Monthly Archives: January 2012

Have a great weekend

Yeah, this one hurts with every laugh, all right:

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

A quick note due to various obligations, but let’s just say that the next few weeks promise a reprieve from winter blues if you live in the Dallas area. And if you don’t, what’s stopping you from moving in?

Anyway, the first item of business involves livening up the winter diet, and there’s no better way than with items spicy enough to peel the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips. This is why we have ZestFest at the Irving Convention Center this weekend. Aside from haranguing the crew at Defcon Sauces for Habby Horse sauce in 55-gallon drums (it just doesn’t last long enough in my house in any smaller container), it’s time to see what new plants and new condiments are due from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. Anybody who’d develop the “NuMex Halloween” deserves some additional consideration.

Secondly, the first Triffid Ranch show of the season is scheduled for ConDFW on the weekend of February 17 through the 19th, so of course a show of equal interest runs at the same time. Namely, the big ReptiCon Dallas reptile and amphibian show in Ennis. The only thing I can say is that while ReptiCon Dallas promises venomous reptiles on display, ConDFW has the works of famed palaeoartist William Stout on display. The only wise option, of course, is to come out to both. (We have the same conflict between a show at All-Con the weekend of March 16 and the big Fort Worth Orchid Society sale at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens, so this is par for the course.)

Thirdly, I don’t have any particular details until after 4:00 Central Standard Time on January 26, but I should soon enough for a new event at the Dallas Arboretum. Just don’t let the Czarina know, unless you like hearing her squeal like a little girl. I imagine a lot of other people will do so as well, once they hear the news.

And lastly, it features a new hotel, with much easier access to DFW Airport. A new lineup of guests. A HUGE new dealer’s room. If you don’t get your tickets to Texas Frightmare Weekend, you’re going to miss out, and not just on new Triffid Ranch specials. Carnivorous plants and horror conventions go together like vanilla orchids and cacao, and I just might have a few examples of both this year. Get your hotel space now, or forever hold your peace.

Review: Vanilla Orchids by Ken Cameron

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron
ISBN-10: 0881929891
ISBN-13: 9780881929898
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2011
Pages: 212
Language: English

Many writers have particular phrases or literary misuses that drive them insane. Using the word “penultimate” to mean “even bigger than ultimate,” for instance, or the word “hater” used for any commentary on a person or subject that’s anything but utterly sycophantic. I have two. The most obvious, considering my background, is the description of any old, obsolete, or hidebound person or concept as a “dinosaur”. It’s not because I’m one of those humorless pedants who nerks “Well, you know, dinosaurs were dominant lifeforms on this planet for 130 million years,” but because it’s simplistic. Sadly, my suggestions on expanding our vocabularies by comparing anachronisms to arsinoitheres, anomalocarids, or arthrodires go over about as well as my recipes for venison sorbet.

The other? Describing any bland, blah, boring, or blase item as “vanilla”. Vanilla: the one flavor in Neopolitan ice cream packages that’s left for last, because it’s supposed to be “plain”. Artificial vanilla extract in cupcakes and bad supermarket bakery cookies. Nilla Wafers. George Romero’s second movie. All of which are revealed as blatant lies the moment you smell a properly cured vanilla bean for the first time and realize exactly how subtle yet complex real vanilla can be.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the difference between vanilla and vanillin. Vanillin, while one of the main aromatic components in vanilla extract, is actually a compound found in many plants. To give an example of how common vanillin is, you may or may not remember the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry given to Mayu Yamamoto for his method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. Vanillin production is also a first-year organic chemistry stunt, thus inadvertently contributing to the stigma against vanilla proper.

It’s bad enough that vanilla as a flavoring is now downplayed as mundane and wallflowerish. We forget how this spice became one of the most valuable and important spices on the planet. Never mind that chocolate as we know it today would be far too bitter without the proper and precise application of vanilla. Walk through any perfume counter in any department store after smelling a well-cured vanilla bean and note how most of the world’s most popular and successful perfumes depend upon vanilla’s long-lasting notes. The real stuff pops, but we’re so overwhelmed with cheap imitations that we barely notice unless we take the time.

And then there’s the orchid that produces this miracle. All commercial vanilla production comes from one species (Vanilla planiflora) and one natural hybrid (Vanilla x. tahitiensis). With the exception of salep, vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid food product, and about all that’s shared is a vague picture of an orchid on “French Vanilla” ice cream and the like. Most people are in shock when they discover that vanilla comes from an orchid, and even orchid enthusiasts have rarely seen members of the genus Vanilla. Most orchid books include Vanilla planiflora as an afterthought, mentioning vaguely that it produces vines a bit like Vanda orchids, and that “if they bloom, pollinate the blooms by hand to produce your own vanilla.”

A few months back, I saw a collection of rather ratty Vanilla orchids on sale in a Dallas garden center with that advice, and I scared several potential customers with my laughter. (Of course, I’d been laughing for a while, especially since this same garden center was advising Venus flytrap owners that they could remove minerals from Dallas tap water by letting it stand out overnight. If my smile makes people suddenly regret leaving Ripley and Parker to look for the ship’s cat, what does my laughter do, I wonder?) If you want to see vanilla orchids in action, go to Gunter’s Greenhouse in Richardson, Texas especially when the store hosts its spring open house and the orchids are in bloom. The back greenhouse has a big V. x tahitiensis on display, and the vines are as big around as a man’s leg. Very seriously, this beast is supported with repurposed cable racks previously used for lugging telephone cables, and I don’t think anything less could support the mass. To Gunter’s credit (and I say this as someone in perpetual awe and jealousy of the greenhouse’s crew of orchid geniuses), this one blooms prodigiously and extensively, but the idea of the average Park Cities gardening dilletante growing one, much less getting it to bloom, is just silly.

Again, at this point, this is where most orchid books and references stop. Outside of V. planiflora, all discussion on Vanilla orchids just stops. Nobody discusses the other species found in the Americas, or the wideranging ones from the Old World. Nobody discusses how the genus Vanilla contains some of the only vining orchids known. Nobody talks about relationships with other orchids, or how V. planiflora may have been domesticated in the first place, or the tremendous debt our culture owes this undeservedly obscure genus.

This is where Ken Cameron walks in. This isn’t a popular account of the history of vanilla, as in the case of Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. This is precisely what orchid enthusiasts and researchers need: a good, thorough view of the natural history of the entire genus, from a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for discovery but who also doesn’t go overboard. Discovering, for instance, that Vanilla is related to basal orchids suggests, as Professor Cameron notes herein, that the whole group may have been much more extensive in the distant past than today. Considering that orchids were almost definitely a component in Cretaceous flora, then this gives a whole new aspect to palaeontological art, as well as to anyone designing prehistoric gardens. I don’t think we’re going to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta adding Vanilla orchids to its Cretaceous Garden, but this news might influence someone else to give Vanilla and close cousins from New Caledonia a good shot.

I know this is getting tiring, but more kudos to Timber Press for offering this book. Considering how Vanilla information is neglected by both orchid references and food guides, the cliche “essential reading” actually applies in this case. The Czarina has been hinting at starting a Tahitian vanilla vine for a while, and finally I feel confident enough in knowing the plant’s needs that it might not be a complete pipe dream. Some day this year, I’m going to walk into Gunter’s, walk up to that monstrous V. x tahitiensis, and give them the magic request of “Give me three feet.” (Now, if you buy this book, you’ll know that growing most Vanilla from seed is extremely difficult, and that the vines usually reproduce themselves when they fall from trees and break apart. We’re talking orchids that might actually require machetes to keep under control. How could you go back to raising Cattleya orchids after learning that?)

Have a Great Weekend

Ensuring marital bliss, one aneurysm at a time

The end of January, particularly this January, can be the most cruel of times for Texas gardeners. The wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity, one day below freezing and the next too warm for jackets, tempt even the most wizened souls to attempt something in the garden. Logic tells you that anyone planting anything frost-intolerant in North Texas before the middle of March is an idiot, and that your only options are putting in dormant fruit trees and maybe a batch of brassicas, such as bok choi or Brussels sprouts. One look outside on a morning like today, though, and logic gets shouted down: “C’mon. LOOK at it. We could probably get in a good two dozen orange trees and a row of tomatoes before lunch.”

It’s especially rough on me because of the weather. Having barely survived the big bout of flu that took us both down over the last two weeks, the Czarina listened to my coughing nearly to the point of vomiting and stated with authority “You are NOT allowed to get pneumonia this year.” Although I fear her proclamations as much as her elbows, I think she’s being completely unfair. If I get pneumonia, syphilis, Dutch Elm Blight, and kuru before May, I’ll have enough purchase points to get Captain Trips and hemmorhagic fever for free. The dealer will even throw in a couple of intestinal parasites and an ingrown toenail if I get in before the deadline.

The Czarina’s complete and total inflexibility on these matters is why I don’t tell her about some of the new projects I have planned. She won’t let me get a crocodile monitor, she won’t let me get a display case for a crocodile monitor, and she definitely won’t let me set up my orbital laboratory and death ray, even if I pay for it from my own allowance. Is it really my fault, then, that I spend my rainy day fund on new garden sculpture?

And yes, the sound you hear from the horizon is the sound of Czarina elbow piercing the top of my skull. You’d think I’d have learned after I told her I wanted to have a Meet the Feebles-themed birthday party just after we got married.

Review: The Evening Garden by Peter Loewer

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

The Evening Garden: Flowers and Fragrance From Dusk Till Dawn by Peter Loewer.
ISBN-10: 0881925322
ISBN-13: 9780881925326
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2010
Pages: 272
Language: English

Ramon Gonzalez of Mr. Brown Thumb recently tweeted “There are no new ideas, but when one comes around you’d find it easier to milk a turtle than to get a garden writer to credit its creators.” Speaking in general, I couldn’t agree more (back during my science fiction writing days, my articles were ripped off so often by Entertainment Weekly that my name should have run in the magazine’s masthead), but I wonder if we’re ascribing malice when mere ignorance is enough. Anybody who’s been writing for more than a month knows that ideas themselves are cheap, but it’s the implementation that’s tough, which is why anybody fussing about editors or publishers “stealing my ideas” automatically labels him/herself as an amateur. What continues to surprise me in the gardening writing market is the sheer amount of parallel evolution going on. We aren’t stealing each others’ ideas: we’re working with what we figure are original and pertinent concepts, only to discover that someone else, or several someone elses, was working with the same base material at the same time. It’s particularly disgusting to discover that someone else wrote about your oh-so-innovative idea or conclusion years before you ever entered the hobby.

I write this from experience. I spent nearly a year researching moon gardens. After wandering into the main Sarracenia growing area out behind the greenhouse during a full moon, I was simply stunned at how well Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, fluoresces in moonlight. A bit of research with UV light sources led to a whole series of experiments with night-blooming plants and how well they stand out in both moonlight and UV, and I was so sure I was in new territory. Oh, I was smug, figuring that I had something that would stop all of my gardening friends for a minute and make them look upon my works and despair.

This was before I discovered the existence of Peter Loewer‘s The Evening Garden, and learned that he’d gone well beyond anything I could accomplish in my garden back in 1993. In fact, about halfway through, I was reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’s routine concerning a Debbie Gibson/ Jimi Hendrix duet album, because all I wanted to do was scream “MOMEEEEEEEEE! I wanna go back to the mall! I suck! I suck!”

According to the author, The Evening Garden first saw print in 1993 through McMillan, and promptly went out of print in 1995 when the publisher went bust. This helps explain the format, because this is a book meant to be read, not just scanned. Loewer goes through a very impressive list of night-blooming plants, night-fragrant plants, and plants that look as if they should bloom at night, in a friendly, conversational style that covers a lot of growing conditions. All of the big hitters, including Datura, Ipomoea, and Brugmansia, are in the list, but so are a whole slew of surprises. I know just enough about Hemerocallis daylilies to be dangerous, but I had no clue as to Hemerocallis citrina, the citron daylily, being a night bloomer. Since I’m already an enthusiastic fan of the taste of its flower buds, either raw or cooked, this is going into the garden as soon as I know that the risk of last-minute freezing is gone.

Again, I thought I was so clever for inventing a modern moonlight garden all by myself, but Mr. Loewer beat me to that, too. Opportunities for encouraging fireflies and glowworms in that garden, too, on top of recommendations for night-blooming cactus and other succulents with which I’ve only started experimentation. I wanna go back to the mall. The only aspect of my ongoing research that didn’t show up in this book, and that was only because the technology wasn’t available at the time it was written, involves the use of LED lighting systems, particularly UV LEDs. I fully expect that if I started writing about it, and the sheer beauty of some flowers as they fluoresce in patterns normally only visible to insects, Mr. Loewer will finish an updated chapter on the subject that makes me look like more of an amateur than before.

Now, the particulars on this edition is that the illustrious crew at Timber Press brought it back into print, but as a print-on-demand edition. This means, among other things, that it can’t be ordered directly from the Timber Press Web site. However, it is available through a plethora of independent and chain bookstores for order, and I heartily recommend my friends at St. Johns Booksellers. I’m also thinking longer and harder on trying to organize a goth event comparable to Convergence with at least one panel on moon gardens, because I want to drop copies into the hands of a few fellow darklings and see what they can accomplish with a good resource guide.

In the meantime, the experiments continue. After learning about the new “Pink Lemonade” blueberry (Vaccinium), I’m picking one up this weekend. It’s not just because I’m already a blueberry junkie, that the ripe berries should complement the roses already in the back, or that the Czarina has been begging for a blueberry bush ever since she discovered they could be raised as container plants in Dallas. No, it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that the unripe berries are very moonlight-friendly, and that the best way to tell that the berries are ripe is when they stop glowing under a full moon. I’ll let you know what I discover, because while The Evening Garden has a huge section on prominent blooms for a moon garden, it doesn’t say a thing about berries.

I get by with a little hemp from my friends

It’s been an interesting week, so I have no excuses as to why I forgot to pass on Black Walnut Dispatch‘s discovery of an essential horticultural tool. In fact, with a little promotion, this might be the biggest thing since that Interwebs thing.

*cue Ronco announcer voice* “Want to convince your neighbors that they need to get with the times, but they’re smart enough to see through your ‘but I waaaaaaant it!” arguments? Need to pitch the idea that ‘creative class’ solutions will save your town, but Richard Florida puts you and your pets to sleep? Convinced that you can grow food for fifteen off one 3×3 chunk of lead-contaminated street median in front of your Brooklyn loft, but can’t quite find the words to stun your friends and roommates into watering it eight times a day? Then it’s time to try the new (flash) Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator! Simply press the button, and effortlessly crank out mindless buzzwords all day! Why pay $50,000 and up for an MBA when you can grunt out official-sounding and almost plausible technobabble in the comfort of your home?

“Now, don’t just assume that this valuable and cost-effective tool just needs to be used to promote bioswales and rooftop farming. The Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator has a million-and-one uses. Use it to generate Viagra spam headers! Compose corporate memos on dress code and lunch breaks! Write your own letters to your local newspaper editor! Make urban trend story proposals for the New York Times! Explain the science behind faster-than-light in your science fiction novel! Press it ten thousand times, and generate Bruce Sterling essays indistinguishable from the real thing!

“Before, if you wanted a never-ending source of gibberish for verbally bludgeoning your local planning commission, you used to have to pay hundreds of dollars for subscriptions to Wired and Make and Urban Farm, and spend hour after hour clipping out malapropisms from the columns therein. With this SPECIAL ONLINE OFFER, though, you can get the linguistic clarity of a Faith Popcorn or Cory Doctorow for ABSOLUTELY FREE! Check out the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator now, before it shows up in an episode of Portlandia!”

The definition of insanity

Okay, so last year’s seed experimentation didn’t work quite as well as I’d thought. Of course, you try predicting a “drought of record” back last January. Looking at the list of floral experiments from 2011, and it’s only slightly less painful than Bhut Jolokia-based jock itch creme. (Interestingly, the Bhut Jolokia plants were some of the only successes in 2011, and they’re going to make spectacular bonsai this summer.) Triggerplants, Nepenthes, Sarracenia, Drosera…on and on and on.

One of the learning-experience projects involved trying to see if the South African protocarnivore Roridula will do well in Texas. For those unfamiliar with the genus, Roridula superficially resembles a sundew or rainbow plant, in that its leaves are covered with sticky adhesive threads intended for trapping insect prey. The difference between the two species of Roridula and all other known species of sticky-leaf carnivore is that Roridula secretes resin instead of mucilage as its trapping adhesive, and digestive enzymes can’t pass through the resin. In the wild, Roridula compensates for this with a symbiotic relationship with at least one native species of ambush bug. The plant traps prey which is then fed upon by the ambush bugs, and the ambush bugs reciprocate by defecating on the plant’s leaves. The leaves have special channels intended to capture said feces, so it’s carnivorous by proxy thanks to that foliar feeding. Considering that stories circulate about the larger species of Roridula, R. gorgonias, capturing small birds, both bugs and plants seem to flourish under this relationship.

Not that I’m wanting the ambush bugs (although I’m intrigued as to whether Texas-native ambush bugs, such as our famed wheel bug, might fill the niche), but I’m very curious as to how well either Roridula species might do in Dallas once established. Hence, I ordered a small bundle of seeds of R. gorgonias and sowed them under recommended soil and light conditions. Unfortunately, this was right about the time the drought really set in and the relative humidity came awfully close to negative numbers, so no seedlings. I still have hope, though, that maybe the seeds needed a bit of cold treatment, so the pots remain outside for the winter, and if they don’t sprout by May, then I’ll give it up as a bad experiment.

The real danger is with doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. As Mark Twain told us, that’s the definition of insanity. That’s also the definition of gardening. Since the cold outdoors is just enough to make me a bit stir-crazy, it was time to put in an order with Silverhill Seeds in Cape Town and see how well the smaller species, R. dentata, might do this summer. Results to follow.

Render unto Rick Perry what is Rick Perry’s

The Christmas decorations are finally put up. The trees were hauled off during Large Trash Day two weeks ago. The grocery stores are full of Valentine’s Day candy. Dallas fluctuates between just-about-freezing north winds and warm, humid south winds that tear up the greenhouse and bring the palmetto bugs out of hiding. Yep, it’s winter, all right. Next on the agenda: tax time.

I’ll derail any arguments about taxation by stating that I don’t think anyone likes paying taxes. Even the swot in high school who swooned over getting homework over Christmas vacation doesn’t like paying taxes. That said, I understand that this is the price for having an advanced technological civilization. I also understand that most of the complaining about taxation comes down to whining about paying for things that you don’t necessarily like. Myself, I figure that if at least some of my federal income tax money goes to the National Weather Service, the National Science Foundation, and the Global Positioning System, I’m coming out ahead. When it comes to these and other government agencies and services that directly affect my life and livelihood, I just wish I had some way to give APHIS a bit more.

It’s the same situation with state sales taxes. Because of our wideranging oil and gas industry, Texas is one of the few states in the US that doesn’t charge a state income tax. To cover additional charges above and beyond the oil tax, though, we have a rather hefty sales tax, as well as state “sin taxes” on liquor, tobacco, and gasoline. Again, I could fuss about some of the silly and aggravating things on which the state spends its money, but I also figure that it’s a fair trade for decent roads, an exemplary Dallas mass transit system, public schools and libraries, and the Texas Department of Agriculture. If I have issues with how the rest of the money is spent, well, that’s why you keep an eye on your legislators.

About the only thing that I truly hate about tax time isn’t the money, or the people allocating it. It’s the actual process of filing. No matter the prior preparation, no matter how early you file, the process itself dredges up horrible memories of school essays and oral exams. Successfully defend your Ph.D thesis once, and you’re done. Tax time is that Ph.D defense every blasted year, no matter how kindly the folks at H&R Block. Sort the receipts and itemize the deductions to where even the most determined IRS auditor whistles in appreciation, and you’re still channeling your internal Dylan Moran: “‘What is your mother’s maiden name?’ What’s her first name? I just knew her as ‘Ma’! ‘Ma (Possibly Deceased)’.”

Oh, and did I mention that my sales taxes are charged quarterly? Every three months, the Czarina has grand fun shrieking “WHAT? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” at me. The scary part is that this never gets old.

Back to the linen mines

I’ve said before that I was goth back when the term still referred to Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’ve had lots of interesting dark gardening ideas running through my head for the last six months or so since the Gothing Beauty fiasco. Well, it’s time to go back to causing more trouble: as of today, I became the official gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine. Since the publication schedule is significantly more active than that of GB, expect a lot more in the way of pertinent subjects, including looks at moon gardens, sources for statuary, and prehistoric plants. I suspect that there’s room in the gardening writing community for one Turner Van Blarcum; come to think of it, I may have to talk to Turner about designing some drastically different plant stands for the Carpe Nocturne crowd.

Have a Great Weekend

Thursday is Resource Day

Gardening enthusiasts have different criteria for when they determine the beginning of spring. With some, it’s the actual vernal equinox. With others, it’s when nighttime temperatures go above a certain level. Here in the States, we tend to pay attention to February 2, when Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring. For me, spring always starts exactly 75 days after receiving the first R.H. Shumway Illustrated Garden Guide right around Christmas. That gives me about 70 days to stop drooling, contemplating buying 20 acres “just for experimentation, and making plans to become a gentleman farmer. Not that these are bad things (well, except for the drooling), but the Czarina might object.

Besides, R.H. Shumway is a perfectly reasonable and sane way to spend one’s income tax refund check, but you have to learn to pace yourself when buying new seeds and gear for the season. The trick is to buy enough, from enough varied sources, to keep the catalogs coming for the rest of the year. This way, you have extra reading material to drag to the Day Job, family gatherings, and oil changes. Dragging ordinary porn to these locales will usually get you fired, disowned, and beaten with tire irons. Drag out garden porn, though, and you’ll likely have fresh new gardening addicts at each one.

To start, we have the stalwarts, the heavy-hitters, the really dangerous catalogues. I’m talking, of course, about the Winter 2012 FarmTek catalog. This year’s catalog really illustrates the current resurgence in hydroponics, and I’m just idealistic enough to believe that the customers really are using it for tomatoes and lettuce. Me, I’m sorely tempted to pick up a few drip-line systems for Sarracenia propagation next season, and compare the growth of those plants to ones grown under standard methods.

I’m ridiculously loyal to FarmTek and its products, but I’m putting in an order with Gempler’s as well, because the Gempler’s crew carries a lot of items not carried by FarmTek. Between the two, the Triffid Ranch should be well-stocked.

On a more literary bent, my friend Joey Shea sent me a catalog for Woodburn Books in New Jersey, an antiquarian bookseller specializing in horticultural and gardening books. We’re talking classics from the Victorian period and before, kids. After realizing that I have a rather large list of obscure carnivorous plant references that need tracking, including lists and descriptions of some of the classic Nepenthes hybrids and cultivars that became extinct after World War I, I’ll return the favor, Joey. Oh, I will make you pay.

It’s not really the post-holiday catalog season without at least one new Fruiting, Rare and Tropical Plants Annual from Logee’s Plants, and this catalog makes me regret living in Texas from time to time. This is because Logee’s has a collection of exotic citrus that beggars the mind and lubricates the palate, and Texas is currently the one citrus-growing state in the US that’s free of the several particularly nasty citrus diseases rampaging elsewhere. No big deal, though, because the selection of Brugmansia, hibiscus, and orchid cactus dulls the grief a bit. I can’t get citrus that wasn’t already grown in the state and certified disease-free, but I can grow Maypop passion flower vines all year around, so that makes up for it.

In other sources, the British fantasy and science fiction digital art magazine ImagineFX might not be a regular gardener resource, but the January 2012 issue on art nouveau might catch a few. I say this because, as someone with very little formal art background, I had no idea how much influence the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) had on contemporary garden illustration and advertising. The name had never come up in my life before now, and apparently it came along at the perfect time for me to compare notes with artist friends about where to start with his voluminous collection.

Finally, one-half of the fun with playing with miniature gardens is being able to introduce gardening friends and modeling friends to a common ground, no pun intended. The other half is sharing common sources for building materials. Of all of the catalogues listed previously, the new Micro-Mark catalogue of modeling supplies and tools is potentially the most dangerous. It’s not that the prices are high, or the tools obscure. It’s that you find yourself mumbling “I’ve got that idea resting right in the back of my head,” and it’s suddenly reasonable to quit going to work and focus instead of making that idea happen. As I said, dangerous and just a little too tempting at times.

Well, that’s it for the catalogues: next Thursday, it’s time for interesting items gleaned from industry magazines. To quote one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century, you’ll boogie ’til you puke.

“Form blazing secateurs!”

While I know my chances of being allowed to join are right up there with G.G. Allin being inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, I keep tabs on the site Great Garden Speakers, mostly because of the number of friends, cohorts, and role models who show up there regularly. (Yes, I actually have friends who aren’t the human equivalent of the Burgess Shale fauna. Shut up.) Even better was discovering that Great Garden Speakers has a listing solely of Timber Press authors, including Fern Richardson and Debra Lee Baldwin. For your next gardening event, hire one or two to discuss horticulture. Hire them all to watch them merge into Voltron.

The Doom That Came To Dublin

I have to admit that, in my advancing years, I get increasingly tired of the foofarol concerning defunct cultural institutions when said institutions died for rational reasons. Namely, the crying and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over restaurants, stores, and other venues that died because potential patrons were being sentimental about them instead of, say, actually buying something. Much of this hatred comes from my science fiction writing days, where every magazine that shut down was greeted with the hysterics expected from the deaths of rock stars or celebrity chefs. Never mind that if the magazine’s fans actually bought a copy, or read anything other than the submissions guidelines page before defecating into the slushpile mailbox with their latest Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfiction, said magazine might actually still be around.

In a few cases, not only do I understand the urge, but I join in the mourning. Today is the day Dublin Dr. Pepper stopped production.

It’s hard to explain to non-Texans why a carbonated soft drink should be such a big deal, except for the fact that it was everywhere. For a very long time, the company was a major employer in the Dallas area, with its main bottling plant on Mockingbird Lane. Dr. Pepper was hyped as a hot as well as cold beverage in the Fifties, and you could still find little electric cup heaters with the logo (for dunking into a coffee cup) in garage sales when I moved here. Just about every venue that featured a soda dispenser had Dr. Pepper as a selection, and until about 1982 or so, asking for a “Coke” really meant you were getting a Dr. Pepper unless you said otherwise. It was even an official sponsor of the Dallas Cowboys, long before current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turned that credit into a joke.

And yes, I bought into it as well. When Coca-Cola went into its ill-fated fling with New Coke in 1985, I became a Dr. Pepper junkie. One of the many reasons I moved back to Texas in 1986 was because of Dr. Pepper: I was so miserable in Wisconsin that I spent many an hour in a horrible Burger King in downtown Appleton solely because that Burger King had Dr. Pepper on tap. Friends wanting to make bar crawls or concert runs just had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t drinking anything stronger than DP, and I think I managed to evade getting stomped at one of the last shows at the famed Theater Gallery in Deep Ellum outside of downtown Dallas because the skinheads saw that I was more straightedge than they were.

Times change, and they didn’t necessarily get better. The Dr. Pepper plant on Mockingbird was shut down shortly after the company was bought by what is now Dr. Pepper/Snapple/Cadbury, with lots of promises to renovate the historic landmark as a shopping mall or other general attraction. Those promises were lies, and the building was demolished in 1997. (I’d make all sorts of snide and perfectly accurate comments about the apartment building that went up in its place, but that always leads to at least one SMU brat crying about how mocking rich cokeheads, particularly with words of more than one syllable, is “class warfare”.) Long before then, the recipe changed from using actual cane sugar to the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup, with a corresponding loss of flavor.

Six years ago, the Czarina’s family and I made a summer vacation trip to Banff, Alberta, and everyone was shocked at how good Dr. Pepper tasted in Canada. I explained that it was because it was bottled in Canada, a country that neither subsidized its corn industry nor tried to embargo Cuba. The vast majority of the supply of this ambrosia in the US uses the loathed HFCS, but the tiny town of Dublin, Texas was allowed to sell Dr. Pepper with real Imperial cane sugar. It shouldn’t be any surprise that locals and visitors, given a taste test, were willing to pay premium prices for Dublin Dr. Pepper, and it should be even less of one that we addicts were willing to travel to get our hits. For one niece of mine, she forswore most birthday presents so long as we showed up with a six-pack of Dublin Dr. Pepper, in glass bottles, so she could ration it out while back in college.

And how does this involve a horticultural blog? Well, aside from the Texas history, it came down to a personal issue. Considering extensive and deep budget cuts to Texas schools and libraries, I understand all too well that lecturer speaker fees take money from already nearly nonexistent budgets, and I’d rather have that speaking money go into books, supplies, and teacher goodwill. Hence, when it comes to public schools and libraries in the North Texas area, my speaking fee for Triffid Ranch lectures was always the same: one bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper, preferably cold. It’s not quite on a par with Iggy Pop and the Stooges’s concert rider, but I like to think that I’m paying back just a little bit for the terror I inflicted when I was a student.

That was then. With the announcement that the Dublin bottler is shut down, with the corresponding loss of jobs to the Dublin area, I’m not just cutting out Dr. Pepper consumption in general. I have to find a new currency for school lectures. I’d go back to an old friend but the Eighties, but Jolt Cola is now made with HFCS instead of cane sugar, so what’s the point?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

As far as the Czarina is concerned, Chinese New Year celebrations outshine those for the Gregorian New Year, so she’s making extensive plans for the upcoming holiday. I don’t give her any grief, considering my annual outpouring of ancestral patriotism, and instead just smile and nod. A second New Year celebration that incorporates parades, dancing, and Buddha’s Hand citrons? What sort of monster would I be to complain?

Of course, like a dying weasel, the previous year has to get in one or two more good bites before going back to Hell. Or, as the Czarina notes, “The Year of the Rabbit lives up to its name. Ever notice how, when you try to put a rabbit back in its hutch, it’ll always kick and claw you one last time before you let go?” The fun started on Saturday, when an old friend of ours announced that he was coming back to town, and that he was throwing a party way out in Waxahachie. Waxahachie is an old Comanche name for “What the hell are you doing out there?”, so I fueled up the car, stocked up on food and drink (mostly for the party, but I wanted at least a little something for myself), and moseyed down the road a spell. About a mile away, the timing belt on the car decided to give up its life in sacrifice to the Lords of Chaos, leaving me stuck in the middle of long-dried Cretaceous seabed. At about midnight.

Oh, and did I mention that the Czarina was stuck at home with a bad bout of the flu?

If years and years of moviewatching actually did some good, it was in teaching me the importance of “never get out of the boat.” I knew better than to wander around in the dark instead of staying with my vehicle. Worse, one of the ranches down the road actually has castle towers out in front, and I already knew how that would turn out. I can’t sing, I look terrible in fishnet stockings, and honestly, Tim Curry doesn’t do anything for me. Suffice to say, the adventure actually started when the tow truck arrived, and I had the singular pleasure of hanging out with one of the flat-out funniest tow truck drivers I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve known some wits of the highway in my time. (As a recommendation, should you be stuck anywhere south to southwest of Dallas, I can’t give the guys at 3D Towing in Midlothian a high enough compliment. Fast, competent, honest, and exceedingly friendly on a Saturday night, and that’s hard enough to find anywhere.)

As of this moment, the car is locked up for repairs, including a replacement timing belt and a new radiator. Considering what I paid in repairs on my old car circa 2002, I’m not complaining, but let’s just say that I’ll be doing a few more plant shows this year to replace the chunk of liver and lights that this took out.

And then there’s the saga of the tree. Last summer’s insane drought was rough on most of Texas’s trees, but it demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of some introduced species. One of the big silverleaf maples in our back yard had been there since the house was built, and survived the droughts of 1980 and 2006 with aplomb. The one-two strike of our bad freeze in February and the drought all summer, though, stretched it beyond its tolerance, and it finally gave up sometime in September. And so it goes. I suspect that the woodpeckers are going to miss it more than I will, but there’s still something sad and diminishing about seeing what seemed to be such a gigantic tree cut up into lengths and stacked at the edge of the front yard, and the stack isn’t even chest-high. Better there, though, than landing atop the garage in our next big snowstorm.

Well, as another booster of local delights used to say, “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Here’s hoping that the Czarina is right and the new year really starts the week after next, because I’m looking forward to turning the Year of the Rabbit into hasenpfeffer.

New Year, New Address

Cliche cliche “it’s time for a change” reminisce rue grumble “the old mailing address just isn’t convenient to access any more” sigh shrug chuckle “at least it still keeps random passersby from dropping by unannounced at 3 ayem ‘to see the plants'”. Now that I’ve spared everyone the pain of dopy eulogies to a mail drop that I’ve had for nearly a third of my life, it’s time to note that the Triffid Ranch has a new mailing address:

Texas Triffid Ranch
5435 North Garland Avenue, suite 140
#176
Garland, Texas 75040

As always, please note that this is a mailing address, as a friendly warning to the individuals who ignore all of the previous notices that this isn’t a retail location, drive out without checking, and then pitch fits that they can’t “see the plants”. The old mailbox will remain open for a few more months, but mostly to snag stragglers and the occasional bit of detritus from movie publicity people who still think I’m the local contact for Sci-Fi Universe magazine. (It still happens.) Other than that, anyone wanting to send physical mail in this direction should take note of the new locale. And thank the Czarina for being proactive, as she wanted to get this done as part of her Chinese New Year celebrations. And so it goes.

“I want you to pass me that trowel as hard as you can.”

Mary at Black Walnut Dispatch once again hits a nerve. Responding to concerns that the cable channel HGTV is removing the last of its gardening programs, presumably for more programming friendlier to advertisers wanting to sell $80k in house renovations at a time, she’s suggesting her own line of amped-up garden shows. I don’t disagree with her, and in fact I’ve been arguing for years that gardening and horticulture shows need to get more gonzo.

The reason that this hits a nerve is because it connects with a longrunning tradition in the Riddell household. Neither the Czarina nor myself are much for serious television-watching these days, and that’s only partly because we swore to the other that either one has legal permission to shoot, club, or garrote the other if terminal television addiction becomes apparent. Running something as background entertainment while engaging in hands-intensive activities is perfectly acceptable, which is why the Czarina drops in a few episodes of Midsomer Murders while doing pearl restringings. I’m a bit more partial to reruns of Primeval while potting up butterworts, but that comes with the territory. Either way, as mentioned in the past, our greatest fear is finding ourselves flipping through 8800 channels looking for one program that sucks marginally less for a half-hour, and watching friends getting addicted to the latest soon-to-be-forgotten “hit drama” is another sour note. (This leads to all sorts of interesting situations, such as when the Czarina tries to get decent Web access that doesn’t require either FIOS television or a telephone land line as part of the deal. It’s like trying to get a cell phone plan where you have the choice of texting or a party line.)

In most years, though, that changes on our anniversary. In most years, we get a nice out-of-the-way hotel or housesit, and spend our time relaxing. By “relaxing”, this usually means the Czarina fires up the cable or satellite connection, turns on HGTV, and we watch until what comedian Bill Hicks referred to as a “hump of hate” is filled. I’m amazed at her ability to digest horrible “flip this house” gibberish and walk out still sane, but she’s usually taking notes on new home repair techniques and materials. When we’ve both reached our saturation point on the advertising, especially with the annual special-television-offer flotsam that’s advertised twice every commercial break, it’s time to go home, thankful that we don’t do it more than once per year.

This last year, though, we had to skip out. The Czarina didn’t believe me when I told her that I wanted to stay home and shovel out my office, and I used the opportunity to prove her wrong. No: Prove Her Wrong. (Okay, so she proved me wrong, because I still have one box that needs to be sorted and pitched. However, I proudly state that fourteen boxes of obscurantia have been sorted, filed, indexed, shredded, and donated, and I even have two boxes of old financial papers that will make great kindling for a bonfire this weekend.) She went in to her Day Job to fend off the worst of the Boxing Day freakiness, and I covered the living room with ever-growing piles of detritus. I finally got the space cleared out, pitched the last worn copy paper box, bound my cracked and bleeding hands as best as I could, looked up at the calendar, and realized “We skipped out on our inoculation against excessive consumption, didn’t we?”

No fear, though. The Czarina has Plans this weekend, and they involve reminding her why we don’t need to get a replacement for the television any time soon. By the time we’re done, we may both have ideas for what makes the perfect gonzo garden show, and then it’s time to look for sponsorships. I figure that the teaser ads for the pilot episode could start with this little missive, with severe apologies to Chuck Pahlaniuk:

The first rule of Garden Club: You do not talk about Garden Club.
The second rule of Garden Club: You DO NOT TALK ABOUT GARDEN CLUB.
Third rule: If gives up and goes inside to watch television, the garden is over.
Fourth rule: Only two guys to a garden.
Fifth rule: One garden at a time.
Sixth rule: No fertilizers, no hydroponics.
Seventh rule: Growing seasons will go on as long as they have to.
And the Eighth and final rule: If this is your first night at Garden Club, you have to weed.

Have a Great Weekend

A hint of Stylidium debile

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

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

Ah, Nepenthes

Nepenthes pitcher plants are on my mind as of the last week, and not just because I’m researching plans for a new greenhouse. (The Czarina offered last year to build a new Nepenthes greenhouse, and not just so she can demonstrate that the claw hammers in the house get used on something besides my head. She one with a bungee cord wrapped around it that she calls “Mjolnir”, and you’d swear that she can throw it around corners.) Last year’s drought still hasn’t ended, we’re not exactly looking as if we’re going to repeat 1990’s or 2007’s record rainfalls, and I’m in need of a new growing area that maximizes humidity without drying up a municipal reservoir to do so. I’m also looking for something that’s not too big and not too small, but juuuuuuust right.

All of the carnivores suffered last year from North Texas’s ridiculously low humidity, but the poor Nepenthes just looked ridiculous. As a rule, both lowland and highland Nepenthes can squeak by with average daily humidity going above 50 percent, with their producing larger and more elaborate pitchers the closer the relative humidity goes to “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on”. This is why I’m viciously jealous of Hawaiian Nepenthes growers, and it’s not helped by the Czarina hinting that we could always set up shop in Galveston. Dallas’s air may be a bit thicker than it was when another resident with lung issues moved here, but it’s not sopping wet enough to keep the Nepenthes outdoors, much to my regret.

And the history of the genus keeps getting more interesting. Longterm carnivorous plant enthusiasts may be familiar with the Nepenthes “Queen of Hearts” introduced by the wonderful folks at Borneo Exotics, but not know much more than the basics about it. Well, it turns out that “Queen of Hearts”, cultivated from seed saved from a cleared forest in the Philippines, is a new species now named Nepenthes robcantleyi.

As is the case with many Nepenthes species, N. robcantleyi may be extinct in the wild, or examples may still be available in hidden areas of Mindanao. Fellow carnivore enthusiast François Sockhom Mey is keeping closer tabs on developments than I could, so I refer you to him. From this hemisphere, though, it’s time to get that greenhouse built, because I will have one on display by the time the decade is over.