Monthly Archives: January 2012

Have a great weekend

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

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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!”