Tag Archives: triggerplants

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…

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

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.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012, Continued

More photos from Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012. As can be told, Frightmare has a lot more new and returning carnivorous plant enthusiasts than I realized.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

One person in particular struck a chord, because just about everyone who regularly goes to conventions has been in her situation. This young lady came by to take a look at the plants on Saturday morning, and fell in love with the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata). Unfortunately, she related that money was really tight, and that she had enough left either to buy a sundew or to get back home on Sunday. I asked “So where’s home?”, and she told me “Norman, Oklahoma.” Since that’s also home to a very dear friend from high school and the Sam Noble Museum, I knew exactly how far she’d had to travel, and I told her that there was no way I’d take her money if it meant she’d be stuck.

The girl from Norman

Instead, I told her “I take photos of folks who buy plants, and I’ll put you in the gallery under ‘Next Time, Maybe?'”

The Girl From Norman, Redux

Well, Sunday came, and she took a look at one particular sundew arrangement. Lots of sighing, and I knew that sigh. That wasn’t a sigh of “Oh, if only someone gave me something for free.” That was a sigh of “If I knew a place that bought kidneys in Dallas on a Sunday, I’d cash one in right now.” Count this one as a raincheck, kiddo. Just come back in 2013 and let me know how it’s doing, and consider buying a couple of companions when you have the cash, okay?

The Girl From Norman, Sunday

And that’s it for 2012. Next year, I’m definitely getting a decent lighting rig for the camera, and trying this again.

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?”

Introducing Stylidium debile

When I started studying carnivorous plants nearly a decade ago, I had no idea as to the level of trouble I was going to get into by now. I could count the number of carnivorous genera on my hands, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too hard to master these, would it? Nine years and seven months after I saw my first Sarracenia purpurea in the wild, this has become the hobby with no end. When I tell new beginners that this is one of the wildest periods of research into carnivores since the Victorian Period, I’m not exaggerating. New species, new genera, new hybrids, newly observed behavior…and all taking advantage of the great and mighty Interwebs to disseminate that information.

It’s that great research tool that first introduced me to Ryan Kitko and the genus Stylidium, and I’ll owe Ryan for the rest of my life for his gentle tap on the shoulder and redirection. In particular, I owe Ryan for introducing me to the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, because this little monster quite literally changed my life even further. I don’t want just to visit Australia to see the vast majority of known Australian species. I want to see the ones in Japan and Tierra del Fuego to see their indigenous species, too.

Stylidium debile

Experts still argue as to whether triggerplants qualify as full carnivorous plants, or whether they should be shoved into the taxonomic dustbin known as “protocarnivorous”. They have the ability to capture prey via sticky threads on their flower scapes, and they definitely secrete the digestive enzyme protease. Part of the issue seems to be that triggerplants seem only to be carnivorous during their blooming season. The rest of the year, they’re about as carnivorous as a rose. The carnivorous aspect of the blooms, understandably, is outshone by the reasons for the common name for Stylidium. Yes, the flower scapes can snag tiny insect prey, but so can many other species of carnivore. How many carnivores have a column between their blooms’ petals that thwack insects with pollen?

While the common name “frail triggerplant” may scare beginners, I assure you that this refers to the thin, wiry flower scapes, and not to its being overly delicate. As an introduction to triggerplants, S. debile can’t be beaten. I mean this almost literally. So long as its growing medium never dries out, it keeps growing. It seems to bloom the moment the temperatures rise enough to allow growth, and it keeps blooming until the first serious freeze. Its pot freezes solid, as what happened with a batch of them during the big Dallas blizzard of February 2011, and it comes back in spring. It readily sprouts from roots, so its container rapidly fills with its distinctive ground cover. It chokes out most weeds, and crowds the roots of most others if given a chance. If its pot has any light leakage at all, those leaks are filled with new plantlets. During the worst of last year’s head and lack of humidity, when even the horsecrippler cactus were ailing, the S. debile pots were full of happy, steadily blooming plants that only had issues if the pot went dry for too long. And then you have those tiny hot pink blooms with yellow centers, just waiting for bugs to land on top so the column could whip forward and smack them with pollen.

Stylidium debile buds

Another common question I’m asked, half in jest, is “Do you have any real triffids?” (For the record, this is matched in the number of times it’s asked with “Do you have a plant that can eat an ex-husband/ex-wife?”) While John Wyndham’s carnivorous perambulatory flora are fictional, the triffid’s venomous sting actually has a slight parallel with the triggerplants’ columns. When set off, S. debile actually causes a bit of a disconnect. You see the column locked back in its “ready” state, and then see it touching the bug or intruding finger, but without seeing the transitional swing to get from Point A to Point B. A friend holding one of my first triggerplant clumps was so freaked out when she realized this that she dropped the pot, and I really couldn’t blame her.

Stylidium debile blooms

Other than the necessity of keeping the potting mix moist, S. debile is one of the most undemanding carnivorous or protocarnivorous plants you can keep. It thrives in full sun and partial shade, although it keeps blooming all year if given full sun. It can be left outdoors, in a windowsill pot, or kept in a well-lit terrarium. It doesn’t freak out and die if given a small bit of liquid fertilizer every month or so, and it’s relatively nonplussed as to water quality compared to most other carnivores. I don’t recommend it as a staple, especially during the summer, but it can tolerate the occasional watering with Dallas municipal water. It keeps growing under high humidity and dangerously low, during air quality alert days, and any plants that die off are rapidly replaced by new offshoots from the roots. In the six years since Ryan gave me my first plant, I have yet to see a single pest attack it, not even a green cabbage looper or stink bug. It even seems to repel squirrels, as I’ve come home to discover treerat rampages among the Sarracenia pitchers and the flytraps that left the triggerplants untouched. I keep mine in equal parts peat and sharp sand, and propagation consists of pulling the root ball from the pot, tearing or cutting it into chunks, and potting each new chunk in fresh peat. Best of all, when kids at shows ask me if they can set off the flytraps’ traps in order to watch them close, I instead show them the triggerplants and tell them “Here: setting these off won’t hurt a thing.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go bug Ryan about other triggerplants. I keep telling him that it’s no coincidence that my favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”, because I can look over my pots of S. debile and tell myself, honestly and truly, that I will NEVER get tired of them.

The reblooming of Antarctica

Discuss with friends or co-workers where they would go and what they would do if given access to cheap and effective time travel, and the answers are usually painfully expected. Well, they are if the idea is not to influence the timestream in any way. Get up next to the big stage at Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix. Check out the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas in November 1963. Sip champagne at the Battle of Hastings. Oh, you might have a few people who want to go further back, but only so far as to see a dinosaur or two. All of time and space to play with, and we’re still desperately limited to human experiences and human timescales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this. If given the opportunity, and knowing that (a) I was going to change our current history irreparably if I made any changes and (b) I was never returning to my own time, I can think of lots of entertainment. Joining the French Resistance in 1942, for instance.)

However, were some madman with a blue box to give me an opportunity to visit any place and any time in Earth’s past, for a full day, I can think of two options. The first is to find a nice hilltop around 108 million years ago, and enjoy a picnic dinner while watching the asteroid impact that produced the crater Tycho on the moon. The other would be to drop off anywhere in Antarctica about 50 million years ago and go sightseeing. Not only would I see things never viewed with human eyes, but I’d probably see lots of things that aren’t even suspected. First and foremost, flora unlike anything else on our planet, then or afterwards.

The popular perception of Antarctica as a frozen, alien waste contains a lot of truth, but we’ve only known the continent for a little over two centuries. With 98 percent of its surface covered in ice, kilometers’ worth in some areas, precious little other than the coasts, the famed Dry Valleys, and some areas in the Transantarctic Mountains, the vast majority of Antarctica has been icelocked for longer than the genus Homo has existed. Because of the ice coverage, most of the continent’s features are obscure. To put it another way, Antarctica has a lake the size of Lake Ontario in North America, and it was only discovered in the 1990s.

(And before I start, I’d like to apologize to any and all Antarctic researchers and explorers reading this, because I feel your pain. I imagine you’re as sick and tired of references to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, coming from people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of human civilization to ever make the connection, as I am to references to Little Shop of Horrors. Aside from legitimate reasons for doing so, I won’t bring up either for the rest of this essay.)

Naturally, that ice doesn’t prevent palaeontologists from making new discoveries, but it definitely gets in the way. Hints of the geological and palaeontological richness of Antarctica’s past keep emerging, particularly with dinosaur discoveries in the Nineties and Aughts (most notably with the Jurassic theropod Cryolophosaurus), but almost nothing is known about Antarctica’s animal life after the dinosaurs became extinct. Floral knowledge is even worse: thanks to pollen analysis and some fossils in accessible deposits, Antarctica was one of the last holdouts for the Wollemi pine until about maybe 5 million years ago. Today, only two flowering plants still live on Antarctica, mostly because so little of the continent ever reaches temperatures amenable to growth. For all intents and purposes, Antarctica is an entire continent above the tree line.

It also needs to be said that palaeontological evidence still only gives hints of Antarctica’s former zoological and botanical bounty. It’s possible to make informed assumptions about certain lifeforms based on studies of South America, Australia, and New Zealand, based on their former connection through the supercontinent Gondwana. For instance, just looking at carnivorous plants, considering their distribution through the rest of Gondwana’s territory and on pollen analysis of Australian sites, Antarctica probably had its own selection of sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Judging by their current distribution through the Pacific Rim, particularly in Tierra del Fuego, the triggerplants (Stylidium) may – may – have considered Antarctica home before the continent froze. The problem, though, is that without some sort of fossil proof, this is all supposition. Carnivorous plant fossils other than pollen are incredibly rare because they generally lived (and continue to live) in areas hostile to fossil preservation, and any surmisals on what survived where before the antarctic glaciation depends upon finding fossils that aren’t, as mentioned before, under two kilometers of ice.

In a strange way, this ties directly into important concerns over introducing the seeds of potentially invasive plants to Antarctica, because the one last time I’d like to visit for a day would be Antarctica 30 million years from now. One way or another, whether it’s by anthropocentric climate change, a change in the ocean currents that help keep Antarctica’s temperatures stable, or the continent’s gradual tectonic shift north, Antarctica is going to thaw. At that point, the whole land surface is the cliched but appropriate blank slate. As recent news concerning Silene stenophylla raised from 30,000-year-old seeds, some native plant seeds might survive the freeze and sprout again. Human-transported seeds could very easily get established, and will probably become extremely invasive for a time. The biggest vectors of new flora, though, will be the ones that have been around for millions of years: water, wind, and birds. And they’re going to go nuts.

This won’t be a sudden change, and we definitely aren’t going to see forests at McMurdo Sound in our lifetimes even if Antarctica’s entire ice sheet melted tomorrow. Most of northern North America is still recovering from the last big glaciation in the Pleistocene, with many soils still being nutrient-poor: some theories about the wide range of the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea compared to its relations lie with its encouraging animal life such as mosquito larvae and rotifers as a replacement source of nitrogen. (As such, if you’ve ever been to Newfoundland and Labrador, you’ll understand why S. purpurea is the official floral emblem and provincial flower. S. purpurea is perfectly suited for the bogs of Newfoundland, Ontario, and Michigan, as well as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.) And North America wasn’t covered with ice for 5 to 15 million years, the way Antarctica has been. Once it thaws, the whole continent will gradually green up, and all of those plants will most likely be descendants of traveling seeds dropped within the last few hundred years. With Antarctica remaining an island continent as Australia gradually runs into Asia and produces a whole new run of mountain-building, comparable to India’s formation of the Himalayas, I’d love to see what the forests of Queen Maud Land look like in another geologic era or so.

A hint of Stylidium debile

Five years ago, Ryan Kitko, a man I look upon as my smarter younger brother, first introduced me to the awe and wonder that encompasses the triggerplants. Some may argue as to whether or not the members of the genus Stylidium are carnivorous or merely protocarnivorous: all I can tell you is that the the multitude of tiny wasps and mites found caught on sticky threads on triggerplant flower scapes certainly don’t fuss about it. They’re too busy being dead.

Anyway, as usual, Ryan stirs me to action: he’s currently sharing pictures of the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, in his greenhouse. I was already planning to update plant care sheets on the main Triffid Ranch site on S. debile, and this encourages me to get those done and write a bit more about this nearly indestructible species. So long as the soil doesn’t go completely dry, S. debile is nearly impossible to kill. It can survive heat that can fell a mesquite tree, days of sub-freezing cold, hailstorms, gullywasher thunderstorms, extremes in high and low humidity, and even the gentle ministrations of squirrels, rats, opossums, and armadillos. It makes an incredible container plant, and neglecting and abusing it only makes it grow more luxuriantly and bloom more prodigiously. I can’t recommend the little monster highly enough: for me, it’s the anti-Venus flytrap, and one of the best beginner carnivorous plants you can ever receive. Thank you for introducing me to them, Ryan.

Thursday is Resource Day: Holidays Edition

We’re coming up on the winter solistice in three weeks, so certain aspects of the Triffid Ranch are shutting down for the season. The temperate carnivores, such as Venus flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants, are going into their winter dormancy, so they’re outside soaking up the occasional late autumn rains. The triggerplants are throwing off the last of their blooms and quieting down for a while, but I’m certain not for long. The tropical carnivores are already abed in winter accomodations, and this weekend belongs to setting up winter shelter for the Buddha’s Hand citron tree, the grapefruit tree, the orchids, and the terrestrial bladderworts. Since this autumn has been nearly as dry as the summer, I’m fully expecting a repeat of the horrible Christmas Eve of 1989, where Dallas set its all-time record low temperature, so this should explain the frenzy of preparation.

Once that’s done, though, we’ll celebrate the end of the year for the same reason as everyone else we know: 2011 was rough. “Rough” as in “a kidney stone the size of a basketball rough”. 2011 needs to be treated exactly the same way as this kidney stone: namely, mounted in resin so it can’t hurt anyone ever again. Before welcoming the newborn baby 2012, I hope nobody minds if I kick out 2011’s cane, set fire to his beard, and kick him down a couple of flights of stairs. After that, turn the other way, because then I plan to get mean.

Now, before we slide into quiet celebration of the solistice, complete with cheery Yuletide stories from a cousin of mine, it’s time to reinstate a tradition from when this blog was still over at LiveJournal years back. The official Small Business Saturday event may have been nothing but an attempt to get smaller businesses to accept American Express cards (and their correspondingly high processing rates, which helps explain why most small businesses don’t take American Express cards) over the holidays, but the basic idea is sound. I’m just a firm believer in making it more than a one-day event.

To start, for those coming in late, please let me introduce you to St. Johns Booksellers up in Portland, the official source for Triffid Ranch reference books. I’m proud to say that I’ve known owner Nena Rawdah for fifteen years as of this month, and not once has she told me “I should have killed you when I had the chance.” Well, there was that one time, but who knew she was allergic to cherimoya? Anyway, should you be in the Portland area, go visit her directly, or buy lots of books from her online store if you aren’t. Either way, there’s a very good reason why links to reviewed and referenced books go to her store at every possible opportunity.

Not quite related to horticulture, but still willing to assist, are the fellow booksellers Mark and Cindy Ziesing. Their specialty is in the fantastic, and that means they’re a great source for art books and references rarely seen elsewhere. If nothing else, their regular print catalog is worth buying all on its own, if only because of the honest, concise, and often savagely funny reviews of incoming books. Don’t believe me? My ears are burning, and not just because Mark poured lighter fluid into one to see if he could see the light on the other side.

Traveling back to the Pacific Northwest for a bit, Seattle residents and visitors definitely need to schedule some time at Emerald City Gardens. No flying monkeys, no annoying dogs, and a guarantee that the available Christmas plants are unlike anything else you’ll see. In particular, ask about the succulent pots. Trust me.

In more charitable veins, regulars should know that I try my best to contribute to Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, and you’re all invited to chip in as well. This can consist of wines featuring your favorite chiropteran, coffee, or just adopting a bat at the sanctuary. (I’m trying to organize another fundraiser for both Bat World and the bats of Cleburne, Texas with the help of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs, and details will follow.)

Finally, it may seem odd that I’m promoting what may appear to be competing carnivorous plant nurseries, but there’s a madness to my method. Not only am I proud — PROUD, I tells ya — to call the folks at Sarracenia Northwest and Black Jungle Terrarium Supply friends, but I wouldn’t be in this business if it weren’t for their support, friendship, and gentle beatings about the head and ears when I got out of hand. If you’re in the Portland area, I’d like to point out that Sarracenia Northwest is hosting open houses throughout the month of December, and that’s in addition to the annual SN Carnivorous Plant of the Month Club offerings. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Black Jungle also carries a huge selection of ant ferns and arrow poison frogs, as well as bioluminescent mushroom kits. (If carnivores don’t suit you, then try a “Sharry Baby” Oncidium orchid. I bought one for the Czarina a few years back as a Valentine’s Day present, and she looks forward to the blooms every spring. Most people interpret the scent as chocolate, but the both of us swear that it smells exactly like fresh Dublin Dr. Pepper.)

Anyway, more entries to follow, so keep an eye open. Now back to work.

And now we start playing with bromeliads

2011 has been a year for experiments. A few worked out well, and a couple threatened to take over. Most of them, from growing various triggerplants from seed to attempting to raise the Excalibur of carnivorous plants, Nepenthes hamata, leave me crying in my sleep. Thanks to the summer and the continued drought, this was a really bad year for horticulture experiments. I really should complain, because the dingbat who packaged up 2011 didn’t label it “TOXIC WASTE” on the label.

All right, so the National Weather Service is predicting ongoing droughts until possibly 2020, and the front yard is full of cracks big enough to eat a puppy. The Sarracenia look at me these days with nothing but horror, and the Nepenthes hold the cats hostage for fear that I’ll put them outside. Don’t get me started about the Spathophyllum that I’ve been carrying around since 1998. It’s going carnivorous just so it can eat my face. That doesn’t mean I can’t add a new face in the greenhouse, can I?

Well, that’s precisely what happened last night. A while back, I made friends with the folks at the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society, and brought up that I was looking for a few very special bromeliads. Specifically, I was looking for representatives of the two known carnivorous genera, namely Catopsis berteroniana and Brocchinia reducta. It was an idle whim, comparable to my saying “I wouldn’t mind borrowing Quetzacoatl’s raft of serpents for a weekend,” and I figured that the opportunity would present itself when it was ready. You can imagine the shock when I heard from Aaron and Shawn of the Bromeliad Society, telling me “We have your plants.”

So right now, along with all of the other denizens, I have one plant each of Catopsis berteroniana and of Catopsis subulata. I have no idea for certain that C. subulata is carnivorous or even protocarnivorous, but considering the very alien appearance of this beauty, it may be time to find out.

The absolute best part of this? I recently received an invitation for an informal presentation for older students at the Episcopal School of Dallas week after next, and now I’ll be able to show them some really obscure carnivores. Between Catopsis and triggerplants, those lone flytraps out at Wal-Mart are going to look pretty sedate.