The only thing better than a month until Halloween and a Friday the 13th in the middle of October? (Well, besides a Triffid Ranch exhibition on that Friday the 13th weekend?) Finding lots of Texas-based music that sums up the season. Now that the heat is breaking, it’s time to get outside.
I’ve said before that Halloween at the Triffid Ranch is much like what New Year’s Eve was around Hunter S. Thompson’s house: it’s the day where we back off and let the amateurs get their time in. Many people look at Halloween as just the beginning of the American holiday season, and can’t wait for it to hit full swing. These people go to shopping malls without being held at gunpoint, and who don’t hum “The Gonk the whole time inside. They like all-Christmas terrestrial radio stations, and think that anyone who doesn’t sing along with the eightieth playing of “Santa Baby” is a Scrooge or Grinch. These are people who look forward to company Christmas parties so they can wear their best holiday sweaters, and not because they’re looking for an opportunity to get away with disemboweling everyone in the hotel or restaurant with a peppermint Hershey’s Kiss.
These people are sick.
For the rest of us, the ones who may actually be the sane ones, the week before Halloween is the time to stock up. Much like pikas storing huge caches of grasses in order to survive the Canadian winter, we stock up on rubber lizards, foam spiders, Jell-O molds in the shape of brains, and anything dark and spooky in anticipation of the next four to six months. Some of us, whose businesses celebrate the autumnal equinox the way others celebrate the first day of summer, stock up not for ourselves, but to spread the joy to others when the yellow hurty thing in the sky takes over more and more of the earth’s rotational cycle, and we start thinking “Nine months underground and emerging only to suck eggs and eat baby bunnies…you know, maybe Gila monsters have the right idea.”
And thus, that’s how I ended up in a Michael’s crafts store. In North Texas, Michael’s isn’t just a dark, quiet place to escape the worst of the summer. It’s our annual reminder that the Heat Will End. By the end of August, right when the heat and glare are at their most oppressive, Michael’s can always be depended upon to start stocking the latest in animatronic bats, poison bottles, and skeleton hands. For a little while, one can walk inside and look forward to pulling jackets out of storage, opening the windows to let the cool breezes inside, and grabbing a cup of something hot without shuddering. For many of us, it’s also the season for the year’s new Lemax Spooky Town collection. For years, Spooky Town resin mausoleum and tombstone figures have been an absolute in Triffid Ranch plant arrangements, and when the big draw this year, the Hemlock’s Nursery carnivorous plant nursery display, was for sale at half off, it had to come home.
Well, one of us was more thrilled than the others at the newest display in the office. Demonstrating her namesake‘s attraction to “If I fits, I sits” cat photos, our Cadigan decided to demonstrate that the only thing better for an orange kitty than a box from which to hold court is a Halloween box. Oh, she’s going to be disappointed when we finally have to take down the decorations and acknowledge that All Hallow’s Eve is over and done…by mid-May or so.
I’m not even going to think about suggesting that the drought may be over. I won’t even suggest that it may be easing. That said, our gullywasher storm on Saturday was followed by mist all Sunday and thick fog on Monday, the humidity is more evocative of New Orleans than Dallas, and we’re getting warnings that October 30 might end with severe thunderstorms. In other words, what we used to call “a typical Halloween season”. Compared to last year’s dust-dry autumn, nobody’s complaining.
Since this exceptional weather, in classic Texas fashion, usually precedes unnaturally cold or stormy weather, the last couple of weekends went into cleaning out and modifying the new greenhouse. That included putting in just short of two tons of rainwater as thermal mass, resealing gaps and potential weak spots in the greenhouse film, and putting down new flooring. Friends scream, not unreasonably, about how much they hate weed cloth in garden beds, but this stuff is wonderful for allowing excess condensation seep into the soil under the greenhouse while preventing popweed clover from taking over the whole place.
With the improved weather, it’s time to say goodnight to the Sarracenia. Although the pitcher plants still attract and capture insects, they won’t be doing so for long, as the insects are either dying off or going dormant for the winter. Because of this, the Sarracenia follow the lead, gradually dying back over the next month until they’re dormant about the time we start getting killing frosts in December. They’ll stay that way all winter, only coming out of dormancy around St. Patrick’s Day when it’s time to bloom. Until then, all I’ll have are pictures, but it was a good season for Sarracenia, and we can only hope for a better one next year.
A very important consideration to understand when trying to understand Texas is that we get involved in Halloween festivities. It’s not because Halloween marks the end of harvest season: out here, the end of September marks when we start our fall and winter gardens. It’s not marking the last few warm days before the nightmare of winter falls upon us: I’ve regularly spent Christmas Eve picking habanero peppers and tomatoes for Christmas dinner. You could make an argument that in as repressed an area as Dallas, Halloween is an essential safety valve, as the innumerable seasonal Halloween stores popping up in otherwise empty strip mall storefronts might suggest: that’s an argument that has merit, considering that half of the costumes inside are some variation on either “sexy” or “zombie”. There’s really only one good reason for us to go insane about Halloween festivities, though: this is a completely justifiable celebration of the end of summer. As of right now, we have seven months of air that doesn’t smell of burned flint, seven months of opening windows at night instead of running air conditioners all night long, and seven months of being able to go outside for more than ten minutes at a time without bursting into flame.
If you think we’re enjoying an end to outside conditions more evocative of a cement kiln than a back yard, you should see the plants. The problem out here isn’t that things get so hot during the day, but that most of that heat is trapped at night, too. Most of our native plants shut down over the summer, because temperatures only drop at night to the point where they can photosynthesize for an hour or two at dawn. Non-native plants either struggle or burn off, which is why we’re so fond of separate spring and fall gardens in between the days of “I’m Going To Blow Up The Sun Just So I Can Sleep at Night.”
If it means we go a little insane in Halloween festivities, then so be it. Sure, I can name the number of times I’ve seen an actual hard frost on Halloween Week on one hand, and still have enough fingers left to play baseball, but that just means that the decent weather lasts that much longer. It’s pretty comparable to the craziness at Easter in higher latitudes: we’re just celebrating that it’s OVER!
That said, it’s not all spiderwebs and werewolves. Fall in Texas means that the fundamental conflict between two groups of obsessives comes to full force. You have us, the normal people who bawl our eyes out at the end of Alien when the best-developed character in the whole movie gets thrown out the airlock, and then there are the freaks. The people too busy for haunted houses and apple cider because they’re focusing on Texas’s one real official religion. Yeah, the football fanatics.
It’s always a struggle. Always. You don’t see workplaces telling everyone “Come in Friday dressed as your favorite monster,” and then threatening anybody who wears anything but vampire garb with disciplinary action. Downtown Dallas doesn’t smell like beer vomit and Rohypnol every weekend because of roving gangs of pumpkin carving hooligans. I have yet to hear of a single case of a crazed parent shooting or threatening to shoot a drama teacher because his/her kid didn’t make the cut in a theatrical makeup competition. And when the costumers have their big party, we tend to clean up after ourselves. It’s no surprise that one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century was so succinct about his fear of Dallas:
(Fifteen years ago, I was living in Portland, Oregon when King of the Hill first premiered. I was already pretty homesick for Texas, but nothing hit me so hard as having to explain to well-meaning co-workers why this line was so convulsingly funny. Spend a few weeks in Dallas this time of the year, though, and you’ll understand.)
Most years, there’s no real conflict. The football fanatics hold up garlic. We grab it away and use it in chili. They retaliate with tailgate parties. We reciprocate by asking “Not used to staying up all night, are you?” They stay away from the apple cider doughnuts, and we don’t spraypaint “REMEMBER 1996?” on SMU’s new stadium. It’s mutually assured destruction, but it keeps us both a little sane.
Well, that was then. Someone amped up the war. Some sick vermin crossed a line that was set about a mile back, and grinned while doing so. This person or persons unknown produced what’s probably the most horrifying Halloween decoration I’ve ever seen. This person, when found, will PAY.
This is uncalled for. I couldn’t come up with anything this sick, and I’ve spent the last week overdosing on Ego Likeness albums. Is someone REALLY wanting to awaken at dawn to find us standing over him, ready to plunge a goalpost through his heart to stop the nightmare?
Posted onDecember 8, 2011|Comments Off on Thursday is Resource Day: Making Jack Skellington Proud
Dallas still hasn’t seen any snow, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, Christmas for Dallas, which us also known as “July in Calgary”. The nights are frosty, the mornings chilly, and the evenings ridiculously clear and bright. And we know what this means, right? It means we have only 327 more days until Halloween. More importantly, we have 328 days until everyone’s literally giving away pumpkins.
Go ahead and laugh, but those of us who can’t drink and can’t smoke need new methods to survive the holiday season and the dark days of January and February. Sure, I could go for established techniques learned in my childhood, such as indoor gardening, fishkeeping, or impromptu games of Russian roulette with friends. Instead, I wait until the local charity pumpkin patches need to get rid of their excess pumpkins on All Saint’s Day, and I then spend the next week preparing pumpkin seeds. Yes, it’s boring and sedate, but it also means that I’m up to my armpits in roasted pumpkin seeds, and THAT’s what gets me through Christmas.
The basic idea of pumpkin seed roasting is pulling the seeds out of a freshly opened jack-o-lantern, washing them, and roasting them in an oven or grille until they’re slightly crunchy. No big deal, and any number of people do it every Halloween. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of seeds per pumpkin means that it’s not really practical to experiment with roasting or with flavorings. For that, you’ll need a lot of pumpkin seeds. Since you need approximately five pumpkins for a liter of seeds, you’ll need a lot of pumpkins.
This is also problematic in North Texas, just because of our heat and dryness. All plants have pores, or stomata, on the tops of their leaves to allow transpiration of water. Some of this water is excess produced during photosynthesis, but most is drawn up through the plant’s roots to allow movement of water and nutrients to the leaves. Pumpkins are particularly interesting in that they have stomata on both sides of their leaves, thus doubling their transpiration output. This is great in areas with high humidity and slightly cooler temperatures, but most attempts in Dallas to grow pumpkins fail for one good reason: the plant ends up losing more water from transpiration than it can draw through its roots, and it ultimately wilts and dies. The only year I’ve had a traditional jack-o-lantern survive the summer was during the unnaturally wet 2007 summer, and I even lost that one to termites. (Yes, termites. Very long story.)
Since trying to grow them outdoors is impossible, starting the process requires getting a good collection of pumpkins from other sources. Many fundraiser “pumpkin patch” stands pop up around the beginning of October, so make friends with a few and see what they’re going to do with their pumpkins. If the fundraiser is for a charity you appreciate or support, offer a donation in exchange for going through their excess. If they say “Oh, go ahead and help yourself,” offer a donation anyway, and they’ll remember you as the person who helped clear out their unwanted pumpkins. Sometimes this pays off.
In my case, this wasn’t going to happen, particularly because of the collapse of the jack-o-lantern crop in the Northeast US due to Hurricane Irene’s flooding. However, my local Kroger store had a surplus from the Rio Grande Valley, and a week after Halloween, the manager had marked them down to “10 for $10”. $40 and some very strange looks from the Kroger checkers later, I had a car full of pumpkins. Ten minutes after that, I had a back yard full of pumpkins.
Handy tip #1: make sure that you have a vehicle capable of hauling your bounty, and without the bounty pile shifting and pummelling your head while attempting to drive back home. I stopped at 40 pumpkins this time, mostly so the coroner’s report didn’t read “assaulted by squash after a sudden stop,” but were I to have a big enough collection, renting a truck is an option.
Now, once you have your pumpkins out of their transport and in a good massacree area, you’ll need proper tools for suitable processing. These should include:
A tub or bucket suitably large for holding seeds and water (you’ll see why later)
A sharpened machete or other long blade
Salt in standard packages: one kilo for every 30 pumpkins
A pair of cotton or gardener’s gloves
A pair of atex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves
2 Baking sheets (preferably ones that won’t be missed if stained or damaged)
Your choice of spices
If you’re working on a porch or other blacktop or concrete area, get a stump or log section to use for chopping pumpkins. Since you’re going to be working for a while, I also recommend having some sort of music player with something a bit violent to keep up your spirits. In my case, considering my skin and hair coloration, my choice for pumpkin massacre was Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword.
To start out, take into consideration that pumpkin juice is extremely acidic. It’s not actually caustic, but it’s sufficiently acidic that it will burn the skin along your fingernails, and you absolutely do not want this in any open cuts or scabs. Should this be of concern, put on the gardener’s gloves, pull out the machete, put a pumpkin on a good cutting area, and give it one good thwack. If your neighbors are already used to your shenanigans, feel free to let loose with a good battle yell, such as the one used by my doctor during my vasectomy: “Hasan…CHOP!” (My neighbors are plenty interesting, but even they weren’t going to handle my screaming “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” while dispatching squash on a Saturday afternoon. They were freaked out enough by pumpkin chips and pulp flying over the fence like a failed special effect in a GWAR concert.)
As tempting as it may be to try exotic swordsmanship, just go for a straight slice across the widest part of the pumpkin. If you slice through all the way, great. If it only goes most of the way, apply some pressure to finish the job, and split it in half. Set aside the halves and get to work on the next one: it’s actually easier to get them all prepped before starting on the next step than to clean them one at a time.
Once the chopping is done, and the back yard looks as if the soldiers of Kelmain will fight no more, wash the machete and dry the blade (especially if the blade is carbon steel, as the pumpkin juice will stain and pit the blade) and put on your rubber gloves. With a raking motion, scrape the seeds from the stringy pulp on the inside of each pumpkin half, and dump the seeds into your tub or bucket. Don’t worry about getting every last seed, mostly because you’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy to get that one last straggler, but make some effort to get the vast majority. When you’re done, feel free to cook up the pumpkin halves, as apparently they make quite a good soup when roasted, skinned, and mashed before dumped into a crockpot. That’s the Czarina’s territory, as I honestly can’t stand squash of any sort. If your tastes run toward mine, then feel free to use them as mulch in your garden, laying them down and then putting a good thick layer of compost or leaves atop them so they’ll decompose quickly.
Handy tip #2: If you’re inclined to getting boisterous with your pumpkins, consider some sort of eye protection to go with the gloves. If you don’t want to get the juice on your cuticles, you definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes.
Once the pumpkin halves are cleaned up and the machete is put up for the season, you should have a fairly large collection of seeds in your tub. As a general rule, you should have a liter of seeds for every five to ten pumpkins, so carefully move the tub to a new and more permanent location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, but it should have some protection from the weather. Whatever you do, lift with your knees and not your back, because you don’t want the indignity of blowing out a vertebral disc and landing facefirst into a pile of spilled pumpkin seeds. You don’t want your final moments to be recreated by my little brother on 1000 Ways To Die, do you?
Next, get the salt, and generously dump it into the tub with the seeds. Go nuts. Go mad. Make it strong enough that rampaging porcupines will come to your house and gnaw down the fence to get at the salt. (We don’t have that problem out here, but the armadillos are almost that obnoxious over spilled beer.) Dump in at least a kilo, and then cover the seeds with water and stir up well.
At this point, as tempting as it would be to go to work on roasting, don’t. Let the seeds sit in your newly made brine for at least 24 hours. This will remove any remaining pumpkin slime and juice, as well as facilitate the removal of any extra pulp. Think you got out all of the pulp when you were scraping out seeds in the yard? Oh, you’ll discover that pumpkin pulp can teleport, and in disturbing quantities.
Handy tip #3: Use a slotted spoon to stir your brined seeds, and stir early and often. You’ll be amazed and horrified at how much pulp builds up after a casual stirring, and every gram you get now is one less gram you’ll have to pull out of your roasting sheets.
After the seeds finish their brine soak, scoop out a few liters, dump the mass into a colander, and rinse well. I mean it: rinse well. Let them drain for a while: while doing so, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and get out the baking sheets.
Handy tip #4: Unless you thrive on domestic discord, and your Significant Other or roommate really doesn’t care what you do to the cookie sheets, get a pair specifically for pumpkin seed roasting and use the pair ONLY for that purpose. They WILL stain, and the shrieks from cooking enthusiasts as to the piebald condition of their sheets are matched only by their efforts to brain you with the blender. Keep an eye open for sales at grocery stores during baking season, and they’ll thank you for the thought.
Next, dump the seeds from the colander to the cookie sheet. They don’t have to be exactly one layer thick: sometimes a thicker layer roasts better, especially on particularly dry days.
Purists at this point can move directly to putting their seeds in the oven, but a judicious application of spice can make all of the difference. The personal favorites among family and friends are Memphis-style dry rib rub (in this case, generously supplied by Red Hot & Blue, but Defcon Sauces’s Smoky Dust also gives a subtle fire to roasted seeds. Either way, the good thing about having a large quantity of seeds is that this gives room to experiment with spices and roasting time, so try new items one batch at a time.
Once the spices are on, stir up the seeds on the cookie sheet, trying to get the majority of the seed mass covered in spice. (This, by the way, is why you want sheets solely for seed roasting. The seeds won’t stain the sheets, but the spices will.) Once that’s done, put the sheet in the oven and leave at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. While that’s going, set up another sheet and set it aside.
When that time is up, pull that sheet out of the oven and stir it again. You’ll note that the seeds are still wet toward the bottom of the sheet, and the stirring is to drive off the excess moisture. You’ll probably also note that the oven vents are gouting steam at this point. Don’t sweat it, and use it as an excuse to raise the humidity in the house. If the house is already too soggy, turn on a vent fan and blast it out: it’s your choice.
Now here’s the critical part. Put that sheet back into the oven and set a timer for seven minutes. You’ll actually need ten minutes, but the timer warning is so you watch those seeds. One minute too little, and the seeds will have all of the flavor and digestibility of cattle feed. One minute too long, and every smoke detector in the vicinity will go off, and you don’t want any hot spices to get into the smoke unless you really like burning from the inside. Keep an eye on them, and pull them out at 10 minutes or when the seeds go a nice golden brown but before they start to smoke.
Once they’re ready, pull out the cookie sheet, set the sheet aside to cool, and put in the next batch. Right about the time you’ll need to stir the second sheet, the first sheet should be cool enough to store. The absolute best option is to store the roasted seeds in an airtight container such as a Rubbermaid bowl or a ZipLoc bag, where they’ll keep for up to three months. If you want to keep them longer than that, the containers can be put into the freezer and removed at your discretion.
One warning, a lesson I learned back in 2005 when I cut up about 120 pumpkins and processed about 100 liters of seeds. Do not expect these to last for very long. Between regular snackings to fend off seasonal depression and friends and family snagging bags for their own uses, those 100 liters lasted about three months. Make a point of scoping out more pumpkin sources next year, and they might last longer for you than they do for me. They might.
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Just a tiny observation, based on a trip to the grocery store this morning. Back eighteen years ago, my friend Joey Shea kept calling and writing to tell me about a new movie coming out from Tim Burton that I simply had to see. I was still licking bus station toilets clean to get the taste of Batman out of my mouth (to this day, Batman, Girl, Interrupted, and Free Enterprise are my faithful reminders of why I’ll sooner put out lit cigarettes in my eyes than return to film criticism), but this being Joey, he’s rarely wrong when it comes to movies. Well, he hyped up Batman when we first met, but if you can’t forgive your friends, who can you forgive?
Naturally, the film in question was The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s hard to believe today, but that film at the time made lots of heads go explodey, if only because the monsters were the nominal good guys. It definitely made Disney execs at the time go berserk, and the film was the redheaded stepchild of the Disney empire for years. (Even today, I don’t expect to see Sally included with the Disney Princesses, much to the regret of several nieces.)
At the time, I walked out of the theater with only one particular beef about the whole film. Namely, at the end of the film, when Santa fixes the damage caused by Jack Skellington’s addition of Halloween horror to Christmas, you see all of the children given Jack’s special toys welcoming the traditional Christmas replacements. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t one kid, somewhere, screaming and howling at the top of her lungs as Santa tried to take back the one decent Christmas present she’d ever received. Over the years, as I shared this observation, friends and cohorts agreed, especially since most of us felt the same way. Those of a certain age may remember the parental scoffing and cries of outrage over Kenner putting out an Alien action figure during Christmas 1979, but kids LOVED that stuff. The parental cries over how children would be permanently damaged by playing with “inappropriate” toys were especially funny: we knew those kids, and they could already taste-test specific brands of paste.
One of my regular comments upon seeing the changes in the world since my youth is “I love living in the future.” One of the reasons I say this so often is seeing how readily we as a culture have gone back to the old days of mixing horror and joy in everyday life. For far too many of us, our role models for stable and loving marriages were Gomez and Morticia Addams. Nobody’s bothered by the Monster High toy line as an alternative to Barbie. With far too many friends, I could suggest an evening of watching Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and they’d sniff “I didn’t know you were into documentaries.” I LOVE it.
And what does all of this have to do with gardening? Well, I was one of those kids who would have been demanding that Jack Skellington be allowed to do another Christmas now and then. I’m a bit too old for toys, but plants are a good alternative. I’m thinking it may be time to get more people together who feel the same way, and plan a garden show the likes of which this planet has never seen.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.
That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.
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Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 4: Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.
I have a lot of reasons for hyping fellow carnivorous plant sellers, besides the idea that we’re all in this together. I view Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest as the crazy cousins I never had (well, I have crazy cousins, but not horticulturally inclined crazy cousins), and I enthusiastically turn friends and cohorts in the direction of northwest Oregon when Jacob and Jeff host one of their biannual open houses. This isn’t just because they know their plants and obviously love them. It’s because they’re constantly challenging me. In my old age, I’ve become more convinced than ever that it’s better to be correct than to be right, and they’ve taught me too many times to shut up, listen, and make sure that any questions I ask or comments I make weren’t already answered a week ago. (They also have better stories. I only have to worry about treerats digging up the dragonfruit and geckos hiding in the pitcher plants. They get Pacific treefrogs laying eggs in their aquatic bladderwort tanks and piglets sneaking through the fence from their neighbor’s lot and playing in their lot. The only way I’m ever going to top this is by getting that crocodile monitor after all.)
Anyway, the Sarracenia Northwest tagline is “No terrariums. No myths. No nonsense.” It’s succinct and accurate, and one of the reasons why Jacob and I may be found by palaeontologists 90 million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian fighting dinosaurs. It’s not that he’s wrong. He’s just lucky in that he and Jeff live in a locale where humidity levels aren’t so obscenely low.
One of Jacob’s tenets is that most carnivorous plants can and should be grown outside, in full sun, just the way they do in the wild. He also posits that most carnivores are much tougher than most people assume, and that most adapt to outdoor life much better than expected. He and Jeff offer living proof at their open houses, with growing pools just overloaded with big, bright, sparkly Sarracenia that make my guts ache with jealousy to look at them. Flytraps, bladderworts, and even their beloved Darlingtonia cobra plants…all outside, or maybe under fabric covers if the plant is particularly sensitive to strong summer sun.
To give you an idea on their commitment to researching proper growing traditions, they went into the wild to visit feral stands of Darlingtonia. Tourists may know of the Darlingtonia State Natural Site southwest of Portland, but Darlingtonia californica can be found among seeps throughout the mountains of Oregon, Washington State, northern California, and parts of British Columbia. Darlingtonia is one of the big El Dorados in the carnivorous plant field, having a reputation for being particularly temperamental and likely to die if you look at it cross-eyed. In fact, one of the absolutes that was taught to most carnivore enthusiasts, myself included, is that they can’t handle heat for any length of time. Jacob and Jeff decided to challenge this, taking temperature measurements in prime Darlingtonia habitat and showing that Darlingtonia can handle Dallas-like daytime temperatures in daylight hours with aplomb. (The secret to raising Darlingtonia is that it’s technically an alpine plant, and that it grows in seeps in the mountains fed by snow melt. The assumption was that it needed cool water on its roots at all times: the real issue is how cool the area gets at night. In North Texas, that means lots and lots of air conditioning, because it depends upon the steep temperature drops in the mountains at night, even during the summer.)
This has led to many friendly arguments about whether terraria should ever be used for carnivores. Jacob in emphatic that terraria aren’t necessary, and that he has customers who raise bog gardens in the desert and get great results. I respond that as much as I agree with him anywhere else, some carnivores can only survive in Dallas in an enclosed container. Not only do we receive almost twice as much sunlight as Sarracenia Northwest gets, due to the SN nursery being above the 45th Parallel North, but we also have a dessicating south wind that stops only between October and March. Even on good years for plant-raising, the area regularly drops below 50 percent relative humidity. In bad ones, such as this year, Dallas has lower relative humidity than Phoenix.
Now, you may ask yourself “What does this have to do with the price of cheese?” It’s time for another digression, and a short one this time. Back in 1985, I picked up a 29-gallon aquarium at a garage sale, and promptly drove everyone around me insane with my sudden passion for freshwater tropical fish. While co-workers were sneaking home to read Hustler before their wives and girlfriends caught them, I was sneaking home with the latest copy of Tropical Fish Hobbyist before my roommates knew what I was planning. In the process of learning just enough to be dangerous (and this included keeping, for a very short time in Wisconsin, a red-bellied piranha named “Bub” that would come to the surface to get his nose rubbed), I noted that different authorities gave different advice about the same fish, sometimes in the same book or magazine. That’s when the owner of the sadly defunct shop Neenah Tropical told me “You should never trust the books, because the fish don’t read.”
That’s absolutely true for carnivorous plants, as well. Always take my or anybody else’s advice on keeping carnivorous plants with a healthy skepticism born of actual knowledge. Those of us with expertise will try our absolute best to help, but there’s always the odd exception. If you’re smart, you’ll accept the unique conditions and circumstances in your area that allow success when everyone else falls on their faces. For years, I was able to keep a batch of Darlingtonia raised from seed alive and healthy in Dallas, and I didn’t smirk about how I had special understanding or superpowers. Instead, I stood back and exclaimed in surprise and delight that I’d somehow beaten the odds. And when this kidney stone of a previous summer took them away from me, I took it as an object lesson.
And here’s where I have my very friendly dispute with Jacob and Jeff. I don’t dispute that Venus flytraps are best kept outside. At times, though, they need a touch of help.
In my own experience, I’ve discovered that flytraps grow best when the relative humidity around them stays, day and night, above at least 60 percent. When the humidity goes below 50 percent and the temperatures go above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), they tend to produce small or nonfunctional traps, and won’t produce new ones until either humidity jumps or temperatures drop. When the temperatures stay this high and the humidity drops below 30 percent, which it did quite regularly in North Texas last summer, the plants simply can’t handle the strain and they die. It doesn’t happen right away, and they can recuperate if conditions improve when they start to fade.
Since a typical Wardian case offers that sort of control, the automatic response to this sort of humidity fluctuation is to put flytraps into a terrarium of some sort. As understandable as this is, this is also dangerous for a flytrap. What I’ve discovered the hard way is that flytraps not only require a lot of sun (at least six to eight hours of direct sun) and a lot of humidity, but they also require a LOT of air circulation. This is why Jacob and Jeff recommend raising flytraps outdoors, where they can get the air circulation they need. Put one in a standard terrarium, and the combination of stagnant air and decreased light intensity are doubly lethal.
A second consideration: even if your flytrap does well during the summer, remember that it’s going to need a winter dormancy period. This leaves you with one of two options. You can put the terrarium outside during the winter, which removes any opportunity to enjoy it during the season where you’ll need a touch of green the most, and risks its being damaged by cold or ice. Alternately, you can remove the flytrap and put it into artificial dormancy in a refrigerator, and then spend the winter looking at the hole in the terrarium where the flytrap used to be. Instead, you might be better off enjoying a tropical carnivore such as a tropical sundew: it may slow down over the winter, but it won’t actually require a full dormancy.
A third factor to consider against a standard terrarium: since the air circulation is so poor in most smaller, seemingly flytrap-friendly terraria, putting one in direct sun is a great way to produce Venus flytrap pottage. Terraria, Wardian cases, greenhouses, and just about any other enclosed space can be used to demonstrate the square-cube law. The smaller the volume, the larger the surface area in proportion to that volume. Put a 100-foot greenhouse in the sun as a two-cup terrarium, and the terrarium reaches killing temperatures much faster.
At this point, you again have two options. You could fit your Wardian case with a solar-powered fan, thereby taking care of the immediate air circulation issue. This, though, does nothing about the dormancy situation. Or, or, you could try a container that helps simulate the best conditions for best health for a flytrap. I’ve discovered that large glass bowls, such as very large brandy snifters or even goldfish bowls, tend to work well in combating Dallas-level low humidity. The container can be put in full sun, where excess heat escapes out the top. Humid air is heavier than dry air, so the humidity stays around the flytrap. Best of all, it can be left outside all year, only pulling it under cover when there’s a risk of snow or ice.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was one more catch. This catch is that while flytraps like moist conditions, they cannot handle standing in water for any appreciable length of time. With that in mind, if you try a large bowl, go for one that’s strong enough to handle the peat/sand mix that’s required for flytraps. Again, many experts recommend against using perlite around flytraps under any circumstances, but I’ve found a layer about one inch (2.54 cm) on the bottom, followed by about four inches (10.16 cm)of equal parts milled sphagnum peat moss and high-quality silica sand, works best. Dress the top with long-fiber sphagnum, wet everything so that it’s moist but not soggy, and plant the flytrap on top. Under most circumstances, flytraps in this sort of enclosure seem to do much better during dry summers than unprotected flytraps, and MUCH better than ones in greenhouses or other covered enclosures. But that’s just me.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 3: Water it with tap water.
As related before, I constantly hear from kids who want to know why their Venus flytraps died, but they’re afraid that I’m going to yell at them about their mistakes. Anything but. In fact, I spend a lot of time talking down kids and teenagers who think I’m going to get angry. It’s not just because only an idiot yells at a kid who literally had no way of knowing better, especially when they were given bad care instructions in the first place. It’s also because I’ve been there myself.
My first experience with growing Venus flytraps, or attempting to do so, was similar to those of most kids in the 1970s. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and spotted a “growing kit” in a local Big N, a chain department store. One dollar later, and I had a styrofoam cup full of peat, a plastic bag for retaining humidity, and a basic instruction guide on the lid. Add water, it said, and put the cup in a sunny window and wait for the seeds to sprout. As with Big N itself, the end results were disappointing: the only seeds that germinated were for grass, and to this day, I have no idea whether the company selling these ever put any flytrap seeds in it in the first place. By the end of summer 1977, my cat Morris got the grass, the peat moss was dumped in the garden, and I was leery of any grow-your-own kit for nearly 30 years.
Two years later, my family was living on the south side of Chicago, and I saw my first live flytrap in a garden center. After poking through the flat of flytraps for the one with the biggest and most traps, I settled on one particularly hirstute specimen and took it home. It did rather well through the autumn, but was still green and presumably live when we moved to North Texas. And then everything went kerblooey.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Chicago’s municipal water was extremely soft at the time, particularly compared to what we were going to encounter. In Chicago, the flytrap was doing well, and it survived the move across country to Texas. In fact, it moved in the car along with a travel-loathing cat, a carsick dog, and four hyperactive kids, so I can attest that Venus flytraps are tougher than most people give them credit for being. However, it wasn’t ready for Texas, specifically a little wide spot in the road at the time called Flower Mound.
Now, there’s a lot that can be said about life in Flower Mound at the time, and one of these days I might be able to say it without peppering it with profanities. (This might be a challenge. According to family legend, I said my first words to my paternal grandmother, and those words were “Damn you”.) The one absolute is that Flower Mound got its municipal water from a combination of wells and from nearby Lake Lewisville, a reservoir constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. 90 million years ago, Flower Mound resembled South Padre Island, being a narrow barrier island on the North American Seaway. Today, the area is mostly mesquite and live oak scrub, but a little digging turns up multitudes of fossil shells, gypsum crystals, and the occasional dinosaur.
The upshot of this is that both the wells and reservoir are in what used to be marine sediments, and those sediments were and still are loaded with salt. Lots of calcium and iron, too, to the point where the dissolved iron stained concrete and stucco a bright rust red on surfaces exposed to lawn sprinklers. Even today, the taste of the water is distinctive, and using municipal water for watering houseplants leaves the pots full of thick mineral crusts after a month or so. Sometimes the salt was strong enough to kill cactus after a while.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that while we were holed up in a hotel waiting for the moving truck to schlep our stuff from Chicago, I figured that my flytrap needed a touch of water. It went into the sink for a quick soak and drain, and I removed it and put it back in the windowsill.
An hour later, as I passed by, I saw that the flytrap wasn’t green any more. Flower Mound water had killed that plant in less than an hour, and with no warning.
23 years went by between my last attempt and my revival in interest in carnivores, and I never forgot what happened. Once I discovered what happened and why, when confronted with the “I used to have a Venus flytrap…” lament, I asked first of all “Were you using tap water to water it?”
Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, I refer to the local water as “crunchy”. It’s good for showers and for drinking, but for carnivorous plants, you might as well spray them with napalm and Agent Orange with a Roundup chaser.
The discussion of water quality for carnivores, much like that of the proper potting mixes, can be a point of debate and even anger among enthusiasts. This is often aggravated by varying water authorities in given parts of a larger community, and different sources for said water through the seasons. (Both with friends in Louisiana and with a great-aunt in northern Michigan, they depended during the summer on well water so loaded with iron and copper that anyone drinking it for more than a month was left temporarily ginger. One of those friends had been drinking that well water for so long that she didn’t know she was blonde until she moved to Dallas and her hair faded out.) Therefore, some will swear up and down that their tap water is perfect for carnivores, and that everyone should use it. I just smile and nod, and put in more rainwater collection tanks. The summer of 2011 was so foul that 500 gallons (1,892 liters) of rainwater in early June was down to ten gallons by the time we saw any rain again in September, but using tap water simply wasn’t an option.
Okay, so to play it safe, no matter what: rain water or distilled water. What else?
Contrary to popular opinion, “steam distilled water” is not the same as boiled water. Steam distillation means that you boil the water to leave behind the calcium, iron, lead, mercury, and other contaminants in water and then recondense the steam into nearly pure water. This happens in another container, unconnected to the first. The only thing boiling water will do is kill microorganisms and volatilize dissolved gases. It won’t remove minerals at all, which explains why I was honestly gobsmacked when I came across a book on carnivores that advocated this. Boiling water to remove minerals will actually concentrate them in the liquid left behind. Do this for carnivores, and think of it as boiling maple sap of death to make death syrup.
Likewise, bottled drinking water is just as bad. Pure water tastes flat to us, so most of the time, bottled water is extracted from a good-tasting source. Said good taste comes from dissolved minerals and gases, many of which may be lethal to your plants in large quantities. Even better, many bottled water companies add various salts for flavor. If using commercially bottled water, make sure it reads “distilled water” instead of “drinking water”.
Even when using rainwater, consider the source. Minerals leach out of concrete or stone rooftops or gutters, and they’ll definitely leach out of concrete pools unless those pools are sealed well. Likewise, with the current understandable concern about collecting rainwater for summer use, make absolutely sure that your container is scrubbed and rinsed before it’s used for capturing water for carnivores. That 55-gallon rainwater barrel you liberated from the side of the road may have been used for transporting olives or soft drink syrup, but it may also have been used for transporting hydraulic fluid or soap. Ironically enough, the first two can be just as lethal to your carnivores as the latter.
Finally, reverse osmosis filters can be a godsend for those who can’t depend upon rainwater, but make sure that your unit can provide nearly pure water. More importantly, check the filter cannister and its prefilters on a regular basis. Dallas water is particularly rough on reverse osmosis filter operation, and the last thing you want to do is discover that the osmotic membrane blew out after you’ve used the output to water your prize-winning Sarracenia.
With all of this talk about water quality, you want the punchline? Remember that “Grow Your Own” cup I purchased in upstate New York? I’m glad that it didn’t work out. What I didn’t learn until I was older was that most of the available water had rather high levels of dissolved radium in it from the local granite in the Adirondack Mountains, and many of the mineral springs in Saratoga Springs have enough radium per liter that drinking more than a glass per week could lead to radiation poisoning. Just what the world needed: radioactive mutant Venus flytraps on top of everything else. Laverne & Shirley reruns were bad enough.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 2: Plant it in your garden.
Running a carnivorous plant nursery means you get a lot of interesting phone calls and E-mail messages. This tends to double after a television or newspaper interview. I gleefully drop everything to help out the kids who call because they need help with recent carnivore purchases, because they were usually given nothing other than the “Really Eats Bugs!” schpiel, and they pay attention. (I’ve even had kids who asked for advice show up at Triffid Ranch shows years later, proudly showing off photos of their latest successes, and I suspect I’ll hear from a couple of Nobel winners in another twenty years.) The same is true for elementary and high school science projects, because I’m always amazed and awed by the originality and innovation of the students coming up with particular experiments. And then there are the, erm, others.
Some are just aggravating, such as the woman who demanded that I find a commercial greenhouse that would store her Boston ferns over the winter without charging her for the privilege. Others are a bit daft, such as the woman who needed map directions so she could come over to “buy carnivorous plant food,” and called me a liar when I pointed out that this is a market that hasn’t been touched by Ralston Purina. Yet. Some are a bit obtuse, such as with the woman whose husband saw a plant on television that “he can’t describe and he doesn’t know the name for it, but he wants to know everything about it.” Some elicit sympathy, such as the administrative assistants whose bosses expressed a vague glimmering of interest in getting a flytrap, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t have a plant on the boss’s desk on Monday morning. (Those actually hurt when they call in the dead of winter, and I have to tell them that my flytraps are all in dormancy.) And then there are the ones that leave me absolutely gobsmacked, such as the demand from one individual who drove all the way out to the Triffid Ranch maildrop and wanted me to reimburse me for his gas and mileage because I wasn’t there to let him “see your plants.”
(As an aside, I love you all. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t offer tours of the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to liability issues. If you want to see the plants, you’re more than welcome to come out to a scheduled show, but private tours are something that won’t happen for a while. This had to be stamped in stone after the call from the woman who wanted to come out from Tyler to see plants at her convenience, and her convenience was at 2 in the morning. As I said, I get odd calls.)
The most common calls after “I want to see your plants,” though, are a mystery. At least once per month, and at least four or five times per show, I get a request for carnivorous plants. Not one or two or even a dozen, but pallets full of them. Once, this was for a birthday party where Venus flytraps were going to be given away as party favors. Most of the time, though, I heard the same sentence over and over: “I want to plant them in my yard to eat up all the bugs.” One guy wanted to put a solid line of them around his house to keep ants from getting through. Another wanted them to take out the mosquitoes in his neighborhood so they’d stop taste-testing him when he was gardening. All of them, though, seemed to think that putting carnivores in their yards would act as some sort of shield against insects, spiders, scorpions, hermit crabs, and any other member of the phylum Arthropoda that dared attempt to intrude on human territory. Heck, even my sister-in-law wanted to buy a stand of Sarracenia, because she thought they’d helpfully zap every last bug that came near her swimming pool.
I’m still clueless as to where this misapprehension on carnivores and their pest control powers comes from, unless the assumption is that anything that eats bugs is some arthropod Terminator. (I’ve come across the same assumptions with both purple martin and bat house purchases, even though both purple martins and bats go after much larger prey than mosquitoes. When I explain that the best biological control for adult mosquitoes requires a healthy habitat for dragonflies, they start this funny squeaking and chittering in horror.) I used to try to explain that because carnivorous plants can’t get out of their pots and chase prey, they have to attract insects as food, and said insects could very easily veer off and decide that humans or their food is much better. After one such call, where I was told repeatedly “Well, I was a doctor for 37 years, so I think you’re wrong,” now I just smile and nod and refer them to a much less organic pest control system.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use carnivorous plants as biological controls. You just have to look at a smaller scale, and understand that the bugs won’t leave for good unless you remove the factors that attract them. For instance, Peter D’Amato at California Carnivores relates that he’s heard of people using sundews and butterworts as organic flea traps. Set up a hungry sundew in the center of a room, and put a light directly over the sundew. When the room goes dark, the fleas gather at the light, jump at it and miss, and adhere to the sundew’s leaves. It works to feed the plant, sure, but a more conventional flea control is both more cost-effective and easier to maintain. (Likewise, I heartily recommend using lanceleafed and spoonleaf sundews to assist with controlling problems with fruit flies in kitchen areas. Set the sundew in the kitchen sink at night, remove the cover if it’s in a jar or terrarium, and leave it open all night. In the morning, close it up and put it back in its normal locale to photosynthesize, and each fruit fly it captures helps break the fruit fly life cycle. This, though, is in combination with one obvious fruit fly control: cleaning your kitchen so the fruit flies don’t have any reason to come back.)
The biggest issue with the whole “wall of flytraps” pest control method, though, involves planting them in your garden. Unless your garden is a sphagnum moss bog, with extremely acidic soil that’s nearly nutrient-free, a flytrap’s life expectancy in that garden can be measured anywhere from days to hours. Standard garden soil is usually too alkaline, too dry, and too salty for a flytrap to stay alive for more than a couple of agonizing days. Planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums, or constructing a bug killer berm for them, is a waste of good flytraps.
To get an idea of what flytraps and most other temperate carnivores need, you don’t need to visit Tallahassee, Florida, but an understanding of its weather and soil is almost as good. Tally is situated on relative lowland, with a soil that’s usually about half sand and half humus. Because of the regular and intense storms, the more mellow of which would set off tornado sirens in Dallas, most of the soluble minerals and salts were washed out over thousands to millions of years. The top layer of most bogs in the area is a thick layer of live sphagnum moss, which secretes acid in an attempt to crowd out competing plants. In addition, what little nitrogen that was in the soil is usually trapped in evergreen needles, which is in a form pine trees can use but precious few other plants can touch. Carnivores bypass all of this by getting their nitrogen and phosphorus from insect prey, so their roots rarely get exposure to either element in large quantities. They’re also susceptible to salts, so with most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in garden soil being in the form of various salts (either in various salts in commercial fertilizers or urea with animal manure), standard garden soil will burn their roots right off before too long.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants. That bog garden can be constructed inside a container, a large freestanding pool converted to the purpose, or even a specially constructed area that minimizes the effects of soil nutrient runoff from other areas. Just don’t expect it to offer a magical cure for your mosquito problem.
Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.
Step 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween.
About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases. Sometimes, they’re in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivorous plant sharing the space. Most of the time, though, they’re in one of the dreaded cubes, or in a similar plastic sleeve or tube. They may come with a basic guide printed on the tube, or a sticker with basic care tips, or simply a label reading “Really Eats Bugs!” The one absolute, though, is that they’re usually stacked up in a well-trafficked area, sometimes with autumn mums and toy bats, encouraging customers to take a chance.
Considering that the nearly universal mantra of one-time carnivorous plant growers is “I had a Venus flytrap, but it died,” it’s not hard to figure out what happens with the vast majority of those impulse purchases. Even if it doesn’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap gradually goes black and appears to die off in November and December, and it gets thrown out or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job.
The funny thing is that most of the time, the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb belowground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves (and the traps are really just modified leaves) for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed.
Now, this dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with precious little warning. Not “may”: “will”. You can attempt to force the flytrap to keep going, by keeping it indoors under artificial lights to extend its photoperiod. What happens, though, is that the plant muddles through for a while. The slightest bit of change in that photoperiod, though, can set off growth of a bloom spike, and the plant dies in the process. In some cases, it doesn’t make it that far, and the flytrap simply blackens and expires. Attempting to feed it over the winter is usually a waste: if the traps even work, and they’ll usually slow or stop their standard trapping response, the flytrap may not be able to produce enough digestive enzymes necessary to break down prey. If you’re lucky, only the individual trap goes black, slimy, and dead. Sometimes, the rot spreads to the whole plant.
The length of time necessary for winter dormancy is just as important as establishing it. A minimum of three months works the best. Here in North Texas, I use holidays as a guide. By Thanksgiving, they should all be arranged outside, and they’ll stay outside in unheated conditions until at least St. Patrick’s Day. For the most part, if they’re being kept in a reasonably-sized pot, they won’t require additional care, other than protecting them from the north wind. If local high temperatures go well below freezing, particularly for more than a week at a time, I cover them with old sheets for insulation, and remove them when the cold snap ends. With last February’s record cold snap, where North Texas generally never got above 16 degrees F. (-9 degrees C), these were the only precautions needed, and every last flytrap at the Triffid Ranch came back without problems. (The record heatwave and drought was a different story.)
Warmer and colder climes offer slightly different solutions. In much colder areas, where the soil can freeze solid for months, flytraps can be dug up and sheltered in an unheated coldframe. (As a rule, unless the top of the flytrap has already died off, don’t put them in an unlit space such as a garage or shed, because any remaining green leaves will continue to photosynthesize.) Alternately, many experts recommend heavy mulching around the flytraps with pine needles or straw. In much warmer areas without extended cold periods, such as around Galveston or in southern Florida, it may be necessary to dig up the flytraps, cut off the tops, carefully wrap the bulb with moist long-fiber sphagnum moss, and put them in the refrigerator and NOT the freezer. Either way, too long of a dormancy period is better than too short of one.
Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes, including Sarracenia pitcher plants and temperate sundews, also need that dormancy period as well or they’ll die. Again, it’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). And whatever you do, resist the temptation to buy that for-sale flytrap at Christmas unless you’ve got room in the refrigerator for it around New Year’s Eve.