Monthly Archives: December 2011

Have A Great New Year’s Eve

The movie from which this comes, Get Crazy (1983), alternates between silly and point-blank dumb at times, but it’s still my baseline for New Year’s Eve live music events. I’ll also warn you all that I see no reason why garden shows can’t be this intense, too. You’ll see why if and when I can get the “Manchester United Flower Show” off the ground.

Have a Great Weekend

And now a summation of 2011:

Have a Great Weekend

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Radio silence over the last week, mostly due to having a surfeit of vacation time at the Day Job that needed to be burned off or lost. This meant that, like the protagonist in too many really downbeat novels, I had to face my deepest darkness. Instead of, say, traveling up the Mekong to stop Colonel Kurtz or prevent Tyler Durden from setting off the last bit of Project Mayhem, I went waaaaaaaay deeper. I cleaned out my office.

The basic aspect of sweeping clean the Augean Workspace was relatively painless compared to the sifting. I didn’t realize how many boxes I had that were full of correspondence from the late Eighties and early Nineties, check stubs from companies dead a full 15 years, and holiday cards from people who meant a lot to me half my life ago. That’s not counting newspaper cuttings on subjects that must have had some significance in 1992, but that were completely clue-free today. The local paper recycler loves me, and not just because I’d been dragging around boxes full of obsolete catalogs because “I’ll get around to sorting it one day.” That went double for my once-voluminous magazine collection: when the Czarina and I got married in 2002, I had a full 25 legal boxes full of archived magazines, not counting my separate archive of magazines for which I’ve written. Now, I’m down to two, and one of those is solely a collection of Bonsai Today back issues that are nearly impossible to replace.

Along that line, going through all of that correspondence from my writing days, I’ve made a resolution for 2012. I spent a good four years trying to warn writer and publisher friends about the inevitable implosion of Borders Books, and took nothing but grief for doing so. After about the eighth missive whining about how I was a really negative vibe merchant who was bringing down the entire world for suggesting that Borders employees should get out while they had the chance, I stopped responding “What: like your trousers?” Likewise, going through that two-decade-old mail made me realize that publishing itself, particularly science fiction publishing, hasn’t changed at all since then, other than the names of the big players. You have some new names, and a lot of older names that are now greyer and fatter than they were back then, and a few who became trivia questions about fifteen minutes after their funerals. Because of that, I’m just going to smile and nod concerning publishing in 2012, mostly so I can laugh and point at some of the bigger casualties after the fact. Me, vindictive? Naah. I promise that when I celebrate the demises of several smaller publishers based on their current output, I’ll keep the music down and only pull out the cheap champagne.

On brighter subjects, yesterday marked nine years of marital bliss between myself and the Czarina, and we were promptly informed by a good friend that this was our pottery anniversary. Considering that our day was spent poking through antique stores poring over old pots, planters, and Wardian cases, it fits. Discovering that our next anniversary is “tin” brought forth actual screams from the Czarina, by the way, as I’ve already mentioned that I’m planning to have a party to celebrate the occasion. Costumes for the waitstaff, perhaps?

Anyway, back to the linen mines. Four boxes of old papers remain, and I may actually be finished with cleaning, dusting, sorting, and pitching by next Monday. By Tuesday morning, it’ll be time to get back to gardening preparation, as 2012 is probably going to be as intense in that aspect as 2011. I hope not, but I’m trying to be realistic. In the meantime, get ready for another Joey Box contest: I just sent off Joey and Cheryl’s box for the year (nearly 20 kilos’ worth), and I have a lot of other items that just wait for new homes.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The biggest difference between the Czarina’s family and my family: Christmas dinner. My maternal grandfather, who loved to cook but didn’t like the time wasted on long trips, would have laughed himself sick over this. My paternal grandfather would have thought about this and said “You know, this could work.” The Czarina and her family, though, look at this and just collectively scream in horror. After ten Christmas dinners with me, you’d think they’d be hoarse by now.

Have a Great Weekend

Your choice: the official video on a really old VHS dub:

Or the single:

Either way, Bad News taught Spinal Tap everything they know.

“The holiday horror…the horror…”

For those who haven’t met Mary of Black Walnut Dispatch in your forays across botanical cyberspace, I regret that she isn’t my little sister. Anyone with as much of an appreciation for unmutilated crepe myrtles as she deserves an emergency adoption, and that goes double for discovering the world’s most Lovecraftian Osage orange tree.

Anyway, Mary recently posted her list of TOP TEN GARDENING GIFTS FROM HELL, and I can quibble about only one of these. I happen to be one of the few people on the planet who likes aerator sandals, but not for the stated reasons. Besides having some positive results with controlling June bug grubs, I keep my sandals as a promise to several editors and publishers from my entertainment media days. I swore a long time ago that if their faces caught fire, I’d only stomp out the flames with these sandals, after guaranteeing that the spikes were sufficiently rusty. Other than that, though, she’s right about everything else, particularly those horrible seed bomb bon-bons. Speaking as someone whose spouse and Day Job boss are dedicated chocovores, these are just cruel.

The funny thing about all of this is I’m not worried for about gifts for myself. After all, I’ve already let the Czarina know my very reasonable demands for gardening bliss, and I know she has alternatives if she can’t follow through. (She keeps mumbling in her sleep “A swift kick in the butt doesn’t even need to be wrapped,” and I suspect this is some arcane code for “Paul’s crocodile monitor is on its way”.) I just wonder, considering how insane everyone gets over outre gnome and zombie statuary, if an online catalog for gonzo gardening supplies and decorations isn’t in order. That and a couple of big shows for the horticulturally inclined: referring to it as the “Manchester United Flower Show”, so as to distinguish it from its competition, should work, shouldn’t it?

Plans for the new year

Time to change perspectives ever-so-slightly. I know that you’re currently caught in the horrible Mad Max/Dawn of the Dead mashup known as “the shopping season.” Most friends in the Northern Hemisphere already want to shiv me for mentioning that we Texans have only three more months to wait before we can plant tomatoes and peppers outside without fear of frost. Friends in the Southern Hemisphere are too busy screaming about the air they breathe bursting into flame to care. Either way, we need to talk about plans for next year.

I know, I know. It’s not even the winter solstice yet, and already that lunatic at the Triffid Ranch is talking about plans for 2012. Be thankful for this, kids, because I could do something really bloggy and pathetic, such as put up multiple pictures of my cats. Go ahead and ask “How many times did I knock up your little brother to make you do that?”, because you’ll be crying it before I’m done. If you’re really obnoxious, I’ll make you read through the archives first.

To start, January in Texas isn’t as mindnumbingly awful as it could be. We rarely get snow, and we even rarely go below freezing for most of the month. The one absolute of the month is that everything goes brown. Brown trees, brown grass, brown skies, brown note. Actually, things are so brown that you pray for a good sustained brown note, just to keep from boring yourself to death. Combine that with weekend entertainment options that usually circle Dallas Cowboys games…yeah, a lot of particularly earthy (and therefore brown to brownish) words get used to describe January out here.

That’s why you need a good dose of color. Thankfully for us all, that hits the weekend of January 27, when ZestFest 2012 starts up at the Irving Convention Center. When I first moved to North Texas in the tail-end of the Seventies, the only two tourist attractions in Irving were Texas Stadium and the Frito-Lay plant on the southeast side of the city, but That Changed with one of the largest conglomerations of spicy foods in the US. Prefer real flavor over heat? Not an issue. Want spicy combinations that shouldn’t exist on this planet? Yep. Enjoy the spectacle of grown adults eating items that peel the enamel off their teeth in big floppy strips? ZestFest is even better than the State Fair of Texas. The Triffid Ranch won’t have a booth out there, but we will be there to stock up, especially on DefCon Sauces‘s next atrocities.

Three weeks later, it’s time for the reptile and amphibian enthusiasts to have their fun. The North American Reptile Breeders Conference swings around to Arlington on the weekend of February 11, with its seemingly infinite range of animals, habitats, and food items. Again, the Triffid Ranch won’t have a presence this year (although that will probably change in 2013), but don’t use that as an excuse not to attend. The best part? This year’s show is just before Valentine’s Day, and considering how I do my best to treat the Czarina with orchids, maybe she might reciprocate with a true display of her love.

A week after this, the show season starts, and this year it’s starting with ConDFW XI in Dallas. The flytraps and Sarracenia should still be in proper winter dormancy for another month, so it’s time to focus on tropical pitcher plants, sundews, and triggerplants and arrangements containing same. This is a new show for the Czarina and myself, and another opportunity to prove that February isn’t anywhere near as brown as January.

Starting March 16, the theme is “End of the World”. You could see firsthand what happens when you give MBAs and coke spoons to chimpanzees, or you could hit up All-Con 2012. After all, it’s not a real end-of-the-world celebration without triffids, and All-Con should have a much lower quotient of fratboy vomit.

Finally, spring should be a celebration of renewal and rebirth. Ladybugs devouring aphids on rose bushes. Tomato hornworms infested with exoparasitic wasps, or dragged off and buried in underground warrens by other wasps. Robin and mockingbird hatchlings demonstrating their dinosaurian heritage. That’s why I’m passing on word now that the original 750 rooms for this year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend at DFW Airport are already booked, and the hotel just opened up another 750. Considering the crowd and the venue, is it bad form to state “We have such sights to show you,” or is that just an appropriate promise for those seeking exotic flora?

Finally, you’d think I’d learn after last spring’s fiasco, but the gardening writing bug implanted eggs in my viscera, and they’re currently trying to burrow out to pupate. I make no promises as to final outcome, but I’ve already volunteered my services at the new online magazine Carpe Nocturne. We shall see. Considering how badly I miss the long-dead goth magazine Carpe Noctem, I have hopes for additional bits of fun involving Texas Frightmare Weekend this year.

Disturbing parallels involving “The Blair Witch Project”

Back in the early Nineties, back during the beginnings of my science fiction essay writing days (which made about as much of an impression as Jeffrey Dahmer’s track record with managing vegan restaurants), I was a regular guest at a series of now-long-defunct Dallas-based comic conventions. While the main emphasis of the shows was on packing as many people into the dealer’s hall as possible, the promotion of these shows usually emphasized at least one child or cult actor from the Sixties, signing autographs and otherwise comporting themselves in interesting fashions. (I can, for instance, relate without shame that I was very nearly responsible for causing one such former child actor to jump out a 20th-story window in a Fort Worth hotel nearly 20 years ago. That story involved a friend’s phone prank, two of the scariest strippers in the Southwest, and an abandoned copy of the second issue of Evan Dorkin’s Milk & Cheese comic, and will only be related in person. During the book tour, and only after the publisher delivers the baby crocodile monitor that’s a deal-breaker for the contract in lieu of an advance.)

The organizer of said convention was, in some ways, savvier than any of us realized, as I realized when I asked him why the shows kept featuring Sixties-era TV actors as headliner guests instead of, I don’t know, inviting various literary science fiction stars. In fact, that was the argument I was giving him at the time. He just guffawed and told me that those actors were absolute gold for his shows. Nobody in the general public would give a flip about Gil Kane or Harlan Ellison as a guest star, but radio morning show hosts and “Weekend Guide” editors would go bonkers for the opportunity to relate “Hey, Bill Mumy of Lost In Space is going to be out at the show this weekend, so don’t miss out!” As much as it ground my jaws at the time, he was right, and a lot of attendees who’d sooner gnaw their own legs off than go to a comics convention raced out to the shows because of that connection.

And now the horticulture connection. Many of us GenXers may remember Heather Donahue, mostly for her starring role in the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project. Judging by a recent interview, I suspect that she’d appreciate a quote from former Butthole Surfers lead singer Gibby Haynes: “The worst thing in the world is to be famous with no money.” She apparently moved from acting into medical marijuana, and she’s currently on a tour to promote her upcoming book Growgirl: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot.

Reading the interview, I was struck by how much her life paralleled mine. In 1999, she was starring in The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, I was working for SCI Fi magazine, a publication that passed up on covering the original Blair Witch Project but made up for it with sycophantic coverage of Blair Witch 2. She dumped all of her acting memorabilia in the desert and moved into medical marijuana. I dumped all of my science fiction writing memorabilia on eBay and moved into carnivorous plants. She started taking medical marijuana to treat PMS. I was born just weeks before LSD became illegal in the US. She had concerns with writing about her experiences after a friend was busted by the Feds. I had concerns with writing about my experiences after confirming I had an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. She has fans in the millions, and will probably do very well with her book tour. I have fans in the dozens, and couldn’t give away my books with free beer. The similarities are just uncanny.

Have a Great Weekend

Introducing Araucaria heterophylla

Norfolk Island pine with dinosaurs

It shouldn’t be any surprise by now that I love oddball plants, and my favorite oddballs are the ones that hide in plain sight. Every Christmas season, garden centers and grocery stores are full of live trees for folks who don’t have the room for a full-sized Christmas tree, or who want a live tree to enjoy after the season, or who just want something different with a touch of green in an otherwise dreary winter. You can find actual fir saplings available for sale, or rosemary pots shaped to look like a tree. The best one, though, is sold as the “Norfolk Island Pine”. This bushy little tree, Araucaria heterophylla, isn’t just a great live tree that looks good throughout the year, and that does remarkably well indoors. It’s also the most accessible link to a group of plants that were the dominant trees for a fair portion of the reign of the dinosaurs.

Norfolk Island pine

A. heterophylla is a member of the Araucariaceae, a group of now widely separated species of conifer that include the kauris (including the giant kauris of New Zealand), the monkey puzzle tree of Argentina and New Caledonia, and the Wollemi pine of Australia. Although increasingly endangered on Norfolk Island itself, these trees acclimate well, and are now found throughout the world. In that sense, they’re only returning to their former range, as the Araucariaceae used to be the dominant tree form through most of the Southern Hemisphere back when the southern continents were jammed together as Gondwana. Norfolk Island pines have a rather prehistoric appearance, which isn’t surprising since the group has been hanging around for nearly 200 million years.

As such, A. heterophylla is probably the only araucarid most folks in Texas will ever see: monkey puzzle trees need cool temperatures and high humidity to grow (which is why they do rather well in Portland), and Wollemi pine distribution to the US stopped shortly after they started. The Norfolk Island pine isn’t exactly suited for outside life in North Texas, either, as it does best with humidity of at least 50 percent. Seedlings and saplings also don’t do well with North Texas-level summer sun, although they thrive when given a good dose of morning sun and good indirect light for the rest of the day. The biggest issue with raising them involves moisture, because seedlings and saplings have a very particular Goldilocks zone of soil moisture. As most gardeners already know, the symptoms of too much water and too little are almost identical, and a tree in a completely dried-out soil mix is indistinguishable from one with terminal root rot from sitting in mud. Norfolk Island pines tend to do well in a very well-draining mix, but also one that stays moist. After the tree is at least a meter tall, that’s much less of a concern. (If a few branches go dull and dry out, this isn’t as much of a concern. If all of the tree goes dull green and brown, though, it very rarely recovers.)

Oh, and that’s another bit of fun concerning the species. Several araucarids qualify as some of the largest trees on the planet today, including the magnificent Tane Mahuta kauri of New Zealand. Norfolk Island pines don’t get quite that big, but given the right conditions, they can reach heights of 200 feet (60.96 meters). As stated before, they won’t reach those heights in North Texas, but they have no problems with reaching sizes too large for a windowsill if regularly fertilized. Kept under lower-light conditions and fertilized twice per year, though, they get wonderfully bushy, adding to the prehistoric effect.

And that’s where I’m going with this. Considering the amount of interest in prehistoric miniature gardens, you can’t get much more authentic than A. heterophylla for Jurassic and Cretaceous-themed miniature gardens. Keep them under the same light, heat, and humidity as most ferns, and you have a very resilient and attractive addition to the floral palette. Even in a standard pot, A. heterophylla is a preferable option to firs and other conifers for indoor plants. And if you live in a place where one would do well outdoors…don’t tell me about it, unless you want to hear the sound of my teeth grinding in impotent jealousy.

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead

Thursday, December 15. You could watch the annual recreation of the end of Dawn of the Dead at the local malls, or you could go out to the latest Beer & Bones event at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park. Cash bar, snacks, interesting company, and sharks.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In the incessant kvetching about Dallas weather, I should bring up that we have a phrase for it: “If you don’t like it, hang around for ten minutes and it’ll change.” Last week? Subfreezing temperatures. This week? Rain and highs more suitable for Miami. I don’t recommend North Texas for anyone with respiratory issues such as a proclivity toward pneumonia, because if the pollen doesn’t kill you, the wild fluctuations in ambient temperatures will shiv you in the bathtub and watch you die.

That’s what hit Friday morning: sore throat, voice like a five-pack-a-day cigar smoker, and just enough of a fever to bring on some particularly interesting auditory hallucinations. Either that, or the cats really did learn how to talk. All I can say for sure is that I woke up late on Friday afternoon, fever burned out, and I did what any sane person would do. I started to clean the house.

Before I start into the details, consider the warring factions in my psyche that I inherited from both sides of my family. As mentioned previously, my father’s Scot heritage generally manifests itself as a thriftiness and frugality that comes dangerously close to packrat tendencies. Oh, who am I kidding? My sister constantly and bitterly complains about the two-seat hovercraft my dad bought at a police auction in the Nineties, and I refuse to get involved, partly because it’s none of my business and partly because I would have done the same thing. My mother, though, manifests her Irish/German/Cherokee heritage through control of her surroundings that pushes minimalism. The worst fight I ever saw them get into involved her donating his high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill, only some quarter-century later. What this means is that all of their kids collect…and collate…and make plans only to get delayed…and then BOOM!

(I’d like to note for the record that if I thought there was a market for it, I’d market a proposal for a comic book miniseries involving a nice Dunwich boy who married a nice Innsmouth girl, and the exploits of their adult children. It would be a combination of horror and comedy, and completely autobiographical.)

Anyway, one of the sore points in the house as of late was the office. When we moved in the spring of 2010, we were already horribly behind on getting ready for the move for various reasons, and I horribly underestimated exactly how many books I had in the library. Ever get that sick feeling when starting what should be a ten-minute chore that stretches into hours and days? By the end of May, that was my basic state of being. Get up, go to the Day Job, go home, pack, haul another truckload over to the new house, go to sleep, get up another four hours later…and all of this on top of getting ready for our big show of the year. After a while, you stop worrying about deciding where everything is supposed to go, and you focus on just getting it into boxes. Those then go into a back corner of a room somewhere until you can deal with them, which you never do because you’re too busy dealing with everything else that needs to be done during a normal workweek and weekend. I’d plan vacation time after Christmas to dig into it, and the Czarina would have her post-Christmas meltdown and decree that we were leaving town for our anniversary. Combine that with our mutual book addictions and the number of friends and bystanders who’d send odd plant- or dinosaur-related items that would go atop the pile, and it’s no surprise that witnesses would ask “Are you SURE that Hunter S. Thompson is dead? It looks like he’s been camping out here for the last month.”

"The back-alley ambiance was so foul, so incredibly rotten."

That last comment particularly hurts when your 11-year-old niece says it. Just saying.

I’d already planned to take the week after Christmas off and do nothing but focus on the mess. This included threatening the Czarina that if we went anywhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I’d tell the investigating detective “I didn’t defenestrate her, sir. I just threw her out a window.” Well, that’s what I told myself: one view of her rapier-sharp elbows and the word “please” was used quite often, and not just as part of the phrase “please don’t kill me”. However, something about reaching the terminal stage of Dutch Elm Blight made my mother’s heritage grab my father’s in a rather rude place and scream “Shove off,” and I started pulling stacked books off the shelves and alphabetizing them where they belonged. And filling boxes full of obsolte gardening catalogs for recycling. And tearing through an already-impressive magazine collection and deciding what I’d keep and what was going to Half Price Books.

One of the nice things about having a very comfortable relationship with the Czarina is that I can drop all sorts of worrisome comments and she doesn’t kill me where I stand. For instance, last week, I finally admitted to her that after book tour events in 2009 and 2010, I slept with a fan immediately afterwards, and she beat me to saying “And you were already married to her, weren’t you?” This way, when she came home on Friday evening and the first words out of my mouth were “It’s not what it looks like,” she just blinked at the piles of boxes and magazines and blinked instead of preparing to show me my own gall bladder. Then she looked at the office and screamed. Even better, it was a good scream.

And so it continues. The gardening magazine sale at Half Price brought in enough money that I could get her another Christmas present. I’ve cracked open and discarded boxes that I’ve been dragging around, still sealed in packing tape, since 1996. I now understand why so many dedicated bibliophiles now have PDAs or smartphone apps that track all of their books, because I discovered a good two dozen that I’d repurchased at least once because I couldn’t remember if I already had it. (These will be up for an upcoming Joey Box giveaway after the holidays. I promise.) The Czarina dances through the house, giggling about how she expected to find me dead in a crapalanche by now, and I just tell her that with the change in my pockets, I’m still worth more dead than alive. Best of all, remember my mentioning the odd dinosaur-related stuff received from friends and cohorts? We found a home for one of the biggest pieces.

First, a bit of preamble. The Czarina and I have been friends of Mel Hynes, the writer of the classic Webcomic Two Lumps, for nearly a decade, and Mel has a habit of surprising friends with really odd acquisitions that she finds via eBay. One day, she called and asked us to meet her at her apartment, because she’d found “the absolute perfect Christmas present for Paul.” I loved it, but the Czarina just looked sick and asked Mel “And what did I do to you?”

Part of the Czarina’s concern was that we really didn’t have a place to display it. It couldn’t go over the mantelpiece because of a beautiful glass display given to her by a mutual friend, and she was insistent that it didn’t need to go up in the living room. It then sat in my old office for the next five years, and it went into the back closet of the new office when we moved in. The Czarina kept making noises about putting it in the garage, but that required risking massive catastrophic crapalanches to get to it. Now, with the extensive bulldozing and palaeoarchaeological expedition going on, one path leading to bedrock gave me strength, and it came out. And when you see where it went, blame the Czarina for it.

Damocles the Nanotyrannus

Yes, this is a life-sized Nanotyrannus bust. Yes, this is in my bathroom. Directly over the toilet, in fact. I call him “Damocles”. This is a friendly warning: if I could do this much with a bout of Dutch Elm Blight, you’d best pray I never get smallpox.

Have a Great Weekend

Thursday is Resource Day: Making Jack Skellington Proud

Dallas still hasn’t seen any snow, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, Christmas for Dallas, which us also known as “July in Calgary”. The nights are frosty, the mornings chilly, and the evenings ridiculously clear and bright. And we know what this means, right? It means we have only 327 more days until Halloween. More importantly, we have 328 days until everyone’s literally giving away pumpkins.

Go ahead and laugh, but those of us who can’t drink and can’t smoke need new methods to survive the holiday season and the dark days of January and February. Sure, I could go for established techniques learned in my childhood, such as indoor gardening, fishkeeping, or impromptu games of Russian roulette with friends. Instead, I wait until the local charity pumpkin patches need to get rid of their excess pumpkins on All Saint’s Day, and I then spend the next week preparing pumpkin seeds. Yes, it’s boring and sedate, but it also means that I’m up to my armpits in roasted pumpkin seeds, and THAT’s what gets me through Christmas.

The basic idea of pumpkin seed roasting is pulling the seeds out of a freshly opened jack-o-lantern, washing them, and roasting them in an oven or grille until they’re slightly crunchy. No big deal, and any number of people do it every Halloween. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of seeds per pumpkin means that it’s not really practical to experiment with roasting or with flavorings. For that, you’ll need a lot of pumpkin seeds. Since you need approximately five pumpkins for a liter of seeds, you’ll need a lot of pumpkins.

This is also problematic in North Texas, just because of our heat and dryness. All plants have pores, or stomata, on the tops of their leaves to allow transpiration of water. Some of this water is excess produced during photosynthesis, but most is drawn up through the plant’s roots to allow movement of water and nutrients to the leaves. Pumpkins are particularly interesting in that they have stomata on both sides of their leaves, thus doubling their transpiration output. This is great in areas with high humidity and slightly cooler temperatures, but most attempts in Dallas to grow pumpkins fail for one good reason: the plant ends up losing more water from transpiration than it can draw through its roots, and it ultimately wilts and dies. The only year I’ve had a traditional jack-o-lantern survive the summer was during the unnaturally wet 2007 summer, and I even lost that one to termites. (Yes, termites. Very long story.)

Since trying to grow them outdoors is impossible, starting the process requires getting a good collection of pumpkins from other sources. Many fundraiser “pumpkin patch” stands pop up around the beginning of October, so make friends with a few and see what they’re going to do with their pumpkins. If the fundraiser is for a charity you appreciate or support, offer a donation in exchange for going through their excess. If they say “Oh, go ahead and help yourself,” offer a donation anyway, and they’ll remember you as the person who helped clear out their unwanted pumpkins. Sometimes this pays off.

Pecos Fresh label

In my case, this wasn’t going to happen, particularly because of the collapse of the jack-o-lantern crop in the Northeast US due to Hurricane Irene’s flooding. However, my local Kroger store had a surplus from the Rio Grande Valley, and a week after Halloween, the manager had marked them down to “10 for $10”. $40 and some very strange looks from the Kroger checkers later, I had a car full of pumpkins. Ten minutes after that, I had a back yard full of pumpkins.

Handy tip #1: make sure that you have a vehicle capable of hauling your bounty, and without the bounty pile shifting and pummelling your head while attempting to drive back home. I stopped at 40 pumpkins this time, mostly so the coroner’s report didn’t read “assaulted by squash after a sudden stop,” but were I to have a big enough collection, renting a truck is an option.

Raw pumpkins

Now, once you have your pumpkins out of their transport and in a good massacree area, you’ll need proper tools for suitable processing. These should include:
Tools for dispatching pumpkins

  • A tub or bucket suitably large for holding seeds and water (you’ll see why later)
  • A sharpened machete or other long blade
  • Salt in standard packages: one kilo for every 30 pumpkins
  • A pair of cotton or gardener’s gloves
  • A pair of atex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves
  • 2 Baking sheets (preferably ones that won’t be missed if stained or damaged)
  • Your choice of spices

If you’re working on a porch or other blacktop or concrete area, get a stump or log section to use for chopping pumpkins. Since you’re going to be working for a while, I also recommend having some sort of music player with something a bit violent to keep up your spirits. In my case, considering my skin and hair coloration, my choice for pumpkin massacre was Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword.

To start out, take into consideration that pumpkin juice is extremely acidic. It’s not actually caustic, but it’s sufficiently acidic that it will burn the skin along your fingernails, and you absolutely do not want this in any open cuts or scabs. Should this be of concern, put on the gardener’s gloves, pull out the machete, put a pumpkin on a good cutting area, and give it one good thwack. If your neighbors are already used to your shenanigans, feel free to let loose with a good battle yell, such as the one used by my doctor during my vasectomy: “Hasan…CHOP!” (My neighbors are plenty interesting, but even they weren’t going to handle my screaming “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” while dispatching squash on a Saturday afternoon. They were freaked out enough by pumpkin chips and pulp flying over the fence like a failed special effect in a GWAR concert.)

Cutting pumpkins

As tempting as it may be to try exotic swordsmanship, just go for a straight slice across the widest part of the pumpkin. If you slice through all the way, great. If it only goes most of the way, apply some pressure to finish the job, and split it in half. Set aside the halves and get to work on the next one: it’s actually easier to get them all prepped before starting on the next step than to clean them one at a time.

Pumpkin halves

Once the chopping is done, and the back yard looks as if the soldiers of Kelmain will fight no more, wash the machete and dry the blade (especially if the blade is carbon steel, as the pumpkin juice will stain and pit the blade) and put on your rubber gloves. With a raking motion, scrape the seeds from the stringy pulp on the inside of each pumpkin half, and dump the seeds into your tub or bucket. Don’t worry about getting every last seed, mostly because you’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy to get that one last straggler, but make some effort to get the vast majority. When you’re done, feel free to cook up the pumpkin halves, as apparently they make quite a good soup when roasted, skinned, and mashed before dumped into a crockpot. That’s the Czarina’s territory, as I honestly can’t stand squash of any sort. If your tastes run toward mine, then feel free to use them as mulch in your garden, laying them down and then putting a good thick layer of compost or leaves atop them so they’ll decompose quickly.

Handy tip #2: If you’re inclined to getting boisterous with your pumpkins, consider some sort of eye protection to go with the gloves. If you don’t want to get the juice on your cuticles, you definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes.

Collected seeds

Once the pumpkin halves are cleaned up and the machete is put up for the season, you should have a fairly large collection of seeds in your tub. As a general rule, you should have a liter of seeds for every five to ten pumpkins, so carefully move the tub to a new and more permanent location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, but it should have some protection from the weather. Whatever you do, lift with your knees and not your back, because you don’t want the indignity of blowing out a vertebral disc and landing facefirst into a pile of spilled pumpkin seeds. You don’t want your final moments to be recreated by my little brother on 1000 Ways To Die, do you?

Making brine

Next, get the salt, and generously dump it into the tub with the seeds. Go nuts. Go mad. Make it strong enough that rampaging porcupines will come to your house and gnaw down the fence to get at the salt. (We don’t have that problem out here, but the armadillos are almost that obnoxious over spilled beer.) Dump in at least a kilo, and then cover the seeds with water and stir up well.

Soaking seeds

At this point, as tempting as it would be to go to work on roasting, don’t. Let the seeds sit in your newly made brine for at least 24 hours. This will remove any remaining pumpkin slime and juice, as well as facilitate the removal of any extra pulp. Think you got out all of the pulp when you were scraping out seeds in the yard? Oh, you’ll discover that pumpkin pulp can teleport, and in disturbing quantities.

Strained slop

Handy tip #3: Use a slotted spoon to stir your brined seeds, and stir early and often. You’ll be amazed and horrified at how much pulp builds up after a casual stirring, and every gram you get now is one less gram you’ll have to pull out of your roasting sheets.

Draining seeds

After the seeds finish their brine soak, scoop out a few liters, dump the mass into a colander, and rinse well. I mean it: rinse well. Let them drain for a while: while doing so, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and get out the baking sheets.

Baking sheet

Handy tip #4: Unless you thrive on domestic discord, and your Significant Other or roommate really doesn’t care what you do to the cookie sheets, get a pair specifically for pumpkin seed roasting and use the pair ONLY for that purpose. They WILL stain, and the shrieks from cooking enthusiasts as to the piebald condition of their sheets are matched only by their efforts to brain you with the blender. Keep an eye open for sales at grocery stores during baking season, and they’ll thank you for the thought.

Sheet seeds

Next, dump the seeds from the colander to the cookie sheet. They don’t have to be exactly one layer thick: sometimes a thicker layer roasts better, especially on particularly dry days.

Spices

Purists at this point can move directly to putting their seeds in the oven, but a judicious application of spice can make all of the difference. The personal favorites among family and friends are Memphis-style dry rib rub (in this case, generously supplied by Red Hot & Blue, but Defcon Sauces’s Smoky Dust also gives a subtle fire to roasted seeds. Either way, the good thing about having a large quantity of seeds is that this gives room to experiment with spices and roasting time, so try new items one batch at a time.

Once the spices are on, stir up the seeds on the cookie sheet, trying to get the majority of the seed mass covered in spice. (This, by the way, is why you want sheets solely for seed roasting. The seeds won’t stain the sheets, but the spices will.) Once that’s done, put the sheet in the oven and leave at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. While that’s going, set up another sheet and set it aside.

When that time is up, pull that sheet out of the oven and stir it again. You’ll note that the seeds are still wet toward the bottom of the sheet, and the stirring is to drive off the excess moisture. You’ll probably also note that the oven vents are gouting steam at this point. Don’t sweat it, and use it as an excuse to raise the humidity in the house. If the house is already too soggy, turn on a vent fan and blast it out: it’s your choice.

Now here’s the critical part. Put that sheet back into the oven and set a timer for seven minutes. You’ll actually need ten minutes, but the timer warning is so you watch those seeds. One minute too little, and the seeds will have all of the flavor and digestibility of cattle feed. One minute too long, and every smoke detector in the vicinity will go off, and you don’t want any hot spices to get into the smoke unless you really like burning from the inside. Keep an eye on them, and pull them out at 10 minutes or when the seeds go a nice golden brown but before they start to smoke.

Roasted seeds

Once they’re ready, pull out the cookie sheet, set the sheet aside to cool, and put in the next batch. Right about the time you’ll need to stir the second sheet, the first sheet should be cool enough to store. The absolute best option is to store the roasted seeds in an airtight container such as a Rubbermaid bowl or a ZipLoc bag, where they’ll keep for up to three months. If you want to keep them longer than that, the containers can be put into the freezer and removed at your discretion.

One warning, a lesson I learned back in 2005 when I cut up about 120 pumpkins and processed about 100 liters of seeds. Do not expect these to last for very long. Between regular snackings to fend off seasonal depression and friends and family snagging bags for their own uses, those 100 liters lasted about three months. Make a point of scoping out more pumpkin sources next year, and they might last longer for you than they do for me. They might.

The Drooling Sundew

Contrary to the opinion of random passersby who want to come by at all hours “to look at the plants,” the Triffid Ranch isn’t a full-time operation. Oh, it’s a full-time operation, but it’s not the only jobs we hold. Especially during the winter, when all of the temperate carnivores are dormant and the tropical carnivores are resting, having a standard day job like everyone else is a necessity. Among other things, the day job provides health insurance, a steady background income, and a surplus of scintillant conversation from my co-workers. And no, I’m not exaggerating, because I work with a crew of truly unique talents, and we literally have no idea how much our mutual experiences can benefit the other. Ask the engineers circling the coffee machine about their weekends, and the responses sound more like plotlines to a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Anyway, compared to the professional musicians, semi-pro glassworkers, and enthusiastic amateur knifesmiths on board, my passion for carnivorous plants marks me as one of the Quiet Ones, and not the oddball in the back corner of the office who isn’t trying to drink himself to death every night. (And yes, I’ve worked in that sort of office. Remind me to tell you about my days working at Sprint one time.) Every once in a great while, though, I can fend for myself, and sometimes even bring something to the lunch discussions that leads to a good bout of Head Explodey.

By way of example, I recently brought a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to its current space in my cubicle, mostly because it was a needed touch of green next to a window full of brown. No, let’s be honest: BROWN. Even before the current freezing nights hit, everything was a uniform blasted tan out the office window from the drought, and it was about as pathetic and depressing as a Firefly marathon on SyFy. Indoors, under a good stout 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in a desk lamp, that sundew promptly perked up and started throwing off new leaves, and I fully expect for it to demand full rights from the UN by spring.

That little sprig of green got more than a few questions from co-workers and project managers, and the first question was “When are you going to feed it?” Since I knew that they’d be less than thrilled by my bringing in a tube of wingless fruit flies, I decided to demonstrate the one commonality between carnivorous plant and human: an appreciation for chocolate.

In his classic volume Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin understandably went a little crazy in his enthusiasm over Drosera of all sorts. This book details most of his experiments in understanding sundew mechanics and responses, and he discovered that sundews respond to two different stimuli in different ways. Firstly, the long sticky hairs (officially called “tentacles”) were sensory hairs in that they picked up the movement of prey caught in their glue, and consistent movement of one tentacle caused others in its vicinity to converge on the area, further trapping that prey. Secondly, specialized glands at the tip of each tentacle could ascertain the relative nitrogen content of the item trapped. If the stimulus was something relatively non-nitrogenous, such as a grass stem rubbing against the sundew’s leaf, the tentacles might respond, but the plant wouldn’t try to digest the intrusion. If the stimulus was high in available nitrogen but unmoving, such as a dead bug landing on the leaf, the tentacles wouldn’t respond right away, but they’d ultimately detect the morsel and move to claim it. And chocolate? It’s sufficiently nitrogenous that a sundew might mistake small pieces for gnats or other tiny insects, but without rotting or growing mold while digestion took place.

One of the reasons why D. capensis is perfect for this demonstration is that it’s one sundew that’s singularly enthusiastic in its feeding response. It doesn’t close on prey as quickly as some Drosera species, but its entire trapping surface wraps around prey, sometimes completely surrounding it. Even better, D. capensis‘s output of digestive enzymes is not just visible to the naked eye, but it’s voluminous. Put a mosquito on a Cape sundew leaf, and you get more puddling drool than a doorbell in the Pavlov house.

Anyway, since one of my favorite co-workers asked to see sundew trapping behavior, I pulled some leftover dark chocolate Halloween candy from the department stash (since it’s in a Halloween cardboard display, it’s referred to as “the candy coffin”), scraped off some crumbs, and sprinkled them on the sundew’s leaves. She was a bit disappointed by the immediate response, as she expected something more energetic. “Patience,” I said, “you have to give it some time. If that chocolate was moving, we’d see much faster movement, but it’s still not something you can see in a few seconds.” We left it alone and continued through the day, checking back every once in a while to verify the chocolate’s status.

This morning, my friend came in shortly after I did, and immediately visited the sundew. That’s when she viewed this.

Drooling Cape sundew (Drosera capensis)

Another reason why Cape sundews are great subjects to demonstrate active trapping behavior is that they’re extremely active compared to many other good beginner’s sundews. Note the several folded leaves, where the trapping surface actually folded in half to surround the chocolate. Even better, notice the one on the right that’s curled like a fern fiddleback? That one caught a chocolate crumb near its tip, and the shine down the leaf is digestive fluid. Yes, like most people, Cape sundews drool like fiends when given chocolate.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: I do NOT advocate feeding Cape sundews chocolate on a regular basis, and I definitely don’t recommend it at all for most sundew species. Don’t even think of doing it for most other carnivores. More importantly, as with people, the best results with sundews come from reasonably fresh dark chocolate, so spare the poor plant that dried-up Hershey’s bar that’s been in your desk since 1998. Absolutely importantly, keep the feeding to crumbs: your plant and your co-workers will hate you if you drop a whole Godiva’s truffle in the sundew’s container. As for everything else, anyone have any high school-age kids who want a science fair experiment on sundew sensitivity to different varieties and brands of chocolate?

Carnivorous plant news

Winter, such as it is for Texas, finally hit this week. The weekend already featured a full five inches of rain at the Triffid Ranch on Saturday and Sunday, and you’d barely realize it two days later. Yes, we were THAT dry out here. Give us a full foot between now and New Year’s Eve, and we might actually get through 2012 without bursting into flame.

And yes, everyone can remind me of how Dallas winters are nothing compared to Boston or Milwaukee or Calgary winters. I was born in Michigan, so this knowledge is burned into my DNA. I remember coming to school in first grade and looking over the snowdrift that covered one whole wing of my elementary school. I remember regular blackouts lasting for days because of ice storms. Don’t laugh at me about our pathetic and weak “snowstorms”, and I won’t bring up how the main entertainment in Appleton, Wisconsin through January and February involves carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen oxygen and nitrogen on the back porch. Deal?

In the meantime, since there’s not much to report in the way of plant developments outside, let’s look at other news. For instance, the December 2011 issue of the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived last night, complete with photos of Jay Lechtman’s new Sarracenia cultivars. Odd artists get the nod this time, by way of the new cultivars “Seurat” and “Gorey“. Between these, the Lovecraftian Utricularia cultivars, and the Nepenthes cultivars “Bill Bailey” and “Dame Helen Mirren,” I think we’ve finally hit the point in the carnivorous plant trade where people are buying cultivars solely because of the interesting names.

And speaking of the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, the lovely and talented Emily Troiano of the New England Carnivorous Plant Society, the hosts of the 2012 International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference, announced in the newest Newsletter that registration for next year’s conference will start on January 1. In addition, those who register before April 15 get an additional $50 discount on their memberships. The Czarina is still thinking long and hard about whether she wants to be in New England in August (she’s terrified of that frozen oxygen lawn furniture, you see), but otherwise expect at least some Triffid Ranch presence out there, complete with video. All I need is a spare 300-pound Samoan attorney, and I’m already ready to go.

Finally, everyone at the Triffid Ranch expresses regret on the news that John A.A. Thompson, Ph.D died last month, just days after his 100th birthday. Dr. Thompson, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, was the inventor of gardening supplement SUPERThrive, and the advertising copy on every bottle made Dr. Thompson the Dr. Bronner of horticulture. Standing in the checkout aisle at Home Depot definitely wouldn’t be the same without those insane testimonial cards on the SUPERThrive bottles on the endcaps.

Dream of the Blue Orchids

After hearing for months about the new Blue Mystique Phalaenopsis orchids and the outrage over the lack of permanence of said color, I’ll finally say it. Talk about a tempest in a shot glass.

Blue Mystique orchids

As most of the kvetching and moaning discusses, these aren’t marvels of breeding or gene manipulation, comparable to the black orchid or the elusive blue daylily. Instead, the Blue Mystique is a standard white Phalaenopsis orchid treated with a “special process” that leaves its blooms stained blue. This process only stains existing flowers and buds, so when that phal blooms next year, the blooms will be a standard white. Other than that, according to the promotional literature, this treatment doesn’t affect the plant itself in any way.

More Blue Mystique orchids

Personally, I don’t see the inherent issue with the “Blue Mystique” orchids. I guess some people are so obsessed with blue flora that they have no problems with blooms that look like they belong in the Ty-D-Bowl Man‘s girlfriend’s wedding corsage. At the same time, white phal orchids are about as good a beginner orchid as you can find. But are you willing to pay that much extra for a beginner orchid with a major selling point that’s temporary?

And now for something truly different

And now for something a bit intriguing. In the middle of November, the Czarina and I took our niece Emily to the annual Dallas Gem & Mineral Society Gem, Mineral, Fossil, Bead & Jewelry Show (*gasp for breath*) for a quick recce. The Czarina is always looking for new stones and beads for her jewelry, and I was looking for intriguing rock and slag glass samples for saikei arrangements. The big surprise wasn’t just in glass, but what kind of glass we found.

Uranium glass slab

Ray Thorpe of the Horseshoe Bend Knappers comes out to the Gem & Mineral Show as often as he can, and he regularly demonstrates his skills at knapping flint, obsidian, and slag glass for very appreciative audiences. Ray also sells slabs of knapping stone, and I was already drooling over some of the chunks of obsidian and chert that he had available. Out in front, though, were these slabs of custardy glass that really weren’t all that impressive, until a fellow dealer came over with a high-power UV LED flashlight intended for phosphorescent mineral hunting and ran it over a slab.

Most people are unfamiliar these days with uranium glass, but uranium used to be used as an additive to glasses to produce particularly vibrant colors. The main side effect is that both clear or “vaseline” and opaque or “custard” uranium glasses fluoresce under UV light. I’ve been collecting vaseline glass since I was in high school (the Czarina even found a beautiful vaseline glass juicer that she gave me for my birthday a few years back), but I’d never once seen any uranium slag glass. Ray got his from a collector in West Virginia who took advantage of the dumped slag from a long-defunct uranium glassworks, cut it into slabs, and used the more uniform slabs for knapping. (And boy howdy, you need to see knife blades and arrowheads made from uranium glass to believe them.) The rest he sold, and I promptly bought out his current stock for experimentation.

Now here’s where things get even more interesting. My day job is in a venue with some VERY interesting characters, and one of my co-workers is a former nuclear reactor tech from the US Navy. He still dabbles with various related projects, such as Geiger counters the size of keychain fobs (since the tube is so small, it’s not incredibly sensitive, but it can detect beta and gamma particle sources), so he dragged in his professional Geiger counter to see exactly how much radiation these slabs were emitting. It turned out that custard uranium glass is a slight alpha particle emitter, meaning that its only danger would come from ingesting or inhaling fragments (one reason why I don’t plan to use that vaseline glass juicer any time soon), but its radiation emissions were otherwise negligible. Another one of my co-workers is a glassworker in his spare time, so he naturally asked “Do you have a piece to spare?”

Several years back, the Czarina started lampwork training in order to make her own glass beads, and as with flintknapping, I picked up just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One of the things I learned was that different glass compositions have differing expansion and contraction rates when heated and cooled, and mixing incompatible glasses means that the final product cracks or shatters when it cools to room temperature. Mike was very familiar with these incompatibilities, and initial tests suggested that he had glass that could be miscible with the custard glass slabs. A final test to incorporate it into a paperweight, though…not so much.

Custard uranium glass paperweight

As can be told by the extensive cracks, that custard glass wasn’t quite compatible. However, Mike plans to use another piece and convert it into frit, and try again. In the meantime, this paperweight could theoretically come apart at any time, and I have plans for the fragments as part of a moonlight garden project when it does. And the rest of the custard glass? Keep an eye open at the Czarina’s next show, because she has some ideas for club-friendly pendants.

And this makes it all worthwhile

A surprise arrival in the mail from the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park:

Card from the Museum of Nature & Science

Well, this was surprising, but the interior was even more so:

The inside of that card

The photo on the right was from last month’s Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters show, and apparently I was too busy gesticulating (or, as my friend Joey Shea puts it, “practicing sign language for the blind”) to note that those folks who can’t read the note on the inside, a transcript:

Paul,
Thank you so much for sharing the world of carnivorous plants with our visitors during Discover Reptiles and Other Critters. It was fun to bring a fresh new spin to the event and incorporate not just misunderstood animals, but misunderstood plants as well. Your enthusiasm is contagious and I look forward to working with you in the future!

Best Regards,
Stacey Bucklin
Family & Adult Programs Manager

It’s no secret that 2011 has been a rough year. This one letter, though, made all of that pain worthwhile. Considering that the last time I had this much fun in the Museum, the Czarina and I were getting married in it, just wait until next year. Until then, I think that, in time for the Beer & Bones event at the Museum week after next, I’m going to have to bring cookies for everyone working there. It’s only fair.