Tag Archives: Sarracenia

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Bonus Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Time for Video Nasties

Slight interlude: as promised, the YouTube channel has been updated with work that really needed to be posted a while back. In the interim, I hope you enjoy Pitcher Plants In Moonlight and Texas Triffid Ranch at NARBC Arlington. With a bit of practice, I might actually get good at this.

More Science Experimentation At Grad Student Prices: Fluorescence in Carnivorous Plants

One of the few bits of unadulterated good at the gallery over the last three months involved going through the back storeroom and sorting through boxes that were packed frantically back during the Great Move of 2017 and hadn’t been resolved before now. Among many other things, one of those boxes contained a set of ultraviolet rock lights purchased in better times to examine fluorescence in both minerals and in carnivorous plants. No better time than the present, and it was also a great excuse to hunt for scorpions.

Regular readers may remember some previous experiments in inducing fluorescence in pitcher plants a few years back, but these had problems for multiple reasons. The first is that not all UV lights are equal: to get the right light frequency, about 380 manometers, shortwave UV lights are much more desirable than longwave UV lights. Most standard UV LED lights, such as those for checking UV ink handstamps in nightclubs and bodily fluid stains in nightclubs and other venues, are longwave lights, so while they’ll make tonic water and urine fluoresce, they don’t do a lot for getting a positive response out of most carnivorous plants. Shortwave UV lights, generally used for fluorescent mineral identification, produce the correct wavelength, but they’re both expensive and very hard to use. Most shortwave UV lights require alternating current and extension cords, meaning that they have all sorts of hazards when used in typical carnivorous plant habitats. Worse, those lights have to get in CLOSE to see plant fluorescence, and while some flowers will fluoresce at a distance under shortwave UV (aloes in particular), carnivore traps need to get that light within about three to five centimeters to fluoresce. Obviously, for basic identification and study of the phenomenon, especially in the field, another option was necessary.

Back in 2013, I tried an alternative with a violet laser pointer and a beam diffuser, essentially creating a UV laser flashlight. This had its own issues. The beam diffuser had to be adjusted constantly for best effect, which didn’t leave hands free to adjust plants, use a camera, or much of anything else. In the same vein, standard digital cameras at the time were beyond horrible for photographing UV fluorescence, so a lot of plans had to be set aside. The plan, though, was to run a demonstration of carnivore fluorescence at the old gallery in the summer of 2017, and we all know what happened there. The gear went into a box, the box went on a shelf in the new gallery storeroom, and it took a pandemic inventory and reorganization to pull the gear out again.

Believe it or not, the revelation wasn’t due to the existing shortwave UV gear, and it wasn’t due to carnivorous plants. The main plan was to prospect for Texas opal along the Brazos River. Most Texas opal deposits aren’t what would be considered gem-grade, especially compared to Australian boulder opal, but it was once harvested in great quantities in the 1930s and shipped to Europe, where it had quite a popularity when sold as “black opal” in the days before World War II. Today, it can be found through Pennsylvanian marine fossil deposits, commonly turning up inside crinoids and horn corals, and like most other opals, it fluoresces a gentle peach color under shortwave UV. It’s one thing to see it in a static museum display and another to see it in situation, so the box came out to a ranch between Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto in West Texas in order to examine those opal deposits firsthand.

Well, inside the box was also a planned experiment delayed by the move to the new gallery. American Science & Surplus sells a lot of interesting items, with its only limitation being an inability to ship items outside of the United States. (I’ve spent the last 15 years searching for an international equivalent for friends seeking scientific surplus, and have yet to find anything comparable.) Among many other wonders, AS&S carries a wide line of 5-milliwatt laser pointers, including the violet laser pointer I was using. More importantly for those discussion, AS&S carries a set of kaleidoscope pointers. The red and green ones get quite a bit of use at music festivals and the like: twist a frontpiece and push the button, and you have your very own laser disco ball. Twist the frontpiece a bit more to spread the beam from many distinct spots to even more diffuse individual spots, and you have laser light going everywhere. Again, important for this discussion, AS&S sells violet kaleidoscopic laser pointers selling for $16US, and one of them was in the box of UV gear, untouched since 2017.

At first, it was just a lark. Turn it on outside and ask “Hmmm…is anything glowing?” That’s when a few pieces of scrap paper started fluorescing, but was that fluorescence or just good night vision? I had a way to test it, thanks to a few chunks of slag uranium glass brought along for the trip, so it was a matter of pulling them out, turning on the laser pointer, and then photographing the effect both with flash and without:

Next experiment: using others’ research. I had recently read about archaeologists using shortwave UV to spot damage to bones that was impossible to view under visible light, including damage caused while the organism was still alive or shortly after it died, and a feral pig jawbone discovered on the ranch was a great test. While barely visible under sunlight, the laser pointer revealed damage to the sides of the jaw, possibly from coyotes feeding on the carcass after the pig died. (At least, I hoped these were from coyotes.)

The real test, though, came from random fossils collected through the area. The real surprise wasn’t discovering that opalized fossils fluoresced under UV. The real surprise was finding several brachiopod fossils that fluoresced in different colors, which may require a trip to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park to test this further.

With this knowledge, it was time to go back to Dallas and the gallery to test the laser pointer on carnivores. After several days of examination with various genera and species, the real limitation wasn’t with the laser pointer, but with using digital cameras to record it. Even with a new iPad camera, generally considered one of the most sophisticated cameras available on the market, most carnivore fluorescence is only visible when the UV source is within about two centimeters from the trap, and most of it is invisible to the camera. Obviously, more research is needed, but several things turned up, including a few that wouldn’t have been obvious.

Firstly, while UV fluorescence has been observed with a wide range of carnivorous plants, the laser pointer only spotted fluorescence with several genera. Venus flytraps and sundews were known to fluoresce along the leaf surface, but the only fluorescence spotted with the laser pointer was along leaf edges, suggesting that the previously observed fluorescence may range in bands visible under multiple wavelengths of UV in order to attract multiple varieties of insect. Butterworts were already known not to fluoresce, but spots in the blooms of Pinguicula primulflora and P. gigantea glow extremely strongly, as do the blooms of bladderworts. The carnivorous bromeliad Brocchinia was particularly interesting: its traps display multiple arrays of fluorescing bands, but dying leaves on the outside of each plant harbor fungus or mold that fluoresces to black-light poster levels, an effect that I had seen previously on ginger plants in Nicaragua, and may assist the spread of spores via beetles or other insects. Most interestingly, while the trapping surfaces of the frail triggerplant Stylidium debile do not fluoresce, shining the laser pointer directly down the blooms reveal a small but bright fluorescing spot, suggesting the main attracting point for pollinating insects.

It’s the four genera commonly referred to as “pitcher plants” that the widest range of fluorescence was observed. The Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, showed no fluorescence at all under the laser pointer, suggesting that any natural fluorescence might be at a different wavelength. South American pitcher plants (Heliamphora) show spots of fluorescence across species, usually centered around the nectar cup at the top of the pitcher, that unfortunately was impossible to capture with any digital camera I had on hand. North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia) showed subtle but definitive fluorescence along the lip of four observed species and two hybrids, with suggestions that the observed brightness of white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) in moonlight is due to reflectivity of visible light and not fluorescence under reflected UV. The greatest levels of fluorescence, though, were spotted in multiple species of Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes), usually manifesting as a brilliant dark green under the laser pointer. Even under a digital camera, the whole of the peristome stands out under UV except under certain situations. Those situations include newly opened pitchers (fluorescence doesn’t appear in pitchers for three to five days, coinciding with the amount of time the fluid inside of the pitchers needs to be exposed to air before its acidity reaches its peak), and with species already known not to be carnivorous, such as Nepenthes hemsleyana and Nepenthes ampullaria.

For the most part, Nepenthes pitchers fluoresce very strongly using this technique. Below are photos in visible light and in UV of the Nepenthes hybrid “Bill Bailey” and of Nepenthes veitchii:

Obviously, this is just the beginning, as these photos don’t take into account fluctuations based on season, photoperiod, or average temperature, or if the fluorescence increases or decreases based on the amount of prey captured at that time. That said, for the cost of a violet kaleidoscopic laser pointer, testing this will be considerably easier, and can be conducted by nearly anybody. Let’s see what we find out next.

Interlude: Sarracenia Blooms

It’s been…interesting around the gallery this last week, mostly because the focus is on having everything ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend next week. (I’ve been joking that the response to the phrase “We’re a week away from Frightmare!” is enthusiastic cheering from the attendees, cries of “Once more into the breach, once more!” from the staff, and a sustained Brown Note from the vendors.) Everything is coming through so far, so here are a few photos of the blooms in the Sarracenia pools as they emerge from winter dormancy:

And a little extra in order to demonstrate that carnivorous plants aren’t a dependable form of insect control. This little corner of North Texas is becoming an enclave of the longhorn crazy ant, and they’re doing quite well in disturbed areas such as suburbs. The last two months have been a rush of insect controls such as orange oil drenches, to which they respond by moving their mounds a few meters away and starting fresh. Well, apparently they’ve discovered Sarracenia nectar, both in blooms and in traps, and it’s not turning out well for the little junkies:

The Sarracenia are benefiting for the moment: a percentage of the nectar-slurpers will fall in and feed the plant. However, each pitcher catching five or six per day does nothing for the hundreds of thousands or even millions back in the original nest, so about the only sure way to take out the nest involves art. And so it goes.

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 2

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

Want to know what’s going on? Start from the beginning.

Naturally, a toilet garden isn’t a garden without a commode, but a toilet garden without something in it is just an ugly porcelain structure that accumulates squirrel droppings and produces mosquitoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if you’re particularly inclined to new taste sensations, but let’s stick with the project at hand. Last installment, we cleaned out a commode and made it more plant-friendly, and now it’s time to introduce the plants.

The biggest problem with working with a large porcelain structure is drainage. Even with bog-friendly plants, such a small area filling up with, say, a typical Texas gullywasher thunderstorm can be problematic for anything more terrestrially-inclined than water lilies, aquatic bladderworts, and Aldrovanda. The issue here is making sure that the tank and bowl retain water, but not too much water, and that depends upon your locale and general rainfall.

For most carnivorous plant growing in North Texas, the best thing to do with the water tank on a toilet garden is to seal it up. Plug up both the outlet where the flapper used to be, and the hole where the inlet valve used to reside, with rubber corks, wads of plastic, or anything else that strikes your fancy, and seal the plugs with aquarium silicone or plumbing-grade epoxy putty. HowEVER, should you live in Houston, Tallahassee, or any other locale with significantly higher levels of rainfall, having a bit more drainage might be desirable. The trick, of course, is to allow water to leave without taking planting mix with it. Let me introduce you to the bog gardener’s secret weapon, landscape fabric.

Landscape clothMany landscaper and gardener friends consider polyester landscape fabric to be of the devil, with many cursing its use in courtyards, garden edges, and all sorts of other locations where removing it five and ten years later is one’s idea of the perfect eternal punishment. Personally, I look at that perfect eternal punishment as removing Bermuda grass from a flower bed, but that’s only because Bermuda indirectly tried to murder me in 1982. I can agree with the nightmare that is pulling up buried landscape fabric, but for container gardening and terraria, it’s the perfect separation layer. For instance, for those wanting to put down a layer of perlite in a terrarium to encourage drainage, a sheet of some sort of separation layer is absolutely essential to prevent the perlite from floating to the surface with a stout rain. Likewise, it’s a cheaper,  more durable and more ecologically friendly material for covering the bottoms of bonsai pots than window screening, and it does a much better job of keeping soil from running through the drainage holes. It can be cut with standard scissors, into just about any shape you want, and wadded, wedged, and prodded into irregular surfaces. I picked up about five rolls of a discontinued green landscape fabric, recycled from used soda bottles, about two years ago, and even with all of my recent projects, I should have to get more fabric around 2018.

In this case, one big sheet of landscape fabric goes down into the bottom of the tank, allowing water to run out the former inlet valve hole. Should you want to conserve water, or add to the total effect, simply plug that hole and allow water in the tank to run out through the outlet, and it’ll go straight into the bowl. Oh, won’t that be a lovely look during the first stout rain.

Now, the bowl is, strangely enough, easier to work with. In areas with lots of rain, just put a sheet of landscape fabric in the bottom, wide enough to retain soil, and leave the pipe intact. The U-bend in the bottom of the bowl will retain enough water to keep the plants in the bowl from drying out right away, and excess will drip out as the U-bend fills. If you’re not looking forward to snide comments about leakage and jokes about WOW! potato chips, then you can block up the pipe. Anyone with a five-year-old can make suggestion on great materials for blocking up a toilet bowl: my brother can tell the tale of trying to flush an empty toilet with buckets of silver paint (please don’t ask, as the statute of limitations only recently expired), but I know from personal experience that the best material around comes from dry cleaning bags.

Personal interlude: friends can’t understand why I can’t watch the IFC series Portlandia, even after I explain to them that “comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else.” Nearly two decades later, I can say that my signature Portland moment came one day in the spring of 1997, when my now-ex came down with a horrible bout of stomach flu on a Sunday morning. That’s bad enough in itself, but the toilet line to our floor and the two above us was completely jammed because one of my hipster neighbors had decided to entertain himself by flushing plastic dry cleaning bags down the john the night before. Since this was a Sunday, the owner of the building first told us that we’d have to wait for work to be done on Monday, and begrudgingly called for her maintenance man, also known as her nephew, to come out and take a look. He showed up in a suit and tie, as he was he was heading to the Portland Opera, and told us that he couldn’t do anything before he had to be at his event, because our building handyman and plumber didn’t want to ruin his new shoes. It was only upon pointing out to the owner that a nonfunctional toilet line made the apartment building unfit for human habitation, and Oregon law required that the property owner would have to put up her tenants in hotel space until such a time as repairs were made, that she relented and paid Sunday rates for a real plumber. Her nephew got to the opera on time, my ex had use of a functional toilet, and the hipster neighbor apparently was still there, flushing grocery bags this time, after we finally escaped about six months later.

Filling the Bog GardenWith that done, it’s time to start putting in plants. Atop the landscape fabric went about a liter of perlite, and then another layer of landscape fabric to keep it in place. Immediately after that went just straight peat. You can add sand to the mix, but that not only adds significant weight to the final planting, but it’s not really necessary.

And the plants? Never let it be said that studying ikebana techniques for live plants never paid off. It would seem to make perfect sense to put short plants in the tank and big flowing ones in the bowl, but planting tall ones such as Sarracenia in the bowl would block off and prevent appreciation of any smaller plants behind them. I finally opted for three species of Sarracenia in the tank to keep up the Heaven/Man/Earth balance necessary for a decent ikebana arrangement. Those wanting to set up an indoor arrangement for tropical species might want to invert this, with a Nepenthes pitcher plant draping from the tank while the bowl contained pygmy sundews or Cephalotus. It’s completely your call.

Sarracenia purpureaThe first was a very old friend: Sarracenia purpurea, the provincial floral emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador. Considering how squat S. purpura remains, it’s perfect for “earth”.

Sarracenia minorThe second is a species not seen as often in carnivorous plant collections because of its slow growth and fussy temperament about low humidity. Sarracenia minor has more in common with its very distant relation Darlingtonia californica on the west coast of North America than with most of its cousins in the southeast. In both species, they have deep, dark hoods and small transparent windows (officially known as fenestrae) along the back of the hoods, so insects inside the hood fly toward the fenestrae, bounce off, and get trapped within the pitcher. This one is three years old, and it’s only now coming into its own: when carnivorous plant experts refer to this species as slow-growing, they aren’t kidding.

Sarracenia leucophyllaThe third is so obvious that it shouldn’t need an introduction: Sarracenia leucophylla, the white pitcher plant. The tallest of the North American pitcher plants, considering how much these glow under a full moon, its placement here should be obvious.

Sarracenia medley

Before finishing up, take into account a very important consideration about planting. When putting in plants, take into account both growing habits AND the possibilities of soil settling after a while. I recommend filling the tank and bowl with wet sphagnum, letting it drain for a bit, and then adding more water to fill any air pockets. Also, unless you like cleaning up peat stains around your new planter, try to keep the soil in the bowl and tank at least two centimeters below the edge. This way, unless you’re getting the classic Texas or Michigan thunderstorm, incoming rain has a place to go without washing out plants. When you live in a place that can get ten centimeters of rain within 30 minutes, you have to take these things into account.

For the bowl, its U-bend makes it perfectly suited for one particular carnivorous plant that loves moisture but hates having soaked roots. I’m not saying that toilets were designed for growing Venus flytraps, but you have to wonder, you know?

Venus flytraps Meanwhile, while all this was going on, I looked up to find an observer other than the anole lizards running around the back yard. Our very own Cadigan had to add her commentary, and give me her absolute best GrumpyCat impersonation.bog_garden_10262014_14 CadiganYou don’t have to be a telepath to know what she’s thinking right now: “Oh, when Mom gets home, you are SO dead.” Naturally, she had to lead the Czarina to the bedroom window, as if to say “Looooooook at what heeeeeeee diiiiiiiiiid…” With a cat like this, I don’t need children.

More to follow…

Down the Throat

Sarracenia hybrid

Dallas’s weather has been all over the place this spring, and apparently this is exactly what the resident Triffid Ranch Sarracenia needed. Between some impressive gullywasher storms over the last couple of weeks and a remarkably high humidity compared to previous years, the pitcher plants are taking over. Not only are these some of the largest I’ve ever had the pleasure of growing, but they’re even larger than ones I’ve seen in the wilds of the Florida panhandle.

Sarracenia leucophylla

With the last show of the year already done, and a year of research ahead, I have no idea what the next 350 days or so are going to bring. If I can repeat these kinds of results next year, though, you really are going to see man-eating plants by 2015.

Sarracenia flava

Sarracenia flava

Sarracenia in Bloom…Kinda

Sarracenia buds

We all thought that by this time in April, winter would be dead. I’ve lived in Texas for nearly 35 years, and the last serious bout of freezing weather to hit this late happened the spring before I moved here. Most years, we could be assured that the last freeze was done before St. Patrick’s Day, and that April would be nothing but balmy mornings and rainy weekends. This has been a rather unorthodox winter.

Sarracenia buds

I wasn’t the only one affected by this, being struck with a bout of flu after last March’s All-Con that took a solid month to fend off. Several winters in the last decade were so mellow that both Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps didn’t get enough of a winter dormancy to keep them from blooming once and then dying. This year? All are only now starting to bud, and as of this evening, only two Sarracenia flava had opened their blooms. It’s not just the Sarracenia, either: most of our native trees and bushes are so far behind that they also only started blooming within the last two weeks. At the rate we’re going, we’ll need snowblowers to clear off the drifts of pollen in the streets.

Sarracenia buds

And are we done? Of course not. Three days after taking these photos, the temperature took a dive once again. The middle of April, and we’re looking at one last two-day run of freezing, and the Sarracenia are too far along to cover without damaging the bloom buds. Of course we’re getting one last freeze, only three weeks until the next big show. Of course.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 8

(Can you believe it? I thought Cephalopodmas was today, not yesterday. Hence, let’s make up for lost time.)

So…has the threat of January blues hit you yet? Has the threat of bad movies, worse television, and unlistenable radio, even in the days of unlimited options via the Interwebs, convinced you to crawl into a burrow and hibernate until February? Are you prepared to sleep through the year until February 2, the 35 anniversary of the day Sid Vicious rose from his grave, looked down at his shadow, and realized that he had to wait six more weeks until spring?

Not that I blame you, and if the plants cooperate, then get to work. If they aren’t, then there’s always the infrastructure that can be dealt with before the weather warms up. A good way to do this is by building community, and carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a lot more options for this than we did, say, 20 years ago. Another reason for the Triffid Ranch hiatus? With the hiatus, I’ll finally have the money to make charitable contributions to folks who really deserve assistance for their work.

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

The first and most obvious option is to give a shoutout to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, the largest carnivorous plant organization in the world today. We’re miniscule compared to, say, the American Orchid Society, but the increasing variability and variety of new carnivores means that nobody’s getting bored. At the very least, access to the ICPS seed bank makes the annual membership worth the cost, even if it didn’t come with the quarterly newsletter and access to its archives.

If you’re looking for a bit more activism, then take a look at joining the North American Sarracenia Conservancy, a group dedicated to both informing the general public of the threat to Sarracenia pitcher plant habitats and preserving the genetic diversity of the genus in propagation. As someone who just finished cleaning out Sarracenia pools in preparation for the rest of the winter, I can appreciate the hard work the NASC does, and plan to contribute as much as I can next year to assisting its efforts. Besides, several carnivorous plant enthusiast friends are proud members, and any excuse to hang out with them is a good one.

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski

Speaking of those friends, I still owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Ryan Kitko for introducing me to triggerplants nearly a decade ago, which is why I keep plugging the joys of the International Triggerplant Society. (Go figure: the heat loss and power outage caused by Icepocalypse 2013 killed off other plants, but they managed to set off germination in both triggerplant and Roridula seeds that I was about ready to write off. Now it’s just a matter of making sure that fungus doesn’t take them out, as Roridula in particular suffers from serious issues with damping off.) One of the biggest reasons for the current hiatus is to focus on cultivation of new species of triggerplant, and if things work out well, this should mean some big, impressive specimens by May of 2015, thanks to the Society.

Finally, as a shoutout for other friends, I’m going to compile a list of reptile shelters next year to assist with finding homes for reptiles and amphibians where the owners simply can’t care for their charges. One I highly recommend is Tucson Reptile Rescue, not just for their work but for the sense of humor they show when bringing up adoptable animals to the public. Give early and often to offset the costs of feeding and heating, and if you’re so inclined to visit, consider adopting a lizard, turtle, or snake that needs a good home. They’re good folks, so please help if you can.

More to follow…

Iced Sarracenia – 4

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 3

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 2

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 1

Iced Sarracenia

Nearly a week after Icepocalypse 2013 started up, the snow and ice are finally leaving, and with them, touches of beauty. The cold guaranteed that the Triffid Ranch’s collection of Sarracenia pitcher plants went into a full winter dormancy this season, as opposed to Dallas’s “Winter Without A Winter” 12 months ago. In addition, the ice came down hard and just liquid enough that it froze on available surfaces as clear as epoxy, leading to beautiful views in the early morning night. I don’t want to go through this again any time soon, but at least some good came out of the extended freeze.

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Icepocalypse now, walls of flame, billowing smoke, who’s to blame?

Icepocalypse Now

The hype started up early last Tuesday. We were in for snow, ice, asteroid strikes, blazing angels, Wal-Mart gift cards…the local meteorologists were whooping it up about this was going to be a storm for the records. By Wednesday, we all knew that something was up when we hit near-record high temperatures that afternoon and everyone started pulling out swimsuits. That didn’t keep everyone from laughing at the National Weather Service. “Oh, they say that all the time. They always predict a worse storm than what we actually get. Just watch: we’ll get a little bit of rain, and that’s it.”

Oh, we of little faith. The snowmageddon started sliding in from the northwest on Thursday afternoon, and it just kept getting worse. And worse. I have an incredible ability to wake up about thirty seconds before a power outage, and so I woke up about five minutes before the alarm clock went off, wondering “Why am I conscious right now?” when everything went dead for the next five hours. When the exemplary crews at Garland Power & Light weren’t able to get power reestablished right away, that’s when we knew this was going to be bad.

And to stop the immediate comparisons to your local weather and how “this isn’t so bad,” that’s true. Kinda. This was definitely the worst ice storm I’ve seen in Texas in the 34 years since I first moved here, exceeding the big storms of 1983, 1996, and 2011. We almost never get ice storms, much less ones of this intensity, and this one compared favorably to ones I experienced in Michigan when I was a kid. In Michigan, everyone has snow tires, heavy-duty ice scrapers and snow brushes, and other regular accessories for a typical winter up there. We don’t have snowplows, salt trucks, and tire chains because they might be used once every ten years or so. Hence, we’re caught flatfooted nearly every time. And this one? Nobody was prepared for this mess, because we simply don’t see storms like this.

Fields of ice

On a personal level, the storm and the power outage tag-teamed me. First, specialized greenhouse tape specifically purchased so it wouldn’t go brittle in the cold went brittle in the cold, and the north wind blew out a panel on the main greenhouse. Combine that with the outage cutting heat at a critical time, and all of the thermal mass I put in last October didn’t make up for the sub-freezing drafts. I’ll have to wait until things warm up, but it looks like at least a two-thirds loss of everything inside, including a new line of bonsai Capsicum peppers intended to be premiered at the next show. It may be possible to salvage, but that has to wait until temperatures rise again and I can perform a decent evaluation.

On the bright side, at least the Czarina and I weren’t insane enough to be vendors at the scheduled Fair Park Holiday show in downtown Dallas. That one was shut down early, but probably more a matter of a lack of vendors than the worries about weather. But about that later.

I’m also not complaining more, because the damage here was a lot less than that right around the area. Most of North Texas’s trees are various oaks, which generally don’t shed their leaves until spring, which meant they made wonderful nucleation sites for the incoming ice. They’re also not adapted to dealing with large amounts of ice, either, so local trees’ branches aren’t adapted to shedding or carrying huge amounts of snow or ice weight. With more flexible trees, such as crape myrtles and mesquite, they obligingly flattened to the ground and waited it out. The same thing with small oaks, such as the three-meter-tall oak that obligingly impersonated Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree when saturated with ice. Larger trees, though, and saplings from more brittle species just snapped. Expect photos shortly of the mess preventing my neighbor from being able to open his garage door for the two tons of shattered oak blocking his driveway.

Triffid Ranch Charlie Brown Christmas tree

And the temperate carnivorous plants put out for winter dormancy? That’s going to have to wait until spring. The layers of ice definitely killed off any still-living traps and phyllodia that the plants could use for photosynthesis, but most are used to worse conditions than this. The Sarracenia purpurea, for instance, should be right at home. In the meantime, while the ice lasts, I get views like this:

Iced-up Sarracenia

And one little bit of good? I’ve spent the last four years attempting to get results with growing the South African proto-carnivorous plant Roridula in Texas. One of the hardest problems is getting the seeds to germinate, and I tried everything. Scarifying the seed coat to encourage germination. Putting the potting mix in a smoker and smoking it heavily before adding seeds. Chilling the seeds before planting them. No results, and looking over the wreckage in the greenhouse made me think about just pitching them and giving up. Wouldn’t you just know that this sort of chill was exactly what Roridula dentata needed to get up and going? Now just to keep the seedlings going, as apparently decent air circulation is essential, and I don’t dare risk bringing them inside if they’re this happy just to lose them to fungus infections. And so it goes.

Introducing Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia purpurea
Dedicated to Velvet, an old friend who helped me appreciate Newfoundland more than she realized. If I ever develop a unique cultivar of this plant, I’m naming it for her.

When first exposed to carnivorous plants, most people are amazed that they aren’t all denizens of strange exotic jungles in tropical zones. They’re surprised to discover the range and variety of pitcher plants along the Gulf Coast of the United States, or the vistas of sundews and butterworts through Europe. When they learn about Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, and its place in Canadian history, they’re even more surprised. A regular pitch is “Lots of countries put out stamps and other memorabilia involving carnivorous plants. My people, though, are so badass that we made one a provincial flower.”

Sarracenia purpurea

The provincial flower part is true, and it’s the real reason for the plant’s common and Latin name. Although S. purpurea grows in a wide range of colorations, from deep maroon and purple to a nearly pure green, the flowers are consistently colored a deep royal purple. These emerge in spring when the plant comes out of its winter dormancy and droop over the plant’s crown, and then the pitchers emerge after the odds are pretty good that the flowers have already been pollinated. As with other members of its genus, S. purpurea has no problems with capturing its pollinators if given the opportunity, and blooming before it produces traps is a good way to avoid the opportunity.

Sarracenia purpurea

When compared to other members of its genus, the first things that stand out are the height and shape of S. purpurea‘s pitchers. Instead of the long, fluting pitchers of other species, S. purpurea pitchers are squat and short. Likewise, the lids that normally protect the mouth of the pitcher in other species acts as a scoop for rainwater. After a good downpour, purpurea pitchers are usually full of fresh rainwater. This rainwater may act as a lens for incoming sunlight, giving a better opportunity for light to hit chloroplasts on both inside and outside of the pitcher. What’s absolutely certain, though, is that the open pitchers provide a habitat for various lifeforms, which feed upon drowned insect prey and any other organic matter that falls within.

As with other Sarracenia, S. purprea has no issues with digesting insect prey, with the assistance of bacterial action and larger organisms such as midge larvae, but that’s not its only option. In the book Gardening with Carnivores: Sarracenia Pitcher Plants in Cultivation & in the Wild, Nick Romanowski noted the high numbers of rotifers living inside S. purpurea pitchers and feeding upon bacterial colonies within, to the point where the potential nitrogen absorbed from rotifer waste alone exceeds the amount needed for plant maintenance, growth, and reproduction. Combine that with S. purpurea‘s tolerance of much more alkaline habitats than other Sarracenia species, this helps explain why S. purpurea grows in a much wider range. All other known Sarracenia species are native to a relatively small area of the southeast United States, with most concentrated within Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and northern Florida. Two subspecies of S. purpurea, S. purpurea purpurea and S. purpurea venosa, grow along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to far eastern Florida, and then north up the East Coast to Newfoundland and Labrador. It then grows due west, through bogs in Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, and Minnesota, and ultimately reaching Alberta. Romanowski also surmises that both rotifer cultivation and tolerance to relative alkalinity helps explain why S. purpurea is often one of the first plants to move into freshly denuded areas after a glacier retreats. Considering that the soil on a glacial plain is little more than rock dust and clay, any plant with the ability to gather its own nitrogen has a decided survival advantage.

Sarracenia purpurea

All of these factors, with an additional tolerance for lower humidity than what most other Sarracenia prefer, make S. purpurea an excellent plant for bog and container gardens through North Texas. For best results, go with typical basic care for Sarracenia (full morning sun, rainwater or distilled water only, and potting mix comprised of two parts sphagnum moss to one part sharp sand), and S. purpurea responds by spreading out into thick clumps. Once the first hard frosts arrive, the tips of the pitchers tend to brown and burn at the tips, but they generally don’t die entirely with anything less than a week of temperatures remaining below freezing. Any pitchers that don’t die off still collect sunlight while the plant is otherwise in winter dormancy, but the real action starts in mid-March in North Texas conditions, when they start blooming and then producing pitchers.

Sarracenia purpurea

And now the Canadian angle. Sarracenia purpurea gets its genus name from famed French naturalist and doctor Michel Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who first described it after he emigrated to what was then New France in 1685. At the time, the plant was used as a treatment for smallpox, and its carnivorous nature wasn’t confirmed until Charles Darwin’s experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. As other relations turned up in North America (and, in the case of Heliamphora, in South America as well), Sarrazin’s name was also given to the whole family, the Sarraceniaceae. Sarrazin died without learning of S. purpurea‘s range and habits, but the purple pitcher plant became a favorite of a famed horticulture enthusiast of the end of the Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria. She was so taken by the scrappy little plant and its beautiful flower that until Newfoundland entered Canadian Confederation in 1949, the back of the Newfoundland half-penny coin featured a purple pitcher by order of the queen. Even today, it remains the provincial flower of the province, partly because of its previous history, and partly because it’s one of the first plants to bloom in the province in spring. If you’ve ever visited Newfoundland and Labrador, especially in the very early spring, you’ll understand why this is such a big deal.

In a way, S. purpurea could be the Canadian national flower, too. It’s a natural survivor, low-key yet tenacious, humble yet possessed of a unique beauty. If that doesn’t describe every Canadian I’ve ever met, I don’t know what does.

End of Sarracenia Season – 4

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

End of Sarracenia Season – 3

Sarracenia

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Sarracenia purpurea

End of Sarracenia Season – 2

Sarracenia

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Sarracenia

End of Sarracenia Season – 1

Sarracenia

And so the Sarracenia growing season ends. Last week’s surprise but not completely unexpected hard frost finally put paid to the taller growth in the Sarracenia pools, and they don’t have much longer until all of them go brown and die back. Considering the weather forecast for next week, with lows pushing freezing, we’ll get a classic Sarracenia autumn: lots of brilliant color as the traps die off, and then quiet until spring.

Sarracenia

One of the benefits of the heightened color is that the insects still around are even more mesmerized by the coloration, and the plants have no problems taking advantage of the arthropod bounty. This way, the plants get one last boost of nitrogen and phosphorus before the winter sleep, and in anticipation of large and healthy blooms in March. More than at any other time during the growing season, this is when passing by a Sarracenia stand yields the odd sound of flying insects attempting to fly or climb out of the pitchers, only to have the shape of the pitchers produce a downdraft towards the depths every time they try to fly out. The pitchers also act as acoustic horns, so that angry buzzing travels a lot further than one would expect.

Well-fed Sarracenia

And what’s in the pitchers? This time of the year, it’s usually a combination of moths and bees, both attracted by the pitchers’ fluorescence under UV and by a particularly generous secretion of nectar along the lid and lip. This year was surprising, though, because a significant number of traps also caught at least one stink bug at a time. I don’t know if they were attracted by the nectar or the promise of a hiding spot, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that next year’s stink bug population drops every time the plants feed.

Well-fed Sarracenia

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 3

The theme for the end of the season, from what should have been the most influential song of 25 years ago:

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Oh, and remember my noting a couple of years ago that those Dunecraft Carnivorous Creations kits might not be as productive as advertised? Well, here’s a firm demonstration of the problems with growing carnivores from seed. The seeds from which these seedlings sprouted went into the pot back in April, and they’re only now that large. It’s possible to grow carnivores from seed, but be prepared for a long wait. (I admit that I love telling kids who ask about the Carnivorous Creations kits that if they can get their seeds to germinate, they’ll still have to wait at least three to five years in most cases before they have full-sized plants. The kids are shocked, but you really need to see their parents’ expressions for real comedy.)

Sarracenia seedlings

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 2

Halloween’s over, and even in Texas, that means that winter is due at any time. The first big blue norther that officially announces the arrival of real autumn should hit by Saturday night, and the trees are already changing color thanks to our recent rains. Sadly, that means that the resident Sarracenia should start dying back and changing color themselves before too long. This means that standing outside during a full moon and marveling at the brilliant glow from the leucophyllas is just a dream until next April, but so be it. A good winter dormancy, and they’ll come back even stronger than last year.

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

As an extra, I regularly rave about the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, as one of the toughest carnivorous or protocarnivorous (depending upon your prespective) plants available to beginners. Here’s a demonstration. In spring, they started blooming, and didn’t let up all summer. By the beginning of August, when just about everything else was dying off or simply baking, little S. debile was blooming and growing. Now, with the sun fading and the outside temperatures dropping below what most tropical carnivores can handle? It’s still blooming. Next year, if everything works well, S. debile will be joined by a whole flotilla of new triggerplants, but this little monster is still one of my favorites just because of its tenaciousness.

Stylidium debile

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 1

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.

Sarracenia

Sarracenia leucophylla

Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia

Sarracenia by moonlight – 2

Sarracenia by moonlight

Sarracenia pitcher plants are wonders at any time of the year, even when they’re in winter dormancy. The absolute best time to appreciate them, though, is in autumn. When the summer heat breaks, Sarracenia make up for lost time by growing the largest and most distinctive pitchers of the year. All species produce brilliantly-colored autumn pitchers, all the better to attract insect prey, but Sarracenia leucophylla goes for both color and the brilliant white fenestrae on the pitcher throats and lids. On the right night, with the right full moon, and they’re positively blinding.

Sarracenia by moonlight

And while we’re looking at pitcher structures, here’s a great opportunity to dispel a very common misconception. A regular occurrence at plant shows involves kids who look at Sarracenia, and the kids’ fathers relating “And when a bug enters the pitcher, the top closes down and keeps it from escaping.” They’re usually very defensive when I demonstrate that the lids never close once the pitchers open, up to and including one who yelled back “Well, I know of one that does close! I’ll bet you don’t know about that one, do you?” (Amazingly enough, he ran off when I asked for a species name.) This says a lot about the number of parents who’d rather be right than correct, but it also says a lot about the perception that Sarracenia pitcher lids close. Without understanding of how the pitchers actually work, it’s a reasonable presumption.

As the following photos show, immature pitchers start their growth with the lid in place, and the growth occurs laterally when the pitcher prepares to open. Spread to the side, breaking the seal, and the pitcher is ready for business. This one wasn’t quite ready just yet, but given about three or four more days, and a concurrent doubling of height and depth, and it has at least another month’s worth of insect-catching before impending winter cold causes the main plant to go dormant. Come spring, the cycle begins anew.

Sarracenia by moonlight

Sarracenia by moonlight

Sarracenia by moonlight

Sarracenia by night

When it comes to moon gardens, anybody can make one out of Datura or Ipomoea moonflowers. One of the most interesting options, though, involves pitcher plants. Set up a bog garden or even a good container garden full of Sarracenia leucophylla, in a place that gets the light of the full moon in October, and you’ve got magic. Turn on a UV light at those times where the clouds block the moonlight, and you’ve got wonder. Now all you need is a crowd to appreciate it.

Sarracenia by night

Sarracenia by night

Sarracenia by night

Investigating UV fluorescence in carnivorous plants at grad student prices

Back in February, many of you may remember the distinctive paper in Plant Biology titled “Fluorescent prey traps in carnivorous plants” and the subsequent popular science reportage. As can be expected, this opened up a whole new series of questions as how carnivores attract insect prey, with the biggest limitation being the ability to study the phenomenon. The situation is aggravated by the wild variability of consumer-grade ultraviolet light sources, particularly ones that produce the correct frequency of UV to fluoresce carnivore structures. While many UV LED arrangements, such as the flashlights used for viewing UV ink stamps at nightclubs, will fluoresce these structures, they also tend to emit enough visible light to wash out the effect.

In trying to study this further, the problem lay with finding a UV source that produced the correct wavelength, cut back on the amount of visible light being emitted, and kept the cost of the final arrangement to a reasonable amount. The last immediately removed shortwave UV lamps, used for decades for viewing fluorescent minerals, from consideration, as these can run well outside of a typical underclass or grad student’s budget. Thankfully, it’s possible, with a little modification, to make a perfectly suitable and very effective arrangement that, while not necessarily precise, allows researchers to experience carnivorous plant fluorescence in the field.

AS&S violet laser

The core of this apparatus is a violet laser, which emits enough UV for any number of fluorescence effects. (As can be expected, violet lasers are now the go-to item at raves and music festivals for precisely this reason.) While available from many sources, this one came from American Science & Surplus. One limitation, due to US regulations, is that it uses a momentary switch to turn on and off, requiring the user to keep it held down in order to use it. Other than that, it has exceptional range, which means that it has enough power for more long-range field observation, such as seeking fluorescing carnivores at night.

DISCLAIMER: Since a violet laser produces a significant amount of UV, neither the Texas Triffid Ranch nor anyone involved with it takes any responsibility or accepts any liability for damages or injuries caused or abetted by the misuse of said laser. Keep this thing out of your eyes and the eyes of innocent bystanders, and wear protective eyewear when using it. Likewise, keep it away from exposed skin whenever possible.

Laser beam (unmodified)

The other limitation to using a violet laser is tied to the basic concept of a laser. Namely, it emits a beam of coherent light in a pinpoint. As the photo above shows, this means that the light from the laser scatters in air (the reason, by the way, why the visible lasers in science fiction movies and television are impossible, unless someone fires one into a cloud of gas or vapor), but not quite enough for our purposes. What’s needed is a coherent light that also spreads out laterally, just enough to cover a larger area and to view fluorescence effects without the visible light component washing it out. For that, we’re going to need an optical diffuser.

ThorLabs diffuser

Another thing to consider when working with UV is that standard glass absorbs UV: this is the phenomenon that allows people in glass greenhouses to work in full sun all day without suffering crippling sunburn. (Take this from an authority on “shedding like a monitor lizard all summer long”.) Because of that, standard glass diffusers intended for coherent and incoherent light won’t work. You’ll have to pay a bit more, but Thorlabs offers a series of fused silica diffusers designed for UV, in polishes from 120 grit to 1500 grit. Since I knew precious little of what I was doing, I bought one 120 and one 1500 to compare the effects, and then tested it with the laser back from the diffuser by about a centimeter.

Laser beam with diffusor

As the photo shows, the diffuser does an exemplary job of spreading the laser beam while still keeping it reasonably coherent. The only problem right now is with keeping the diffuser perpendicular to the laser and turning on the laser with one hand. In a very quick and dirty installation, this could be fixed with judicious application of the Time Lord’s secret weapon, but the more realistic plan involves constructing a clip for the laser that allows the diffuser to be adjusted for best effect. That’s in the future.

Sarracenia under visible light

Now the acid test. Since most of my previous experiments involved Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants, the first series of experiments involve going out into the middle of a collection of Sarracenia with the newly modified laser and viewing the effects. As important as using UV on the plants was recording their appearance under visible light, if only to see if the plant had any correlation between its markings under visible light and any fluorescence in UV. Hence, a quick photo of the pitcher is necessary before moving on.

Sarracenia under UV, first attempt

The first test of the newly modified laser was an unqualified success, at least to the naked eye. The beam stimulated fluorescence in most carnivores, including hints in sundews (particularly Drosera filliformis), as well as reddish chlorophyll fluorescence in Venus flytraps. In fact, the extreme fluorescence in Sarracenia of all species helps explain why Sarracenia seem to capture so many moths, and the next big project is to capture similar fluorescence, if any, in the genus’s relatives Darlingtonia and Heliamphora. The only limitation lay with the camera: working without a net, the fluorescence was barely visible in final photos, even if it was nearly blinding in person.

Sarracenia pitcher under UV

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the cover to the latest Hawkwind album. While the fluorescence can be seen in the throat of the pitcher (on the right) and the edges of the lid (left), it’s still not perfect. Time for more experimentation with shutter speed and light sensitivity.

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

One of the more interesting phenomena that was observed while working with the laser with Sarracenia were distinctive neon blue spots on either side of the lid interior, visible here on the upper left of the lid. Not all pitchers have these, but larger pitchers do, and they almost resemble fragments of Australian fire opal or blue ammolite to the naked eye. I have no idea if these work as additional lures to insect prey, but that’s yet another experiment for the near future.

Triggerplant blooms under UV

And as an additional treat for botanists, the laser apparatus also helps bring out UV colors and patterns in flowers as well. The hot pink blooms of the triggerplant Stylidium debile already stand out to human eyes, but under UV, they’re a brilliant neon pink. Combine that with known fluorescence in the blooms of other carnivores and protocarnivores (particularly Utricularia bisquamata, which has a spot that glows a brilliant DayGlo yellow under UV), and this laser arrangement could be used to study the attractiveness of flowers to insects without requiring special camera lenses or other equipment. If further tests with sticky trap carnivores such as Drosera and Byblis work out, it may also offer a way to search for possible attractants in protocarnivorous and potentially protocarnivorous plants as Probiscidea.

In summary, with the advent of inexpensive violet lasers, carnivorous plant researchers may now view fluorescent attractors in carnivores for the cost of dinner and a movie. I hope that this encourages further experimentation with UV on carnivores, particularly among college and high school students, as well as among layperson carnivore enthusiasts. As always, please feel free to ask questions or add commentary below, particularly concerning ways to improve upon the results.

Carnivorous plant fluorescence under UV vs. point-and-shoot

sarracenia_uv_1

While this may not look like much, the photo above is a scientific demonstration. Namely, what happens when you combine a large Sarracenia pitcher plant pitcher, a violet laser that throws off a lot of UV when properly scattered, and a camera whose owner needs further training for low-light operation. Alternately, it could be a demonstration of viewing the fluorescence of carnivorous plants under UV with less than $20 in equipment, because the glow is much more intense in person than in this terrible photo. Either way, new, better photos WILL follow.

On other developments, this marks the 700th post on this blog since it started two years ago tomorrow. Do I get a cookie for longevity?

Projects: Living in the future

One of the side effects of last weekend’s show at the Perot Museum was the realization that there’s not really an easy way to show people the inside of a pitcher plant, no matter the particular genus or species, without a bit of help. Sarracenia pitcher lids can be bent back a bit, but it’s hard for a group to get a peek inside without risking damage to the pitcher. It’s even worse with Nepenthes pitchers, and trying to do some investigation of Cephalotus pitchers? Forget it. This requires a bit of technology.

The question started up yesterday afternoon, when a trip to the allergist made me think “What about an endoscope? I mean, if you can use one to view the inside of someone’s trachea, how hard can it be to get one that can be slipped down a carnivorous plant pitcher to view the inside?” All of a sudden, the possibilities: surveys of prey items and their numbers, searching for various animals living inside, investigating the difference in prey caught at night and during the day, all without having to cut the pitcher open.

That’s when an old friend in New York turned me onto USB-ready endoscopes, complete with adjustable LEDs for illuminating the view. They’re already waterproof for viewing plumbing issues, so they’re absolutely perfect for getting into the equally slimy and grungy environment found inside a Nepenthes pitcher. Better yet, between getting live video through a computer screen and taking screen captures, presentations at museums and schools just got a LOT more interesting.

Thank you, Pat, for the help. Now I need to find a really small one, otherwise with the same features, for getting into really small plants. It may be time to look further at Nepenthes ampullaria as a tadpole nursery.

Introducing Sarracenia flava

The joke all throughout Texas goes “Don’t like the weather? Hang around for five minutes.” Our reality isn’t much better. While not getting the rain we were promised (as of this week, we’re now facing the driest spring registered in North Texas since 1971, and we’re heading straight toward Year Three of the worst drought seen in the state since the “drought of record” in 1952-56), Saturday was average for the area and the time of the year. Then Sunday hit, and it’s time to pull out the winter coats and gloves again. By Monday and Tuesday, we faced low temperatures below freezing, which isn’t a big deal further north, but here? I’ve lived here for two-thirds of my life, and I apparently missed our last big late freeze in 1997 by being trapped in Portland, Oregon at the time.

Anyway, the cold coming through so late in the year couldn’t have hit at a worse time. The plans to set up the new greenhouse went into standby, as the winds on Sunday were ferocious enough that attempting to install greenhouse film would have whisked me to Oz or at least to Nehwon. The citrus trees and the new blueberry, recently purchased to replace the “Pink Lemonade” blueberry bush that died during last year’s fall immolation, went under cover, as did all of the hot pepper bonsai just trimmed and wired. I couldn’t do much for the Sarracenia in their wading pools except trust in their ability to handle light frosts, but I pulled in two yellow pitchers, Sarracenia flava>, inside to protect their new blooms.

Sarracenia flava

Early spring isn’t a good time for control freak carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly those engrossed in Sarracenia. As mentioned elsewhere, all of the North American pitcher plants go into dormancy by mid-November, and we got enough cold, including our freak snowfall on Christmas Day, to kill off most of the autumn pitchers by mid-January. That’s not a problem, because come March, they grow more. What to do about the scraggly mess hiding the blooms, though?

Sarracenia flava

At this point, the best thing to do is cut off anything that’s gone brown and evaluate any new growth, as well as remove weeds that sprouted up at the same time. In this photo, you may note that this S. flava still has a kindasorta live trap from last year, even if the top is burned off, and two new tall pitchers starting to sprout. If you’re trimming yours back, leave anything that’s still green attached to the plant, especially this time of the year. The plant needs every last photon it can capture to get a good start on the year, so as tempting as it is to snip those half-traps, leave them on until they actually die off.

Sarracenia flava

While giving these guys their new spring tonsorials, taking the time to go through it carefully has its reward. Hidden among the wreckage wasn’t just a tiny little pitcher that emerged at about the time the plant bloomed, but a handful of violets sprouting in the sphagnum moss. The pitcher was interesting in its own right: because most of the pollinators for Sarracenia are also potential prey, most plants bloom and only start opening up traps after the blooms fade. This little pitcher, though, was probably working hard at catching mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and anything else it could snag, passing on what nitrogen it could from digestion to the main plant while the main pitchers started to emerge. It stays, but unfortunately the violets are going to go…probably into a bog garden arrangement. The flowers don’t last long, but the leaves have their own merits if they don’t burn off in the summer heat.

Sarracenia flava bloom

Speaking of blooms, the only thing more impressive than Sarracenia traps are their blooms, and this one helps explain why the common name is “yellow pitcher”. The traps tend toward chartreuse, but the blooms just blaze. In the years I’ve kept Sarracenia, I’ve noticed these blooms ranging from canary to a very light green. The scent tends to be a bit like cat spray, which can be a bit overpowering in enclosed areas, and I’ve heard of problems with cats assuming that the analogue is the real thing and attacking bog gardens for that reason. These, though, were all completely odor-free, but I’m not sure if that was because of the bloom or the insane lack of humidity in the area at the time. However, look at them under ultraviolet light, or even under a good full moon, and get a good idea of what a pollinating insect sees.

Sarracenia flava bloom

When most people see Sarracenia blooms, the understandable concern is that the plant traps bees, wasps, and other big potential pollinators. As mentioned earlier, the plant produces its first traps after the blooms open, to remove the risk of snagging a freshly pollen-covered wasp and thereby preventing its genes from passing on to new generations. The bloom is a trap all on its own, though, but not a fatal one. The bottom cap or shield seen in this photo protects the flower’s stamens from rain and wind, and the only way in is through slots in the cap. Those caps are covered by the petals, which are about as strong and stiff as cling wrap or chunks of burst balloon, so an insect seeking nectar or pollen can push the petals aside and get in under the cap. Problem is, the petals also conceal the slots once the bug is inside, so it tends to wander around for a while, getting dusted with pollen both from the stamens above it and with loose pollen within the cap. I’ve seen honeybees escape a cap that were absolutely antiqued with fresh pollen, and there’s enough in an individual cap to expedite the pollination of a whole stand of pitcher plants.

Eventually, the fun ends. When the flower finally gets pollinated, the petals drop off, other insects wipe up the excess pollen, and the seed pod in the interior swells, matures, and then dries out. By the end of summer, I gather the mature pods, stratify them in the refrigerator over the winter, and then pot them in fresh sphagnum moss in spring. And the cycle continues.

In defense of ultraviolet

By now, a fair number of carnivorous plant enthusiasts know about the new paper on fluorescence of Nepenthes, Sarracenia, and Dionea traps under ultraviolet light. First and foremost, for all of you undergrad and postgrad students out there, take this as a warning not to procrastinate in finishing and submitting a scientific paper. I was about maybe a month away from submitting my own paper to the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter on the subject, and not only did the authors of this paper beat me to the punch, but they produced an exceptional paper that presented distinctive blue fluorescence spots that nobody else had caught before now. They did exceptional work, they deserve every last bit of publicity they’re receiving, and I just regret not having the proper gear for proper research.

That said, there’s a lot more to be done with fluorescence in carnivorous plants. I can state with authority that many other genera of carnivore fluoresce under UV, including at least two species of Heliamphora,Darlingtonia, and the two carnivorous bromeliads Catopsis and Brocchinia. In fact, Catopsis fluoresces brightly enough to hurt. There are other advantages to running around your carnivorous plant nursery with UV lights, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The whole strange experiment with carnivores and UV started about five years back. Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores noted about three years ago how brightly some species of Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, seemed to stand out under moonlight, and I noticed that myself when looking over Sarracenia propagation pools during a full moon. Likewise, after damage from sudden hailstorms, I took a good look at the trap contents of those particularly bright Sarracenia and noticed that a majority of the prey items consisted of moths. The moths didn’t have any particular interest in visible light color variations, and many would have no interest whatsoever in the nectar secreted along the rims and lids of the traps. So what attracted them?

Since I was the sort of kid who cracked most Encyclopedia Brown mysteries by the third-to-last page and who went digging to verify the plausibility or lack thereof of Danny Dunn novels, it wasn’t hard to recognize that the moths were seeing something that I couldn’t without assistance. The initial research was easy, but I’m again getting ahead of myself. The problem involved getting photos that verified observations. Almost anyone who studied any level of high-school botany or natural history remembers photos of flowers taken “with a UV filter” that allows UV-blind humans to see the patterns on seemingly boring flowers that draw in bees and sawflies. Just try to get a breakdown on how to do this, though, especially in the digital camera age. Half of the advice I received was completely worthless (hacking your camera to detect infrared does nothing, and just wasted my time), or it was tantalizingly vague as to how those photographers managed to pull it off. I even hired my adopted daughter Jenny to take photos of Nepenthes and Sarracenia while using a UV filter, but the results were inconclusive at best. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so impressed with the photos taken by the Plant Biology authors: they bypassed all of that by using low-light photography and controlling the exact wavelength of UV used.

In further developments, I’m still publishing, but only after quite a bit of revision. Among other things, it’s time to note the number of other carnivores that show similar fluorescence, and the variations therein. For instance, Darlingtonia, the cobra plant, fluoresces along its trap aperture, but it also has veins of fluorescence along the ala, or wing, that runs up the shaft of the trap, presumably to encourage insects up the ala to the aperture. Venus flytraps fluoresce, with varying patterns with different cultivars. Oh, and the greatest fluorescence among sundews is at the tips of its trapping hairs, with the dew at the tips absolutely shining under UV.

Now, there’s no reason why you can’t experiment with this as well. In fact, after running a few tests, I hope to present a regular shortwave and longwave UV display at plant shows comparable to fluorescent mineral displays in rock shows. This sort of equipment isn’t absolutely necessary, though, and most experiments in carnivore fluorescence can be done with a simple UV light.

Black light fluorescent fixture

To begin, don’t bother with standard “black light” fixtures, either fluorescent or incandescent. Not only do these put out relatively little UV, but they emit so much visible light that the plant fluorescence is nearly unnoticeable. These will still work with one exception, to be related later, but for most investigation, save the money for a better option. About the only fluorescence you’ll get off a carnivore with one of these comes from dying leaves, and if you can’t spot that under visible light, this won’t help.

UV LED flashlight

That better option is a good UV LED light, preferably a battery-powered one that can be used in the field. These days, with the drop in prices in UV-emitting LEDs, it’s possible to find plenty of good LED flashlights at affordable costs, with and without standard white LEDs for double duty. I picked up mine from American Science & Surplus for two reasons: it has six UV LEDs surrounded by white LEDs so I can use it as a standard flashlight, and the switch glows in the dark. You may laugh, but drop one of these in the dark, and that improves the odds of finding it.

Sonic screwdriver - closed

And then there’s the one I use for plant shows with lots of kids, because they completely lose it when I pull it out and turn it on. This, of course, is my scorpion detector, as it’s just as good at causing scorpions to fluoresce as carnivores. It has one good, powerful UV LED in the tip, which already makes it very handy for shows, and it has a pen attachment at the other end for leaving notes on business cards and stickers. The best thing about it, though?

Sonic screwdriver - open

It extends. Particularly when showing the bright patches at the back of the throat of a Nepenthes pitcher, that’s a lot less intrusive than manhandling a pitcher into place for a larger light source. It won’t work well in bright light, but it gets the job done.

Now, instructions for using LED lights. If at all possible, try to use your new lights in as dark a set of conditions as you can get. When working outside, try for a new moon and a minimum of street and porch lights for the best effect. Indoors, go for the darkest room you can get and let your eyes adjust to the darkness before lighting everything. Contrary to news reports on how these “glow in the dark”, the effect is going to be a bit subtle, much like using UV lights on a piece of opal. With proper precautions, though, the effect is not only obvious, but one of the LED flashlights mentioned above can detect carnivores from as much as three meters away. Go for a longwave UV lamp, such as those used for diamond prospecting, and have some real fun.

And for a last word, there’s one additional benefit in wandering through your carnivorous plant collection with a UV flashlight. My dear friend Ryan Kitko recently wrote about the bladderwort, Utricularia bisquamata, that was infesting his shield sundew. U. biquamata has quite the reputation as an aggressive pest in carnivore collections, but I have a soft spot for it. Firstly, it’s very easy to care for, and it makes an excellent starter plant for those who want to work with bladderworts but who don’t have the facilities to raise any of the true aquatic species. Give U. bisquamata soggy soil and lots of light in a standard terrarium, and it takes over, producing lots of white-pink slipper-like blooms with a pastel yellow spot on the top.

The other reason why I’m so fond of U. bisquamata? Get outside with a UV flashlight and find out for yourself. That yellow spot may be pastel under visible light, but under UV, it fluoresces like a black light poster. Considering how many birds are able to see into varying frequencies of UV, I now understand why both the migratory ruby-throat hummingbirds and their competing rufous hummingbirds won’t stay out of my greenhouse. I’ve had hummingbirds literally tapping on my office window to get at U. bisquamata and U. sandersonii blooms, and now I know exactly why.

Prologue for 2013

The new year just got real. The only thing exceeding the thrill of the Czarina stopping by the Day Job with a mystery package is showing coworkers what Sarracenia pitcher plants look like. When these little monsters start blooming in March, then the year begins in earnest.
Sarracenia rhizomes
They may not look like much at the moment, but check back around Texas Frightmare Weekend this May. Between the first batch of pitchers in May and the second batch in October, they’ll surprise you.
Sarracenia rhizomes

Lullaby and good night, close your big bloodshot eyes…

For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.

If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.

Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.

The Aftermath: Discovery Days at the Museum of Nature & Science

Texas Triffid Ranch table

Last weekend’s Discovery Days show at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science went off without a hiccup, even with the slightly melancholy vibe running the entire weekend. As of September 16, when the current Planet Shark exhibition closes, so will the Science Museum building, previously known as The Science Place for the last three decades. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent over the last quarter-century in this building (the original Robot Dinosaurs exhibition opened on my 21st birthday), this was a second-to-last opportunity to say goodbye to an old and dear friend.

The welcome sign at Discovery Days

The idea was simple: come out with a sampling of carnivores for exhibition, and answer questions the attending kids had about the plants and how they lived. As with last year’s Discovery Days show, both kids and adults kept me on my toes with thoughtful, sharp, and detailed questions about carnivorous plant physiology and habits. What was new this year was the number of visitors, both from out-of-state and out-of-country, who had great insights. When I wasn’t talking to a Romanian engineer about Transylvanian dinosaurs (and he was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed) and his world-famous countryman Baron Nopsca, I was helping to identify pitcher plants on Luzon in the Philippines. If I was twitching by the end, it was only because of the sheer amount of information that attendees shared, and I only hope that I was able to return the favor.

A small selection from my carnivorous plant library

As I did last year, I brought out a cross-section of reference books on the subject to show examples of plants I didn’t have in my collection at the moment, but it may be time to get an iPad and go electronic. My back still hurts from hauling them out of the car on Sunday evening.

Sarracenia lid and lip

All of the plants were popular, but the big Sarracenia hybrid was the belle of the ball. In fact, a couple of people made precisely that comment. Not only did she draw interest in the first place, but she was ultimately more accessible to understanding basic passive-trap physiology than any other plant there. (In particular, one attendee had a slight freakout when I was demonstrating with a UV light how the lid interiors and lips of the pitcher fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and she literally squeaked “It’s a sonic screwdriver!”) That said, most of the kids liked her cousin…

The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador

I was regularly asked if I named individual plants, and I was half-tempted to nickname the two Sarracenia purpurea “Red” and “Harold” for the duration of the show. Considering the number of Canadians, not to mention us Canadian anchor babies, out to see the sharks, that may or may not have been prudent. Bringing “Red” out, though, was especially important for one four-year-old with a look in her eye that I knew well from her age: “Don’t you DARE patronize me.” She wanted everything explained to her exactly the way I would have done with her parents, and she asked as many questions as she could about the hairs on the lip and composition of the debris in the bottom of the pitchers with her admittedly slightly limited vocabulary. I hope to run into her again in a few years and see how far she leaves me in the dust in scientific inquiries.

Nepenthes ampullaria

And the other surprise hit? Explaining the number of mutualistic relationships between carnivores and various animals had some kids engrossed, especially when I told them about the relationships between Nepenthes ampullaria and the frog Microhyla nepenthicola. Frogs that nest and breed in pitcher plants? Oh, that shattered a few fragile young minds. (I’ll say the greatest satisfaction came with a group of teenagers who claimed that they were there to watch out for little brothers, and they must have hung out on Saturday afternoon for an hour, asking every question they could. I don’t know if they were too fascinated to pretend to be nonplussed, or if I treated them like adults, but they asked some of the sharpest questions the whole weekend long. And so much for kids today being lazy and stupid, eh?)

As mentioned before, this was the last actual event at the old Museum, but I’ve been assured that the crew wants a carnivorous plant presence at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which opens next year. In the meantime, I’m planning to organize one last outing to the current Museum on September 16, where those of us who remember the two separate museums in Fair Park can come out and have one last look around. For the Czarina and myself, it’ll be particularly important, as we were married under the Protostega in the Texas Giants Hall at the old Museum of Natural History, and this is as close to renewing our vows in the same place as we’re going to get.

Better Than Brawndo

Now, I’m sharing a rather intriguing paper in the Annals of Botany on digestive mutualism between several species of bromeliad and the bromeliad-living spider Psecas chapoda for several reasons. It’s not just because P. chapoda is just one of several species of spider adapted to living within bromeliads, with their feces and food scraps contributing toward the bromeliad’s nitrogen needs. It’s not just because further investigation may help develop new insights into why carnivory developed in so many flowering plants, as well as how the carnivorous bromeliad genera Brocchinia and Catopsis got their starts. It’s not just that this sort of digestive mutualism exists in many protocarnivorous and carnivorous-by-proxy plants, such as the South African genus Roridula. It’s not even because with enough true carnivorous plants that take advantage of assistance from animal predigestion of prey, such as frogs in Sarracenia, Nepenthes, and Heliamphora pitcher plants, this discovery may suggest that other plants are only protocarnivorous during the times of year when the spiders move in. On a personal note, it means I need to do more to encourage the indigenous jumping spiders in the area to move in among my Nepenthes and Catopsis.

No, the real reason I want to share is because in the course of a long and eventful life, I have a lot of very sick and sordid friends. In fact, I can see at least one of them making up a tiny outhouse for the pitcher of my Catopsis, or at least a little sign reading “Flush Twice: It’s A Long Way To The School Cafeteria”. I expect at least one to go electronic, and fit the Nepenthes racks with a motion sensor and a sound chip that chirps “DUDE! Light a match, will you?” I may be 45 going on 12, but my friends are even worse.

The joys of Texas meteorology

While nowhere near as bad as last summer, 2012’s weather continues its usual game of “Let’s Mess With Everyone’s Heads” in North Texas. Back in April, it was tornadoes and torrential rain, and then jack squat for a month. In our immediate area, we have a nearly incessant southerly wind that allegedly contains moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it passes over San Antonio and Austin, it’s pretty much relieved of that excess. By the time it hits Waco, it’s empty. By the time it reaches Garland, the air is so dry that it could kill a silk ficus. Considering that the main focus of the Triffid Ranch is involved with raising and selling carnivores, which prefer high humidity, this little fact instigates a lot of oddball engineering.

To wit, the period between our tornado convention in April and today’s light rains was mostly dryer than Stephen Fry’s sense of humor. This naturally interfered with the laudable and reasonable intention of growing Sarracenia pitcher plants outdoors. Oh, they’d grow, but only a little, and they obviously fought between basic maintenance and growing enough traps to sustain themselves over the summer. By the beginning of May, the struggle became intense enough that I only had a few Sarracenia for Texas Frightmare Weekend that were a sellable quality. At that point, I realized that I needed to get a greenhouse, or at least some sort of wind shelter, for the Sarracenia. It was either that or moving to Galveston.

That’s when the Czarina chimed in. “You know,” she said, “the Harbor FreightTools is selling greenhouses for $300.”

I winced a little. Yes, it would get the job done for one small area, but I had plans for something just a smidgen larger. “Yeah, but I’d rather put in the money for a real one.”

She insisted. It wasn’t a bad deal as something to get me and the plants through the summer, until we could build a more permanent installation in the fall. Besides, she noted, she’d get it for me as an early birthday present. I relented, fearing her ever-sharp elbows if I kept arguing it, and we picked one up on sale. (I might note that because of confusion, I still ended up buying it myself, so this doesn’t qualify as a birthday present. This means that I get to torment her for the next three months by pricing crocodile monitor hatchlings and reminding her that she forced me to this situation. One day, she’ll actually agree to my getting a crocodile monitor, and then I’ll be stuck.)

Oh, let me tell you, putting together a kit greenhouse with only an hour or so available each day is entertaining. The instructions were complete enough, but sufficiently terse that I found myself repeatedly mumbling “If the Sontarans don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” It’s doing so while working in the worst sort of twilight, as mosquitoes large enough to have in-air refueling ports tried to steal the tools out of my hands. As things got darker, the Mediterranean geckos and more unrecognizable things came out to watch, and I’m not sure if they looked at me as sustenance or a source of mirth. I’m pretty sure I heard gecko laughter at least twice as I was trying to find locking bolts that had fallen into the grass. I know the little vermin were snickering when the Czarina came out to assist with putting up the last braces.

And then there was the plan for the glazing. The idea was to use the greenhouse frame as a framework atop the old Sarracenia growing area, and extend it about eight feet or so due north with greenhouse film. Fair and good, but installing greenhouse film requires both good weather and good light, and those days that had the light also had winds threatening to blow me, the greenhouse, and the rest of the neighborhood to Oz. A couple of gusts would have overshot Oz and gone straight for Lankhmar. By this last weekend, the framework had glazing along the base, and I figured “Oh, I’ll put in the top next week. Besides, if it rains, the Sarracenia can catch the rain so I don’t have to water.”

And talk about dodging a bullet. Yesterday not only brought torrential rains to the entire Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, to the point where the National Weather Service issued airport weather advisories and warnings about river flooding. The warnings even included the term “gusty outflow winds,” which sounds more as if it belongs in a review of a chili cookoff than a weather report. The upshot is that we had, once again, the classic North Texas view of rain coming in just short of horizontal. Wind, even a bit of hail, too. Everyone in the area went to the window, gasped a bit at the carnage, and went back to work.

I did that, too, and went out to the growing area that evening after finishing with the Day Job. One of those gusty outflow winds brapped across the area, snapped off about 200 pounds of branch off a big silverleaf maple on the property, and then dropped it right atop the greenhouse frame. THe greenhouse frame has a dent on one side, and the entire ceiling brace is bent beyond repair. However, that giant collection of branches came down right where I was growing Sarracenia a week ago, and if that frame hadn’t been there, they would have been destroyed. Flattened. Turned to Sarracenia mush and a lot of splattered growing mix. I’m now certain that the greenhouse frame gave its life so that the pitcher plants would continue.

Because of this, I’ll no longer look askance at buying anything at Harbor Freight, or at any of the Czarina’s seemingly wacky ideas. I will, however, have grand fun messing with her on the selection of birthday presents.

Very, VERY bad ideas

For those unfamiliar with The Pitcher Plant Project, I heartily recommend spending a few hours going through the blog . Of particular note, though, is taking a look at The Sarracenia Sink, because I’ve been suggesting to the Czarina that I could up the ante a bit. Many of my neighbors are renovating bathrooms and kitchens, which means that a lot of perfectly serviceable toilets are left out front in time for Large Trash Day. I figure that it’s just a matter of sealing up the bottom, filling both bowl and tank with Sarracenia soil mix, planting a nice collection of pitcher plants and sundews, and bringing it to the next Triffid Ranch show. Not only is it a perfect example of classic Scottish frugality to make the world a better place, but Mother Scotland even gave me a perfect name for the arrangement: “The Bog Garden”. All it would need is an Ewan MacGregor action figure in it, and it would be perfect.

The only problem with this plan lies with the Czarina. See, her family is Welsh, not Scot, so she doesn’t agree that this is a brilliant plan. In fact, she stopped rolling her eyes or jabbing me with her elbows when we drive by an abandoned toilet and I suggest upcycling it. She only had one thing to say if I continued on this line of inquiry. I didn’t exactly hear what she was planning to do to my neck after she ripped my head off, but based on her tone, I’m going to have to surprise her with the end results.

Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Always be careful of what you wish for. Always. This spring, my only concern was that we weren’t going to have a repeat of the hellish summer of 2011. Welp, that’s not a concern any more. The last two days have dumped lots and lots of rain on my little corner of North Texas, and we’re going to get more before June 1. Even now, with a nice hefty dollop of Angelspit and Ministry in the headphones, the roar of the thunderclaps intrudes, over and over.

Because of how we’re situated between southern winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, northern winds skirting the Rockies on their way from Canada, and the prevailing jet stream currents, this little allotment in Hell’s Half-Acre already has a propensity for terrible storms brewing up from nowhere. Watching weather radar scans, as tremendous thunderstorms emerge and disappear while you watch, has already been entertainment for three generations of Dallasites, and last night’s storms were making someone at the National Weather Service absolutely orgasmic. I have a small weather alert radio intended to warn of thunderstorms and hailstorms, and that blasted thing kept going off all night. After about the fourth alert, screaming of half-dollar-sized hail in far southern Oklahoma, and the storm that produced it heading right for the Dallas half of the Metroplex, I just started grumbling about sending a tornado out this way to give us something to panic about. I don’t even need to go to Oz: Nehwon and Melnibone are nice this time of the year, from what I understand.

And so it continues. If there’s any one good side to all of this, it’s that I’m probably the only farmer in the vicinity who’s glad of the immediate effects, much less the long-term precipitation. The rainwater tanks are full up, the sundews are nearly unrecognizable from the number of trapped mosquitoes coating them, and the Sarracenia pitcher plants think they’re back home. I may grumble about being awakened by the racket of another brutal thunderstorm, but if we get a summer more evocative of New Orleans or Tallahassee than Phoenix, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Upcoming Triffid Ranch shows

Ah, what a weekend. The existing greenhouse suffered quite a bit of damage from two hailstorms, including the big one we had last April, so Sunday was spent hanging out with my best friend as we replaced polycarbonate glazing. Next on the agenda is putting up a new greenhouse, specifically for the Sarracenia. Part of the reason is to build up humidity a bit so they don’t suffer through the summer: we’re already slipping into 20-percent relative humidity territory with the typical stout Dallas south wind, and we’re likely only to get worse. The other reason is to leave the top open to allow insects to come inside but to dissuade squirrels. The blasted treerats are not only back to their old habits of digging up pitcher plants and flytraps in search of magic coins hidden under the rhizomes, but we have one brat of a male treerat, whom the Czarina nicknamed “Big Bad Bob,” who sits outside the bedroom window and chitters at the cats all day. They aren’t threatened by him in the least, so he throws larger and larger tantrums until they deign to acknowledge him. It reminds me a bit of a writer I used to know.

I wouldn’t be bothered by the discovery of a truly giant red-tailed hawk that perches atop the old greenhouse, if she took the time to pick off the treerats. Instead, she joins in with glaring at the cats when they get in the window. I only knew about this because of the truly heroic amounts of bird guano on one side of the greenhouse, but I spooked her last Saturday and watched her take off toward the south. Now all that’s left is the amount of time before my friend Joey suggests naming her either “Shayera Hol” or “Lorraine Reilly”. (It could be worse. After the Harry Potter movies came out, I had regular dealings with a screech owl who would fly out of a big linden tree next to the garden and buzz past my head before disappearing into the night. Somehow, calling him “The Angry Inch” seemed appropriate.)

Once these developments are done, it’s time to get back to shows and events. The next official show is at FenCon IX this coming September, but depending upon the summer heat, a few shows at the Four Seasons Market in Richardson may be in order. After that, well, I haven’t heard anything yet from the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas about another Discovery Days event in November, but I’ll be the first to volunteer once the schedule is nailed down a bit. And so it goes.

Thursday is Resource Day

The first week after two big back-to-back shows (one of which was purely the Czarina’s play) gets a bit crazy, especially when you look over the back lot and realize that it’s starting to resemble a location set for a George Romero movie. The grass is high enough to hide Buicks, the roses beg for deadheading, and the hot peppers require their own ZIP codes. The only joy in Mudville comes from having a relatively cool spring: we have yet to go above 33 degrees Celsius, which we broke last year toward the end of April. It’s coming, though. It’s coming.

Hence, the weekend will be dedicated to shoveling, dumping, pruning, trimming, and mowing. I’d like to invite gardener friends over for dinner without their looking out back and shrieking in despair.

With that in mind, we only have a couple of interesting resources to bring up this Thursday, but it’s all connected to horticulture in some way. It’ll have to do until the next post, right?

Firstly, I didn’t know that Carl Mazur of the International Carnivorous Plant Society had a blog, but Zone 6b: Growing Carnivorous Plants In Cold Climates is out there and it’s definitely worth reading. This week, he brought up a very intriguing point on wondering why Sarracenia oreophila produces traps and then blooms once it emerges from winter dormancy, instead of the other way around as with other Sarracenia. I have a suspicion as to a particular factor, but I’m going to need a low-light camera in order to document it. Yet another experiment on the creaking and swaying pile.

In completely different news, nearly anyone who has ever worked a customer service position has an appreciation for the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, if only because the film envisages a world where the customers actually saw an increase in IQ. (I spent nearly three years with a headset jammed onto my ear, and started referring to some of the language used by our most enthusiastic customers as “Conversational Ichthyostegid.” There’s really nothing quite like explaining to a cell phone customer that said phone was cut off because the last payment was reported as an unauthorized use of the paying credit card, only to be told “That’s not fair! I didn’t make that payment! Smitty told me that he’d pay my bill if I slept with him!”) Because of that, I’m quite impressed with a working Brawndo sports drink fountain, because we could have used that at my previous day job. After all, it has the electrolytes plants crave, even if nobody knows what electrolytes are. (And am I the only person on the planet who has noticed that Monster energy drinks and SuperThrive smell suspiciously alike?)

Finally, one of these days, I’m going to put together a postcard comparable to Tom Wilson’s famed form letter about the film Back to the Future, covering every last repeated question. No, I don’t have any man-eating plants. No, I don’t have any plants that can eat your ex-spouse. No, I don’t have any Audrey 2s, and I’m also fresh out of Delvians, Vervoids, Krynoids, or Vegetons, too. However, after a quick visit to Leilani Nepenthes in Hawaii, I’m finally going to sell triffids. This way, when the occasional person asks if I have a triffid available for sale, I can give that person a John Cleese glare and tell him/her “Here’s your plant, NOW BUY IT!” (I just hope they don’t get too big, because I’m not looking forward to branding season.)

Well, enough of that. Back to the linen mines.

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.

It’s amazing what you can get done on a three-day weekend

You know, most people spend a three-day holiday weekend lazing about, or puttering, or maybe getting a few things done that the normal schedule doesn’t allow. Oh, we did quite a bit of that. Date night on Saturday night was a matinee showing of John Carter, so the Czarina finally got the chance to see what was the big deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s secondmost famous creation. (Because she still has pattern nightmares over seeing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch twenty years ago, I didn’t bring up the singular horror of continuing the conceit from Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” and suggest the idea of A Princess Of Mars as written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice. Mugwumps instead of Tharks, for instance. One of these days, though, I will, when she last expects it, and her scimitar elbows will wail in the night.)

Instead, time was spent with The Plants. Plural. A new shipment of Nepenthes came in, so I can compare the suitability of several new species and hybrids for Texas life, which meant Saturday morning was spent frantically repotting them in fresh sphagnum moss. Friday was spent cleaning up the last of the mess from Tuesday’s tornado April Madness, which included clipping dead Sarracenia leaves, repotting bladderworts and triggerplants, and checking on hot pepper seedlings. On the last, thanks to the kind folks at the Chile Pepper Institute and Dilly’s Chilis, this summer should yield quite a crop of both Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers for those with that sort of inclination. At least, that’s the hope, and if hope was all I needed, half of Texas would have been covered with Roridula gorgonias plants last September. And so it goes.

Anyway, pulling weeds and picking whitefly makes you ask all sorts of interesting questions, and now half of my best questions are ones that require my going back to school to get answers. Some are the sort that require so much expertise that I’d probably have a couple of Ph.D theses by the time I had them answered to my satisfaction. Now, I could be greedy and hang onto these, or pass them on to folks who can do something with them. Even if the only response is a quick smack to the back of my head, at least I’ll know that someone else considered them.

The first one was relatively easy. Deadheading the current crop of Stylidium debile made me wonder if any suitably dedicated botany grad student has continued sequencing triggerplant genomes to view interrelationships between the species and with other plants. Some work is available, but dating from back in the Twentieth Century, and this only nailed down close relations to the Stylidacea. I’m considering some molecular palaeontology, by comparing the various species within Stylidium of Australian origin with those in Japan and South America. I have absolutely no proof right now, especially no fossil proof, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Stylidium or its forebears had as much variety and range in Antarctica before it froze in the Pliocene as the genus has in Australia today. Comparing genes of Australian species to those in Tierra del Fuego won’t prove that the genus used Antarctica as a bridge for a time, but it may give some additional lanes of study for understanding how the flora of Gondwana evolved as the supercontinent broke apart.

And the other? Again, this requires expertise and resources that I certainly won’t be getting any time soon. Last spring, I had a bit of an accident with several propagation flats full of Sarracenia pitcher plants. In an effort to get a more dependable source for drainage material than standard horticultural perlite, I decided to experiment with Growstone, an artificial pumice made from recycled glass. Naturally, after the plants were set and starting to emerge from winter dormancy, I get a call from the retailer, letting me know that the batch I’d purchased had a problem keeping a neutral pH. In other words, it was just a little too alkaline for most hydroponic options, and was definitely too alkaline for most carnivorous plants. Of course, I learned this right about the time the drought and heat of 2011 really kicked in, so I wasn’t sure if the plants were dying because of high pH or because they hadn’t evolved to grow and reproduce in a lead smelter.

Well, cleaning up some of last year’s batch, something interesting came up with the plants planted with Growstone as a drainage medium. Namely, most of the Sarracenia that survived were stunted and twisted, and others grew incredibly slowly. Purple pitchers, Sarracenia purpurea, though, grew much faster than expected. At that point, I remembered previous reading on how S. purpurea spread all through the eastern seaboard of North America, and then took a hard left and spread into Michigan, Ontario, and Alberta. Of particular note was that they seemed to do rather well in marl bogs in northern Michigan, and marl is extremely alkaline.

And there started the queries. S. purpurea obviously had a higher tolerance to alkaline conditions than its cousins, but how much of a higher tolerance? Did plants in the Michigan marl bogs grow more slowly than ones in more acidic soils, and was the alkalinity the only factor affecting slow growth? Best of all, what gene did S. purpurea have that its cousins lacked, what did that gene do besides control alkalinity tolerance, and could that gene be transferred to other Sarracenia? Was this something that could be introduced via standard crossbreeding techniques, or is the pH tolerance gene sufficiently recessive that it isn’t expressed in other species?

Now you understand why I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Most people would use a gigantic windfall to quit their jobs or go on perpetual vacation. Me, I’d enroll in a school with an exemplary natural history and botany program, and I wouldn’t leave until I had my answers or a professorship, whichever came first. In the meantime, I do what I can, and pass on some of these questions to friends that can do something with them. I just tell those friends “Now, remember, after you get back with your Nobel Prize money, you owe me dinner, okay?”

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

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

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

Sarracenia bud

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

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

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

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

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

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

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

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

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

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 7

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

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

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores.

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Step 8 – Keep moving it around.