Monthly Archives: April 2012

I get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

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A tribute, if you will

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, the quintessential Chicago newspaper columnist. To say that Royko was one of my most influential journalistic role models as a kid doesn’t even come close to the situation. In fact, not only did Royko influence the state of the newspaper column through the Twentieth Century, but I submit that media through the Twenty-First owes him recognition as well. You wouldn’t have had newspaper columnists as diverse as Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Lewis Grizzard without Uncle Mike’s inspiration, and I’m certain that if he were alive today, he’d have one of the most-read and most-quoted blogs on the planet.

At the same time, considering what has happened to standard journalism since he died, I also think he really got the last laugh. Royko was famous for quitting the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and laughing when Murdoch tried to pretend this wasn’t an issue and ran old Royko columns in their place. In some afterlife, I can see him cutting up with his friend Studs Terkel, howling “They practically gave me a state funeral! Talk about leaving early to avoid the rush! I wonder what they’re gonna do for Skip Bayless and Elvis Mitchell: set fire to the garbage can before tossing them in?”

Goodbye, Uncle Mike. And goodbye to your lifelong pal Slats Grabnik, too. There are times where my old friend Edgar Harris mourns that we won’t get any more anecdotes from Slats or Dr. I.M. Kookie as well.

Have a Great Weekend

Things to do in Fort Worth when you’re dead

This weekend will be dedicated to getting everything ready for next week’s Texas Frightmare Weekend show at DFW Airport (and check out the PDF vendors’ list), but those readers who don’t need to go insane with repotting Bhut Jolokia peppers or Medusa head Euphorbia might want to take note that the annual Spring Festival at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden‘s Japanese Garden is this weekend. Go have fun, and if you hear random screaming and cursing from the east, that’s just me.

And speaking of Dallas, I’d also like to note that the big Dale Chihuly garden glass exhibition at the Dallas Arboretum opens next weekend. Obviously, opening weekend is out, but just watch us stay away after that. For the people who come up to the Czarina and request to see her famed elbows, just tell her “Chihuly sucks” and watch them go to work firsthand. It’s like some oddball fusion of a world-class boxing match and a Ginsu commercial.

Introducing Oenothera speciosa

Last month, I had one of those conversations that makes you want to dig around in reference material for a few days. Specifically, I was showing plants at a show to a gentleman who was unfamiliar with carnivores, and he took a particular shine to a primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primuliflora). The name confused him, though: “I know primroses, and that’s no primrose. Why do they call them that?”

At the time, I explained that this was a great example of why Latin binomial nomenclature is so important: I explained that a lot of plants receive the common name “primrose”, but that he needed the Latin names to help distinguish between them. After he left, though, I kept asking “Why ‘primrose’?” I was familiar with the color primrose, which could fit some varieties of plant with that color of flower. However, North Texas has at least two varieties of plants called “primrose”, one with bright canary yellow blooms and one with bright pink blooms. So what was the connection?

I learned later that the term “primrose” refers alternately to the first-blooming flowers of the spring and to flowers that close in the morning and open in the evening. This works, except for the flowers that buck that trend. Oenothera speciosa, the pink evening primrose, does a great job of waggling various appendages at pedantics, as it pretty much opens if and when it feels like.

Oenothera speciosa

O. speciosa is quite the common wildflower in Texas, especially right now, and it usually cheerfully blooms when most other wildflowers have died off for the summer. It grows just about everywhere, but does best in open areas with lots of sun and protection from excessive mowing. As such, it’s found along highways, drainage ditches, vacant lots, and back alleys. It’s usually not invasive, so most people don’t notice it save when its blooms pop in the middle of an otherwise monotonous field.

Oenothera speciosa, the pink evening primrose

Now, you may notice that the common name for this primrose includes the word “pink”, but this photo shows precious little. That’s a bit of a surprise. O. speciosa blooms tend to be rather reactive to ultraviolet light, and shining a UV flashlight on one in the dark reveals that it tends to fluoresce white-yellow. The upshot is that this photo was taken with a new camera after my old one finally cacked it about two weeks ago, and apparently this new camera is much, much more sensitive to UV than the previous one. This may not be much, but get ready for some interesting projects in the next few weeks.

Now that’s just wrong

The Czarina and I are celebrating ten years of marriage at the end of the year, on top of an additional decade as good friends, and yet we’re regularly mistaken for newlyweds. Some couples understand. Others just get upset and stomp off, clutching their abdomens and gasping “Ow! My pancreas exploded!” Still others ask our secret, and they look at us strangely when I tell them “Letting your husband have a crocodile monitor as a pet.” (Hey, one of these days, this might work.)

The real secret, to be honest, is being in a situation where each partner has a separate bathroom. This isn’t just for those situations where trying two functions in the same space is aggravating or flat-out impossible. Since the Czarina and I keep wildly different work schedules, this is the best way for us to get ready for work or wind down for the night without disturbing the other. She’s not getting chocolate in my shaving brush, and I’m not getting peanut butter in her Nair. It’s worked remarkably well for a decade, especially on those afternoons where I come in, coated with ordure and sawdust after turning the compost pile, and she can’t reasonably insist that I hose off in the front yard. We tried that once. That much albino flesh showing at once, and half of the neighborhood had flashburns on their retinas.

Therefore, we have our own spaces. Her bathroom and vanity resembles Cleopatra’s makeup laboratory. Mine just makes people ask how long I let Hunter S. Thompson camp out in the bathtub. Either way, we get remarkably few relatives and acquaintances asking to crash on the couch. One look at the life-sized Nanotyrannus head over the toilet takes care of that.

Even here, the plants intrude, in the most surprising places.

To go with all of the other fence-hugging vines out back, ranging from trumpet vine to moonflowers, I let luffa squash (Luffa acutangula) go feral two years ago. In most years, this earns a decent crop of luffas at the end of the year, and these generally get used as potscrubbers and glass cleaners. They’re gentler on glass and plastic than Scotchbrite pads and the like, and the best thing about them is that (a) they’re cheap to grow and (b) when the scrubber wears out, you just toss it onto the compost pile. Since the tub in my bathroom is a bit delicate, I use a luffa to scrub down the sides so as to prevent scratching, and it’s usually good for about a year before it needs to be replaced. (I’ll also note that these are nearly essential for cleaning terra-cotta pots without abrading them, and I use them for cleaning up dirty porcelain pots as well. You’d be amazed at how many garage sale rejects can be converted into desirable and attractive Nepenthes pots with a judicious application of luffa abrasion and elbow grease.)

Well, no matter how well you clean and prep your luffas at the end of the season, a few seeds remain trapped. Most are immature seeds, ivory-white and flexible, and those go down the drain without any problems. A few, though, are still viable, and just wait for a suitable abrasion of the waxy integument on the outside of the seeds before they germinate. Given the right temperature and humidity, they germinate extremely well. With the absolute perfect conditions, they’ll sprout in extremely unlikely places. The top of a soap drain, for instance.

Luffa seedling on a soap drain

To her credit, the Czarina didn’t yell or so much as raise her voice when I demonstrated the new addition to the household. She didn’t even cock an eyebrow and ask “So you were cleaning out garage sale pots in the bathtub, weren’t you?” (Well, I had, but she wouldn’t have needed to rub it in. Besides, that was only to soak them in sanitizer before drying them. She gets a bit tetchy when I try to wash them in the dishwasher.) Instead, she chirped “Plant it out back and see if it grows!” Yep, she’s a keeper.

As a little aside, there’s no reason you can’t replicate this experiment all on your own. All you need is an ever-shedding cat and an ever-shedding shaving brush, one luffa seed, a soap drain, and a nice warm bathroom. Collect cat fur, from where the FreakBeast is rolling around in the bottom of the tub while you’re at work, every morning as you finish your shower, and put the seed atop your unorthodox growing medium. In about four days or so, take note of your new squashling. Plant it in reasonably acid soil with lots of compost, and watch it take over.

If anyone gives you any grief for encouraging delinquency in vegetables, tell them to talk to me. I’ll tell them about the time in the late Eighties that I used leftover gravel from a friend’s reptile cage as drainage for planters, not knowing that this friend’s former roommate had the habit of dumping the seeds from his latest dime bag of pot into the bottom of the reptile cage. That was not only when I learned that paying attention to proper seedling identification is essential, but that my late cat Jones did his utmost to protect me from charges of cultivating controlled substances by mowing down every last seedling as it emerged. (This was about the time that I also learned that, to the completely idiotic, savannah monitor urine looks exactly like crack cocaine. That’s a story recorded elsewhere.) There are things MUCH worse than the occasional squash seedling in the bathtub.

Have a Great Weekend

This time of the year, both the subtext of the song and the literal title apply with equal measure. This also comes with a friendly shoutout to Ms. Shirley Manson: if I’d been another three hours premature, we’d be the same exact age.