Monthly Archives: June 2012

Unorthodox but essential miniature garden reading

Over the past few months, several good friends announced impending gardening books or book deals, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that my friend Janit Calvo is working on one for Timber Press on miniature garden design. Not only do I wish her the best on this, but I’m buying a copy the moment it becomes available. In the meantime, what laughingly passes for spare time at the Triffid Ranch goes mostly to research, and I realized a little while back that I had one of the best guides to miniature garden design in my library, and that I’d bought it a quarter-century ago this summer.

You’re going to laugh.

Without realizing it, this book taught me everything I know about composition of miniature garden scenes. It taught me the difference between symmetry and balance, where balance is necessary for a proper composition but symmetry merely makes it look artificial and forced. It taught me to take advantage of what I already had, and to scratchbuild the items I needed to make a scene work. It taught me the basics on natural versus artificial lighting, proper scale, and making sure that the scene was neither too large or too small.

Oh, you’re definitely going to laugh.

Best of all, until a few years ago, there’s almost no chance that gardeners would have come across this book. It’s not that it’s rare or obscure, but that its enthusiasts usually don’t share notes with gardeners. A shame, really, because Janit’s push on miniature garden arrangement means that they’re going to start running into each other more often, and we’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun when that happens.

How to Build Dioramas by Shepard Paine

To wit, the book in question is How To Build Dioramas by Sheperd Paine, subtitled “Your Complete How-To-Do-It Guide To Diorama Planning, Construction, and Detailing For All Types of Models”. Originally published in 1980, it was in its fourth printing by the time I discovered it in an MJDesigns north of Dallas in the summer of 1987. I already had a fascination with diorama design, but this one made me think about their design.

The reason why I recommend every last miniature gardener needs a copy of this book? Well, when you think about it, the only difference between a well-composed miniature garden and a well-composed diorama is that the latter can be put in a closet or on a shelf somewhere without worry about anything dying. Otherwise, the idea of both is to tell some type of story, or at least hint at one, with the materials at hand. With a diorama involving plastic model kits, the kit can be the centerpiece of the scene, or it can be a supporting character or situation, but it has to stay within context of the whole arrangement. With a miniature garden, the plants are absolutely essential, but they can also be centerpieces or supporting characters. In both case, put in too much, put in features that detract from each other, or otherwise remind viewers that they’re looking at a construct instead of a vignette, and they’re ruined.

How to Build Dioramas, 2nd Edition

In my case, I’m very fond of both the original edition and the 1999 second edition for different reasons. Not only is the second edition full of new material, but it goes into detail on utilizing resin-cast figures (as well as making them), and new materials for customization that simply weren’t available in the early Eighties. You might not think this is such a big deal, until you come across the nearly-perfect item for a miniature garden, but realize that it needs a new backing or just the right ornamentation to complete the effect. I’m not even going to start on how valuable knowing how to wire supplemental lighting can be, especially considering the options with LEDs and solar-charged batteries these days.

The biggest reason why I hang onto my copies of this book (heck, I won’t even let the Czarina borrow them, because the first edition has that much sentimental attachment for me) is because this was the book that really made me consider stories in miniature garden arrangement. Since we’re very visual creatures at heart, we instinctively block out the plants in arrangements unless they have especially intriguing foliage or flowers. When the subject is a particularly impressive plant or plant arrangement, and viewers are too busy focusing on the little animal or human figures placed therein, then You’re Doing It Wrong. Sheperd Paine understood that these have their place, but that they should always be helping the viewer recognize the real center of the display. Just as bonsai is much more than hacking a sapling or shrub into something approximating a miniature tree, miniature gardening is much more than plopping a few toys and miniatures among randomly selected plants in a terra-cotta bowl. Read through either edition, and just feel the garden ideas percolating through your head while doing so.

Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs by Ray Rimell

And while we’re on the subject, quite a few casual readers were taken by a recent discussion on incorporating dinosaur and other prehistoric animal figures into miniature gardens, and that’s why I also highly recommend Ray Rimell’s 1998 book Building and Painting Model Dinosaurs to anyone wanting to incorporate a few archosaurs or therapsids into their arrangements. Of particular note, Rimell starts off by noting the ease in modifying and customizing the often luridly-colored dinosaur figures currently available, and that should keep all of you busy for a while.

I’m planning to come back to this subject quite a bit more in the next few months, but let’s just say I suspect that we’re going to be seeing a lot more crossover between traditional gardening and traditional model-building as miniature gardening continues to increase in popularity. This, by the way, is why I’m now checking on what UV inhibitors work best with traditional resin and polystyrene composition, and why I’m planning to have a very long and hearty talk with a few resin kit designer friends. The field won’t know what hit it.

Have a Great Weekend

I have precious little patience for anime, but the music pretty much sums up the mood for the weekend.

Views from EagleQuest XXI

And here’s one for Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center. While you might be excused to assume that a model show like EagleQuest is full of military, space, or dinosaur models and dioramas, there’s always something to surprise you. Witness this diorama recreation of a key scene from the film Amadeus:

Amadeus diorama

Amadeus diorama detail

Almost there with an explanation…

Views from EagleQuest XXI

Now, I’m no fan of either iteration of Battlestar Galactica, but this reconstruction of the battlestar Pegasus was a marvel. Fiber optics, a lit display base, and a binder containing the details on its construction and detailing. This was just one of the wonders at last weekend’s EagleQuest XXI.

Battlestar Pegasus

We’re nearly there…

Views from EagleQuest XXI

Still more photos from last weekend’s EagleQuest XXII model show, for those arriving late.

Turret

Turret

Turret

Turret

All will be revealed soon.

Views from EagleQuest XXI

Still more photos from last weekend’s EagleQuest XXI model show:

Tenontosaurus

Tenontosaurus closeup

Tenontosaurus extreme closeup

As mentioned previously, all will be explained soon. Incidentally, this beautiful model is of Tenontosaurus, a hypsilophodont dinosaur native to this area. In fact, trivia enthusiasts might note that a skeleton of Tenontosaurus put up in the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 1989 was the first Texas dinosaur ever put on display in a Texas museum. All others were either Texas dinosaurs in museums located elsewhere, or imported dinosaurs in our museums. This little guy (and at about 6 meters long in life, he really wasn’t all that little) is a bit of history.

Views from EagleQuest XXI

More photos from last weekend’s EagleQuest XXI model show:

Creature from the Black Lagoon

And by now, you really don’t care how this connects to gardening. Patience.

Views from EagleQuest XXI

More views from last weekend’s EagleQuest XXI model show:

LBJ Mech

LBJ Mech

LBJ Mech

And what does this have to do with gardening? Come back this weekend.

Views from EagleQuest XXI

Last week’s EagleQuest plastic modeler’s show, hosted by Squadron Models, inspired all sorts of ideas, as it was just loaded with beautifully constructed and detailed model kits of all sorts. Over the next few days, keep an eye open for more entries, because this show was just loaded.

Motorcycle

Model within a chiminea

And what does this have to do with gardening? Find out this weekend.

Leonhardt Lagoon at Dallas’s Fair Park

Leonhardt Lagoon at Fair Park

I’m regularly asked why I stay in Dallas, all by people who have never so much as visited. Yes, it’s hot during our seemingly never-ending summers. Yes, Highland Park produces people so plastic and artificial that they’re just waiting to declare war upon the Daleks. Yes, we’re not known as a haven for artists, writers, or musicians, or at least the work ethic-challenged wannabes waiting for their first million-dollar contract, no matter how hard some city leaders try to turn us into another Portland or Austin. Sometimes that’s the biggest appeal, though, because Dallas forces you to appreciate the little bits of beauty and protect them. Such is the case of the Leonhardt Lagoon in the middle of Fair Park, just south of downtown.

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon lilypads

Leonhardt Lagoon

Lagoon sculpture

No, the previous photos aren’t left over from a celebration of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. The singular lagoon sculptures therein were created by Dallas artist Patricia Johanson, who wanted to renovate the lagoon with structures evocative of ferns and duck-potato. Not only are they open to the public (in fact, the park encourages people to climb onboard and view the indigenous plant and animal life close-up), but the portions not easily reached by humans are full of basking turtles on most sunny days.

Lagoon turtle

The vast majority of the turtles in the lagoon are the native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), which feed on insects, fish, carrion, and water plants. Get up high, though, and be surprised at the mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) staying out toward the center. The real fun, though, comes in winter, where walking out onto the platforms might startle a still-active snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) into ducking back under a platform.

Lagoon turtle

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Not all of the wonders around the lagoon are natural. Half my life ago, Fair Park hosted the “Rameses the Great” exhibition of Rameses II artwork and artifacts, and the biggest trace was this commemorative stone left behind in 1989.

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Jumbo

Likewise, the former Dallas Museum of Natural History building adds a bit to the lagoon’s feel. Back in 1986, construction in downtown uncovered the nearly complete remains of a Columbian mammoth, and volunteers restored and assembled the skeleton at the Museum. (Until the recent move to the new Perot Museum in downtown, that skeleton was one of the highlights of the Texas Giants Hall on the second floor of the old museum.) “Jumbo” is a bronze sculpture intended to give a life-sized view of how the mammoth appeared in life, perpetually overlooking the lagoon but not quite able to get over there for a drink.

Lagoon cypress

And since the main draw of the lagoon is the flora, it’s hard not to notice the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) growing along the banks. T. distichum is a native Texas tree, if not necessarily a native Dallas one: it’s usually found to the east and the south, where wetlands tend to stay wet in the summer. Thanks to the shape of the area, though, the lagoon has a humid microclimate that sustains and encourages the cypress, and it tends to grow much larger here than in most places in Dallas where it’s been introduced.

cypress cones

Cypress knees

The famed “knees” of bald cypress are more formally known as pneumatophores or aerial roots, which allow the roots to absorb oxygen in otherwise completely anaerobic conditions. These are also seen in mangroves and other mud-loving trees, but they’re not quite as impressive. The knees in the Lagoon’s cypresses range in size depending both upon their proximity to the lagoon and their proximity to the rest of the landscape: lawn mowers tend to keep them trimmed before they get too tall.

Cypress roots

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

Honey mesquite

Across from the bald cypresses, off Jumbo’s left shoulder, is this little garden space, featuring a real Dallas native. Mesquite is so common as a shrubby tree in the Dallas area, especially in overgrazed former cattle land, that even many natives don’t know how big it can get given half a chance. Most guides go on about the medicinal uses of mesquite, and you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without someone talking about getting a cord of well-seasoned mesquite for the grille or smoker. Me, though, I just appreciate the big trees for what they are, and appreciate the shade they offer in the middle of summer.

Petrified log at the Lagoon

Finally, here’s a mystery right on the edge of the lagoon. As mentioned before, the whole of Fair Park was constructed as a World’s Fair exposition ground for the Texas state centennial in 1936, but a lot of history disappeared in the years after the city of Dallas took over the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas. Of particular note was this petrified log. Some stories relate that the north entrance to the fairgrounds featured an arch made of petrified wood, and this log has a concrete peg at one end that supports the idea (pun intended) of it being part of a larger monument. At the same time, though, nobody can find any definitive proof that any such structure existed. Yet the log exists, and it’s been sitting in that same space by the lagoon for the last quarter-century as proof. Anybody up for borrowing a time machine for a little while to take pictures of it in its old location? Or is it some silent sentinel from an unknown civilization in Texas’s distant past, just waiting for the right event to wake it up?

The Last Beer & Bones?

Museum of Nature & Science Lobby

I’ve touted the Beer & Bones events at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park for a while, and last week’s “Space Cadets” B&B involving space science was one of the best yet. It was also a little bittersweet, too, as this was the last one to be held in the old Fair Park Museum of Fine Arts building. Starting next January, while the old buildings will remain (considering that they’re historical landmarks from the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition), most of the Museum’s activities are going to the new Perot Museum in downtown. In my case, I realized that I’ve been causing trouble at the Museum for half my life, back when this building was still The Science Place. Man, where has the time gone?

Museum of Nature & Science lobby

Crowd-wise, this was one of the most diverse as well. Any time you have a space-related event in Dallas, there’s at least one twerp who comes out in his Star Trek uniform (the best I can figure, someone’s still nostalgic for the Federation Science exhibition that ran there back in 1995), but the vast majority of attendees were there to learn something. Oh, and to meet other local science junkies: I suspect that about half of the attendees were high school and middle school teachers on vacation, and this was perfect for them.

Museum of Nature & Science lobby

As has been the case since the beginning of Beer & Bones, what really makes the event work is a combination of exemplary activities and events orchestrated by MNS staffers and the presentations made by outside volunteers. This time, the National Space Society of North Texas came out to display samples of simulated lunar soil, discuss upcoming robotic and manned space missions, and generally turn vaguely interested bystanders into space science enthusiasts. I’ve been an enthusiast since the Mariner missions of the Seventies, and they made me excited.

Museum of Nature & Science wall

Then again, that’s what the Museum has done best from the beginning. The old walls have plenty of stories: the robot dinosaur exhibitions, BodyWorlds, the long-running human body and hands-on physics demonstrations…this place has a lot of good memories associated with it.

Mercury

Finally, as I was leaving for the evening, a small mystery. The Museum terrazzo floors feature inlaid constellations and planets across the lobby, with the terrestrial planets right near the ticket counter. For instance, here’s Mercury…

Venus

…and Venus…

Mars

…and Mars. However, off to the right of Mars was this strange little body that I first thought might have been the asteroid Ceres or Vesta. Then I saw the name.

Cecil Green

Now, seeing as how the IMAX theater in the Museum is dedicated to the founders of Texas Instruments, this might be a reference to Cecil H. Green, the geophysicist who helped found TI. Of course, this being Dallas, it might also be a reference to Cecil Green the Dallas race car driver. Considering that “Cecil Green” appears to be a green and pastoral world, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it had been discovered and named after Canada’s one and only Time Lord. I’d ask for elaboration at the next Beer & Bones, but since there won’t be one at the old museum…

Revving up your sense of wonder

Unknown mantid

For various reasons, I thoroughly enjoy my day job. It’s not just because it pays for my various carnivorous plant fixes. It’s close enough to the house that I can bicycle to work without the trip being an ordeal. We’re located near enough Texas wilderness that I literally have no way to tell what I’ll encounter on the morning ride. I’ve passed bobcats, coyotes, Texas ratsnakes, red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, vultures and buzzards, armadillos, a bounty of songbirds ranging from scissortails to mockingbirds, at least three species of hummingbird, ox beetles, katydids, and even the occasional roadrunner. That’s not even counting the opossum curled up in a redbud tree right by the bike rack one morning two years ago, hoping that I hadn’t noticed 10 kilos of fatbutt in a tree far too small for it.

Another reason why I enjoy the Day Job comes from the daily conversations. I’m lucky enough to work with a crew of exceptional minds, and a lot of them have very different interests away from the job. When everyone stops in the morning, realizing that we’ve been staring at monitor screens for so long that the words start to run together, that’s when the real fun begins.

And so it happened last Friday, when my boss and I were discussing the upcoming Mars Curiosity rover landing in August. (His background is in fine arts, but he dabbles in quantum physics, and I’ve been a terrible influence on introducing him to the grand tradition of palaeontological art. As I said, it’s an interesting crew out here.) He looked over at a window, stopped for a second, and asked “What the hell is that bug?” Clinging to the window was what appeared at first to be a lacewing, but the more we viewed it, the stranger it was.

Firstly, as can be told, it’s definitely a mantis of some sort. However, with the four species generally found in the North Texas area, only nymphs are this small, and the wings confirm that this was an adult. (In the photo above, the little symbol is the recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic bowl, left in to give a sense of scale.) The whole insect was only 1.5 centimeters long, with a shriveled abdomen that suggested that it was a female that had just laid its egg case. As it was, it was already dying when we found it, and it expired maybe an hour after its capture.

Taking a view of the corpse through a dissecting microscope just brought up more questions. I’ve seen similar grasping arms on other mantid species, but ones that got much, MUCH larger than this one. Only when cleaning up this photo did the second pair of wings present themselves, and with two pairs of wings being a diagnostic for all members of the order Mantodea, I was wondering at first if it were a mantis after all until I saw the second pair. At this size, I could see it being an aggressive predator of ants, aphids, and other small insects, but that’s a bit hard to test with a deceased specimen.

To make things even stranger, no mantid of this sort shows up in Texas bug references, which makes me wonder if it were one blown in via winds off the Gulf of Mexico last week. The big question now is “Is this a lost traveler who was extremely far from home when she died, or is this a representative of a new species that somehow slid past the determined and dedicated crew at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology?” More research is in order, because I’m hoping that this one wasn’t the last of her kind.

EDIT: With friends like Michael Cook, you’d think I’d have the brains to ask someone like him, who practically knows every member of the Phylum Arthropoda on a first-name basis, for a positive ID. It turns out our friend was a mantisfly, a rather rare group of insects more closely related to ant lions and lacewings than true mantids. Many thanks to Michael for passing on that information, and for widening my horizons that much more. I may never see another mantisfly again, but at least I can say that I’ve seen at least one.

Have A Great Weekend

Thursday is Resource Day

Believe it or not, today is a beautiful day for miniature garden discussions. It isn’t just that Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens keeps giving me all sorts of interesting ideas for projects. It isn’t just that the new issue of Reptiles and the new issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived on the same day, and they always inspire. No, it’s because I promised Janit that I was going to get around to giving her a guide to several very unorthodox books that should be essential in any miniature gardener library, and I might be able to get that written up this weekend.

As a taste, though, I’d like to pass on word about an event this weekend that should be essential for any serious miniature gardener. Squadron, our friendly neighborhood mail-order plastic model kit supplier (quite literally, as its headquarters is right down Highway 190 from my house) hosts the regular model kit expo EagleQuest, and EagleQuest XXII (PDF) starts tomorrow and runs until Saturday evening at the Embassy Suites Dallas Hotel in Grapevine. I’ll explain later, but any serious miniature gardener NEEDS to be out here if necessary. The cross-pollination will do both miniature gardening and plastic kit modeling a world of good.

Likewise, here’s a tip for those needing miniature gardening tools. Micro-Mark, one of the best sources for modeling tools out there, is holding its annual summer sale, with lots of specials. Again, I’ll explain later, but I’ll leave you with one word: Milliput. If this stuff isn’t already your best friend for construction, repair, and modification, then let me introduce you and hope you have lots of babies.

And before I forget, the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adult museum event tonight, with the subject tonight being “Space Cadets”. This also ties into gardening in its way, because arriving early means getting a good view of the Leonhardt Lagoon and surrounding environs, which is just rotten with animal and plant life right now. I’ll explain exactly why this is so important later, so don’t worry about taking notes.

Absolute Surefire Steps To Kill Your Venus Flytrap, Step 8

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 8: Keep moving it around.

Most of the appeal of carnivorous plants is in their appropriation of traits normally associated with animals. That’s also their doom. Since some are more active, from a human perspective, than most plants, we tend to ascribe feelings and impressions to them better suited to pets than ikebana. One of the most dangerous of these impressions is the assumption that since carnivores catch and digest prey, they need to be fed on a schedule and regimen more suited for a dog than a pitcher plant. The other, equally dangerous, is that they need to get out for a while.

By way of example, a friend of mine purchased a butterwort from me last year. He keeps a wide variety of reptiles, so he had a good grasp of the basic requirements for keeping a butterwort happy and healthy: good water, decent air circulation, and lots and lots of light. He went for a couple of months without any problems, and then he contacted me in a panic. His butterwort was collapsing in on itself, and when I tried to diagnose the trouble, he told me “I put it outside for a little while, so it could get some air.” In the middle of last summer’s heat wave.

Another example came from another good friend, who was very proud of her new Venus flytrap. Flytraps require lots of sun, high humidity, and good air circulation, of which you can get two out of those three during the summer. I combat this by raising flytraps outdoors in large glass globes: excess heat vents out the top, but humidity loss is kept to a relative minimum, and the flytraps just explode with new growth when given this option. Her flytrap was doing remarkably well for a while, and then she wrote me to ask about its health. It went into a sudden decline a couple of weeks ago, about the time the temperatures started to spike, and she couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t, either, until she said that the problem came one day after she brought the plant “back inside” from where it had been during the day.

This is where the impression of carnivorous plants as animals with chlorophyll is dangerous to them. While protecting them from temperature and humidity extremes is recommended, most animals kept as pets have no problems with being moved around a bit for a change of scenery and some fresh air. The problem here is that the vast majority of animals get up and move when temperatures and other conditions fluctuate past “nominal”. Plants can’t do that, or at least they can’t do it quickly, and carnivorous plants are still just that: plants.

Part of the reason why we humans blank out on most of the incredible variety and diversity of flora around us is because it doesn’t move. We’re conditioned, from millions of years of evolutionary development, to seek out the lone animal in a panorama of green. Show a portraiture of prehistoric life, and the emphasis is always on the animals. If any plants show up, they’re purely background unless an animal is eating or climbing one. Carnivorous plants subvert that by their nature, so we tend to home in on the features of carnivores that look the most animal-like, such as the “mouths” of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. (This also helps explain the odd connection in fiction between dinosaurs and man-eating plants, but that’s the subject of another essay.)

The danger here is that while carnivores may act like animals in some ways, they’re still vegetation. Nobody (or at least nobody sane) digs up a rose bush and carries it around with them in a gilt pot all day. Plants can move in any number of fascinating ways, but with the exception of floating varieties such as the aquatic ferns of the genus Azolla, they’re ultimately limited to the place where their roots first went down. Most plants generally move across the countryside either when they’re dead (tumbleweeds scattering their seeds) or in serious trouble (aloes trying to escape poor conditions by snapping free of their stems and rolling to new locales). They just don’t have the energy to move far on their own, and so they don’t have the adaptations animals have to deal with the changing conditions faced even ten feet away from where they were growing previously. They can deal with changes, but on a gradual basis, and moving your flytrap back and forth happens too quickly for it to adjust.

To give you an idea of how a low-energy organism like a plant adapts to this, imagine you’re at home, sitting on the couch. You’re in comfortable clothes, you have a cold drink in your hand, Spaced is on the television, and all is right in the world. You’re just getting into things when something moving too fast for you to see or even acknowledge picks you up and dumps you into a cold mud puddle out in front of the house. You’ve just had the chance to spit out water and wonder “What the hell just happened?” when you find yourself back on the couch. And then you’re tossed into the refrigerator. And then under an air conditioner vent. And then next to the oven. Then you’re thrown out into the sun, sans sunscreen or sunglasses. Just as you’re starting to burn, you’re dumped in a closet for a few hours with no food. Then you’re put out back in the sun, in the middle of a sunny July day in Phoenix. And then you’re put next to a swimming pool. And this goes on for days.

Now, you can move to adjust, but whatever is moving you is moving too fast for you to do anything. Reach for an available cup of water, and you’re swung out of range. Reach out for a blanket to deal with the chills, and suddenly your arm is snipped off with no warning. Ultimately, the stress of dealing with all of this is going to make you sick or depressed or both, and you’re going to run out of energy to fight the constant changes. If you’re lucky, that something will take pity on you and leave you alone until you get rid of the cold you got from being bounced in and out of air conditioning. If you’re not…well, you might be remembered fondly as you’re tossed into the garbage after you finally let loose one last scream before dying. That, in essence, is what you do to any plant if you move it around and transplant it constantly.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never move plants from adverse conditions. What I am saying is that you need to give them time to adjust. Just as how keeping you indoors under AC all summer and then expecting you to run a 100-mile bicycle race with no training and no opportunity to acclimate to the heat will probably kill you, swinging a plant back and forth between extremes will do the same thing. When you buy a flytrap and bring it home, pick a good spot for it to grow and leave it there. If you have to move it, do so only because the current space is an immediate threat to its health and continuing existence, and try to make the change as gradual as possible. You don’t want the Tralfamadorians to load up on sugar, go into full Cornholio mode, and toss you into a snowbank for a few hours, do you? Then why would you want to do the same thing to your flytrap?

Put A Stamp On It

Texas Triffid Ranch package

In the Northern Hemisphere, we officially cross over from spring to summer today. This means it’s time to share comments about the weather with friends living further north. It means that I’m now running out of suggestions for friends at the Day Job as to what their kids can do on summer vacation that won’t cost a fortune. (I’m afraid “how about getting them jobs in a coal mine and telling them ‘it’s steampunk’?” doesn’t go over all that well, but that’s only because the nearest mines are in Tennessee.) Best of all, it means that it’s time to make the world’s postal carriers HATE me. It’s time for freebies.

Here’s the situation. It started when I was organizing my office. (Let’s be honest. “Organizing my office” is much like giving a corpse an enema because “it couldn’t hurt.” The place looks as if Hunter S. Thompson camped out there for a month. Let me say “I was attempting to prevent an avalanche of old papers threatening to smash down the wall and entomb my neighbor in 20-year-old correspondence.”) While wondering if I had enough cord to connect the detonator to the primary charges, I came across a cardboard box left over from a promotional campaign three years ago. Inside that box…

Well, inside the box was treasure for the right people. And it can be yours, should you be so inclined.

Inside the box were 70 individual envelopes, labeled with return addresses and filled with goodies. Specifically, each one contains a Triffid Ranch sticker, a Triffid Ranch button, and other random items. All you need to do to get one is ask. The first 70 people to send a mailing address gets an envelope in return.

Because everyone looks side-eyed whenever I offer free items, here are the rules:

Numero Uno: One envelope will be sent per address. This may be home, work, mail drop, or slot in the side of a tree. However, if you know of people who’d enjoy getting something for free this summer, include their addresses as well.

Numero Two-O: This offer is open to the citizens of the planet Earth, no matter where you’re located. All I need is a valid mailing address, and the postage costs will be covered by the Texas Triffid Ranch.

Numero Three-O: To belay any concerns about privacy, any addresses gathered will only be used for the purpose of sending envelopes, and will NOT be used in any other way. They also will NOT be given to anybody else, for any reason whatsoever.

Numero Four-O: All requests for envelopes must be submitted by midnight on June 30, 2012. This offer will continue until then or until all envelopes are claimed, whichever comes first.

Numero Five-O: Should you wish to share details of this offer with others, please feel free. Again, the offer continues until all envelopes are claimed.

And if all of that made sense, send in a request with your Snail Mail address to buttons@txtriffidranch.com, and I’ll finish it from there. I thank you, the Czarina thanks you, and my next-door neighbor thanks you.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri

Anyone care to venture as to what this might be?

Opuntia pad skeleton

Okay, that’s a little lacking in context. How about this?

Opuntia skeleton detail

That’s not really fair. How about seeing a few of these with the flesh intact?

Old Opuntia

My in-laws’ ranch contains at least five distinct species of cactus, and the vast majority of it is the common prickly pear, in one form of Opuntia engelmannii or another. Out of those variations, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri is the most common. As with other cacti, O. englemannii protects itself with spines. Unlike all other cacti, Opuntia cacti also bear specialized hairlike spines called glochids, which catch in the skin and break off.

(Some of you may be familiar with the story of Commander Nishino Kozo, who led the first Japanese attack on the US mainland during World War II. The popular account of the shelling of the Ellwood oil fields near Santa Barbara was due to Nishino’s first visit to the area while a freighter captain: he fell into a prickly pear cactus and was so humiliated by oil rig workers laughing at him over it that he swore revenge. Having done the same thing, and having to wait for the glochids to fall out, a very long and uncomfortable process, we should be glad that Commander Nishino didn’t go a lot further.)

Sadly, by the end of May, the gorgeous yellow blooms on O. englemannii are already long-gone, and the fruit won’t turn purple when ripe until about the beginning of October. In the meantime, May is a good time to examine the growing fruit. An average prickly pear can carry anywhere between one to 25 of these fruit, depending upon the prior season. Last year, for instance, the drought caused most of the prickly pear to drop their fruit early, leading to a corresponding lack of autumn food for cattle, deer, birds, coyotes, raccoons, and pigs. This spring, though, the rains were both abundant and frequent, so expect a bumper crop of “tuna” come Halloween.

Opuntia fruit

In the interim, because growing conditions are so amenable, the prickly pear take advantage of late spring to do most of their growing. The young pads give hints of their relations to other flowering plants, at least until the fleshy spikes turn into standard and glochid spines.

Opuntia growing a new pad
As far as growing Opuntia is concerned, the trick isn’t trying to keep it alive. It’s trying to kill it off. Prickly pears are notoriously forgiving in their growing conditions, only needing very good drainage and no chance of sitting in overly moist ground for more than a few days. Because the pads are mostly water (the pads are technically edible if peeled and cooked, with a consistency somewhere between cantaloupe and raw squash and a flavor best described as “acquired taste”), prickly pear can’t handle long periods of sub-freezing weather, so they need to be protected if grown in areas with significant amounts of snow and ice. Other than that, though, they’re nearly unstoppable. As Australians learned to their peril when prickly pear was introduced to the continent, if the cactus is burned or chopped down, it resprouts from the roots. If a single pad is left behind, no matter seemingly how mangled, it can and will root and grow into a whole new bush before too long. Worst of all, each prickly pear fruit is full of incredibly tough seeds, and they can and will sprout just about anywhere they land. When birds eat the fruit, seeds and all, those little chunks of aquarium gravel can end up sprouting in cliff faces, atop sandy washes, and even in places you wouldn’t expect.

Opuntia in a dead tree

Yes, that’s an O. englemannii growing in a tree. It’s been there for at least thirty years, and considering the slow rate of decay of most wood on the ranch, it may be there for another twenty before the stump finally snaps and throws it to the ground. After that, it’ll probably scatter pads and form a whole new clump. So far, that cactus has survived two major droughts, although last year’s drought almost got it, along with cattle nibblings, several bad blizzards, and the occasional overly enthusiastic deer hunter. At the rate it’s going, it’ll probably outlive all of us.

Future Triffid Ranch projects

When I’m not making plans to offer fast food to the Harris hawk, it’s time to get ready for the next big Triffid Ranch show: FenCon this September. With that comes the advantage of doing live shows over mail order. Namely. being able to bypass the insanity of the US Post Office. Yes, Triffid Ranch Nepenthes may be a little more expensive than ones ordered from another nursery. However, they’re also going to be much larger than is practical or sane to ship, especially in the summer, and they’re going to come with pots that will damage your fragile little mind.

Figurine Front

For instance, check out this puppy, recently snagged at an estate sale. Deliberately fake Maya and Olmec pots of this sort were standard tourist fare throughout the Sixties and Seventies, and there was a time circa 1981 where it seemed nearly impossible to find a house in North Texas that didn’t have an authentic fake figure pot from Texcoco in it. Maybe I remembered it differently, but they seemed to be as common in Texas houses as anniversary clocks further north, and in the same spot of honor atop the monster console television in the living room. Then, with no warning, they all disappeared from the land, without so much as a sighting or two in garage sales to mark the passing of a long-running fad.

Figurine Side

I’ll state from the beginning that I’m a sucker for well-done fabricated artifacts, so long as I know from the beginning that it’s a modern fabrication, and this one has its merits. As can be noticed from the photos, though, this figure was damaged a few times before it ended up in the estate sale. The front cup, which is the perfect size for a succulent such as a Stapelia, was cracked at least twice in its life. The first time, the part was glued back in. The second time, a big chip came off and was lost. In order to be usable again, it needs restoration. And herein lies the dilemma.

Over the past few years, I’ve noted a decided change in the presentation of restored archaeological and palaeontological treasures. Until the late Eighties, the idea was to make the restoration match the new material as much as possible, to the point where telling bone from plaster was nearly impossible without X-rays. Now, though, I’m seeing a trend toward making sure the general public understands how much of a piece was reconstructed after discovery, with obvious white or grey patches to fill in for missing material. Since I’m also a sucker for modern museum displays, do I patch the spot so that nobody can tell where clay ends and Milliput begins, or does this repair beg to make the final piece look as if it were “borrowed” from a friendly museum prior to its appearance in a plant show? Questions, questions.

Introducing Anolis carolinensis

Last weekend was a time to get busy at the Triffid Ranch. We haven’t truly moved into traditional Texas summer weather yet, and man, beast, and plant understood this, because we were all going a bit nuts. I spent Saturday and Sunday making a new raised bed edge for the Czarina’s tomato garden, pruning and trimming various bushes on the property, clearing clover out of the Sarracenia pots, clearing clover seeded from the Sarracenia pots out of the horsecrippler cactus, repotting Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion peppers for the next big show in September, deadheading orchids, and watering the flytraps. By Saturday evening, by the time the Czarina got home, my usual lament about not having access to the 57-hour day was coming off my lips with the raging froth at the clover. At least I didn’t have to deal with the squirrels digging up the Sarracenia, at least since a big female Harris’s hawk started using the rooftop as a dining room table and my greenhouse as a commode. (With the hawk, the only beef is with bluejay feathers blowing off the roof. Other than that, “Shayera Hol” is welcome here for as long as she wants to stay. I don’t even mind her sitting on the greenhouse, staring at the cats through the window.)

Around the Triffid Ranch, taking the time to smell the roses was secondary to taking the time to watch the critters, and it was a day for critter-watching. Moving a brick in the tomato bed dislodged a rough earth snake (Virginia striatula), a snake so sweet-tempered and inoffensive that even serious ophidiophobes tend to soften a bit upon seeing one. Lots of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus)hid among the bricks as well, waiting for nightfall. And then, as I was moving a batch of dragonfruit cactus pots, this little gentleman moved just enough to let me know he was there.

Sunbathing Carolina anole

The first common misconception about the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is that, because of its common nickname “American chameleon,” it can change color with the range and definition of Old World chameleons. While A. carolinensis can switch between various shades of green and brown, it has nothing on true chameleons. However, true chameleons don’t have the brilliant scarlet dewlap, which looks as if the lizard were brushed with powdered rubies, that male anoles flash to signal territorial claims. This fellow wasn’t worried about other anoles trying to take his space, but he also wasn’t taking an eye off me.

Carolina anole closeup

The other assumption about Carolina anoles, at least in North Texas, is that they’re escapees from captivity that went feral. Although a lot of anoles may have been released in the wild in the Dallas area from the days when they were inexplicably popular offerings in pet shops, this is actually native habitat for A. carolinensis, and they range south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Arkansas before moving east all the way to the Atlantic. They don’t get as large in Dallas as they do in Tallahassee, but considering some of the gigantic anoles (not to be mistaken for the introduced Cuban anoles in the area) I used to catch in Tally, I’m actually a bit happy. This one was about as long as my hand, which suggested that he was getting both plenty of insects and plenty of drinking water. Anoles will not drink still water, and prefer to drink dew from plants, so I suspect the mister system in the greenhouse may have made his life a bit easier last summer.

"I'm ready for my closeup now, Mr. deMille."

When I was a kid in Michigan, I dreamed of one day keeping an anole as a pet, and would camp out at the pet sections in department stores to stare at the lizards. I know today that the vast majority didn’t survive more than a few weeks of that treatment, and many more died due to substandard care with their future owners, but lizards were a rarity up there and color-changing ones nonexistent. I became enough of an insufferable know-it-all on the subject that when showing my little brother a cage full of them at a K-Mart, I related “Look: Carolina anoles.” This peeved the toad overseeing the pet section, and he proceeded to correct me: “They’re chameleons.”

“No, they’re anoles. Anolis carolinensis. They’re native to the East Coast.”

He pulled out a cheap booklet entitled “All About Chameleons” from a shelf, and promptly showed me pictures of anoles, and then flashed the cover again, emphasizing the word “chameleon.” I then asked if I could see the book, and promptly read to him the first several paragraphs about anole habits and scientific nomenclature. He grabbed the book back, sneered “You’re just making it up,” told us to get out before he called the head manager, and went back to the dreams of a K-Mart pet shop manager. Probably involving how, when someone finally gave him command of a Constitution-class starship, he’d get into pissing matches with seven-year-olds and win.

Well, that was then. Now, I figure the lizards are happier and healthier in the yard than they’d ever be in captivity, and I encourage moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) to give the anoles and geckos more cover. This fellow sat atop that fence top with a very catlike demeanor, and when he was done watching me, he skittered off to do whatever anoles do in their off time. He’s always welcome to come back, and bring his harem with him, too.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia leptocaulis

For most people living outside the US, and for many inside the US, the word “cactus” brings up two images. The obvious first one is of a saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), even though the saguaro is (a) one of the most extreme in size of all cacti, and (b) restricted to only a small area of southwest North America. (I’m still amazed at how often saguaro imagery shows up in cowboy motifs in Texas, even though the nearest one in the wild is in Arizona. It’s that iconic.) The second is of some sort of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), which is a little more reasonable. Prickly pear not only thrives in desert and semi-desert, but just about any place with sufficient drainage for its roots and protection from long freezes. In fact, most people are surprised to find them thriving in the mangrove swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in Florida.

Once those cliches are out of the way, Texas cacti have a lot of charms on their own. The best cactus-viewing in the state can be done around Big Bend National Park, and I heartily recommend such trips in mid-March, when the cacti and associated succulents are in full bloom. In the Dallas area, most cacti are limited to collections and the occasional prickly pear in an especially viable area (the seeds are spread by birds, so lone prickly pears can be found hundreds of miles away from their nearest neighbors), but go a little west of Fort Worth, and both cacti and agaves become significant components of the local flora.

Opuntia leptocaulis

Out on the west side of the Brazos River, for instance, it behooves visitors to be careful underneath scrub trees such as mesquite. This is preferred habitat for Opuntia leptocaulis, locally known as “pencil cactus,” among the names that can be printed. The Czarina’s family refers to it as “break-stick cactus,” from its habit to break off in chunks on skin, hair, and clothing, and it can be a menace in places where it grows alongside roads, trails, and paths.

O. leptocaulis detail

As can be told from its habits, O. leptocaulis isn’t especially fussy about its soil requirements, but it needs shade when smaller. Like all flowering plants, it reproduces by seed, and produces bright red fruits in the late fall that often remain on the plant through the winter. Like its prickly pear cousins, it also reproduces from pieces caught on animals and dropped elsewhere, causing it to be compared to the famed chollas of the Joshua Tree National Park of California. This helps explain why O. leptocaulis ranges all the way from the Brazos to the east all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

O. leptocaulis overview

O. leptocaulis blooms

One of the interesting aspects on O. leptocaulis is that it is one of the only cacti on the ranch that blooms in the evening to night, instead of blooming in the early morning as with the other species in the area. Between this habit, the size of the blooms, and the understandable concern more about the spines than the blooms, most people are surprised to see one blooming. They also tend to bloom much later in the year, around late May into June, when most of the more spectacular cactus blooms are long-gone and those cacti are more focused on producing fruit. That said, they gravitate toward insect pollinators, based mostly on their extreme luminance under UV illumination, but they apparently also offer a few drinks to hummingbirds as well.

O. leptocaulis fruit

Now, what few guides contain information on O. leptocaulis mention that the fruit are eaten by deer and other mammals, but you’d never know it based on the huge loads of fruit on mature plants. Prickly pears are eaten with gusto by everything from cattle to skunks. Horsecrippler fruit is preferred by birds, native peccary, and feral pigs, while the other indigenous barrel cactus save their attentions for small birds and possibly the occasional lizard or box turtle. In the last decade since first coming out to the ranch, though, I have yet to see any vertebrate touch a pencil cactus fruit. The invertebrates seem to enjoy them, though, as the cactus offers both hotel and cafeteria for various species of grasshopper and katydid. As to how they encourage seed spread, your guess is as good as mine, and this entails more trips to the ranch to investigate. Oh, the absolute agony.

Grasshopper in O. leptocaulis