Posted onDecember 7, 2014|Comments Off on A day that will live forever in infamy
And here’s an anniversary I never thought I’d see. With the exception of 18 months in Portland, 9 months in northeast Wisconsin, and three months in Tallahassee, today marks 35 years of life in Texas. Naturally, there’s a song that fits my feelings on this subject right now:
Comments Off on A day that will live forever in infamy
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.
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.
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:
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.
Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.
Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.
(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)
Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)
This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.
The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.
And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.
Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.
Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.
Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.
In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.
I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.
In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.
Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.
After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.
Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.
The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.