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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
Long tweezers or alligator forceps
Plastic spoon
Tamper

At this point, it’s time to address additional tools that may or may not be necessary when working with Nepenthes. At a certain stage in each plant’s life cycle, the central growth point starts to stretch and vine, and it’s at this point that the plant starts producing its distinctive upper traps well off the ground. Those vines can be extremely tough and strong, to the point of breaking standard garden scissors and bypass pruners. (I once had a very old and tough Nepenthes vine that broke a pair of bonsai shears as I was attempting to cut it, and I finally had to cut the vine with a Dremel tool.) Because of that strength, two items from both medicine and bonsai might be a valuable addition to the toolkit for those planning to move further into Nepenthes husbandry. Of the two tools above, the one on the left is a bone shear picked up at an estate sale: not only does it have a long shaft for reaching deep into leaf clusters, but its blades are strong and sharp enough to cut through most Nepenthes vines. For the really tough ones, though, comes the bonsai concave cutter, and if it’s not enough for a Nepenthes vine, time to get the Dremel tool or maybe an angle grinder.

Opening up the one-gallon (3.7L) jar, things look much worse than they actually are. The main growing point on the plant started to vine, found itself caught in a depression in the center of the jar lid, and twisted around a few times before it died. However, it has at least one other growing point, and probably lots of other surprises once the dead leaves are cleared out.

A fairly safe standard for trimming carnivorous plants, and many plants in general, is “if it’s brown and dead, cut it off.” Generally, if a leaf or stem dies, it’s not coming back (an exception could be made for dying butterwort leaves), so there’s no shame nor risk in cutting it free. The central vine is definitely dead, so let’s cut it off and all of the easily reachable dead leaves to get a better view of the interior.

(Note: when trimming Nepenthes leaves or stems, try to cuttings away from the rest of your Nepenthes collection as soon as possible. Composting the chunks is fine, and burning is an extreme response but understandable, but get them outside and away. This minimizes the chance of fungus spores or insect pests migrating from the pieces to healthy plants.)

Right here is one reason to take things slowly and methodically when trimming a Nepenthes. At the edge of the still-living parts of the main Nepenthes vine is a new growing point: this leaf probably won’t grow any further on its own, but it promises a whole new vine growing from the side if given enough time. This is encouraging, but let’s clean things a bit further before making any decisions.

Clipping out the dead vine and various dead or older leaves, and we have a much better view of the rest of the plant. In addition to the vine, we have not one but two offshoots growing from the roots. Give this clump a chance to recuperate from major surgery, and these could be separated from the main plant and repotted on their own. Otherwise, everything is looking good, with no signs of fungus, insect pests such as scale, or other reasons to quit the cleanup and start fresh.

At this point, the trimmed plant needs a command decision: do you try to rehabilitate the original vine, or do you emphasize the new plantlets? Sorry, vine: you’re getting cut from the team. If the vine had some special structure to it, or if it showed any special characteristics that would justify propagating it, then there’s either leaving it alone or cutting it and treating it with rooting hormone to grow it as a new plant, but there’s no reason in this case. Cutting the vine will revitalize the plantlets, not just because of the increase of light but also because the plantlets will no longer be transferring nutrients to the parent to the level they had been.

All right. NOW we’re getting somewhere. These two plantlets are going to stay small for a little while longer, so they’ll stay together while they recover from surgery. If they get out of control, the two options are either to cut off the growing points in the center or to move them to a larger enclosure (again, ahem), but for now, they’re not an issue. Gently tamp down the sphagnum growing alongside the Nepenthes with a finger or a tamper, and this stage is finished.

The next step in cleanup is the glass. Because Nepenthes get over half of their moisture requirements from water they absorb through their leaves, they need to be kept in as humid an atmosphere as possible. (This is why the Nepenthes hanging baskets sold in garden centers and at flea markets don’t do so well when kept outside in Dallas. If this were Houston, the average humidity is so high that they only need to be brought inside during the winter, but Dallas has both such low humidity in summer and such wildly variable humidity throughout a typical day that those hanging baskets dry out too rapidly unless kept in a greenhouse, and the plants that don’t die just can’t get enough moisture to produce pitchers.) High humidity, though, usually leads to algae films growing over the inside of the container, and that should be cleaned off. A little bit of glass cleaner on a paper towel (please note: spray the glass cleaner on the paper towel before wiping and NOT on the glass directly), and the slime comes right off.

All done with the wipedown? Now the cleanup is done for now. The peat inside the container is a little too wet after spraying everything down, but leaving the lid cracked a little for a few days will take care of that. With the next project, we’ll clean up a much larger enclosure than this, and THAT is going to be an adventure.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Cape 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.

For today’s cleaning exercise, we’re going to focus on both the carnivorous plant and the container in which it resides. For the most part, many smaller sundews survive and thrive quite nicely in ornamental glass bottles, so long as the glass is sufficiently clear (tinted glass bottles aren’t recommended) and the plant is able to get enough light to grow without too much heat building up inside. For most beginner sundews, they either don’t mind or actively enjoy temperatures reaching 90 degrees F (32.22 degrees C), but Cape sundews (Drosera capensis) is a decided exception. Hailing from far southern South Africa, Cape sundews prefer things a lot cooler: they generally prefer to stay below 80 degrees F (26.66 degrees C), and in fact tend to go into shock at temperatures where other sundews are just getting going. In North Texas, I actively recommend keeping them under artificial light and in the vicinity of an air conditioner vent during summer: a common ailment in July and August is to see the tips of leaves looking as if they were burned with a cigarette lighter. Cape sundews tend to spread through carnivore collections in greenhouses because of their enthusiastic and prolific seed production, but without climate control, those feral sundews usually burn off during a Dallas summer and only reemerge in fall as temperatures start to drop. Even a day of higher temps can be debilitating or even fatal for Cape sundews, depending upon how high the temperatures went and how long the plant went without a break in the heat.

To get around this, the preferred method of offering Cape sundews at Triffid Ranch is within the confines of an Erlenmeyer flask. These flasks both allow air circulation through heated air escaping through the top and consolidation of humidity in the bottom, and a slight increase in water loss through the open top is worth the effort. In addition, most customers love having a piece of lab glassware in which to display their new sundews. For the most part, Erlenmeyer flasks are great, but cleaning the inside of the container offers a particular challenge because of both the narrowness of the neck and the height of the total flask.

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

Garden mat or old towel
Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
Long tweezers or alligator forceps
Tamper

The most important consideration with tools used in tall glass containers is making sure that the tool is long enough to reach the bottom while still retaining a grip on it. This becomes important when cleaning up around the base of a Cape sundew. Like most sundews, Cape sundews constantly produce new leaves, leaving the old and dead ones around the base of the stem, and while their accumulation won’t actually hurt the plant, they’re unsightly. Thankfully, after a short time, the leaf stem rots and the rest of the leaf drops, so it’s simply a matter of having tweezers or another tool that can reach and grip them. Alligator forceps are an excellent choice, but if all else fails, using a straight wood or plastic rod to tease that detritus away from the base of the plant works. In some cases, a combination of techniques might be necessary, especially with well-fed and well-lit sundews that threaten to outgrow their container.

The photo above also highlights a major issue with most glass containers and their botanical contents. Being a natural product, peat can be full of seeds and spores without you having any sign of issues, and some moss and fern spores are tough enough to survive most efforts to sterilize growing media. Even if efforts to sterilize growing media are successful, more spores can blow in on the wind, and once they find the right conditions for growth, they can and will do so. (Because I use a combination of milled Canadian peat moss and a New Zealand-sourced long-fiber sphagnum as a top dressing in most Triffid Ranch enclosures, this means that most of the ferns sprouting in an enclosure are native Canadian or Aotearoan species. Every once in a while, though, I’ll get a Texas-native wood fern that came sneaking in on the breeze.) The real problem is that you don’t know what kind of fern you’re getting until it’s large enough to identify, and many of them will grow out of control in a stable environment such as inside an Erlenmeyer flask. Worse, many species throw down big mats of root fibers along the bottom of any container, meaning that attempting to remove a mature fern will yank up part or all of the container’s other contents in the process. In a container as small as this, not only is it a good idea to remove all sprouting ferns during a cleanup, but keep an eye open for more sprouts through the rest of the year, unless you like uprooting everything every six months or so.

After working with several particularly large and deep containers over the last couple of years (two dead Lava Lamps and a glass water cooler jug), I picked up a secret weapon in the War Against the Wayward Ferns. Some ferns produce root mats almost impossible to ferret out by themselves, but crushing and cutting the base where the leaves meet the roots is a lethal trauma. That’s when a quick search for used surgical tools came across the wonder that is a biopsy punch. Intended for getting samples of tissue from deep within a body, biopsy punches both cut AND hold, and they do it as well with ferns as with humans. With a bit of practice, a biopsy punch can be used like alligator forceps to pluck single leaves or fernlets from a container, but they can also be used to crush and chop up plant parts that can’t be removed easily. Crunch a fern base to near-pesto, and the odds are pretty good that it won’t come back.

Done with plucking, mashing, cutting, and yanking? It’s time to give everything a good misting to wash dirt down the side of the container and settle everything. While a standard trigger spray bottle can get the job done, there’s always the issue of having to tilt both spray bottle and container in such a way that enough water gets to the bottom of the container without constantly having to reprime the sprayer. This can be bypassed either with a spray bottle with a pivoting nozzle, or by getting a spray tank and nozzle. A few pumps to add pressure, and a nearly-dry flask gets completely rehydrated in seconds.

One final extra. While the relatively narrow neck and mouth of an Erlenmeyer flask cut back on water loss, the flasks will eventually lose water from evaporation faster than they would if they had corks. Between water evaporating off the sides due to capillary action and water evaporating from the soil and transpiring from the plant, shorter bottles lose water even faster. This means that the best options for Cape sundews are either regular light waterings every couple of days or a good stout watering every week, and more often if the relative humidity in the house or office is lower than usual. (If central heat or air are running, that’s pretty much guaranteed.) Heavy waterings with longer periods between deluges seems to encourage new sundew growth, leading to lots of plantlets coming off the roots in a shorter time than if the plant were constantly topped up. Obviously, experiment to see what works the best for you, but don’t panic if you add seemingly too much water and it puddles on the top of the soil. Most of that will evaporate within a day or so anyway: now, if the whole plant is under water, you’re going to have to consider draining off some of that, but a little excess water won’t hurt a thing. Just watch for ferns as everything starts to dry out.

To be continued…

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
Tamper

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…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sundews and Butterworts

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.

For the first cleanup project, it’s time to start with two Triffid Ranch show stalwarts: the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and the primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primulflora). Although not even closely related, they both make excellent beginner plants, being very easy to keep indoors under artificial light. In the Dallas area, due to our wildly variable humidity, they’re best kept enclosed, and their small size makes them suitable for small containers such as glass jars or bottles. Of course, the combination of bright light, high humidity, and milled sphagnum peat for a growing medium means that sphagnum moss spores will germinate and spread. Normally, this is extremely desirable, as not only does the sphagnum look nice, but the moss exudes acid into the soil, interfering with the germination and growth of other plants. In this case, though, the sphagnum grows faster than the plants inside, and occasionally it needs to be trimmed back or moved so it doesn’t choke out everything else inside of the container.

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
  • Bonsai root rake or old fork
  • Tamper

The really important tools here are the scissors, the long tweezers, the root rake, and the tamper, and many bonsai tools combine tweezers or rake with a tamper end for flattening and smoothing soil. A nice extra tool to have on hand for tall and narrow bottles is a narrow-mouth alligator forceps, sometimes called an ear polypus because its narrow mouth is perfect for reaching foreign objects caught in human ears. (Hey, I’m not judging here.) With these standard 2-quart (1.89L) jars, you probably won’t need it, but if you do, they’re available in stainless steel from American Science & Surplus.

To start, spread out your mat or towel across your work surface: wet sphagnum can sometimes stain or damage furniture finishes. Next, clean your tools before use with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them, and set them within easy reach. The last thing you want to do is fumble your plant while trying to reach a misplaced tool. Once you’re done, open the lid if your container has one and give it a good serious look before doing anything. Get an idea of what you want to do and what you want the inside to look like, so you’ll know what you want to add and what you want to remove. If container decorations don’t move you any more, or if you want to add something to accent what’s already there, this is the time.

Before doing anything more, you need to clear out excess sphagnum strands to see what’s underneath. That’s where the forceps come in: CAREFULLY tease and pluck sphagnum away from the plants, and odds are pretty good that you’ll find more sundews than you expected. With the excess sphagnum, you can put it to the side in the container, discard it (it’ll be perfectly fine in a standard compost pile or bin), or save it to jumpstart sphagnum growth in other carnivore containers. Further away from the plant or plants, use a bonsai root rake or an old fork to pull up excess sphagnum: since it doesn’t have roots, pulling at a sufficiently thick chunk of sphagnum will just pull it up like a piece of rug.

When you’ve cleared away sphagnum to your satisfaction, now is the time to clear away any dead or dying sundew leaves. If they’re really old and moist, many old ones can be removed with a quick pull with the tweezers, but the fact that not all of them will is a good reason to use scissors instead. After each cut, wipe your blade with isopropyl alcohol to prevent bacterial or fungal infection, and pull the sundew chunks out of the container and dispose of them elsewhere. While clipping dead leaves, check on the living ones: as this picture shows, sundews getting sufficient light and humidity have the energy to produce mucilage, the adhesive each hair produces for attracting and capturing prey. With most species, a REALLY happy sundew produces bright red hair tips (fun fact: the official name for these hairs in sundews is “tentacles”) within the mucilage as an additional attractant.

Now that the sundews are clear, let’s work on the rest of the container. Sphagnum can climb the walls of most plastic and glass containers, and grows big “pillows” given half a chance, but mashing it down doesn’t hurt it at all. You don’t need much force: a gentle finger is enough to squish it in place. Said sphagnum also grows layers of algae, though, so if you don’t like the feel of slime, a tamper gets the job done, too. My handmade tamper has both a big fat end courtesy of a wine cork glued to it, and a standard blunt end for occasional gentle prying as well as tamping. If ornaments such as stones or plastic figures are in the way, feel free to pull them out and set them aside while tamping: now is a good time to give them a stout rinse in clean water before putting them back in.

With the primrose butterwort, the process above works very well with one very big caveat. Sundews reproduce both by seed and by growing new plants from their roots: give them the right conditions, and a container could fill with sundews, all genetic clones from the original. Butterworts go about things in a slightly different way. They bloom as well, and butterwort blooms are a big reason why the whole genus Pinguicula is getting so much attention these days from carnivore enthusiasts, but for reasons not well understood, dying leaves tend to sprout new plantlets that are also clones of the original. Butterworts also tend to have very weak roots, so be very careful working around a parent or pup butterwort so as not to uproot it. With luck, by the time you need to do this again, you could have anywhere between one and five new plantlets of various sizes, and if you’re VERY careful, you can move plantlets to your choice of locations within the container to do everything from highlighting a rock in the container to spelling out words. It’s your call.

Finished? Okay, now mist the container well before closing the lid, partly to replace what moisture it lost while the lid was off and partly to circulate the air a bit. Put the lid back on and put the container back underneath a light, and know that you’re ready to do this again whenever the plant needs it. And if you want to separate out plants and put them in other containers? That’s a different how-to guide for another time.

To be continued…

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Introduction

It’s inevitable after the holidays are over: holiday buyer’s remorse kicks in, and we all look back regretfully on the things we did and the things we didn’t over the past two months. Those nights of ordering pizza because the shift from Daylight Savings Time made you feel as if you were living in a cavern. Buying that supremely Ugly Christmas Sweater even though you’ve worked from home for the last nine months. Pretending to drunk-text former coworkers, just to see what they’re up to and if it’s more fun than what you’re doing. Subscribing to HBO Max. All of this is completely understandable, but eventually you’re going to climb bleary-eyed out of the clothes hamper, look at an apartment or house that looks as if Hunter S. Thompson camped in the bathtub for a month, look down at the wine stains down your front and look up at the spaghetti stalactites on the ceiling, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to clean up for the New Year.”

Now, as every year, you have all sorts of options. I’d recommend staying far away from the gym for a while, or at least until a significant proportion of fellow gymgoers look as if they’d stay home if they were sick. (I have a gym next to the Triffid Ranch mail drop, and with that crew, if they can’t end a list of symptoms with “We call it…’The Aristocrats’!”, then they don’t think they’re that bad off.) For domicile cleaning, you can go gently with Marie Kondo reruns playing in the background while you sweep and sort, or you can use demolition charges to take off an entire end of the building, shove everything into a dumpster below, and set the dumpster afire both as a symbol of 2020 and to keep from rescuing items inside because “They’re still good!” For cleaning your computer desktop, and files that really need to be backed up so they aren’t lost, nothing is as effective as the old “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit” strategy. For your carnivorous plants, though, things are going to be easy.

To be honest, this time of the year is perfect for giving all of your plants a once-over. With temperate carnivores such as Venus flytraps, North American pitcher plants, and temperate-climate sundews, they all should be well into winter dormancy by now, so they won’t mind a repotting and thorough cleanup. With tropical carnivores such as Asian pitcher plants, they’ll still be growing, but shorter daytime photoperiods mean that they’ll be growing much more slowly than they were six months ago. They also could stand a good tending to, but the actual process will be a bit different. Either way, it’s too late for standard gardening and too early for starting up tomatoes and peppers, so no better time than the present for essential carnivore maintenance.

Now, like working on a Volkswagen, you can put together a complete toolkit to take care of everything, or you can build multiple kits for specific functions, thereby avoiding losing essential tools when you pull out everything to work, say, alongside a pool full of Sarracenia. For the sake of this series, we’ll split everything up into separate kits of necessary tools, so if you focus on one group of plants, you don’t have to reserve tools you won’t necessarily need. (A very strong recommendation: get tools for your toolkit that will remain in that kit, and don’t swipe tools from other places in the house unless they’re no longer going to be used in those places. Spouses, parents, and roommates may not be as understanding about your using kitchen implements for repotting pitcher plants, especially if you brought them back but didn’t clean them properly before returning them.)

Essentials (in all kits):

  • Sharp gardening knife
  • Sharp kitchen scissors
  • Sharp trimming scissors (garden trimming scissors or ear/nose scissors)
  • Garden mat or towel
  • Hand towel
  • Long forceps
  • Whisk brush
  • Isopropyl alcohol, either bottle or sanitizing wipes
  • Spray bottle, filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Spray bottle, filled with dilute neem oil (1/2 strength recommended by manufacturer)
  • Kitchen tub

In addition, a standard bonsai tool set can come in very handy. You may not need all of the tools all of the time, but many, such as bonsai shears and root rakes, are worth the cost.

One valuable tool for glass enclosures is a tamper, and you’ll have to make it yourself. This is a dowel rod or other stout rod (I cut a fiberglass driveway sign rod in half) with a wine cork at one end and a rounded tip at the other end. The idea is to use the tamper to tamp down and smooth out soil, moss, and other items in glass containers that won’t give enough room at their mouths to allow fingers, hands, and most tools to reach inside. Natural cork is fine, but artificial corks have the advantage of easy disinfection, and they tend to last longer.

Anyway, this is the starting point: now it’s a matter of seeing these tools in action. That comes next.

To be continued…