Monthly Archives: April 2013

Countdown to Frightmare

71 hours away from the opening of Texas Frightmare Weekend, and sleep is something I hear about. Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the first-ever Triffid Ranch show, at the sadly defunct CAPE Day, so it’s a matter of pulling stops and raising expectations. The only way things are going to get even better is if I can get those Pink Bunkadoo seeds I bought last year to sprout in time for the show.

In any case, expect a bit of radio silence until then, as the rest of the week goes toward repotting, arranging, and packing. Oh, and taking photos of how well Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers fluoresce under violet lasers. Catch everyone there.

Image

Cat Monday

Leiber

Have A Great Weekend

Flashbacks from 24 years ago, and pretty much my theme song today…

Projects: Living in the future

One of the side effects of last weekend’s show at the Perot Museum was the realization that there’s not really an easy way to show people the inside of a pitcher plant, no matter the particular genus or species, without a bit of help. Sarracenia pitcher lids can be bent back a bit, but it’s hard for a group to get a peek inside without risking damage to the pitcher. It’s even worse with Nepenthes pitchers, and trying to do some investigation of Cephalotus pitchers? Forget it. This requires a bit of technology.

The question started up yesterday afternoon, when a trip to the allergist made me think “What about an endoscope? I mean, if you can use one to view the inside of someone’s trachea, how hard can it be to get one that can be slipped down a carnivorous plant pitcher to view the inside?” All of a sudden, the possibilities: surveys of prey items and their numbers, searching for various animals living inside, investigating the difference in prey caught at night and during the day, all without having to cut the pitcher open.

That’s when an old friend in New York turned me onto USB-ready endoscopes, complete with adjustable LEDs for illuminating the view. They’re already waterproof for viewing plumbing issues, so they’re absolutely perfect for getting into the equally slimy and grungy environment found inside a Nepenthes pitcher. Better yet, between getting live video through a computer screen and taking screen captures, presentations at museums and schools just got a LOT more interesting.

Thank you, Pat, for the help. Now I need to find a really small one, otherwise with the same features, for getting into really small plants. It may be time to look further at Nepenthes ampullaria as a tadpole nursery.

Earth Day at the Perot: The Aftermath

Malawisaurus

A full decade after heading out on this odd path, I can finally say that I’ve hit the big time: a Triffid Ranch presentation at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science last weekend. The Czarina was in Galveston on her own business, so it was just me, the plants, and about 50,000 utterly fascinated kids and adults asking questions. I don’t think I’m exaggerating as to the number, either. I now understand how adults felt when I was a kid, asking questions that they had to scramble to answer, because I think I met most of the Ph.D candidates of the high school class of 2020. Their parents weren’t slacking off, either: when one gentleman came through and related how he’d seen Sarracenia pitcher plants for years while stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, but didn’t know what they were until then, a crowd gathered just to listen to him. Heck, people turned away from the Malawisaurus skeleton in the main lobby to listen to him.

Triffid Ranch display at the Perot

Since this was a lecture event, and not a sale, variety was much more important than volume. This meant displays of (from the left) sticky traps (sundews, butterworts, triggerplants), active traps (Venus flytraps, bladderworts), and passive pitfall traps (Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants, and a lone Brocchinia bromeliad), while explaining how each and every one worked. Next time, I’m including guides on how these operate, but this worked well enough that even the volunteers there on both days came over to find out more.

Assorted Sarracenia

Assorted Sarracenia

Maybe it’s the new greenhouse, or maybe it’s just the fluctuating weather (we’ve had temperatures dropping well below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) at least one night per week for the last month, which almost never happens in April in Texas), but the Sarracenia pitcher plants just exploded this year. Huge pitchers, equally gigantic blooms, and lots of color. Either way, I’m not complaining.

Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia purpurea, or purple pitcher plant: the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador. I admit that I find it hard not to sing “O Canada” every time I look over one of these, and this one was just the right size for visitors to look inside the pitchers at the insect part debris already caught inside.

Brocchinia reductans

And then there was the real surprise for new attendees: an example of the carnivorous bromeliad Brocchinia reductans of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana, courtesy of Jacob and Jeff at Sarracenia Northwest. This was an especial surprise for one young woman attending on Sunday: she was a fashion designer from Venezuela here in Dallas visiting family, and she was amazed that such a plant existed, much less existed as close to her home. One of these days, I need to plan a botanical trip to South America, right after I finish trips to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Antarctica, Newfoundland…

As for the Perot, this simultaneously left me exhausted and hoping for more, so we’ll see if I’m invited back in the future. I’ve already volunteered to lecture at one of the Social Science events for adults, but any excuse to come out there is a good one. After all, the Czarina and I have history there, even if it’s only been open for six months.

Image

Cat Monday

Leiber

Have A Great Weekend

Last call: Perot Museum Earth Day Activities

As mentioned repeatedly, show season is in force at the Triffid Ranch, so things may go quiet in the interim. I’m very glad that the Czarina usually attends most of these with me, because otherwise she’d be perfectly justified to assume that she wasn’t really married. Instead, she just had a troll living on the back porch that throws mud and crockery about while mumbling under his breath. She does, but occasionally I come inside to get water and pay bills before going once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

And so it goes with the Earth Day activities at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas. Expect lots of giant Sarracenia, other carnivores, and the usual expected stimulation of your sense of wonder. Just buy your tickets now before you head out, because if previous trips to the Perot are any indication, they may be sold out before you get here.

Capsicum bonsai: starting out

A long while back, when faced with a local surplus of overgrown pepper plants at the local home improvement center, I discussed the bare basics for converting pepper plants into bonsai. A few years of experimentation went by since then. Capsicum peppers adapt rather well to bonsai training, and while they grow into a good form rather rapidly compared to most plants, they also have specific needs and considerations that most bonsai enthusiasts rarely encounter otherwise. It’s not often that one starts out with good examples of what to watch for in one plant, but a particularly aggressive Bhut Jolokia pepper raised as a container plant needed trimming back anyway, and this guy had some promise as a bonsai.

Starting out

Looking from above

Unbeknownst to most people content to raise hot and/or sweet peppers in the garden, Capsicum plants last more than one season if protected from freezing. This isn’t negotiable: peppers can’t handle even an hour of subfreezing weather. If you want to start with new seeds right now, understand that you’ll need to get this plant into a container fairly early, and you have to bring it into a space that gets lots of sun through the winter. For best results, don’t let the temperatures drop below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and try to keep the container off surfaces that conduct or trap cold, such as bare concrete.

This example here was the end-result of an experiment courtesy of the Chile Pepper Institute, back when the Institute was the one main source for Bhut Jolokia pepper seeds. Naturally, said experiment started right at the height of the new Texas Drought of Record, when relative humidity dropped to as low as 7 percent on most summer days, so only a few Bhut Jolokias survived the summer of 2011. One, though, not only survived but bore fruit, so it came inside for the winter and went into a one-gallon landscaping pot. One more summer outside, and now it’s ready for an initial assessment and shaping.

Essential tools

Before starting, make sure that you have tools and supplies on hand, and in a space where they’re readily accessible. Besides the standard tweezers and secateurs, I’ve become appreciative of microfiber polishing cloths for mopping up various fluids, and of a watch knife for shaping branches. Go with whatever works the best for you, but note that with peppers, you’ll probably do the vast majority of work with maybe one pair of scissors and a pair of chopsticks.

More tools

Another aspect to consider with peppers for bonsai is that these are NOT trees, and don’t stop reminding yourself of this. Pepper branches tend to be much more flexible than those of the tree species generally used for bonsai, but they’re also more prone to damage. Bend one too far, too quickly, and you stand a good chance of crimping the branch and thus permanently damaging it. Because of this, when wiring, I tend to go with very low-gauge, very soft wire. Standard copper bonsai wire can be too strong and inflexible for peppers, so I stick with aluminum, and the skinnier, the better. In the photo above, the smaller loops are aluminum jewelry wire, picked up at deep discount at the local Michael’s store, and the annealed wire is perfect for wiring up the ends of pepper plant branches without damaging them.

As with all bonsai projects, this one is an ongoing work, but it’s still going to take a while to clean it up. If you’re one of those who needs background noise while working, I recommend setting up an indoor work area and dropping something into the DVD player. I recommend something that combines hope for the success of the final work with a bit of mystery, and so I had the perfect film running while doing the initial evaluation and cleanup.

Dave Bowman looks on in horror

Yeah, Dave, I know how you feel.

The base is a mess

Before going any further, let’s start with cleaning up the winter residue. Since our Bhut Jolokia was outdoors all autumn long, the pot desperately needs removal of the various chunks of dead leaf, spent twig, and occasional cigarette butt within. (Do NOT ask me how the cigarette butt got in there. I can’t smoke, so it wasn’t mine.)

Cleaning it up

A few photos earlier, you may have noticed a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the collection of tools being used. That’s because while cleaning up, I make a point of regularly sterilizing all of my metal and plastic tools with IPA while proceeding. Those microfiber cloths hold quite a bit, so they’re used for wipedowns, but I also recommend keeping a shot glass full of IPA on hand for dipping tools as well. Considering that peppers are as susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus as tomatoes, coming across that spare cigarette butt during the cleanup made me especially glad I had a consistent disinfection program going on.

Starting out

With that out of the way, let’s look at what we have. After a good year of growth, peppers tend to have a good stout woody stem with a strong root system. That’s the good side. The bad is that they also sprout lots of buds, too, and all over the place. This means that within a year, the pepper’s basic structure includes a lot of crossing branches, half-dead stubs, and other flaws. Put your pepper on a turntable of some sort and give it a good look, from above and below. Swing it around a few times, and take note of structure that you want to preserve and structure that needs to go.

Closeups of buds

Since it’s still spring, prepare yourself for pulling and clipping a lot of fresh buds, particularly where the main trunk meets the lowest branches. The good news is that while other plants may need grafts to add desirable features lower onto a trunk, sometimes you can get whole new ideas just by leaving the pepper alone for a while. In this case, though, since all I really want to do is open up the interior, they’re all going to have to go.

Pepper jin

As an aside, remember how you need to keep remembering that peppers aren’t like other bonsai plants? That applies most to deadwood techniques. This branch helps demonstrate why establishing jin and shari on a pepper usually doesn’t work. When pepper branches die off, the resultant wood becomes extremely fragile, going powdery in most cases, with a noticeable pith instead of heartwood. Trying to manipulate it usually means watching it break everywhere but where you want it to break, and the fragments usually destroy any sense of scale intended to be established. One of these days, I’m going to experiment with various fixatives that might build up such delicate wood, but for right now, that puppy is going to have to go.

Likewise, scarring up a pepper trunk to give it an impression of age requires different techniques. While the trunk itself is strong, the bark is tender and thin enough that the standard burning and reaming techniques for woody bonsai aren’t necessary. Gentle scraping with a watch knife blade is usually enough to establish the appearance of deadwood, and wood stressed with regular flexing, such as in plants exposed to regular heavy wind, splits in impressive ways.

Pepper trunk

Another consideration is that pepper nebari aren’t quite the same as those on other plants, either. After a few years, pepper roots get thick and tough, but as with branches, they don’t remain that way once they die. Larger roots turn into punk wood like branches, and the smaller ones simply shriven and retain all of the strength and aesthetic value of a piece of cheap wire insulation. With some patience, it may be possible to train pepper roots down the sides of rocks and the like, but that’s an experiment for another time.

At about this point, it’s probably time for another movie. Considering the sudden and thorough violence into which you’re going to engage, find one with appropriate sensibilities. In my case, I picked one that I regularly use as metaphor, such as when I tell my friend Billy Goodnick that when we finally meet, he’ll see my smile and suddenly regret looking for the ship’s cat.

Billy Goodnick visits the Triffid Ranch

Paul smiles for the camera

Again, the idea behind this exercise is to thin things out, establish a form for the new bonsai, and get rid of watersprouts and other extraneous growth. Here’s where we start…

A look at the mess

…and here’s where we end.

Finale of base

Don’t forget to use that turntable, and get a good view of what you’re intending to do. This experiment involved removing the majority of the green watersprouts coming off the trunk, removing any crossing branches, and encouraging new growth from the tips of the remaining branches.

Swinging it around

From this side, the the jin remains, but for how long depends upon what the pepper does in the next few weeks. If the current cleaning starts new budding next to the dead wood, I’ll probably remove the jin and allow the dead wood to form a hole in the trunk. If not, it may be time to try preserving it.

Pepper nodes
The last thing to watch for? Peppers tend to produce distinctive branch knobs at the trunk. If you don’t mind that your bonsai looks like a crape murder victim, feel free to leave them on. Otherwise, cut them off flush with the trunk and let them scab over. Over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on them, and don’t be afraid to pinch off any new growth in the vicinity. You’re trying to encourage growth at the tips of the branches, remember?

This is the first part of the saga. With luck, in a few weeks, you’ll see it continue, and within a few years, this might be a show-quality bonsai. Equally likely, someone else will exceed any of my silly experiments and come up with all sorts of different ideas, and that works too. See you in a bit.

You never smell the one that kills you

In other developments, I’d like to point out that I’m dying. It’s slow and methodical, and it’s too late for treatment. In fact, it’s so nasty that I wouldn’t wish this on several ex-bosses. Slow strangulation, gasping for breath, various discharges that point to severe reactions…and the best part is that I have photos of my murderers. Some people should be so lucky.

Sweet peas

Sweet peas

sweet peas

Bluebonnets

Bluebonnets

Whatever you do, don’t be complacent the way I was. Just rip those lungs out, get gill slits implanted, and spend the rest of the summer on the bottom of a swimming pool. *death rattle*

The right people at the right time

As mentioned last night, it’s all about taking care of friends. Half of the fun with assisting with the Kira’s Benefit silent auction was building a custom carnivorous plant arrangement just for the auction. The other half of the fun came in delivering it to its destination. The HoldFast crew accepted it, even with comments along the line of “There goes the neighborhood” and “We’re letting in all sorts of pond scum, aren’t we?” The absolute best part is that, in my case, they’re right.

HoldFast Tattoo

Very seriously, the whole arrangement will be available on the Kira’s Benefit site for bidding as of the evening of April 17, and will be available for three days after that. If you want to see it in person, hop on down to HoldFast Tattoos and tell them I sent you. And if you’re in the mood for getting some ink done while you’re checking it out, I don’t blame you in the slightest. Might I recommend an appropriate design?

Benefit for Kira: introducing “Denham”

The T-shirt reads “Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies.” Yeah, but what do you call people who make custom carnivorous plant arrangements for charity silent auctions? Well, other than “certifiable”?

In classic Harlan Ellison fashion, I started with the punchline, and now it’s time for the preamble.

For the last several years, the Czarina and I have had the singular pleasure of knowing and hanging out with the collective of genius and madness known in Dallas as Hold Fast Tattoos. Dallas has a lot of tattoo venues, but nothing compares to the Algonquin writing circle of oddball culture and deep thought that this place attracts. As of late, I stop by when I pick up the Czarina from her day job on Saturday afternoons, compare notes with the crew on the latest bit of odd science news, and get out before they smoke me on physics knowledge.

Anyway, one of the many interesting people there is Kira, a regular tattooist and piercing specialist who recently had serious medical issues. The HoldFast crew immediately rallied friends and customers to help out, culminating with the Kira’s Benefit party and silent auction. Both because of Kira’s love of carnivorous plants and because I wanted to chip in, I entered a new beginner-friendly carnivorous plant arrangement to the silent auction. Introducing “Denham” (2013):

Denham

As mentioned previously, this is a beginner’s arrangement, so it incorporates a small Nepenthes alata pitcher plant and an equally small Drosera spatulata sundew, with additional mosses, ferns, and Tillandsia air plants. This arrangement also incorporates glass, resin, and cork elements to make a living diorama. Give this plenty of indirect sun or bright artificial light and either rainwater or distilled water, and both the pitcher plant and the ferns should take over most of the container.

Denham

Denham

Denham

Denham

Denham

As of this evening, this arrangement will be on display at Hold Fast Tattoo, for those wanting to bid on it in the silent auction. Get your bids in now, and good luck.

Image

Cat Monday

Cadigan

“If You Go To Z’Ha’Dum, Don’t Forget To Flush”

I have to thank Sid Raisch of Advantage Development System on a regular basis anyway, because he’s constantly coming across new angles for small horticultural businesses. He and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, either in politics or in horticultural concepts, but I’m damn glad that he’s there to keep me honest. I’m even more glad to know him because of some of the oddness he brings to the conversation.

For instance, Sid is probably one of the only people in the plant trade watching the potential for 3-D printing in the business. 3-D printing is finally leaving the domain of thirtysomethings making toys all day, and becoming an exceedingly valuable prototyping tool. To that end, Sid had to share a piece on 3-D printed planter bricks, produced by Emerging Objects out of Oakland. The concept as presented by Emerging Objects isn’t just to incorporate vertical gardens into new buildings, but to offer multiple methods to keep them going.

From a Texas perspective, I’m rather skeptical of the idea without actually holding one of these printed ceramic bricks and field-testing it. Oh, it sounds great, especially for small walls. And then you consider the incredible hyrdraulic pressures of most plant roots, and how any plant root that can get through a microscopic crack in any surface will. Then there’s the problems with trying to replace the planter bricks as they wear out or get damaged. And then you remember how easily a really good Dallas hailstorm would turn a building facade constructed of these into one big shrapnel bomb. Or how a typical gullywasher storm would flood out most of these. Or, as my friend Amie Spengler brought up, do you really want to be the person assigned to refill all of these planter bricks?

Emerging Objects 3-D planter bricks

Courtesy of Emerging Objects, by way of Urban Gardens

Aside from those concerns, I have a really big one. A lot of the aforementioned problems could be mitigated by setting these bricks in an indoor environment. It’s just that I spent far too much of my childhood hanging out with science fiction people, so I see these samples and think “Now I know what the restrooms on Babylon 5 look like.” It just gets worse from there: “I’ll be right back. I gotta hit the head…erm, gall bladder…um, xiphoid process…forget it. I can hold it.”

Have A Great Weekend

A swiftly expanding lecture schedule

Putting up the new greenhouse. Moving the Sarracenia and other humidity-loving plants in the collection into the greenhouse in preparation for summer. Propagating a whole new batch of bladderworts and triggerplants for upcoming shows. Potting up Roridula dentata seeds. Delivering another bladderwort on behalf of an All-Con attendee for her little sister’s birthday. Clearing out pop-weed clover from the triggerplant pots and the horsecrippler cactus. This is on top of stripping out sprouting trumpet vine attempting to grow up the side of the house again. I’m glad that I have a day job, because that’s the only way I can switch gears and not call realtors about the price of available farmland in the area.

Well, that was last weekend, and now it’s time to go into the height of spring show and lecture season. I’ve already given the Czarina orders along the lines of “Anyone other than my grandmother calls and wants to do something this week, ask to beg off until the middle of May. If my grandmother calls, take a message, but make sure that it’s coming from the land line.” And so it goes.

Anyway, the existing schedule changes somewhat, thanks to a last-minute lecture coming up this Saturday. Last autumn, when conducting a lecture for the Dallas/Fort Worth Herpetological Society, a very polite young woman asked if I had the time or wherewithall to talk to the members of the Koi and Water Garden Club of North Texas. Considering my love of koi, and upcoming plans for a whole new set of experiments involving water gardens and Sarracenia psittacina, it’s time both to discuss the merits of carnivorous plants in bog and water gardens and to discuss future projects with experts. If you’re able to make it, feel free to ask for directions.

Other than this, the existing schedule doesn’t change: expect a Triffid Ranch table at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science on the weekend of April 20 and 21, and then one quiet weekend before the serious high weirdness of Texas Frightmare Weekend. After that? You tell me.

Image

Cat Monday

Leiber

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 10

Unorthodox gardening tools

“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…” The gardening toolbag is now cleared out, with everything explained but these two items. And that’s where it gets weird. Er.

The first one is self-explanatory. Back in the late Nineties, the pet supply company Zoo Med offered a series of terrarium cleaning and sanitizing solutions, and the only one still produced is Wipe Out 1. That works beautifully, because that’s the only one I still need to use. This stays on hand not just for cleaning terrarium glass, but also for sanitizing terrarium tools, minimizing the risk of spreading potentially harmful bacteria or molds to new plants. One good spray usually does it, especially for wood or stone where you don’t really know where it came from, and you don’t want it spreading something potentially nasty.

And then there’s the cork. Yes, it’s a standard champagne cork. Old-time terrarium designers swear by the merits of a cork on a long stick or skewer for tamping down soil in a narrow-mouth container, and it also works very well for evening out soil in very small spaces. However, my real reason is that, by having her ask “A cork? A cork in your toolbag?”, I got the Czarina to paraphrase a public service ad from 1975 that still sticks in my head after all these years:

So…any questions?

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 9

Assorted odd tools

It’s the final stretch on this overview of odd gardening tools, and the toolkit is getting empty. As with the last few, these are tools that don’t get used on a constant basis, but whoo boy are they handy when you need them. To start, from the top:

In the case of this hook, I came across it on the side of the road while I was out on a bike ride. (I’ve come across all sorts of items and all sorts of scenes while biking to and from the Day Job. Remind me to tell you one of these days about the foreclosed McMansion, the garbage bin out front chock full of Japanese hentai porn, and the two Cat Piss Men literally shoving each other into a busy street while trying to clear out that garbage bin. As I stated before, I live an interesting life.) Apparently this is used predominately for electronics work, but you can’t tell how often you’ll need a little steel hook like this. Slipping small rubber belts for tools back into place, pulling wire loops through holes or pipes, getting a really good grip on a tree parasite…just get one, okay?

The second tool is more for those installing caulk and silicone sealer, but if you’re building terraria, this caulk wiper makes all the difference between a sloppy “you used your finger to smooth it” finish and a professional one. This particular tool works best for the wider bead of sealer used for both bathtubs and aquaria, but they come with different tips for a wider or narrower bead than this. Put down silicone sealer where you want it, bring the wiper up to even the sealer and make sure that you don’t have any gaps, and wipe off the excess. Boom.

The last one here was a bit of an enigma at first when the Czarina gave it to me. She found it in a kit of glassworking gear at an estate sale, and apparently it’s an all-in-one tool for heavy glassworking. She snorted at the dependability of an all-in-one, but for light work, it’s perfect. The hammer works in those circumstances where you don’t necessarily need a real hammer, and the various grips work for nipping, grabbing, twisting, and torquing. It’s not intended to be a replacement for appropriate tools in heavy-use circumstances, but every gardener resorting to hammering down a wayward nail with a rock can appreciate having something like this on hand.

And one more to follow…

Have A Great Weekend