Monthly Archives: March 2012

Have a Great Weekend

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Introducing Cephalotus follicularis

At Triffid Ranch shows, the thirdmost common comment I get is “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” I usually try to help out as much as possible so as to prevent that in the future. The secondmost common comment comes upon viewing an iTerrarium, is “Finally: the only good use for a Mac, hur hur hur.” Since this invariably comes from some Bruce Sterling wannabe (Arioch help us) who both figures that no individual in human history has ever told me this and who desperately craves the attention he didn’t get from his parents, I usually smile and reply “You’re right. Macs suck…almost as much as Cat Piss Men.” The most common comment, though, is “Wow. I knew about Venus flytraps, but I didn’t know there were so many carnivorous plants.”

My response? “Oh, let me show you a few.”

The reasons why so many people never come across carnivores other than flytraps are multifold. Firstly, flytraps both move at a speed that surprises humans and have leaves that resemble mouths, so they become a direct manifestation of the highlights of the group. They’re also small enough to transport easily and readily reproduce via sterile tissue propagation, so they can be everywhere. Triggerplants only show off their speed when blooming. Sarracenia pitcher plants usually get too big for easy display in garden centers. Nepenthes pitcher plants just sit there and let the bugs do all the work. Sundews and butterworts move too slowly to get an immediate response. Bladderworts need a strong magnifying glass to view their prey capture: with terrestrial varieties, you both need to dig them up and put the trap structures into an electron microscope to see the detail. Flytraps are rock stars for these reasons.

Another reason why so few people see most carnivores is, to be honest, because they’re relative prima donnas. The Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum) cannot handle any root disturbance whatsoever, and only recently have carnivorous plant nurseries worked out methods to transport them safely. Only a few people propagate triggerplants, although that number, thankfully, is increasing. The cobra plant (Darlingtonia) is an alpine plant that both needs cool roots from snowmelt runoff and a significant temperature differential between day and night. (Considering that summer temperatures in North Texas really don’t drop much between day and night, the only really successful way to grow them would involve moving them into an air-conditioned area every night.) The sun pitchers of Brazil and Venezuela (Heliamphora) need cool conditions all year round. It’s the obverse for many of the lowland Nepenthes pitcher plants, which thrive under high heat and high humidity. Considering the specialized soil, humidity, and temperature requirements of many carnivore species, it’s no surprise that most don’t show up in most garden centers and nurseries. The employees at a typical home improvement center have a hard enough time keeping up with the care requirements for tomatoes and strawberries, and most potential customers understandably don’t want to take a chance on an expensive plant that may die a week after its purchase.

Half of the thrill of raising carnivores is discovering that their care and feeding is a lot easier than you’d believe. I’ve talked to serious orchid fanciers who tell me “Oh, carnivores must be hard to raise” at the same time they’re telling me how easy most Oncidium and Cattleya species are to keep, so long as you know their basic requirements. We then look at each other and say, almost simultaneously, “Yeah, but there are some that are slow growers.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That accusation definitely applies to Cephalotus follicularis, known commonly as the Australian pitcher plant and the Albany pitcher plant. As can be told, it’s a visually stunning plant…if you have a good magnifying glass when it’s young. The adult plants gradually grow pitchers about the size of an adult’s first thumb joint, but this can take years. Between this and a general sensitivity to root disturbances, most of the plants on the market are rather pricy, due to the time necessary to grow them to a decent size. This isn’t a plant to be purchased on an impulse, nor for anyone wanting a rapid grower.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That said, Cephalotus is a fascinating plant, and the Triffid Ranch now has a very limited supply of them, courtesy of Deryk Moore, the self-described “greenhouse gnome” at Sarracenia Northwest. Deryk is an absolute genius with Cephalotus (as are Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas, the proprietors at Sarracenia Northwest), and after some discussion with Deryk, I now have Cephalotus acclimating to Texas outdoor conditions. Thankfully, our humidity and cloud cover are more appropriate to Portland than Dallas at the moment, but I also know that Cephalotus can survive most Texas summers if given half a chance. Indeed, the only reason why my previous Australian pitcher died last year was because last September and October were lethal to native species, and it just couldn’t handle the severe lack of humidity before Halloween. Deryk recommends using African violet pots with Cephalotus, and what kind of idiot would I be to ignore his advice?

Cephalotus follicularis

Now, besides the little ones, I purchased an adult plant from Deryk. To quote Basil Fawlty, when anyone asks if this one is for sale, I hiss “THIS…is MINE” while grinning. Even the Czarina stays away when I grin like that.

More from our friend Echinocactus texensis

Echinocactus texensis

I thought that last year’s blooming season for the indigenous horsecrippler cactus was prodigious. I had literally no idea. The way they’re all going insane, I’ll be up to my armpits in ripe Echinocactus texensis fruit by the end of May.

Horsecrippler cactus closeup

Of particular note should be the areolae in this closeup, because it helps explain how the cactus gets its common name. When the cactus dries out in summer heat, it tends to collapse, and those big downward-pointing spines point up. On the edges of the cactus, these are sharp, long, and strong enough to punch through the bottom of a standard US Army combat boot, and I know this from experience. (In fact, I came awfully close to losing a toe when I did so. You do NOT want one of those spines breaking off, especially if you’re a few miles from medical assistance, and I’m just glad the spine creased my toe instead of spitting, and possibly splitting, the bone.) Considering the amount of local wildlife that would gleefully feed on cactus pulp without that additional protection, this level of armament makes sense.

Anyway, these are part of the ongoing Kared adoption program, and they should be an added inducement to see them at May’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show. If we’re lucky, any resultant fruit may even be ripening by then.

Introducing Lupinus texensis

The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.

Lupinus texensis

As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.

Texas bluebonnets

Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.

Fields of bluebonnets

To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.

More fields of bluebonnets

And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.

March of the Peppers

The Triffid Ranch’s motto is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People,” and that’s pretty much its business mission statement, too. That’s easy to uphold when dealing with carnivorous plants (that is, unless you’re a resident of Tallahassee, Florida, and even then), but how do you define “odd plants” otherwise? Is this label dependent upon location, upon growing habits, or upon its back history? More importantly, what do you do when a customer responds to the slogan, takes a peek, and tells you in all seriousness “I see odder things in my breakfast cereal”?

I bring this up because it’s time to retry an experiment cut short by last summer’s solar annihilation. This year, it’s time to expand, very slightly, into hot peppers.

Part of the fascination with Capsicum peppers comes, obviously, from the tasting. Several years back, I worked a day job where my daily consumption of sriracha sauce surprised Cuban co-workers, one of whom told me “You have a little brown in you, don’t you?” I definitely took the compliment in the manner in which it was intended, and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I used to be a hopeless wimp about spicy food when I was a child. Michigan wasn’t exactly known for spice in its cuisine, and I remember literally crying at the age of five when a McDonald’s hamburger had too much mustard on it. That lasted until I moved to Texas in 1979 and had my first exposure to jalapeno peppers that hadn’t been pickled to within an inch of their lives. After that, you might as well have carved “JUST ONE FIX” into my forehead when it came to Tex-Mex, Thai, or Indian cuisine.

(When I lived in Wisconsin in the mid-Eighties, a new Mexican restaurant opened in the area, advertising traditional Tex-Mex sauces. They didn’t realize how much they had toned down the bite for Wisconsinites until I kept asking for salsa that was “a little stronger than this.” By the time the main course was served, I had a crowd of employees and managers watching me snarf down an exquisite green chile salsa that was put off-limits to the general customers. Twenty years later, an acquaintance thought he was showing off by handing me a bottle of sriracha sauce and telling me that this was the hottest sauce he’d ever tried, and then completely lost it when I squeezed out a line onto my finger and used it to brush my teeth.)

The other aspect, though, is the science. It’s not enough to know that peppers are spicy, but why they’re spicy. The brilliant colors and the incredible heat evolved together, with the colors intent upon attracting birds acting as vectors for the pepper’s seeds and the capsicum oil intent upon repelling mammals whose digestive systems could destroy those seeds. The sheer variety of peppers today comes from a certain variety of upright ape that both had the ability to see those colors and taste those flavors, and cultivate plants based on their ability to perpetuate said colors and tastes. At that point, you have to wonder which species is influencing whom: are humans controlling the peppers’ distribution and evolution, or are the peppers controlling humans by encouraging them to expand the peppers’ range and variety?

Heady thoughts for a Monday evening, and thoughts that make me want to sit down with a gaggle of grad students at the Chile Pepper Institute for a good long chat. These and other questions are why the greenhouse is now full of flats of Bhut Jolokia seedlings, why I’m awaiting a fresh batch of Trinidad Scorpion seeds, and why I plan to use David Shaw’s recipe for homemade sriracha sauce with Black Pearl peppers to make the ultimate goth hot sauce. Purely for satiation of scientific curiosity, of course. Heck, I may even make some Capsicum bonsai.

Oh, my aching brain

One of the curses of having interesting friends is that they can be a bit too interesting. See, they share things. Horrible, mind-altering things. Things that leave me in a little fetal ball, crying “Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and looking for sharp instruments with which I plan to trim my fingernails to the shoulder. And those are just with the puns. No, some of these disturbing images and concepts are so foul that I immediately share them with the Czarina.

Back twenty-five years ago, I worked as a groundskeeper for a now-long-defunct Texas Instruments site in Carrollton, Texas, and I had quite the assemblage of odd co-workers. One’s name was, quite literally, “Bubba”, and I’m pretty sure that this was his legal name on his driver’s license and birth certificate. Bubba was an absolute salt-of-the-earth guy in his own way, except for one particularly vile habit. See, he had a thing for various gas-producing victuals, ranging from Ranch Style Beans to Mickey’s Big Mouth Ale, and he wasn’t afraid to share the end output. Problem is, he’d wait for just the right moment, right when our natural instincts to trust our fellow man were at their height, emit a silent-but-deadly that could char the nose hairs out of a dead rhinoceros, and then ask innocently “Do you guys smell barbecue?” Yes, in fact, we did, as the delicate scrollwork that used to be our sinus bones was turned into smoke and ash.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I’m regularly reminded that I associate with friends who carry on the scientific, theological, and philosophical tradition, as if Bubba were right there in the cargo elevator with me. While they might not physically subject me to a haze of hydrogen sulfide and methane, the effect on brain tissue is much the same.

Case in point. My friend Bon Steele was apparently at the garden center today, and she passed on a photo of a kid’s garden starter kit. Specifically, by way of this, I learned about the Growums line of gardening kits, and I can’t argue with the basic idea. It was one of the characters that burned my frontal lobes. Namely, the introduction to “Frank Cilantro“.

Yeah. Frank Cilantro.

And that’s when it went wrong, Your Honor. “Elvis Parsley” was to be expected, as would “John Lemongrass”. My mind doesn’t go that way, and suddenly I was picturing similar kits with “Jerry Gardenia“, “Jello Bicalcarata,” “DeeDee Romaine“, and “Turner Vanda Blarcum“. I realized how far I’d sunk when suddenly the thought of naming a plant “Nancy Spathophyllum” almost, ALMOST, made sense. Sorry, but NOBODY is going to eat an onion nicknamed “G.G. Allium” if they’re even remotely familiar with the reference.

And then it really got to me. Suddenly, I realized that I had the perfect spokesfigure for a new line of high-intensity herbicides. A pernicious weed with thick-frame birth control glasses and smarmy smirk, that hyperfocused on one subject and wouldn’t shut up about it, before being burned down to the soil line by a welcome rain of poisons and acids. The world’s ready for “Coriander Doctorow,” isn’t it?

Oh, don’t look at me like that. This is your dead rhinoceros moment. Besides, what’s he going to do: sue for copyright infringement?

Have a Great Weekend

Because with the vernal equinox comes the big yellow hurty thing in the sky staying out longer and longer. Last summer, people finally understood what I meant when I said “If I’m not back in my coffin by sunrise, I turn back into a pumpkin.”