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