Tag Archives: bladderworts

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Terrestrial Bladderworts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2019 – 6

Ever since the beginning, there’s always something new at the Triffid Ranch booth Texas Frightmare Weekend, and that’s very deliberate. Frightmare will always have a large selection of good beginner carnivores: as I keep pointing out, it’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the plant to sell you a plant that requires more maintenance than you’re capable of handling. Increasingly, as regular attendees master the beginner plants, more exotic species and hybrids enter the mix: that’s the reason why two tables are necessary to show everything.

The real fun, though, is watching someone fall head-over-heels in love with a long shot. Terrestrial bladderworts are a tough sell for beginners: without a microscope or at least a good magnifier, you’ll never see bladderwort traps, even after washing the soil away, and you’ll never see the traps in operation. However, watching someone go absolutely goopy over bladderwort blooms is worth all of the effort: I brought one Utricularia calycifida “Asenath Waite” purely to show what it looked like, and had no idea as to the response. Next year, available room willing, it’s time to expand the bladderwort section.

Blooms in the greenhouse

Utricularia blooms

The last really bad bout of winter weather came through last night, and areas south and west of Dallas took frost damage. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, we got cold, but not cold enough to cause longterm damage. Good thing, too, because this winter has gone on far too long. Sure, the calendar says “spring”, but try telling that to the dingbats ordering the cold fronts.

Anyway, one of the better aspects of our current weather fluctuations is that everything that can bloom is doing so, all at once. This makes such ephemeral and unnecessary activities as breathing a little more jolly, as Dallas air once again hits “too thick to breathe, too thin to plow” in consistency and flavor. Oh, but the view.

Utricularia blooms

One of the surprises that really isn’t too surprising is watching the current explosion of terrestrial bladderworts in the greenhouse. One of those subsurprises was discovering that a pot of Utricularia lividia I thought was dead from last December’s Icepocalypse survived and now threatens to take over. In addition, one pot of sundews had barely visible sprigs of another bladderwort I haven’t identified yet, adding a bit of yellow to go with the white, purple, and red all around. The hummingbirds certainly aren’t complaining: several ruby-throats and rufous hummingbirds found access through the front door when things were warmer, and now I can joke that to go with all of my other problems, I have a greenhouse infested with dinosaurs.

Drosera binata blooms

Others are a bit slower. None of the Venus flytraps have done more than produce bloom spikes, but the forkleaf sundews (Drosera binata) are going mad. With a bit of luck, most of the sundews that survived the winter will follow up with similar displays, and the flytraps should follow within a few more days

Stylidium debile blooms

And should it be a surprise that no matter how rough the weather, the frail triggerplants (Stylidium debile) just keep growing and growing? The weather encouraged them, too, with one of the strongest displays I’ve seen since the big snowstorm of 2010. With the new triggerplant species getting established in the greenhouse as well, I can only imagine what the greenhouse will look like this time next year. Here’s just hoping that we don’t have to suffer quite so much to get there.

All-Con 2014: The Aftermath – 3

All-Con Bladderwort tank

I’m regularly asked by showgoers about where I get my containers and pots, and I answer honestly “From all over.” Among other things, I take advantage of everything from going-out-of-business liquidations to estate sales, all with the idea of finding something different. Half of the fun is finding something horribly inappropriate for its original intended use, but that works beautifully with carnivores. I regularly tell people “If you like it, grab it, because I doubt I’ll be able to find another.

One of the best examples involves the inexplicable boom in miniature aquaria from the 1980s. Starting around Christmas of 1987, stores were packed with two-liter to four-liter aquaria, all advertised as “everything you need”. Without fail, the packaging showed off a completed and filled tank with dozens of fish inside, never bothering to tell novice aquarists that the horribly underpowered air pumps and completely inadequate filter systems would be lucky to keep a single betta alive, much less dozens of guppies or tetras. Many were bought and discarded when the piscine massacre ended, others were put into storage with the idea of trying again one day, and others were purchased as gifts and never opened until the executors of the estate had to clean out the house for its eventual sale. Having bought one in 1988 for a then-girlfriend, I knew that most were designed by companies that wanted to cash in on the trend but that didn’t really care about whether or not they’d work as promised. I also knew that while they were deathtraps for fish, they’re absolutely exquisite for displaying and raising terrestrial bladderworts.

Case in point, the enclosure above was quite common in department stores in the US around 2001, as well as in the now-defunct line of Discovery Channel Stores in shopping malls through the US and Canada. As advertised, it included a built-in periscope to watch your fish at bottom-level, a fish food holder so you could submerge food and watch the fish as they ate, various plastic reefs, an air pump and airstone, and a pocket full of gravel. Oh, it also came with a clear blue plastic top to keep fish in, and a cardboard backdrop of an exciting ocean scene. The latter was what made things interesting.

Shortly after the Czarina and I started dating, she expressed interest in both getting a betta and in getting a small tank so she could enjoy said fish on the kitchen counter. Having had a bit of experience with bettas, I figured that a small tank of this sort might work, especially with additional aeration provided by the included air pump. I knew better than to try to keep anything else in the tank, so I figured that this wouldn’t be too bad of an investment. And it wasn’t. The Czarina was thrilled, and it was a reasonably happy home for her betta until he died of old age several years later. At that point, she hung onto the tank for a while, and then gave it to me so long as I could do something with it. And I had ideas.

The biggest problem with the Underwater Explorer had everything to do with that top and the backdrop. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between cookie jars and apothecary jars when building terraria. A good glass cookie jar will have a lip on the inside of the lid, right next to the rim, to deal with condensation from the natural moisture of the baked goods. If it were to escape, the cookies would go stale, so any excess moisture condenses on the inside of the lid, rolls to the lip, and drips off into the bottom of the jar. An apothecary jar, though, is to deal with trying to control humidity from the outside, so its lid allows condensation to the outside of the jar, helping to keep the contents as dry as possible. With cookies or aspirin pills, condensation on either is barely noticeable. However, with lots of fluid in each type of container, it becomes very noticeable, very quickly.

That’s where things went wrong. The designers of this setup apparently went crazy with the ingenious periscope, and probably never bothered to test how well water spray from the aeration system would impact the cover. Turning on the air pump meant that spray condensed on the inside of the lid, and it promptly dripped off the cover to the outside of the tank. Since the backdrop was just printed cardboard, it rapidly got soaked and mildewey, and nobody apparently thought of sealing it in plastic to extend its life. Within a week, it peeled off and had to be cut free, and use of the air pump had to be cut way back to keep from coming home to a half-empty betta tank in the middle of a large pool of dribbled water. Keep the lid on, and it inhibited air circulation to the surface, preventing more dissolved oxygen from infiltrating the tank. Take the lid off so the betta could breathe, and her cat Tramplemaine because a lot more intrigued by the new playmate. It just wasn’t going to work as a fish enclosure.

For terrestrial bladderworts, though, it was a dream. Many of your tougher species of terrestrial bladderworts, such as Utricularia sandersonii and U. lividia, thrive on extremely boggy soils, and this enclosure was very good at retaining water. The sides were clear, meaning that a windowsill or a good desk lamp offered enough light for proper growth. The periscope allowed plant’s-eye views of the bladderwort foliage, seeing as how it looks like turtle grass at that scale, or of the bloom spikes in spring. The interior kept up the plant’s beloved humidity. Best of all, this container had a story behind it, and that story was enough to get someone to take a large U. sandersonii clump home that day.

All-Con 2014.

Other people say “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” I say “That’s my story, and do you want to hear more?”

More to follow…

The next big project

As events and venues continue to expand, so will the Triffid Ranch, and things have outgrown (pun intended) the little hobby greenhouse from where all of this started back in 2008. Five years since the first Triffid Ranch show at the sadly defunct CAPE Day? Sheesh.

Side of the new greenhouse frame

Anyway, that expansion means that it’s time to set up a new greenhouse specifically for Nepenthes pitcher plants and other heat-loving, humidity-loving plants. The details are too long to go into, but a dear friend of the Czarina’s and mine had a spare shade frame that needed to be moved, and her sense of Scottish frugality is even stronger than mine. Hence, the new Nepenthes frame goes up right after this weekend’s show.

Front of the new greenhouse

It may not look like much here, and it looks even less impressive stripped to raw parts and put into temporary storage. In its full complete state, covered with fresh greenhouse film, and full of pitcher plants and bladderworts, though, it’ll look glorious.