Daily Archives: March 15, 2012

Introducing Strategus aloeus

Most friends know that I’m a defender of the odd animals in the garden. Others celebrate the bluebirds and the box turtles, but I’m the one who encourages the paper wasps, the Mediterranean geckos, and the occasional armadillo out back. That’s why these guys went back into one of the garden beds as soon as this picture was taken.

Ox beetle grubs

Mention “grubs” in North Texas, and you’ll get a few choice curses. The bane of most lawn obsessives is the grub of the June bug, Phyllophaga crinita, which feed on the roots of most of our local turf grasses. (Considering that Bermuda grass, widely considered a viciously invasive pest that probably originated the invective “Kill it with fire,” is one of the few turf grasses that can survive a North Texas summer, this should give an idea of how badly some gardeners loathe June bug grubs.) The big grubs up here, though, are from Strategus aloeus, commonly known as “ox beetles”.

The late-instar grubs can be the size of an adult’s thumb, and while they have sharp jaws, they’re otherwise completely harmless. They consume rotted organic matter, so most gardeners tend to find them in rotten wood, compost piles, and raised beds. They’re alarming, but having them in large numbers is a sign that you’re doing everything right with your garden. The handful in the picture above were collected solely by sweeping up leaf litter off my porch and onto a raised bed, which also revealed the wide tunnels they dig through the soil. Those tunnels manage to get humus and other debris into the local Blackland Prairie clay and loosen it up, going much deeper than earthworms or other detritivores.

What’s interesting for me is that the grubs are common, but I haven’t seen an ox beetle in thirty years. The beetles themselves are very impressive beasts, with a purple-brown shell and the males bearing small horns like a rhinoceros beetle. They apparently used to flock to streetlights in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but their descendants appear to have burned out that urge, and they’re only occasionally encountered. I’m certainly not complaining, as I’m perfectly happy to let their spawn turn my compost pile for me.

As far as predators are concerned, most larger carnivores (opossums, crows, raccoons) will eat the grubs if given an opportunity, which is why the grubs usually rapidly undulate deep into their burrows when disturbed. Fifteen years ago, I had a savannah monitor named “Steadman” (so named after regularly leaving his cage as splattered as a Ralph Steadman painting) who would practically do tricks for ox beetle grubs, but now I rescue them and feed the June bug grubs to the local mockingbirds. It seems to be a fair trade, and the ox beetles return the favor by loosening the soil around the roses and the tiger lilies. Again, I’m not complaining.

Introducing Drosera regia filiformis

EDIT: A lesson to everyone, learned at my expense. I was certain that I was looking at D. regia here, but Ryan Kitko and a slew of other friends kindly noted “I hate to say this, but I think you have a Drosera filiformis instead of a Drosera regia here. Thankfully, I had my original receipt on hand, and discovered that what I had been calling “Drosera regia” really was D. filiformis after all. That said, if Black Jungle offers D. regia, buy one at once, and also consider that D. filiformis makes a great mosquito snare in the greenhouse, too. And now I take that tasty crow and turn it into a sandwich.

Drosera regia

Way back in the Eighties, when pterosaurs soared through the skies, VCRs cost most people nearly a month’s pay, and nobody was embarrassed to wear spandex in public, I was a tropical fish enthusiast. No, scratch that: I was a tropical fish junkie. Let me loose in a well-stocked fish store, and you might as well tattoo “JUST ONE FIX” to my forehead. In that regard, letting me loose in northeast Wisconsin in 1985 was like giving William S. Burroughs a key to a smack factory and telling him “We’ll be back in a month.” In the days before the Interwebs, there wasn’t much to do in places like Menasha and Little Chute (then not known as the future home of Ellen Ripley) during the winter other than watch the snow fall and pickling one’s liver, so the fish shops were valuable bastions of sanity for those who couldn’t drink, couldn’t smoke, and didn’t want to follow in the traditions of fellow residents Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Me, I practically lived in several fish shops, where I learned the vagaries of community tanks, the basics of saltwater arrangements, and the allure of exotics such as discus and red-bellied piranha.

One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was “Don’t trust the fish books, because the fish don’t read.” This is something else that needed to be tattooed on my forehead, because whoo boy does this apply to carnivorous plants. Every once in a while, you come across the right conditions for what are generally considered difficult plants, and they’re nearly impossible to kill. In my case, the book-breaker was the king sundew, Drosera regia.

Two years ago, on a trip to Boston, I purchased a king sundew, cultivar “Big Easy,” from Black Jungle Terrarium Supply. Having heard about D. regia‘s notorious reputation for being difficult, I figured, with the hopeful arrogance of most horticulture students, that I wouldn’t botch it up too badly. The sundew went into the greenhouse in July, right after I got back, and it promptly went berserk catching mosquitoes and fungus gnats. It appeared to die off in September, but I also knew how many sundews play dead for a while before growing back from the roots, so I didn’t dump the pot right away. Over the winter, it sat outside, where it froze solid in our big week-long cold snap in February 2011, and it suddenly came back in March.

This time, it went into a tall ceramic pot with no drainage, and it seemed to do even better. The plant grew nearly a meter tall, and regularly seemed to reach out to grab my hair as well as its usual prey. The 2011 heatwave started, and it kept going. July and August blasted the earth, and it kept going. Finally, when things really dried out in September and October, it appeared to die back again, but I kept watering it from time to time to make sure. Finally, the pot broke during a rearrangement of plants in winter housing, and I took a closer look at the freshly sprouting mass. You can imagine my surprise at seeing eight new plants emerging from separate rhizomes, each the size of a coat button, acting as if the weather of the last year was standard operating procedure.

Drosera regia

There’s not much more to tell at the moment. Right now, seven of the eight rhizomes are in a propagation tank, and I’ll probably bring out a couple to this weekend’s plant show. The eighth is going to go back into the greenhouse, where I’m going to figure out whether this is a new tolerant cultivar or I just ended up hitting the right conditions for it. Reports will follow.

The reblooming of Antarctica

Discuss with friends or co-workers where they would go and what they would do if given access to cheap and effective time travel, and the answers are usually painfully expected. Well, they are if the idea is not to influence the timestream in any way. Get up next to the big stage at Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix. Check out the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas in November 1963. Sip champagne at the Battle of Hastings. Oh, you might have a few people who want to go further back, but only so far as to see a dinosaur or two. All of time and space to play with, and we’re still desperately limited to human experiences and human timescales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this. If given the opportunity, and knowing that (a) I was going to change our current history irreparably if I made any changes and (b) I was never returning to my own time, I can think of lots of entertainment. Joining the French Resistance in 1942, for instance.)

However, were some madman with a blue box to give me an opportunity to visit any place and any time in Earth’s past, for a full day, I can think of two options. The first is to find a nice hilltop around 108 million years ago, and enjoy a picnic dinner while watching the asteroid impact that produced the crater Tycho on the moon. The other would be to drop off anywhere in Antarctica about 50 million years ago and go sightseeing. Not only would I see things never viewed with human eyes, but I’d probably see lots of things that aren’t even suspected. First and foremost, flora unlike anything else on our planet, then or afterwards.

The popular perception of Antarctica as a frozen, alien waste contains a lot of truth, but we’ve only known the continent for a little over two centuries. With 98 percent of its surface covered in ice, kilometers’ worth in some areas, precious little other than the coasts, the famed Dry Valleys, and some areas in the Transantarctic Mountains, the vast majority of Antarctica has been icelocked for longer than the genus Homo has existed. Because of the ice coverage, most of the continent’s features are obscure. To put it another way, Antarctica has a lake the size of Lake Ontario in North America, and it was only discovered in the 1990s.

(And before I start, I’d like to apologize to any and all Antarctic researchers and explorers reading this, because I feel your pain. I imagine you’re as sick and tired of references to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, coming from people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of human civilization to ever make the connection, as I am to references to Little Shop of Horrors. Aside from legitimate reasons for doing so, I won’t bring up either for the rest of this essay.)

Naturally, that ice doesn’t prevent palaeontologists from making new discoveries, but it definitely gets in the way. Hints of the geological and palaeontological richness of Antarctica’s past keep emerging, particularly with dinosaur discoveries in the Nineties and Aughts (most notably with the Jurassic theropod Cryolophosaurus), but almost nothing is known about Antarctica’s animal life after the dinosaurs became extinct. Floral knowledge is even worse: thanks to pollen analysis and some fossils in accessible deposits, Antarctica was one of the last holdouts for the Wollemi pine until about maybe 5 million years ago. Today, only two flowering plants still live on Antarctica, mostly because so little of the continent ever reaches temperatures amenable to growth. For all intents and purposes, Antarctica is an entire continent above the tree line.

It also needs to be said that palaeontological evidence still only gives hints of Antarctica’s former zoological and botanical bounty. It’s possible to make informed assumptions about certain lifeforms based on studies of South America, Australia, and New Zealand, based on their former connection through the supercontinent Gondwana. For instance, just looking at carnivorous plants, considering their distribution through the rest of Gondwana’s territory and on pollen analysis of Australian sites, Antarctica probably had its own selection of sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Judging by their current distribution through the Pacific Rim, particularly in Tierra del Fuego, the triggerplants (Stylidium) may – may – have considered Antarctica home before the continent froze. The problem, though, is that without some sort of fossil proof, this is all supposition. Carnivorous plant fossils other than pollen are incredibly rare because they generally lived (and continue to live) in areas hostile to fossil preservation, and any surmisals on what survived where before the antarctic glaciation depends upon finding fossils that aren’t, as mentioned before, under two kilometers of ice.

In a strange way, this ties directly into important concerns over introducing the seeds of potentially invasive plants to Antarctica, because the one last time I’d like to visit for a day would be Antarctica 30 million years from now. One way or another, whether it’s by anthropocentric climate change, a change in the ocean currents that help keep Antarctica’s temperatures stable, or the continent’s gradual tectonic shift north, Antarctica is going to thaw. At that point, the whole land surface is the cliched but appropriate blank slate. As recent news concerning Silene stenophylla raised from 30,000-year-old seeds, some native plant seeds might survive the freeze and sprout again. Human-transported seeds could very easily get established, and will probably become extremely invasive for a time. The biggest vectors of new flora, though, will be the ones that have been around for millions of years: water, wind, and birds. And they’re going to go nuts.

This won’t be a sudden change, and we definitely aren’t going to see forests at McMurdo Sound in our lifetimes even if Antarctica’s entire ice sheet melted tomorrow. Most of northern North America is still recovering from the last big glaciation in the Pleistocene, with many soils still being nutrient-poor: some theories about the wide range of the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea compared to its relations lie with its encouraging animal life such as mosquito larvae and rotifers as a replacement source of nitrogen. (As such, if you’ve ever been to Newfoundland and Labrador, you’ll understand why S. purpurea is the official floral emblem and provincial flower. S. purpurea is perfectly suited for the bogs of Newfoundland, Ontario, and Michigan, as well as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.) And North America wasn’t covered with ice for 5 to 15 million years, the way Antarctica has been. Once it thaws, the whole continent will gradually green up, and all of those plants will most likely be descendants of traveling seeds dropped within the last few hundred years. With Antarctica remaining an island continent as Australia gradually runs into Asia and produces a whole new run of mountain-building, comparable to India’s formation of the Himalayas, I’d love to see what the forests of Queen Maud Land look like in another geologic era or so.