry sphagnum peat moss: if it’s dried out, water poured on top will just run down without being absorbed by the peat, and letting that water soak in takes time. Put your mix in a bucket or other container, add a good amount of water, and LEAVE IT ALONE for at least 12 hours. By the time you’re ready, you’ll need a mix that’s about the consistency of a good mud pie. (If you use a peat/sand mix, stir it up well because all of the sand will have settled to the bottom if the mix has too much water.) If and when the potting mix is ready, get your pots ready, and put a good handful of wet mix in the bottom of each pot. With one hand, hold the plant upright, making sure that the crown of the plant (where the roots meet the leaves) is above the edge of the pot, and gently pack in potting mix with the other. Compact it just enough to remove big air voids, which should just burp out if the potting mix is wet enough, and set it aside (with something underneath it to catch any water leaking out of the bottom or off the sides) to work on the next.

The photo above only shows part of the final harvest: that one pot of Sarracenia yielded 10 pots of new plants. They all went back outside to continue their dormancy, and we’ll find out how well the surgery went when things warm up. Now go clean up: dump the plant parts and old sphagnum in the compost pile, pour the bucket water into the pile as well (don’t use it to water other Sarracenia, to minimize the risk of disease), clean your tools well, and look on a job well done. And just think: with a large collection of Sarracenia, this was just ONE pot, and now you have to do the same thing for five…or ten…or one hundred…

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sarracenia: 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Frail Triggerplants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Forkleaf Sundews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Venus Flytraps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – “Novi”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Nepenthes x ventrata

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

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

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

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

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

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