Daily Archives: November 9, 2011

Discovery Days: The Final Assessment

Last weekend, the folks at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park were considerate enough to invite the Triffid Ranch to display plants at its regular Discovery Days event on reptiles and other critters. This year, the “other critters” extended to flora, both by showing off carnivores that live in symbiosis with various reptiles and amphibians (in particular, a big display of Nepenthes ampullaria, based on its relationship with the frog Microhyla nepenthicola), so it was time to show off temperate carnivores before they went into winter hibernation and tropical carnivores before the new greenhouse goes up. Naturally, the Czarina wanted pictures.

"Introducing Carnivorous Plants" banner

The first sign that We Have Arrived: a literal sign stating who, why, and where. It’s probably time to write up a standard lecture rider that explains what we need at shows, probably plagiarizing heavily from Iggy Pop’s standard concert rider.

Bob the Builder

Being right next door to the “Bob the Builder” traveling exhibition meant that this guy right here was my nemesis and my salvation. “Nemesis” as in how every child under a certain age (I suspect below retirement age) wanted to drag Mom and Dad inside to see Bob, and “salvation” in that the kids and parents all went nuts over plants after they’d received their Bob fixes. The little disc at Bob’s feet was a motion sensor that normally set off one of three different affirmative comments. Apparently, so many little feet had tromped on it that the sound card went off randomly, and then it stopped working entirely by Saturday evening. I didn’t want to ruin the fun for the kids coming out to see Bob and Pilchard, so I filled in for that wayward sound card with the expected Canadian twist. Every kid should learn “Remember, if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy,” right?

The Texas Triffid Ranch at the MNS Discovery Days

A basic cross-section of carnivores and containers for display, along with a particularly ugly brute brought in to haul the big hexagon tank and scare wasps away from the pitcher plants. That beast could make a sundial run backwards, couldn’t he?

Paul

“Just because I only have nine fingers doesn’t mean my name is ‘Frodo’.”

Carnivorous plant books

Accompanying the main display was an additional table, giving plenty of room to show off a cross-section of the best books on carnivorous plants on the market today.

Magazines

The two magazines in the Riddell household that get read first, without question.

Paul

We were located right around the corner from a display demonstrating the fluorescence of scorpions. “Twenty bucks says I can hit the back wall with the next sneeze. Thirty if I replace the scorpion with a cockroach.”

And before anyone asks, yes, I’ll gleefully return for next year’s Discovery Days, or any other event held by the Museum that requests my presence. This was just too much fun.

Introducing Maclura pomifera

Between the end of August and the beginning of December, I get the occasional query at the Day Job and elsewhere about “brainfruit”. Along the sides of roads, in the middle of parks, and across vacant lots, these strange green pods appear, sometimes dropping down into traffic. They generally range about the size of a softball, with fine crinkles and whorls across its surface. Even the ones hitting pavement usually roll away with little to no damage, and they generally sit for a time until wet and cold set off rot.

Osage orange

Look up at the right time, and be prepared to duck. The tree can sometimes grow to as much as 60 feet (18.28 meters) tall, but it usually remains shrubby throughout North Texas. It can be found in individual clumps of junk trees, full brush, and even as isolated trees in the middle of nowhere. The amazing thing about the tree is how well it blends in with everything else until it bears fruit: mixed in with a copse of hackberry trees, and it blends in perfectly for most of the year. See one with fruit, though, and everyone pays attention.

Osage orange bunch

This is most peoples’ first encounter with Maclura pomifera, known commonly by such names as “Osage orange,” “horse apple,” “hedge tree,” or “Bodark”. It’s a remarkably common tree throughout North Texas, and not just because it’s a native. While mostly forgotten today, M. pomifera used to be a valuable tree, both ecologically and economically speaking.

Before anyone asks, the fruit itself is inedible to humans: cut one open, and it’s full of fibrous pulp and seeds that resemble elongated cantaloupe seeds. They aren’t a particular choice of most animals today, either, regardless of the “horse apple” common name. However, based on dung samples, M. pomifera fruit used to be quite the treat for Columbian mammoths and ground sloths during the last ice age. Both would mash up the fruit, swallowing the seeds and passing them in their dung, thereby protecting them from squirrels, mice, and other possible consumers. Today, without the benefit of Pleistocene megafauna, those fruit either rot on the ground or are torn up by squirrels for the seeds, and treerat predation helps explain why the trees died back from their original range across most of North America to their last holdouts in Texas and Oklahoma by the time of the first European colonization of the continent.

If not for human intervention, M. pomifera might have faced the same crisis as the Wollemi pine. However, the various indigenous tribes through its range noted that its wood is remarkably rot-resistant. The wood is also both an attractive yellow-orange and incredibly tough, thus making it a desirable tree for woodworkers patient enough to shape it without wearing out their tools in the process. Fence posts, pilings, bowls and cups…I even have a pen given to me by the Czarina made from turned Osage orange, and it’s the most comfortable pen I’ve ever owned. The combination of strength and flexibility made it an excellent wood for bowstaves, and the original French name, “bois d’arc,” was rapidly corrupted into “bodark”.

Osage orange thorns

The common nicknames “hedge tree” and “hedge apple” come from a more recent use. Before the invention of barbed wire, nurseries grew Osage oranges for hedges around farms. As the picture above shows, M. pomifera puts out nasty thorns much like those on citrus, with much the same effect on anything trying to pass through a stand of them. (Also like citrus, the thorn points tend to break off in wounds, so should you find yourself punctured by one, make absolutely sure to get out that tip from the wound before it festers.) The standard mnemonic for planting them was “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” referring to letting them grow high enough to keep horses from jumping them, strong enough that a bull couldn’t shove its way through, and close enough together that pigs couldn’t squeeze through. Obviously, the popularization of barbed wire spread well beyond the open prairie, but Osage orange posts continued to be used, and the trees themselves found themselves going feral in most of their old pre-Holocene territory.

As to what to do with the fruit? This time of the year, plenty of well-meaning Osage orange fans relate how keeping the fruit inside houses and garages keeps cockroaches and other insects away. As someone who has watched big local palmetto bugs feeding on rotting Osage oranges, I call shenanigans, and I’d never even consider using them to drive off spiders or scorpions in any way other than with a good fastball. Should you want to encourage squirrels and chipmunks in your back yard, a couple tossed out every week offer hours of entertainment, and they also make great bait for those who want to exterminate the little vermin. And then there’s the obvious use: spread them out in the front yard when out-of-town relatives arrive, and tell them that Texas has a tradition similar to the Easter Bunny involving the “Thanksgiving Armadillo”. That’s the best use yet.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Autumn Edition

Most people don’t think of North Texas as a place running rampant with autumn color. We definitely don’t have anything to compare with the fiery sugar maples of Vermont or the canary ginkgos of Oregon, but we get a lot of interesting pastels. Get up high, as in the top floor of an office building or landing at DFW Airport, and you might be surprised at how much color other than “brown and dead” we get that isn’t easily visible from the ground.

Every once in a while, though, the place will surprise you. Halloween 1993 came in with record subfreezing temperatures, so we learned how many of our indigenous trees change color if given the opportunity. Crape myrtles, for instance, shift to a brilliant Tyrolean purple when hit with a good stout freeze before the leaves fall for the season. In tough years, though, sometimes the beauty can stun you, especially if you get up before dawn to look at the area first thing in the morning.

Texas-style autumn color

This, by the way, was taken from right on the border of Garland (yes, the Garland, Texas mocked at the beginning of the movie Zombieland) and Richardson, right on the edge of one of Garland’s many parks. Between the autumn foliage and the occasional armadillo scampering toward the woods, it’s sometimes worth the effort to get up early.

Closeup of autumn color

Invitations to swim in strange waters

And now begins the hour that stretches at the Triffid Ranch. Between several conversion projects, a few possible commissions, and preparation for the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show on November 26, I’ll be working hard on earning my Ig Nobel Prize by inventing the 86-hour day. Those who know me might be amused to learn that I have to stay away from coffee, chocolate, and other stimulants, because they make me hyperactive. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear the hysterical laughter from here.)

In the meantime, I’m not going to say more about the whys, but I’m going to share the whos. If you aren’t already familiar with the blog Midnight in the Garden of Evil, let’s just say that I’ve found someone in southern California with as much of an appreciation for dark gardening as I do. Of particular note is that our author caught the traveling exhibition The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. Having caught this exhibition when it ran at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010, I can attest that it’ll either give nightmares or inspire whole new gardening scenarios.

Anyway, it may be time to gather dark gardening enthusiasts like “trickortreat” in one place and see what we come up with. Details will follow as they happen.