Daily Archives: July 17, 2011

Projects: “If We Had No Crawdad, We Ate Sand”

Almost every guide to the proper care and feeding of carnivorous plants emphasizes, after using rainwater or distilled water, the proper soil mix. All of them tell enthusiasts that using standard potting mix will kill the plants in a matter of days, and many give recipes for a suitable general carnivore potting mix with a suitable acidity for healthy growth. As a general rule, one part sphagnum moss and one part sand is perfect, and some varieties work best with two parts sphagnum moss, one part sand, and one part shredded orchid bark. But what about the quality of all of these?

With the sphagnum moss and the bark, some authorities warn about making sure that these are of high quality. For instance, many retailers sell sphagnum moss with added fertilizer, which will kill your plants, or the sphagnum is cut with green moss, which has the same effect. Coir, which is shredded coconut hull, can be just as dangerous if not properly prepared, as many suppliers use coir that’s been soaked in or exposed to seawater, and the salt will, again, kill most carnivores. The quality of sphagnum moss can be checked by making sure that a bag or bundle specifically reads “PURE SPHAGNUM MOSS” and smelling the bag or bundle, as contaminated sphagnum moss tends to smell like old manure. Even salt-soaked coir can be used if it’s soaked and rinsed with rainwater, and then drained and dried. But how often does anyone check the quality of the sand they’re using?

Check most references on carnivores, and see what they have to say about sand. You’ll get recommendations not to use sea sand, because it might be contaminated with salt. You might get recommendations to use sharp or builder’s sand, which means all-silica sand. But are you sure that you’re using the right sand?

My question comes from personal experience from two years ago. The first thing I do every spring before my plants come out of dormancy is repot them, and the spring of 2006 was no different. My mistake was not to check the composition of that sand, trusting the label “Builder’s sand” on the bag, and that sand led to most of my plants dying before the end of the summer. True, the 2005-2006 drought and the summer’s heat wave contributed to the carnage, but the main cause was the quality of the sand.

The mistake I made was assuming that the sand being offered was pure silica. Pure silica sand is reasonably water-insoluble, which is why it settles into water instead of dissolving. Some will, but usually not enough to make a difference in horticulture. The problem is that most sand offered for sale can be and is contaminated with anything else that happened to be in the in the mix. If the sand was mined in an area that used to be a marine deposit, for instance, it can be full of shells. If the sand came from a river deposit, it may be full of limestone chunks or other carbonate rocks. All of these contaminants are very alkaline, which is enough of a problem to most carnivores save some purple pitchers (Sarracenia purpurea) or the Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum). Anyone who’s mixed acids and alkalis in high school chemistry class has a pretty good idea of what happens when alkaline components of sands encounter highly acid sphagnum moss: the carbon dioxide emitted won’t hurt the plants at all, but the resultant salts will burn their roots.

Now, if you know for an absolute fact that your sand is pure silica, then feel free to use it as you see fit for any carnivore soil mix you choose. However, considering the problems I mentioned before, testing it beforehand is a good option, especially if the sand would otherwise be unusable. Carbonate-contaminated sand can be treated with acid, such as vinegar, to dissolve the carbonates, but it’s generally not worth the cost unless the sand has special colors that need to be preserved. The project at hand requires:

  • a sample of the suspected sand
  • a small bottle of common household acid (white vinegar is the easiest to obtain, but ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C, works well, too)
  • a small container with a sealable cap, such as a single-serving yogurt container or a 35mm film canister
  • To start, get a handful of the sand and spread it out in your palm. Look for larger particulates within the sand and note the composition. If these pieces appear to be quartz, feldspar, or other components of granite, these bits should be safe. If the larger particulates include bits of limestone, sandstone, or shell, consider how many pieces you find and their size. If the sand contains lots of these chunks, don’t buy it or use it.

    Secondly, take a small amount and put it into the container. Soak it down with the acid and watch the reaction. All-silica sand won’t react in the slightest to most household acids, and typical contaminants will spit and hiss a bit. If the sample produces lots of bubbling, particularly a froth, don’t use it, as the sand is far too alkaline to be safe for use with carnivores.

    This test won’t work for other potential contaminants: for instance, it won’t test for salts. In that case, the only option is to wash it well with pure water.

    If the tested sand is the only available option, and you literally have no other choices as to sources for sand, otherwise unsuitable sand may still be used. The first step is to sift the sand with a wire mesh trainer or riddle to remove large particulates. Afterwards, put the sand into a waterproof container such as a Rubbermaid tray or a plastic bucket and add vinegar or ascorbic acid, stirring repeatedly until the mix stops bubbling. Drain off excess liquid when it stops bubbling and add more acid; keep repeating until you get no further reaction whatsoever. Wash the sand well, and spread it out to dry.

    Now, considering the work necessary to make that bad sand usable, see the advantage to using the right sand in the first place? More importantly, are you willing to risk the health of your carnivores on unsuitable sand?

Observations: “You Have the Care Down, and Now It’s the Feeding”

By definition, the main appeal of carnivorous plants lay in their ability to reverse the standard arrangement of who eats whom. Sadly, while serious enthusiasts can appreciate the fluting grace of a Sarracenia leucophylla trap or the dropping allure of its blossoms, all most people care about is that the plant catches and digests insects and other prey. That’s a start, but this is only one of the merits of raising carnivores. This aspect is also what gets most of them killed.

Let’s take a look at the most famous and most abused carnivore of them all, the Venus flytrap. Millions of flytraps are grown every year, thanks to the miracle of sterile tissue propagation. Many of these sell in grocery stores, hardware stores, home improvement centers, and any number of other locales, where they’re generally set up and neglected until they sell. It’s no fault of the proprietors, mostly because nobody bothers to pass on any information on proper care. Even with those nurseries and vendors who take the time to explain the basics of proper water and light, it’s hard to get past the lurid reputation of flytraps and their alleged dietary voraciousness. This means that no matter how many times a salesperson emphasizes the proper feeding of a flytrap, the customer usually rushes home and promptly fills every last trap with captured flies, earwigs, grasshoppers, cats, and chunks of stew meat.

That’s what kills the flytrap.

Much of the problem with working with carnivores of all sorts is trying to rewire people into realizing that pets, livestock, and crops aren’t little humans. The same mindset that causes someone on medication to take double the standard dose because “if a little is good, then more is better” usually leads to overfeeding of dog, lizards, birds, and carnivorous plants. Just because a Nile monitor will eat whenever food is offered doesn’t mean that it should eat a full meal every day, and just because a Venus flytrap has an open trap doesn’t mean it needs to be stuffed with protein. Under most conditions, when left out in the open, flytraps do a perfectly good job at capturing their own prey without assistance,and that means two to ten traps waiting for prey while one processes a recent capture.

The reason why carnivores have such problems with abundance involves their general habitat and environment. All carnivores live in marginal habitats, always lacking in nitrogen and potassium in a form usable by plants. This could be rain forest or jungle that receives incessant precipitation, such as the Nepenthes pitcher plants. For the flytraps, and all of the other carnivores of North America, the main habitat is stressed both by regular rains that wash away nutrients and regular brush fires that sterilize the soil and vaporize compounds containing nitrogen and other volatile gases. Instead of living in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, the way mesquite trees and red clover do, the carnivores catch their nitrogen and potassium on the wing, so to speak. Their prey also bring essential trace elements that also tend to be washed away or destroyed, and all of this gives a carnivore a strategic advantage in survival in habitats where few other plants have a chance.

The other critical aspect of carnivorous plant care involves a suitable amount of light, as discussed elsewhere, because carnivorous plants aren’t catching and digesting prey for energy the way carnivorous animals do. Instead of cracking fats and other compounds in their prey for energy, carnivorous plants utilize light in the same manner as any other plant for the production of sugars and starches, but also to produce the essential enzymes necessary to digest proteins. Many animals chew or tear their prey to increase the surface area of their meals exposed to enzymes in saliva, stomach fluids and bacterial action in the intestines, and many animals such as spiders and venomous snakes inject digestive fluids into their prey, helping to speed the process. Birds and crocodilians can’t chew, so they further grind their food with stones in their gizzards. Not a single carnivorous plant has the ability to chew, so they have to stick with prey small enough to be processed quickly, before it has a chance to rot. Snakes that eat prey too large for their stomachs, or that remain too chilled for proper digestion. ultimately vomit up the remains.

Venus flytraps that catch prey too large to handle can’t puke up their meals, and they can’t move somewhere warmer and brighter to finish digestion, so the trapped prey rots, ultimately killing the trap and sometimes the entire leaf. Since the leaf is still necessary for photosynthesis, if the flytrap’s already only getting a marginal amount of light, that leaf loss may kill the whole plant.

Some carnivores have ways around this situation, but most of those options are distasteful to humans. The cobra plant Darlingtonia produces no enzymes of its own, but it makes a home for both midge larvae and beneficial bacteria that break down trapped prey. Sarracenia and Heliamphora of all sorts provide homes for rotifers, mosquito larvae, and other animals that digest prey by proxy. Animals as large as frogs and spiders regularly raid carnivore traps for large prey and then defecate into the traps, thereby preventing rot and disease while getting a meal, and the huge-trapped Nepenthes bicalcarata even grows homes for predatory ants within its stems, so the ants will dismember and process prey, The most extreme example is the obscure sticky-leafed carnivore Roridula, which has no ability to digest prey on its own. However, it has a symbiotic relationship with at least one species of ambush bug: the plant snags and immobilizes prey, the ambush bugs kill and devour the prey, and the plant’s leaves catch the bug feces and absorb the available nitrogen.

Sadly, the poor Venus flytrap, because it seals its traps shut when catching prey, has no such options. This is why anyone keeping flytraps has to be particularly careful if feeding by hand is necessary. As a general rule, tips for feeding Venus flytraps also apply to other carnivores in cultivation, and they’re remarkably easy.

  1. As tempting as it is to do so, do NOT feed your carnivore as soon as you get it home. You’ve just purchased a new carnivore from the store or via mail order? You might end a long journey with a hearty meal, but that’s the last thing your plant needs before it’s adjusted to its environment. If you want your plant to live, get it situated into its new locale. If it’s going to be an indoor plant, get it potted and into a sunny window or under a suitable plant light. If it’s outdoors, put it into its hanging pot or into the greenhouse. In both cases, leave it alone. Don’t take it to school to show off. Don’t put it in the living room for a couple of days so friends and family can see it. Most importantly, don’t feed it at all until you see new growth, usually in about two weeks to a month, and holding off until a whole new leaf with trap grows from the crown of the plant is even better.
  2. Don’t forcefeed the plant. If you’re in a situation, such as in an office environment, where your plant is unlikely to snag prey and where letting prey loose might encourage harsh words from others, handfeeding is unavoidable. The trick is always to underfeed. Always remember “small prey in small portions” when feeding carnivores. Many will let you know if you’re pushing the limit: sundew and butterwort leaves will blacken and rot if they’re getting too much food, Sarracenia pitchers will grow large brown spots if too much prey is collecting too quickly in their throats, and Nepenthes pitchers will simply shrivel and turn brown. If one trap or leaf shows these signs, then this could be a minor accident, but if all of them start dying, cut back on the food NOW.
  3. Watch the temperature. It’s obvious that carnivores from temperate locales are more resistant to cold than tropicals, and some varieties, such as Darlingtonia and all of the Heliamphora, need much cooler temperatures than others. The two absolutes are that almost all carnivores stop digesting prey below 50° F (10° C), so don’t try to feed carnivores when the average daytime temperature goes below this. With carnivores that need an annual winter dormancy for survival, this restriction is even more important, because feeding a trap or leaf as the poor plant is trying to slip into dormancy is a great way to spread mold and fungus, and both of those could kill the plant before it ever has a chance to revive in spring.

    Alternately, even plants that survive in harsh heat (the Lithops stone mimics of South Africa and the saguaro cactus of Arizona are prime examples) shut down photosynthesis when the ambient temperature exceeds 90° F (32° C), and carnivores aren’t exempt from this. Many of Australia’s sundews form tubers during summer, when the heat is too much for active growth, and revive when autumn rains return. Most of the Sarracenia will stop producing traps and produce photosynthetic leaves called phyllodia when the temperatures get too high, and most of Australia’s Stylidium triggerplants wait to produce their carnivorous flower scapes once summer’s heat has broken. Even Venus flytraps exposed to high temperatures will cease to function for as much as a week, as the traps temporarily convert back into standard photosynthetic leaves. If you try to feed your flytrap via a new trap and it won’t accept food, check the temperature and try to lower it if at all possible. For the record, most temperate carnivores can tolerate temperatures up to 100° F (37° C) for a short time, but they don’t like them.

  4. Ask friends and bystanders to leave the traps alone. After about four triggerings, whether or not the trap actually captures prey, Venus flytrap traps stop functioning and become nothing but photosynthetic leaves. This can happen accidentally, if the trap keeps getting set off by prey too small to be trapped or prey too strong to remain inside. In captivity, though, the main cause is from smartalecks who want to demonstrate how the traps operate by tripping them over and over. (This, incidentally, also applies to triggerplant flowers, as they’ll only fire about four or five times before becoming a female flower and becoming nonfunctional.) If you want your flytrap to stay healthy, don’t set off traps to demonstrate their abilities to your Aunt Phil unless you’re adding prey.
  5. Finally, DO NOT FEED YOUR CARNIVOROUS PLANT MEAT, RAW OR COOKED. Yes, the labels on far too many carnivorous plant containers in grocery stores and home improvement centers read “Will even eat hamburger!” This is actually a very sly way to get you to keep buying new carnivores as the previous ones keep dying. Yes, the general definition of a carnivore is an organism that eats meat. Yes, some of the big Nepenthes pitchers can capture and eat vertebrates as big as rats. Humans can also chew and swallow plastic, but a regular diet of Styrofoam is just as lethal to you as hamburger is to your Venus flytrap.
    Now, many authoritative guides to raising carnivores give this advice, but almost none give a reason as to why. Most insects are relatively fat-free, gram for gram, compared to large vertebrates, so the carnivores generally don’t need enzymes for digesting fat. When your flytrap catches a ladybug or spider, what fat was in the prey remains on the shell left behind when digestion finishes and the trap opens, where it acts as bait for opportunistic hunters. Now, take a quick look at the fat content of your hamburger meat: even the “ultra-lean” brands are still about seven to ten percent fat, and typical hamburger is closer to 30 percent fat. Go ahead and fry up a batch of the hamburger that you’d serve to your flytrap and note how much grease collects in the pan. A lot more than you expected, eh?

    (Now, at this time, you may point out that many large carnivorous plants catch vertebrate prey from time to time. Sarracenia will occasionally catch tree frogs, even if most are ones that died of natural causes and fell into the trap. As discussed before, though, any carnivore big enough to catch even the smallest vertebrates usually has lots of cooperative organisms that don’t have a problem with digesting fats. The Venus flytrap, also as discussed before, doesn’t have that option, so knock off the meat. Stay away even from such fat-free fish foods such as scraped beef heart, and while it’s fun to watch Cape sundews wrapping around little bits of chocolate, ask yourself how often they’d be catching cocoa butterflies in the wild.)

Remember: small prey in small portions, and don’t go crazy. Your flytrap or pitcher plant won’t be able to thank you now, but just wait until it blooms next spring.

Projects: “Bathtub Luffas in a Bathtub Fit For Gin”

In the Northern Hemisphere, the absolute sign of winter is the proliferation of seed catalogs in every gardener’s mailbox. Gardening resources resolutely remain in the early Twentieth Century, and while most seed companies have extensive online resources, the print editions still fill my mail drop by the long ton. This isn’t a complaint, by the way: even the catalogs I can’t use get passed on to friends and coworkers who can, and most end their lives as source material for grade school collages and band flyers.
Many better writers than I have made fun of the inadequacies and creative embellishments found in seed catalogs and on seed packets. At the Triffid Ranch, I often laugh at the catalogs that sell Venus flytrap and pitcher plant seed as if they can be planted in the garden alongside the lettuce and carrots. Likewise, the last time I saw anyone selling saguaro cactus seeds for “easy” propagation of a plant that needs twenty years to grow to a meter in height, I laughed so hard that milk came out my nose. This was especially entertaining because I was drinking Pepsi Max at the time. Some people’s definition of “easy” is another’s of “wanting to hang the copywriter by his/her ankles from a tree branch, get a few cricket bats, and play Viking Piñata for a few hours.” And then you have the minor aggravations, such as the missing step in raising luffa squash.

Luffa squash (Luffa cylindrica), for the uninitiated, is a very versatile squash for many occasions. It grows very quickly in warm climes, so it does wonders for overgrowing ugly fences and other yard eyesores during the summer and fall. The thin vines grow one leaf and three tendrils at each vine junction, so they’re much more likely to grow to great heights on tree bark and other rough-textured surfaces, and the tendrils don’t damage the surface, so they come off readily after the first serious freeze in autumn or winter. (In Dallas, for instance, they generally keep growing all the way until Christmas if given the opportunity.) Luffa leaves don’t have stomata on both sides of the leaf, like pumpkins or summer squash, so they thrive on heat that would kill most other squash. They produce large yellow male flowers that both attract bees and bumblebees and can be stir-fried after they drop from the plant. The squash fruit themselves apparently taste like zucchini, and so long as the roots are in slightly acidic and rich soil, a typical vine will produce dozens over the growing season. (I understand that they can bee cooked or eaten raw like zucchini, but since I simply can’t handle the taste of squash, I haven’t had the courage to find out.)

It’s the mature fruit that gives luffas their main draw, though, and anyone wanting a decent supply has to save a few from the crock put or wok. Instead of decaying into a mushy pulp in winter like most squash, the luffa dries out like a gourd, but without a hard outer shell. Underneath the skin is a lattice framework of fibers, which are much prized as natural scrubbers. These are most famed for their bathtub and shower attributes, especially for those needing serious exfoliation, but they also come in handy for scrubbing nonstick pots without damaging the finish, adding texture paints to walls, or removing algae from fishtanks. Small ones can be used as short-term filters for many liquids, and the big ones can be sliced up and embedded in soaps. It’s quite the versatile little squash, which makes it a particular shame that most seed packets and garden guides leave out one important step in its processing.

To begin, for those wanting to raise luffas, get your seeds, either from luffa-growing enablers or from a commercial seed catalog. Luffa seeds, if kept in the refrigerator, remain viable for as much as five years, so don’t worry about getting them into the ground right away. In fact, you want to wait until outside low temperatures exceed 15.55° C (60° F) and then plant them, because they won’t even think of sprouting before then. Luffas generally tolerate a wide range of soils, but make sure to keep potash and fireplace ashes away from the seedlings or they’ll be permanently stunted for the season. Luffa seeds are best sown directly in their permanent location, as they don’t transplant well, but they’re very vulnerable to attacks from sowbugs until they get their first set of real leaves. I’ve found that sowing the seeds and then dumping large quantities of coffee grounds atop them not only gives them the slight acidity they seem to like, but also gives the sowbugs an alternate food source that keeps them away from the squash until they’re large enough to repel attacks. Other than that, water them regularly, especially in particularly hot weather, and the luffa will start producing its first male flowers within three weeks of sprouting and female flowers about a week later.

For the most part, luffa seem to be reasonably immune to most pests, and they attract hunting wasps to the flowers, which usually take care of caterpillars and other potential pests. For those with gardens in suitable habitat, luffa vines produce excellent habitat for climbing lizards: here in Dallas, one stand of luffa can support a whole harem of anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis), so long as pesticides aren’t used in the area. The lizards hunt, sleep, and bask within the vines, which usually grow thick enough that they offer suitable cover against birds, snakes, and other predators. In return, they clear out sucking insects and other potential threats.

The only serious pest attacking luffas is easily recognized by its long bushy tail, big eyes, and a brain the size of a pea. As the luffa fruit matures, squirrels converge on any luffas they can reach and gnaw through the vine before carrying them off. Since treerats are the antithesis of grace, and since luffas readily grow into trees, this means that the little klutzes get one or two bites out of the squash, lose their grip, and watch it fall two stories or more onto the hardest ground the squirrels can find. As with dropped nuts or peaches, does this mean that the little vermin climb down and eat the dropped luffa so it doesn’t go to waste? Of course not: the monsters instead go for another easily obtained luffa, leaving the dropped one to rot until it’s joined by a few more. (There’s a reason why I consider the term “squirrelly” to be fightin’ words.) Thankfully, luffa vines are thin so as to allow easy reach of thin branches and other precarious locales, so many fruit grow unmolested at the tops of trees before dropping when they’re good and ripe.

Okay, let’s assume that you had a good crop of luffa over the summer, and not all of them ended up in stirfry meals for grateful friends and family. You want a batch of potscrubbers and buttscrubbers, but you want to make sure that they’re at the height of ripeness. What do you do now?

The harvesting of luffa squashes for scrubbing purposes honestly depends upon the growing locale and the length of the season. Pick the luffas too early, and you’re likely to end up with a moldy, rotting mess. Peel them too early, and you’re likely to spend five times as much work cleaning them as you would when they were ready. The problem is telling whether they’re ready.

The absolutely guaranteed way of telling if luffas are ready for harvesting is to wait until they shrivel, brown, and dry out at the end of autumn. This is great in warmer climes, but it’s not practical in, say, Canada. However, the best thing to do is wait as long as possible before a killing frost damages the squash, or until the main plant takes responsibility for cutting off its offspring.

Ripe luffa

Ripe luffa

In the above photo, we have a mature luffa. For the sake of what comes next, the left side, with the length of vine still attached, is the tail. The right side, still bearing the scars from where the flower was attached, is the head. The uncleaned fruit will also be referred to as a luffa squash, while “luffa” is reserved solely for the internal structure alone. Remember these, because these become important later.

The easy way to ascertain if a luffa is ripe on the vine is to grab it at the head end and squeeze gently. It should feel like a skin over an empty framework, which is exactly what it should be. If it’s still squishy, or if it feels overly heavy, then it’s probably unripe. If you can help it, leave the luffa on the vine and don’t mess with it for at least another month. If an impending killer frost is on the way, though, then remove it from the vine, leaving about six inches of vine at the end. If the tail end of the luffa is already going brown, particularly at the junction where the tail connects to the vine, then it’s already drying, and is usually ready to be picked at the time. If that junction is still green, then leave that section of vine to assist the squash with its drying. Do NOT, under any circumstances, cut the vine flush with the tail, because you’ll likely set off mold and rot at the cut.

Dried luffas

Dried luffas

In this picture, you see two ripe and dried luffa squash. The upper one dried out in the upper boughs of a pecan tree all autumn, and the scars on the surface are from where it bumped into tree branches while it was still green. Don’t worry about those scars, because the impacts usually don’t effect the quality of the luffa within. The bottom one was dried after being picked from the vine, and note the spots of mold on the shell. These need to be watched, because small spots of mold usually won’t be a problem. If it’s a big patch, or if it appears to be sinking into the squash, then the mold might be spreading through the body of the squash. Sometimes this is all right, too, but with early-picked luffa squash, this could lead to the whole squash rotting if it’s not dealt with.

As a sidenote, you might have some luffa squash with damage such as cracks or bruises, especially when the local squirrels decide to liberate them and they fall a story or two onto the cold, cold ground. Trying to dry them will just be a waste of time, so open up the squash at the crack or bruise and take a look at the interior. If the interior is hollow or if it shows extensive stringy understructure, go directly to cleaning it. If it’s still relatively solid with a white pulp reminiscent of cucumbers or zucchini, just dump it in the compost pile. It’s too green to develop any understructure, and all it’ll do is turn into a slimy mess if you attempt to save it.

If your luffa squash are already dried, then just put them into a bag or basket and leave them alone until you’re ready to clean them. if they’re still green, then set them in a warm place with good air circulation and let them dry some more. That good air circulation is vital, because if they don’t get it, the squash WILL rot. Not “may”: WILL. I speak from experience, as the only thing worse than cleaning that aforementioned slimy mess out of a laundry room or water heater closet is the smell from that mess. Leave them out on a counter, or put them in a room under a ceiling fan, and leave them alone for a few weeks. Check up on them every couple of days, and watch as they shrink and brown.

Luffa ensemble

Luffa ensemble

At this point, if your luffa vines were in decent soil and had plenty of climbing options, you should have anywhere between one and thirty dried luffa squash ready for cleaning and preparation. For that, you’ll need:

  • One bathtub or washtub, preferably one needing a good cleaning
  • One bottle of shampoo (brand doesn’t matter, and sometimes the cheap stuff works best)
  • One bowl or other container for catching seeds
  • Grubby clothes
  • Goggles or an eyeshield, to keep squash pulp out of your eyes

If your luffas are extremely dried, you’ll note that peeling the skin from the luffa is almost impossible. Greener squash are easier to peel, but they need lots of washing afterwards. Either way, take advantage of the need to clean your bathtub. I have the unfortunate habit of cleaning my tub about the time it starts to resemble a scale model of the Mississippi Delta, so it’s time to fill up the tub about halfway with hot water.

In the interim, if you know anyone who wants to raise luffa squash next season, you’ll have to gather seeds. Break off the end of the head of the squash and hold the end over a container. You’ll hear the seeds rattling, so just keep shaking gently until the seeds stop falling. Always open the squash at the head, because the luffa can sometimes get so narrow that seeds can’t escape out the tail end. Gather up the seeds and put them into bags, or put them into a jar and place them in the refrigerator until spring.

Once this is done, dump your squashes into the bathtub, and let them soak for a while. The reason why you cracked open the head was also to allow water to enter the squash, making the job easier. If you’re particularly industrious, feel free to pour hot water into the opening, but otherwise you’re going to have to wait for a while. (This also applies to luffas picked green, as you’re going to need to wash off the mucilage off the luffa before it’s usable.)

Luffas before soaking

Luffas before soaking

Once the squash has been soaking for a while and the skin is soft, punch your thumb through the skin at the tail, getting it between the luffa and the skin. Work your way up to the head, and peel back the skin. Once it comes free, set it aside for the compost pile and grab another one, because if your luffa plants were remotely productive over the year, you’re going to be busy.

Peeled luffa

Peeled luffa

At this point, your tub should be full of peeled luffas. It’ll also be full of seeds, as a lot of seeds were caught up in the luffas and unable to escape until you removed the skins. Don’t worry about them in the slightest, because you’ll have to deal with more.

Post-peeled luffas

Post-peeled luffas

Disgusting, isn’t it? This is why I recommended using a dirty tub, because you’re going to have to clean it anyway.

Now here comes the important part of the whole cleaning. The dry luffas are going to be full of dried mucilage, which will leave everything they wash with a nice coat of slime if it isn’t cleaned in advance. The green luffas have just as much mucilage, but it’s combined with starches and other compounds that also prevent the luffa from being used for cleaning. Start by grabbing that bottle of shampoo and pouring a good dollop of Aussie, Paul Mitchell, or your brand of choice right on the first luffa. Massage it in, rinse it off in the tub, and do it again. Do it with the next one, and the next, until all of your luffas are nice and sudsy.

Next, put on your goggles or faceshield and grab a luffa by the tail. Picture yourself as Thetis dipping your son Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability and give that luffa the same grip. Next, picture yourself discovering that Achilles is going to dedicate the rest of his life to writing term papers on Firefly and Twilight, and bash the hell out of the luffa against the sides of the tub. Go to town, and don’t worry about the seeds and bits of pulp flying everywhere: that’s why you’re wearing eye protection. When you’re reasonably sure that you’ve removed every seed (and you’ll be able to feel them inside the luffa), scrub the luffa again with shampoo and grab the next one. Repeat the cycle, as Thetis apparently had a lot of kids planning to study Pop Culture in college.

Once you’re done with taking your frustrations out on your luffas, rinse them well, and set one tail-up into the tub drain. Drain the tub, and note how the luffa acts as a filter to prevent seeds from getting into the drain. Most of these seeds are inviable, so you’re within your rights to scoop them out of the tub and dump the whole mess into the compost pile. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spread out the mess where you plan to plant luffas next season, cover them with a good thick layer of coffee grounds and compost, and wait to see if they come up next year. Rinse off the luffas with clear water and set them aside to dry. Feel free to give them away to family and friends, or just settle for using them for cleaning the tub. See, I told you that it needed a good scrub by now.

Now, as with any horticultural advice, these steps may be modified or arranged in any fashion whatsoever, at the discretion of the luffa farmer. You do have to admit, though, that this is still a better guide than those seed guides, right?

Contest: The Saga of the Joey Box Continues

Just as a friendly reminder, the Joey Box contest is still open, and you still have 14 days to enter. Look at it as getting an item in the mail that isn’t accumulations of school supplies.

Projects: “I can has Cthulhufruit?”

It all started about five years ago. My friend Allison Lonsdale shared a picture online of her attendance at an event in San Diego, and she was wearing a fruit instead of a standard necklace. Well, I thought it was a fruit, but I wasn’t sure: it either looked as if she’d taken a wax lemon and melted it until it threw off long twining drippings off the bottom, or if she’d covered a small octopus with yellow highway lane paint. All I knew was that this thing was about the size of my fist, bright canary yellow, and possessed of tentacles.

Since I feared for her safety with this monstrous pome, I had to ask about its identity. Not surprisingly, I was still at a loss: she said it was a Buddha’s Hand citron, and that she’d picked it up in a San Diego market shortly before taking the picture. This cleared up the picture, slightly, because I knew what a citron was, but it didn’t explain who mutilated a helpless citron such as this. I then went to the Interwebs and the few general reference books available on citrus, and that’s when the mad quest began.

Buddha's Hand citron

Buddha's Hand citron

To explain, citrons are a relatively uncommonly encountered variety of citrus fruit, mostly because they have little to no pulp. This is why restaurants don’t offer citron juice in their breakfast menus. Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit comparatively have huge reserves of pulp as compared to peel and pith: cut open a citron, and the cross-section suggests a particularly nasty practical joke by someone who really hated lemonade. However, the peel is valuable on its own, as the outer layer, or zest, is exceptionally flavorful and intense. Throughout much of Asia, citrons are grown for their scent and as a flavoring, as they have a distinctive tang that separates them from the standard lemon and lime varieties used for baking and cooking.

The Buddha’s Hand citron tree is not a particularly noteworthy tree without its fruit. As with most citrus, it starts out as a multibranched bush or shrub, producing large, soft leaves with a distinctive petiole and stems with short sharp spines. The blooms are white with purple highlights, with an intoxicating scent that contains none of the underlying bitterness of lemon or orange blossoms. (By the way, the petals are edible and quite tasty, and are best if gathered within minutes of falling from the flower.) However, something happened about 4000 years ago to a citron tree somewhere in China, where it started producing fruit with long protrusions off the bottom. These were cultivated and propagated for centuries, and presumably all existing Buddha’s Hand citrons today are descended from that one mutant tree. Well, I say “presumably” because no reference I could find mentions the existence of Buddha’s Hand seeds, although they might happen from time to time.

And the meaning of the name? Well, according to many resources, the fruit resembles praying hands in its “closed” form, where the tentacles remain bunched tightly at the bottom of the fruit. The “open” form, where the tentacles spread wide like an attacking squid, is the source for the citron’s other nickname: Cthulhufruit, after the most famous character in Providence children’s writer H.P. Lovecraft‘s bedtime stories. Allison’s citrons definitely qualified as Cthulhufruit, as they looked as if they were about to jump off her blouse and attack passersby like the facehuggers in the film Alien, and suggested a “How To Protect Yourself From An Assailant Armed With A Piece of Fresh Fruit” defense course as taught by the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce instead of the Monty Python troupe. At that point, I knew I had to get one.

That issue, as can be expected, was problematic. As with most citrus, citrons produce their fruit only toward the end of the year, and citrons only grow in areas protected from freezes and strong frosts. The trees themselves can be found from time to time in larger nurseries, where I purchased mine: they have problems with sunburn in extreme heat and low humidity, but a Buddha’s Hand in a container does very well in a good sunny area protected from typical Texas wind. Almost every English-language reference book on citrus disdains Buddha’s Hands as a “novelty” or “curiosity” before begrudgingly admitting to their value for zest, and that’s maybe two or three words before badmouthing the effort of getting the zest off each tentacle. Because of this attitude, they almost never show up in standard grocery stores, and even when they do, they only remain for about a week or two before being snapped up by the curious and the gastronomically jaded.

Since my father’s family comes from good stout British/Scottish Catholic stock, where we’re encouraged, to steal from a book review I read years back, to stretch out the Christmas turkey to the point where we’re making turkey-flavored gelatin out of the bones in mid-July, I didn’t want to get a Buddha’s Hand just to get one. If it was to arrive in my home, it had to have a purpose and a meaning, if only to terrify the cats and scare the neighborhood children. Thankfully, the Czarina was going through a collection of very old cookbooks left her by her grandmother, and one book on candies contained a recipe for candied orange and grapefruit peel. These sorts of preserves were rather popular until after the Great Depression, and we figured that making up a batch of candied Cthulhufruit would be an interesting addition to Chinese New Year festivities in the Dallas area. The fruit was in season at the time, so I figured a couple of phone calls would take care of the problem

If I’d known what an aggravation we’d go through to get one, I would have settled for growing my own. For various understandable reasons related to weather problems in California and disease quarantine in Florida, the several Asian groceries in Dallas that would have carried the elusive citrons were empty. I was pointed in the direction of various online sellers, but they were either already sold out or unable to ship to Texas. (As a general rule, while citrus from either Florida or California may be shipped to other states in the US without problems, imports to any citrus-producing state are very carefully watched by the US Department of Agriculture to prevent the spread of disease. With the quarantine of all of Florida by the USDA due to the threat of citrus canker, nobody was going to take a chance on destroying Texas’s multi-billion-dollar crop, as I discovered when I first bought a Buddha’s Hand tree from an online nursery that was smuggling potentially infected trees from Florida suppliers. Having the USDA show up at your front door with a receipt of the purchase and an explanation of why they have to confiscate it just cements the understanding that USDA agents are horribly underpaid for the work they do.) And then there was the situation with local stores selling for the gourmand and chef community. Whoo boy.

Now, I know that both the Whole Foods and Central Market grocery chains have plenty of employees and managers more than willing to assist customers with strange requests and either follow through on getting information or state “Sorry, but we can’t do it.” These individuals are as rare at my local stores as the citrons themselves. Central Market reps repeatedly told me over the phone and in person “We’ll have them in on Tuesday” for a month before I finally gave up, and Whole Foods apparently hires managers too arrogant and abrasive for even Borders Books & Music. I started at the store by my house because it had an empty bin labeled for Buddha’s Hands at the beginning of January, and found that its produce department was best at passing hot potatoes. After two months of coming back in every week because leaving my name and phone number in exchange for a promise to get a response on making a special order never got a followup, I finally got a manager who literally sneered that “they’re out of season this time of the year” and “there’s not that much of a demand for those”, and that he shouldn’t be expected to bother the produce department with such petty requests. It shouldn’t be surprising to discover that he was, indeed, a bookstore managerial reject. A letter to the Whole Foods corporate headquarters got no response on the citrons and probably a promotion for the petty tyrant, and just when I’d given up, a local Kroger store put three on display. The sound heard at the checkout was the shockwave made by my snagging two of them before anyone else could get them out of my hands, and the Czarina and I rushed them home and put them into the refrigerator before they turned back into pumpkins and mice.

The pure, unsullied Cthulhufruit

The pure, unsullied Cthulhufruit

The next day, we started our little adventure by taking the citrons out of the fridge and slicing them into orange peel-sized segments.

Sliced Cthulhufruit

Sliced Cthulhufruit

Again, most guides will mention that Buddha’s Hand citrons have little to no pulp, but I still wasn’t expecting a complete lack of pulp. Note the white flesh? That’s nothing but rind. No pulp, no seeds, no nuthin’ but rind. If I’d had to resort to attempting to raise Buddha’s Hands from seed, I would have been more than a bit aggravated if I’d gotten this far and discovered nothing.

More sliced Cthulhufruit

More sliced Cthulhufruit

Well, now that it’s been sliced up like a potato destined for a deep fryer, it’s time to take a look at what to do with it. The free taste, so to say, of what Buddha’s Hands are capable of is with a simple candied peel recipe: the Czarina is currently running experiments with other recipes, but those are going to have to wait. Some are so good that they may have to go with her to her grave.

Candied Buddha’s Hand Citron
Ingredients:
2 whole Buddha’s Hand citrons, washed and cleaned (approximately one pound)
2 pounds granulated sugar
(optional) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

After removing any bruised or damaged sections, thinly slice the citrons lengthwise. The resultant pieces may be cut in half if necessary. Put the citron pieces into a medium saucepan, cover with cold water, and heat until just before the water boils.

Cthulhufruit in a pot

Cthulhufruit in a pot

Most recipes for candied citrus peel recommend that the water be replaced at this time with cold water and repeated at least once for orange or lemon peel, and that the water be allowed to boil for grapefruit. This may be necessary for these citrus, but Buddha’s Hand citrons have a delicate enough flavor that the slices should be given this bath once or maybe twice. More than two heating baths, and much of the essential oils in the rind may be lost.

After the desired number of baths, drain the water, recover with cold water, and return to the stove. Add an equal amount of sugar as fresh fruit used and heat to boiling.

Boiling Cthulhufruit

Boiling Cthulhufruit

Anyone familiar with making maple syrup will note that the reducing process will take some time, so stir regularly and keep an eye on the froth at the top of the pan. When the froth starts becoming thick, turn down the heat, but continue to boil. In the meantime, prepare a baking sheet by greasing or covering with wax paper, and sprinkle a layer of the remaining sugar on top.

Sugared Cthulhufruit

Sugared Cthulhufruit

When a drop of the juice inside the pan, when dripped from the spoon, makes a thin cobwebby thread, remove the pan from the heat. Spoon the slices from the pan and place them on the baking sheet. (CAUTION: the citron slices are very hot, and THEY WILL BURN EXPOSED SKIN. Please be careful not to get splashed: I speak from experience.) Sprinkle the remaining sugar liberally over the slices and allow to cool.

Optionally, the remaining sugar may be flavored with vanilla to complement the flavor of the citron. Slowly add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to a small amount of sugar and stir well. Sprinkle this mix atop the cooling slices before applying the rest of the sugar. Makes 1.5 pounds of candied Buddha’s Hand citron. Store in airtight containers.

WARNING: To prevent excessive pilfering by well-meaning but addicted spouses, as shown below, hide remaining candy in an undisclosed location. Give them the remaining sauce for further recipe experiments, and wait for citron season to come again.

The Czarina with Cthulfruit candy

The Czarina with Cthulfruit candy

Any questions? See, Allison, this is ALL YOUR FAULT.

Observations: “It’s Always Sad When It Happens To Someone You Know”

It started so innocently.

I mean, I used to be a writer. I knew the dangers of books and publishing lines. I understood that if you bought too many books, you not only didn’t eat that night, but you might not be able to close the hallway door. I’d roomed with people who didn’t grasp that distinction, and who spent their time moving from house to apartment to couch, carrying a box of clothes, a box of essential papers, a cat, and forty boxes of first editions. I’d seen firsthand the horrors of library benefits, estate auctions, and garage sales, and I’d watched people who were once good and close friends who were digging through the detritus at the local Goodwill store, desperately searching for the one volume that would make their lives complete. I used to be sympathetic, but later I became hard and cold about their decisions. I didn’t tell them that they had to become hooked, did I? They made their decisions on their own.

And then I met Timber Press, and all my presumptions about the nature of addiction went straight to hell.

Were I the sort to judge based solely on the covers, Timber Press would have been the girl next door who stopped by after lunch. Tall, pretty without being overly focused solely on looks, and able to run rings in conversation around a room full of Ph.Ds. In other words, just like the woman I married. Strangely, while the Czarina says that she doesn’t have any problems with the other person in my life, she sometimes lingers over the horticulture section of my library, and I can’t tell if she’s glaring in silent jealousy or contemplating an attempt at stealing my mistress from me. Sometimes, I suspect it’s both.

It started nearly nine years ago, when I was first exploring the world of carnivorous plants. Even in these enlightened times, books on carnivores were rare and precious, especially if they were accurate, and I finally tracked down a couple of volumes that are still in my library. From one fell a postcard asking if I wanted a catalog from the publisher, and the name was one with which I was completely unfamiliar. “Timber Press, huh? Well, I can spare a stamp to find out, right?”

This is how the girl next door walked in, said hello, planted a kiss that could snap a redwood in two, and did nasty, horrible, terrible things to me over the rest of the decade. Either the Czarina is going to leave me when she discovers the levels of my infidelity, or she’s planning to leave with her and let me take care of the credit card bills. Either way, I can die secure that I’ll never find any better.

Mountains In The Sea

Mountains In The Sea

It started with exotica. I already knew the bare basics of bonsai and penjing, the Chinese art of living scene arrangements. Timber Press set me down the path to ruin by introducing me to Hon Non Bo, the Vietnamese art of rock and plant seascapes. This wasn’t a hack-and-slash guide to how to crank one out in a weekend, like far too many American-published bonsai books. Oh, no. This went into a thumbnail guide of Vietnamese art history, since much of the technique of Hon Non Bo is dependent upon understanding the why and how. Another postcard and another catalog, and Timber Press knew that I’d go to the ends of the earth for another kiss.

(The Czarina just read the preceding over my shoulder, and chuckled slightly, with hints of both passion and wistfulness. I fear that I’m going to wake up alone tomorrow morning, with her clothes packed and my library stripped. I knew that this could happen when I started this affair, but I don’t regret a thing.)

Growing Carnivorous Plants

Growing Carnivorous Plants

Then it was back to the carnivores. Most books on carnivorous plants go in one of two directions. Either the book is a simplistic children’s book that sensationalizes the fact that these plants eat animals instead of the other way around, or it’s a dry tome full of charts on enzyme activity and habitat zones that tell precious little about the plant and why it’s important. Many good books fill the gap, but it’s not as if any particular publisher makes a habit of serving the needs of the carnivore enthusiast community. Timber Press, though, offered not just one book. She offered three within the last five years, full of essential information on cultivating obscure forms that few humans had ever seen. One day, she’s going to put out the definitive guide to triggerplants, both Australian forms and the other members of the genus Stylidium, and I’m just going to weep in admiration.

Garlic

Garlic

Oh, and did I mention that she loves cooking? Walk into any used bookstore, and you’ll find the shelves creaking with guides on herb gardens, and they’re abandoned on the shelves for a reason. My dear, sweet love shared with me her love of gustatorial delights, from exotic herbs to the difference between blueberries and lingonberries. Oh, she could tell sweet tales of Japanese maples, conifers, and cycads, but all of that was secondary when my body was ravaged with hunger, and she freely inspired all of the muses with one hint of garlic and rosemary. This was about the time I introduced my new love to the Czarina, who for once didn’t scoff at the idea of someone knowing more about fine cuisine than she.

And so it continues. The Czarina may become tolerant of my new mistress, and she may decide to steal her away for herself. Nobody ever said that horticultural reading had to be boring.

All book images herein © 2010 Timber Press Inc. These books may or may not still be in print at this time; refer to the main Timber Press site for more information.

Projects: “Surviving the Cube”

Now for a subject of some seriousness. We’re going to talk about “The Cube”.

For those in the carnivorous plant business, as well as with more advanced hobbyists, “cubes” refer to the prepackaged carnivores sold in hardware and home improvement stores’ garden sections. The name comes from the use of clear plastic boxes to ship and display plants, usually with three varieties of carnivore with diametrically opposed growing conditions all jammed into the same space. The boxes are an absolutely brilliant way to ship pitcher plants and sundews with a minimum of wasted packing space. Unfortunately, they’re not a good permanent living solution.

Before I start, I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to the cubes on principle. I wouldn’t have been drawn into keeping carnivorous plants had it not been for finding a display stand full of them at a Home Depot while I was buying poplar boards for bookshelves. I still have one Nepenthes hybrid, provenance unknown, that started from one tiny plant purchased from that display stand. When I was first starting as a carnivore evangelist a year later, I was also buying up the severely discounted carnivores, at least the ones that were still alive, and rehabilitating them to give to friends. Again, cubes aren’t a permanent living solution.

The problem with cube carnivores isn’t just that they’re impulse purchases, intended with as much longterm concern for their well-being as anything else sold by the cash register at the local hardware store. It’s not just that they’re usually incredibly stressed plants by the time they’re put on display, and following the recommendation to “keep the top on your plant” usually means that it outgrows its space if it doesn’t cook in direct sun. it’s not just that the collections of flytrap, cobra plant, and lance-leafed sundew will die in a matter of weeks even under the best circumstances unless the plants are separated, and that the “growing tips” on the side of the cube have no information whatsoever on how to do this. It’s that even grocery store orchids come with better information on growing and repotting requirements than a typical cube carnivore does, and that the friendly and helpful people at your local hardware store mean well, but they have next to no correct information on feeding them. (I’ve made lots of friends in the home improvement store garden sections over the years, and I know that they suck up correct information on raising carnivores like sponges if it’s available to them. Unfortunately, Venus flytrap sales volumes are minuscule compared to roses or peach trees, so there’s no incentive from the store manager or the chain’s corporate offices to make sure they have that information.)

It’d be easy for nursery operators to tell customers “Don’t buy cube carnivores,” but I know that it’s not that easy. I think of the number of beginners who are given cubes for their birthdays, or the students who figure that one of those cubes would make a great science fair project. I also understand the urge to collect a few of those cubes when they’re on deep discount and attempt to rescue the plant inside, because I still succumb from time to time. I’m not helping convince the local Lowe’s store manager not to order more, but there’s no reason for the plant to die in order to stick with your principles.

The trick to freeing a carnivore from the cube is to understand what it is and what it needs. Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants are really bad choices for the cubes, as they get far too big far too quickly to last very long, and they often die of shock even if put into optimum conditions right away. Darlingtonia plants generally die even if they’re transplanted right away into those optimal conditions, and they usually only last a few weeks without the root disturbance. Especially if kept inside, there’s simply no way that a Venus flytrap can get enough light for proper growth in a cube, and that’s doubled if the flytrap has bugs or hamburger shoved into every trap. Butterworts and sundews need more air circulation than what’s available in cubes. Ironically enough, many terrestrial bladderworts would do better than most in a cube, so long as the cube doesn’t dry out, but I’ve never seen a bladderwort in a cube, probably because they don’t have obvious above-ground traps to attract buyers. As for other carnivores, they’re either too obscure to draw interest from anyone other than specialists (Byblis), require specialized light or temperature conditions that are almost impossible to replicate easily in a home center greenhouse (Cephalotus), or have trap structures too small to appreciate without a magnifier (Stylidium, Genlisea). The vast majority of cube plants are going to be either flytraps or pitcher plants of one sort, so let’s start with a pitcher plant.

Behold: the cube

Behold: the cube

Now, let’s look at the problems with this arrangement. Unlike cubes of days past, where the plants were shoved in the bottom amidst a handful of barely damp sphagnum moss, this one at least is in a plastic pot for drainage, but that’s the only good news. This poor Sarracenia has been in this cube for a long time, as demonstrated by the number of leaves jammed up on the top of the container. The condensation gives a good idea of the relative humidity inside of the cube, meaning both that poor air circulation has a good chance of promoting disease and fungus. Worst of all, most of the leaves are winter leaves, known as phyllodia, with tiny or nonexistent traps at the end, which means that the plant hasn’t been getting anywhere near enough light since it was first potted up. It may not die immediately, but it’s going to die soon, which may help explain why this was marked half-off at my local Lowe’s store.

Before cracking open the top, having the right equipment and supplies is vital if the plant is going to survive. These requirements include:

  • A suitable amount of carnivorous plant potting mix and distilled or rain water
  • A suitable pot, with sufficient drainage and ability to retail moisture at the same time. (For this exercise, we’re going to use a ProlitariPot for clarity.)
  • A sharp pair of utility scissors or a sharp knife
  • A plastic bag large enough to go over the plant and the pot
  • At least one thin bamboo stake or dowel rod, preferably treated to resist moisture (orchid stakes work best, but chopsticks will work in a pinch)
  • A indirectly bright windowsill or greenhouse space for recuperation

The top of the cube

The top of the cube


The first thing to do is pop open the top and see if the patient is able to be saved. Most cubes are taped shut, on top of being sealed in plastic wrap and pressure-sensitive stickers, partly to keep the cube contents in and keep meddling kids out. Examine the cube to see where the cube opens, and with the scissors or knife, cut open the various adhesives.

The cube opens

The cube opens


In this case, we have what’s probably a Sarracenia hybrid, but it’s hard to tell what kind with the way the traps are stunted and misshapen. As mentioned before, most of the leaves are phyllodia, and it’s going to be a while before it has the chance to grow any proper traps. Just getting the top open, though, is a start, and the way the leaves popped out when it came off gives an idea of how badly it needed the room to grow.

Removing the spacer

Removing the spacer

Depending upon the nursery that supplied the cube, the plants are held in place with a variety of options, such as plastic film, rubber bands and wires (seen only once, thankfully), and plastic inserts. This one came with a plastic spacer, with two wings that come in contact with the underside of the lid. The pitcher plant comes up through a hole in the spacer, and often grows over it. This spacer needs to be removed very carefully to prevent damage to the crown of the plant. If this requires grasping the leaf bunch to keep them together while pulling them through the spacer hole, do so, because any damage to the leaves in grabbing them is going to be minor compared to scraping and cutting from the sharp edges of the spacer hole.

The spacer removed

The spacer removed

If recycling facilities exist in your area for plastics, set the spacer aside for recycling. Otherwise, just throw it away. It won’t be needed again. The same goes for the cube itself, unless your idea of an exciting weekend involves polishing scratches out of Plexiglas.

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The pitcher plant is going to look even worse once it’s removed from the cube, as the traps are too weak for most to stand upright. The good news is that it came out of the cube just in time: the humidity may have been high enough, but note that the soil mix was nearly completely dry.

Bottom of the pot

Bottom of the pot

While the example isn’t the greatest picture ever taken, note the bottom of the pot, and the root growing from the bottom right. This plant was in the cube for a good long time, sopping up available moisture from the bottom as water vapor leaked out the seams in the cube lid. When repotting, try to pull roots like this through the drainage holes without damaging them if at all possible. If the roots are too thick, or if they’re so extensively intertwined that they can’t be separated, use the knife or utility shears to cut them just enough to get them through.

The plant in its old pot

The plant in its old pot

Now it’s time to decant the plant from the shipping pot. In this shot, note the original traps growing when this plant was shipped, especially when compared to the subsequent phyllodia. This plant will make it, but it’s going to need a lot of care.

Bagged carnivore

Bagged carnivore

Without disturbing the root ball, remove the original pot and put the root ball into the new pot, filling the gaps with fresh carnivore growing mix. Water it down well to get the roots rehydrated and to help settle any air pockets. Take the bamboo stake (in this case, a spare orchid stake) and put it in the edge of the pot, with at least 5 centimeters of clearance above the highest trap. Place the plastic bag bottom-side up over the pot and the plant, helping to keep up the level of humidity the plant had in the cube while giving it more air circulation than before.

Finally, here’s the important part. Place the pot, plant, and bag into a well-lit space where it will not be exposed to full sun for no less than two weeks. Repeat: do NOT put the plant in full sun, as it will likely burn until it adapts to life outside the cube. Just leave it alone, making sure to add additional water if absolutely necessary.

At the end of that two weeks, remove the plastic bag and move it into better light. With sundews and Nepenthes pitcher plants, be careful not to give them full sun right away, but good partial sun is perfect while letting them get acclimated. Sarracenia pitchers and Venus flytraps need as much light as they can get. If growing conditions are right and the plant’s time in the cube wasn’t too debilitating, you should see new trap growth within two to three weeks. The existing traps won’t grow further or straighten out, but they’ll act as an essential photosynthetic resource for new traps. As the old traps brown and die off, snip them off, and encourage the new growth to spread up and out. It may take a year, but given decent growing conditions, it won’t be too long before the carnivore that was languishing in its cube is in full form, growing and even blooming.

Again, this isn’t intended to be a slam on the cube plants themselves. However, considering the effort necessary to nurse an ailing cube plant, isn’t it easier to deal directly with a nursery that specializes in carnivores than wrangling with cubes?

Observations: “The Essential Books Necessary If You’re Going To Keep Up”

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Internet. For the last seventeen years, it’s kept me entertained, informed me, and even paid the bills. Especially in the last five years or so, it’s been an incredible resource for discovering new advances and classic wonders in the botanical and horticultural world. I now count as close friends many people I never would have met without the old Intertubes, including the friend who introduced me to Buddha’s Hand citrons. The problem is that it’s not enough, especially for carnivorous plants.

This isn’t to say that good, practical information on carnivores isn’t available online. It’s just that as far as horticultural knowledge is concerned, good old-fashioned dead-tree books are still pretty necessary. Until Amazon.com develops a Kindle that can be dragged into the garden, left on a porch table for reference, or propped up next to a potting bench for reference, without worrying about dead batteries or mud all over the screen, books are still the best option. I don’t have a lot of faith in the future of the publishing business as we know it, but books on carnivores are still enough of a niche market that they won’t be supplanted any time soon. Besides, as the Czarina attests, laptops don’t work quite so well for showing off pictures of new species and cultivars to an appreciative but unsuspecting spouse.

The problem is that many books on carnivores are written for the typical fifth-grader working on a report for class back around 1963, not for serious enthusiasts wanting more than a sensationalist view of Venus flytraps. Of the others, I’ve come across painfully inaccurate and potentially catastrophic tips (my personal favorite was the suggestion that minerals could be removed from tap water by boiling it, which is a really good way of killing a pitcher plant or butterwort), obsolete or outdated species descriptions, and growing tips written by individuals whom I suspect might have seen a picture of a flytrap one time about a decade ago. Even so, I still have six books that I use for reference on a constant basis, and if I can’t replace one, it doesn’t get lent to others. In no particular order, these include:

The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato

The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato


The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. Ten Speed Press, 1998, 320pp.

Well over a decade after its publication, The Savage Garden is still the handbook for carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly beginners. It could use an update, especially considering the new carnivores described after it first saw print, but it still gives an excellent overview of proper care and feeding. If your budget is dependent upon buying one book for carnivore care, get this one first.

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants


The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Biology and Cultivation by By Wilhelm Barthlott, Stefan Porembski, Rüdiger Seine, and Inge Theisen, and translated by Michael Ashdown. Timber Press, 2007, 224pp.

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants is an English translation of a German guide, and it works mostly as an academic guide to carnivore range, habitat, and adaptations. It’s still very readable for interesting laypeople, and the spectacular photographs, one of the hallmarks of Timber Press books, offer wonderful views of carnivores not normally seen in cultivation.

Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack

Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack


Carnivorous Plants by Adrian Slack. MIT Press, 2000, 240pp.

If we rise by standing on the shoulders of giants, then Adrian Slack and Charles Darwin deserve credit for creating the carnivorous plant community as we know it today. For those unfamiliar with Slack’s work, he’s generally considered Britain’s greatest living authority on carnivores, and as such has no compunctions about sharing his discoveries on carnivore care with others. While best known for working out the only known way to keep the Portuguese dewy pine Drosophyllum in cultivation, his tips on raising other carnivores are ignored at peril.

Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson

Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson


Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson. McDonald & Woodward, 2006, 320pp.

Mr. McPherson was only 23 when he wrote his first book, and because of this, I’m painfully jealous. He literally wrote the book on South American Heliamphora sun pitchers, which makes me even more jealous. He also spent years studying pitcher plants in their native habitats, which only concentrates the jealousy. By the time I build up the expertise to confirm his observations, he’ll probably have four more, equally well-written, books available for purchase, and then I’ll really be jealous.

Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice

Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice


Growing Carnivorous Plants by Barry A. Rice. Timber Press, 2006, 224pp.

Members of the International Carnivorous Plant Society may know Dr. Rice as a former editor of the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, and for his Lovecraft-inspired Utricularia cultivar names. He also takes some impressive photographs, both in the wild and in cultivation, and this book is the only one I’ve come across with a thorough view of the aquatic carnivore waterwheel plant Aldrovanda. Besides, it contains exemplary photographs of the only known carnivorous plant fossils, which is worth the price all on its own.

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski


Triggerplants by Douglas W. Darnowski. Rosenberg Publishing, 2002, 94pp.

This is the book on triggerplants, especially the huge variety in Australia. It’s possible to raise triggerplants without this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I look forward to Dr. Darnowski writing an extensive update based on new discoveries (at the time of its writing, triggerplants were suspected of being carnivorous, a fact that was confirmed in 2006), but this will do until then.

A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World by Gordon Cheers

A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World by Gordon Cheers


A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World by Gordon Cheers. Angus & Robertson, 1992, 174pp.
Finally, A Guide To Carnivorous Plants of the World is a bit out-of-date, and has been out of print for years, but it’s worth tracking down a copy just for its uniquely Australia-centric view of Pacific carnivores. It’s also the only book found so far that gives a good guide to eco-tourism involving carnivores, with handy maps for planning trips to see the main groups of carnivores in situ. Besides, the author obviously had a thing for Nepenthes pitcher plants, because the photos and descriptions of the species and cultivars available at that time are simply incredible.

Well, that’s the list so far. I fully expect this list to change drastically in the next few years, as interest in carnivores continues to grow to levels not seen since the Victorian Era. Not that I’m complaining.

Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”

Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.

The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.

Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.

And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…

WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.

Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.

Bonsai candidate after training

Bonsai candidate after training

After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.

New bonsai pot with screen

New bonsai pot with screen

At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.

Pepper in its new pot

Pepper in its new pot

Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.

Props to the bonsai

Props to the bonsai

As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.

The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.

Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.

Observations: “Well, Bless Your Heart: The Carnivorous Creations Story”

Many lively and exotic cultures have terms that have completely different meanings based on the tone used when saying them. Texas, having a particularly exotic culture, is rightly famous for one phrase having multiple meanings based on tone, and some are so subtle that only lifetime residents catch the implied insult or putdown. The phrase “Bless your heart” may be an honest term of affection for a particularly thoughtful action or comment. If referring to an honest mistake or misunderstanding, “bless your heart” is the polite equivalent of “you loveable dingbat”. Other meanings, dictated by the tone used, range from “That’s another mess for me to clean up” to “what the hell is wrong with you?” to “You IDIOT”. As rampant and blatant use of profanity is considered vulgar in some circles of Texas society, a well-placed “bless your heart” is sufficiently acidic as to peel off tooth enamel in big floppy strips, and if the pronoun ever switches to “its” , this is the Texas equivalent of “that person is dead to me.”

This flexibility allows the term to be used quite often whenever the subject of the DuneCraft Carnivorous Creations carnivorous plant terrarium kit comes up. When kids ask me about how to get their kits up and going, I’m understandably sympathetic to their situation and try my absolute best to help out. When adults tell me that they’re thinking about getting one for a child who wants a Venus flytrap for Christmas, I wince and try to inform them of the implications of their purchase. And then there are the people who smugly tell me that they’re going to raise hordes of carnivores out of that one kit, and I blatantly steal from the author Harlan Ellison and his description of the guy who walks into a Mexican or Thai restaurant and assures everyone that “there’s no pepper too hot for me to eat.” Namely, “let them try, heh heh heh.”

Carnivorous Creations box

Carnivorous Creations box


While variations appear under different brand names (for instance, the Toys ‘R’ Us chain sells a setup with drastically different packaging, the sets are essentially the same. Each one features a high-domed terrarium with heavily-Photoshopped clusters of various carnivores, and the claims “Grow Over 10 Varieties of Carnivorous Plants!” and “Actually Eats Insects”, or some variation thereof, appear on the box in bright, lively text. The kit itself includes a terrarium base and “growing dome”, a bag of sphagnum moss/sand potting medium, a packet of carnivorous plant seeds, a small bag of blue gravel, three “bog buddy” plastic reptile and amphibian replicas, stickers to go on the outside of the terrarium base, and an instruction guide. Technically, it’s possible to grow a collection of carnivores from this kit, if you follow the instructions to the letter, and keep them alive for years. It’s the reality that’s slightly off.

Carnivorous Creations contents

Carnivorous Creations contents


Now, the problem with this kit, and in fact any kit that offers carnivorous plant seeds with promises of growing “bug-eating plants,” is that they technically offer the opportunity to do so. If you follow the instructions, and if you keep your terrarium in optimal conditions for carnivorous plant growth, and if you have a lot of patience, it’s possible to grow a batch of carnivores from a kit. The rub is in offering the optimal conditions for growth, and a lot of these factors are ones over which the fine folks at DuneCraft have absolutely no control. This is why I use “bless their hearts” to describe these kits than more earthy terms.

The first thing to consider, and something which most experienced carnivorous plant enthusiasts will note right off the bat, is that carnivores are, without fail, extremely slow-growing plants. One of the reasons why carnivores haven’t taken over every botanical niche on the planet is because the plants can use captured solar energy to produce the enzymes necessary for digesting animal prey, or they can use it for rapid growth, but usually not both. Almost all of the world’s known carnivores live in areas with extremely depleted soils, and their traps give them a strategic advantage in surviving in areas where other plants have an extremely hard time. The traps are also a curse, because the energy spent on growing them, producing attractants such as nectar, and producing digestive enzymes is that much less energy that can be used to outgrow competing plants. If the conditions in the growing area change, such as seeing a sudden influx of fertilizer, the carnivores have a decided disadvantage against grasses, trees, and other local plants, and they usually die off. (In areas where the local environment is regularly exposed to brushfires, such as in the Florida panhandle or native Venus flytrap habitat in North Carolina, the seeds from those dying plants will remain dormant in the soil until a brushfire burns off all of the competition.)

So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that seedlings are going to take a very long time to reach a decent size, and that time is aggravated by the size of the seeds. Most carnivore seeds are extremely small, meaning that they don’t have the stored reserves of energy found in, say, acorns or pumpkin seeds. Because the resultant seedling is equally small at germination, it is less likely to survive if local conditions change too much. Too little light for two to three days, and an entire batch of newly germinated seedlings can die and rot with almost no notice. Even if other conditions don’t pose a risk, one of the reasons why most commercially raised carnivores are propagated via sterile tissue propagation techniques instead of via seeds is that a full-grown Venus flytrap can be grown via cloning within months, while the same process by seed can take anywhere between three to five years. And you read that correctly: YEARS. This, more than any other reason, is why most experts recommend purchasing fully-grown carnivorous plants instead of messing about with seeds.

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag


Another factor that isn’t considered, and that DuneCraft has absolutely no control over, is how that boxed kit was stored before its purchase. Take a look at the bottom of the box, and note the date on the “Packed for” sticker. Carnivorous plant seeds generally have a very high risk of failing to germinate after being in storage, and experts point out that if they can’t be planted within a few months, they should be stored in refrigeration to keep them viable. The “Germ. Rate” entry notes that DuneCraft had each batch of seeds tested for viability, and the result states how many actually germinated out of the test sample. The problem is that between the time the seeds were packed and the time the kit was purchased, the kit was probably stored in one of any number of warehouses without air conditioning, as well as being shipped in trucks and shipping containers in the same condition. Keep the seeds in temperatures above 107 degrees F (40 degrees C) long enough, and the likelihood of any of them germinating drops to the rate of World Series wins for the Chicago Cubs. The less time elapsed between the seed test date and the date of purchase, the better.

That said, one peeve with these kits that can be brought up with DuneCraft is the variety of carnivore seeds in the kits. For instance, Sarracenia pitcher plants generally do with much soggier conditions than Venus flytraps, so it makes much more sense to raise those plants separately. Since the seeds are all in one packet, then this is extremely difficult if nearly impossible. Worse, the packs include seeds from the cobra plant, Darlingtonia, which are extremely difficult even for professionals to raise from seed. (Truth be told, considering the temperature and dormancy requirements required for Darlingtonia, getting any seedlings to survive for more than a year qualifies as a minor miracle. For those who can supply the specialized conditions for these plants, purchasing fully grown plants grown from divisions is the sane option.)

The last thing to consider is that carnivores generally need a LOT of light, and the seedlings aren’t exempt from this. As noted elsewhere, human eyes are very good at lying about the actual number of photons reaching an available area, and most sunny windows are still too shady for anything other than certain adult carnivores. The light could be augmented with artificial illumination, but that comes with the equal risk of overheating the seedlings.

Now, let’s us say that you received one of these kits from a well-meaning relative for a birthday gift, or as a holiday present from a co-worker who knows that you’re “into plants”. It’s perfectly possible to use everything in a typical Carnivorous Creations kit, again, under the right conditions.

Firstly, try potting the seeds in an growing medium environment more amenable for success. Spread them out over three to four ProletariPots, and repot them in individual pots after their first year. With fresh seed, and full sun, the Sarracenia in the seed mix should grow to a size where they can capture their own prey within two to three years, with the sundews growing to maximum size much more quickly. If the seeds are too old and they don’t germinate, well, one of the benefits of joining the International Carnivorous Plant Society is having access to the ICPS seed bank, where fresh seed for most available species is available at a very reasonable price.

Likewise, the terrarium base and the humidity dome are pretty cool, but they aren’t going to work for plants that can grow up to a meter tall. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t be used for starting other plants, such as tomatoes or peppers, in the middle of winter when the need for green is particularly strong. If the terrarium absolutely has to have a carnivorous plant in it, consider one of the few varieties that thrive on lower light levels than most, such as the sundew Drosera adelae, and augment the available light with a compact fluorescent fixture of at least 23 watts. Don’t use incandescent bulbs, as the heat will cook the plant and melt the terrarium.

While the Carnivorous Creations growing kit isn’t perfect, it’s possible to get some good results with it, with a bit of improvisation. Just don’t get me started on the “Gothic Garden” kit.