Monthly Archives: June 2013

Have a Great Weekend

Every summer, I get nostalgic for the old midnight movie runs of my sordid youth, and then I remember that the only midnight shows out here any more involve incessant reruns of “The Goonies” and “The Room”. Truth be told, even back in the AMC chain days, every movie worth watching was outnumbered four-to-one by something that was already in saturation play on cable at the time. Even so, it’s occasionally nice to do something on a late Friday night that doesn’t involve alcohol.

A moment of perfect beauty

toad_1_61413

For the last couple of years, we’ve had a semiregular visitor to the greenhouse in the form of a very young toad taking advantage of the moisture and the insect bounty. He (she?) disappeared last year, and I was afraid the drought got him, but that was before I started working around the stump from the silverleaf maple that came down last November. The little monster promptly moved into the rot hole in the center of the stump and camped out along the side, coming out in the evening to feed.

toad_2_61413

Considering how rare amphibians, especially toads, are getting in the Dallas area, he’s welcome to stay here as long as he wants. I just have to remember to flush out the stump hole from time to time, just to keep it moist enough so he’ll stay. Who needs a big elaborate toad house when a silverleaf maple stump works as well?

Review: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Cover: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

Gardening In Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World by Janit Calvo

ISBN-10: 160469372X
ISBN-13: 9781604693720
Published: Timber Press, 2013
Pages: 256
Language: English

Time for full disclosure. I’ve known Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center for the last five years. We’ve been comparing notes on miniature garden design and care for at least that long, and we’ve commiserated for nearly that long on the joys and horrors of running your own business in this foul Recession That Just Won’t Quit. It’s not fair to tell of her further exploits, such as the days when she was a monopole fabricator out on the deserts of Seven-Gamma-Flame or when she managed to scare hell out of a pack of Tarrask gene-raiders, mostly because that’s still five years in her future and it’s not fair giving her that much of an edge. The woman’s enough of a force of nature right now, you know? Oh, and don’t ask her about New Orleans. Ever. I mean it.

With that kind of background with someone, especially when remembering how she nearly broke my arm in a friendly game of full-contact chess (and you should have seen what she did to Morphy), reviewing that friend’s book starts to move into uncomfortable territory. How can you do justice to a friend’s words when everyone agrees that she should have killed you when she had the chance? Or when you know that on a little world out on the outer edge of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a race that won’t exist for a billion years yet found a copy of this book and used competitive miniature gardening design as an alternative to saturation nuclear bombardment when settling border disputes?

Yeah. I won’t even talk about how samples of her DNA were gathered by about three dozen races in your own galaxy and merged with their own to produce gardeners with skills far exceeding any that they had on their own. Nobody should learn that their writings are as famed as a basis of civilization as anything written by Hammurabi, Gandhi, Joey Ramone, or Drak-Zil Ruuuuuman in their lifetimes, because it just makes the head go POP.

Now that I’ve set the stage, know that Gardens in Miniature is Janit’s first book. It’s also the first serious book on the concept of miniature gardening published in decades. This is the book to guide you into the concept and the basics, instead of the fourth volume, which explains the particulars of…but I’ve said too much. This is the book that explains why Janit’s techniques aren’t exactly bonsai or penjing, but borrow from the same concept, as well as from model railroading, diorama building, and a smidgeon from ship-in-a-bottle builders. Since she’s writing for a beginning audience, not the experts who fuse their own custom containers from the ash of Mount Rainier in tribute to her, she takes the time to explain the importance of picking the right container and the right plants. She also takes the time to explain scale, and how a miniature gardener should always take scale into account when mixing plants and accessories in a miniature garden arrangement. (I really want to tell her about the roadways of the Deltrau Array and the literal kilometers of miniature gardens set up in her memory, all lovingly attended by novices in the hope that they might achieve the same level of grace, but that just wouldn’t be fair. She’d ask to see them, and then why should she strive any further upon seeing such beauty?)

It’s inadequate, but the only thing I can say about Gardening in Miniature is “snag a copy now, in any format you can, and get it autographed, stamped, or brain-wave-imprinted while you have the chance.” It’s not that you’ll have a family heirloom for yourself, or even for your great-great-grandchildren. It’s that if this “review” brought up images of fantastic, otherworldly miniature garden arrangements, go ahead and make them and then show them to Janit. After all, you’re going to do it anyway, so it’s not like you’re ruining the timeline or anything. Besides, for some of you, she’ll put images of them into her next few books. I won’t tell you whom, though, because that wouldn’t be right. Masters need to start out as novices, or else the whole space-time continuum falls apart, as Janit and I learned the hard way. But that’s another story.

“Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?”

So, about last week. Between plant and Day Job obligations, a big smiling reminder of my old writing days arrived last Tuesday in the form of Australian author Stephen Dedman, and poor Stephen got the barest beginnings of a Dallas tour. That is, he got a firsthand experience with the insane sprawl of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, as with how our roadways were inspiration for those in R’lyeh. Even worse, he had to deal with my babbling about minutiae on Dallas, from the geology and palaeontology (we drove within spitting distance of the Arlington Archosaur Site) to the backhistory of the Fair Park area to our current surreal impending celebration of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That’s when Stephen inspired a particular bit of japery for the end of November.

For the last fifty years, anything involving John Kennedy in Dallas has been a circus. There’s the actual assassination, of course, as well as the tourist industry that built up around it. Then there’s the backstory, which entities such as the Dallas Morning News want to bury and pretend didn’t happen. Then there’s the current effort for a massive panegyric the weekend before American Thanksgiving, simply entitled “The 50th”, which intends to “celebrate the life of Kennedy” without, you know, actually saying what happened to end it. Complete with efforts to make sure that nobody “extreme” gets anywhere near it. If there’s one thing any good circus needs, because it already has plenty of clowns, it’s costumes.

So here’s the idea. It’s a dangerous vision, but one that should be the maraschino cherry atop this gigantic, indigestion-inducing banana split of an event. It’s open to everybody who wants to participate, and it won’t cost a thing.

The idea: on November 22 of this year, Dallas gets a flood of time travelers. Famed travelers from fiction alongside ones brand new to the continuum, with outfits to match. Before you know it, the streets of Dallas are full of temporal explorers, cartographers, and marauders of all sorts, all asking the same question: “Which way to Dealey Plaza?”

At this point, half of the fun will be the responses. After all, if time travel is possible, then (barring the Morphail Effect, of course) an event as big as the Kennedy assassination should be so flooded with time travelers that they should outnumber the temporally static by a thousand to one. There’s no reason to believe that you wouldn’t have visitors planning to change the time line, keep it static, or take out anybody trying to do either. That’s why, when asked by reporters or passersby as to what’s happening, just hinting “I’m here to see history” is a good start.

The punchline comes around 12:20 Central Time, as the streets continue to flood with the Displaced. By this point, there should be more Daleks on the streets of Dallas than on those of London in 2100, and I won’t even start with the Yithians. At that point, everyone looks down the road where Kennedy’s motorcade drove a half-century ago, pulls out watches, clocks, sundials, chronometers, and hourglasses, and all exclaim at once “Right time, but WRONG YEAR!” before evacuating downtown.

And the best part? We can do this every November 22. We can even retire from the field of ostentation to hang out at the best party in town that weekend afterwards. What say you?

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Cat Monday

Leiber

Have a Great Weekend

A single perfect moment of beauty

Mystery cactus

And before anyone asks, no, I have no idea how well these flowers fluoresce under ultraviolet. That’s because not only will this cactus only open its blooms during the day, but it only opens them in full direct sunlight. Move it to a shady spot to test UV fluorescence, and the blooms close up tight within moments. One day, though.

One for the books: horsecrippler cactus ice cream

It’s one thing to debunk the story of the horsecrippler cactus Echinocactus texensis getting the nickname “candy cactus” because it was used for making candy. The real test is to see if horsecrippler cactus fruit juice adds any significant flavor to an existing sweets recipe. To that end, the Czarina, our old friend Mila, and I became probably the first humans on the planet to try horsecrippler cactus ice cream.

Horsecrippler cactus ice cream

Truth be told, it wasn’t that big a deal. The reality is that while the cactus fruit juice made an excellent colorant, the juice had almost no flavor on its own. When submerged in ice cream ingredients, the only way to tell the difference between it and commercial food coloring was that the slightest aftertaste of fruit kept appearing while eating it. Even after letting it set in the freezer overnight, the final ice cream was a novelty, but had no particular reason to make it again other than for that novelty. It might be possible to get about 50 pounds of fruit, puree and press it for the juice, and then reduce the juice into a syrup, but there’s no real guarantee that the syrup would be distinctive other than for the novelty, either. Worse, to get that amount of fruit requires a commercial growing operation, and the fact that horsecripplers need about 20 to 40 years of growth before they bloom pretty much kills that market before it starts.

It wasn’t a complete loss. If nothing else, I can state with authority that if anybody tried to make candy from horsecrippler fruit, it was purely as an option to fend off starvation or scurvy. I can also state that horsecrippler fruit puree makes a very handy alternative mix for henna tattoos, Easter egg dyes, and countertop refinishing kits. I’m now tempted to take the last of the fruit still on the cactus, slice it into quarters, drop it into 750ml bottles of vodka, and give these out for holiday presents when they’ve finished steeping. But for a new taste sensation? We’ll try it again with prickly pear when those fruit ripen at Halloween.

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

Have a Great Weekend

Killing Rumors, One Experiment At A Time

In an essay reprinted in the collection Bully For Brontosaurus, the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould brought up the seeming anomaly of referring to the early “dawn horse” Eohippus (known today as Hyracotherium) as being the size of a fox terrier, and how this strange analogy kept perpetuating through science textbooks and popular science writing for nearly a century. The question wasn’t so much wondering why this was repeated over and over by lazy writers, but wondering “why an obscure dog breed like a fox terrier, and not an animal commonly encountered by average people, such as a cat?” (The story of this analogy is a fascinating look into palaeontology in the late Nineteenth Century, and this alone is worth the cost of the book’s purchase. Don’t just stop there, though: the title essay still makes an excellent point twenty years after its publication. But I digress.)

This sort of repetition without verification runs through many natural history references, particularly any such references involving Texas natural history. By way of example, while engaging in further research into the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis, most of its common names make sense. “Horsecrippler” is both self-explanatory and extremely accurate, and “Devil’s footstool” works as well. However, it was also referred to as “candy cactus” in many areas of its range, and popular guides declared with authority that “early settlers used to make candy from the fruit.”

Now, speaking from experience, there is such a thing as cactus candy. Specifically, it’s candied prickly pear fruit or sometimes young prickly pear pads. In fact, entrepreneurs make a whole list of interesting food items from Opuntia cactus fruit. These can range from toasted halved fruit, commonly called “tuna” through the state, to jellies, syrups, and even margaritas. Considering the voluminous output of Opuntia fruit when it goes ripe in October, that’s not surprising. The problem comes when well-meaning amateurs hear about prickly pear jelly, figure “I can do this, too,” and fire up the old double boiler to make a batch with a bushel basket of fresh fruit. That’s when they discover a very valuable lesson: there’s not that much in the way of flavor in cactus fruit.

Now don’t get me wrong. Based on what few nutritional estimates are available, cactus fruit is good for you. The problem is that it’s generally not intended for us mammals. Much like chile peppers, the main vector for cactus seeds is the gut of any number of birds, all of which spot the bright colors on ripe fruit and rush down to take advantage of the bounty. Since birds are rather lacking in taste buds, their interest in the fruit comes from the color, so natural selection didn’t swing on flavors. Today, the only commercially raised cactus fruit come from either Opuntia or the various dragonfruit species (Hylocereus spp.), and even dragonfruit junkies such as myself would never describe them as particularly vibrant in flavor.

But the “candy cactus” appellation kept gnawing at me, so it was time to experiment. Trying a sole ripe fruit was a chore, as it combined a thick rind with tough black seeds with all of the flavor and consistency of freshly washed aquarium gravel. It was just sweet enough, though, that I could see this being used to make candy, if only one collected enough fruit. This spring’s odd weather produced enough fruit, and all of the E. texensis at the Triffid Ranch went mad this year.

Cactus fruit on the plant

As another sign that the cactus needs bird and not mammal sowers of its seed, ripe horsecrippler fruit is both attractive and repellent. The attraction comes from the brilliance of the rind, obviously, but it’s not easy to reach. The shriveled corolla from the bloom is as spiky and irritating as a dried thistle bloom, and a lot stronger. Meanwhile, the fruit itself is covered with tufts of what looks and feels like freshly spun fiberglass, and I imagine that it tastes much the same. I could see, and have seen, crows and bluejays ripping apart the fruit to get at the pulp, but I could see the corolla stopping anything short of the hungriest cow or pig.

Fruit on Davros

As I mentioned, this was a good year for horsecrippler cactus fruit. Even the monstrous cristate cactus we nicknamed “Davros” bore fruit this year. These were kept separate from the rest: most popular reports on cristate cacti note that any seed they produce is nonviable, and this is going to be tested next. Considering what I learned next, it’s understandable that I plan to verify any assumption about this plant with direct observation.

Plucking cactus fruit

Between corolla and micturating hairs, E. texensis fruit isn’t something you want to grab with bare hands, and most cactus-resistant gloves are a bit too clumsy for something as squishy as these. Anyone who works with cactus knows that a pair of standard kitchen tongs belongs in the toolkit, and they came in extremely handy during harvesting. Get a good grip on the corolla of a ripe fruit, wiggle a bit, and it pops free like a bad tooth.

Plucked cactus fruit

A closeup of a plucked fruit shows its various anti-mammal defenses. Those spines and hairs could still be stuck in my hand.

Gathered cactus fruit

Okay, give twenty minutes to denude the horsecripplers, and the bounty shows a basic flaw in the logic of these being used for candy. These cacti are kept in special soil mixes and fertilized on a regular basis, so they produce significantly more fruit than what a typical horsecrippler in the wild grows every spring. In fact, from personal observation, I’ve never noticed more than three fruit on a wild horsecrippler at any one time. Considering that horsecripplers spread out over a large range, anyone wanting to collect these for candy would have to walk a lot to get enough to make it worth the time. Either the candy finally produced was the greatest taste sensation ever produced in this state, the diet of a typical West Texas settler was so insanely monotonous that horsecrippler fruit was a godsend from a steady menu of chicken-fried steak and pinto beans, or…or the nickname “candy cactus” came from the fruit’s vague resemblance to wrapped candies and not from the flavor after all. Well, time to test.

Washed cactus fruit

After chilling the fruit in the refrigerator overnight, it’s time to see what we can get out of them. Before anything else, washing is vital, as it washes away those irritant hairs along with bird crap, bug crap, dust, dirt, air pollution, and the occasional dead stinkbug hiding within the fruit. Rinse it a bit, and it’s time for processing.

Snipping cactus corollas

As mentioned before, the seeds in horsecrippler fruit have all of the appeal and attractiveness of fresh aquarium gravel, and they’re about as easy on the teeth. I’ll bet that they’re chock full of vitamins A and D from oils therein, but without a metate, said oils are a bit hard to access. Therefore, this experiment involved pureeing the fruit, straining out the seeds, and working from there. Since the corollas are about as delectable as the seeds, each and every one needed to be snipped off with a pair of kitchen shears beforehand. That’s another reason why washing the fruit beforehand helps out, as it softens the spines and edges on the corollas, making this activity a lot less onerous than it could be.

Smoothie machine

For the actual pureeing, I had several options, but the best involved an old smoothie maker I purchased a decade back. Not only did it have blades specifically designed for liquefying fruit of all sorts, but it had a convenient stirring rod to help get chunks of fruit into the path of the blades. Even better, it also had a spigot for draining off the juice if the pulp and seeds floated to the top.

Cactus fruit in blender

Drop in the fruit, close and lock the cover, turn it on, and we get…

The smoothie maker aftermath

…glop too thick to pour through the spigot. However, it has a great color, suggesting a high nutritional content, and it can be poured into a strainer.

Pureed cactus fruit

Well, so much for the idea of the seeds floating to the top. The whole mix went into a fine strainer to draw off the juice, with the hope that it might produce enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Cactus juice

Yeah. Sure. After draining overnight, all that effort produced maybe a cup of juice, with said juice being about as appetizing as the seeds. This might improve when heated to break down starches into sugars, but anyone expecting an insane flavor sensation might want to keep walking, if you know what I mean.

Drained cactus pomace

There’s also the pomace, which isn’t enough to put to some particularly innovative use as with grape pomace left over from wine production. However, the tangling with the smoothie maker blades probably scarified the seeds to where they’re more likely to germinate, so they’re getting dried and then spread in the original ranchland where they originated. The experiment was a failure, but at least it might help perpetuate this fascinating cactus in the wild.

Well, the initial experiment was a failure, but there’s still that juice to work with. If nothing else, it’s going into a batch of homemade ice cream, and a select group just might be the only humans ever to state, with photographic proof, that they’ve eaten horsecrippler cactus ice cream. That sound you hear comes from the heads of a whole herd of obsessive foodies, all popping like ripe zits.

Upcoming Shows: the June 2013 edition

Five years ago, the Texas Triffid Ranch started out as little more than a hobby with delusions of grandeur, with a stock comprised of cuttings and offshoots from my own collection of carnivorous plants. This year has already seen more shows than in the Triffid Ranch’s first two years, and the fourth quarter of 2013 is going to be a blowout. In the meantime, not counting tentative shows or definite shows where entry isn’t possible right now, here’s the schedule so far:

  • The remainder of June and July are going to be show-free at the moment, partially because of the heat, but things start moving in August. That begins the weekend of August 10 and 11, when the Triffid Ranch makes its first appearance at the Arlington NARBC reptile and amphibian show in the shadow of Cowboys Stadium. Expect lots of good craziness with other vendors (several of whom are old friends), a tremendous variety of reptiles, enclosures, and supplies, and one carnivorous plant nursery trying to keep up.
  • For the last five years, I’ve received requests about two shows in the Dallas area. One is beyond impractical, for a multitude of reasons. The other, though, was an entertaining notion. Several fellow vendors at other shows kept nuhdzing me about it. “Lots of people out there. They’re fun folks. You really need to be out there!” This year, I listened to them, which is why Labor Day weekend marks the first appearance of the Triffid Ranch at Anime Fest in downtown Dallas. Among other things, this marks the first Triffid Ranch four-day event, which should act as a good gauge for next year’s four-day All-Con in March. Besides, where else should I spend a birthday weekend?
  • And then there’s the big one. The event that started it all, five years ago. Specifically, FenCon X in Addison. Not only will this be a revelation as far as plants and arrangements are concerned, but this year’s show features several arrangements normally too big to show. Specifically, one big one is going to be a charity sale for the Arlington Archosaur Site, on behalf of a friend who sadly won’t be at FenCon to give me grief.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the end of things. Obviously, there’s the big Funky Finds Experience show in Fort Worth in November, as well as the possibility of another show at the end of the month. In addition, after having long, fascinating conversations with people coming up to Dallas for particular events, it’s time to consider events in Houston and Galveston. As always, details will follow.

Road Trip: the Robert E. Howard Goblin Tree

Robert E. Howard Museum

It’s often said that writers never really quit: they just find another addiction. It’s definitely hard to get out of the research habit, or to pay tribute to those who got you started even after you’ve left. For my best friend Paul Mears and myself, a bit of that involved a nearly three-hour road trip to Cross Plains, Texas, to visit the Robert E. Howard Museum this last weekend. While Robert Ervin Howard is best known as one of the triumvirate of writers best associated with the classic weird fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales (the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith), but his contributions to other genres assured his memory as one of Texas’s most influential fiction writers. Every year, on or around the anniversary of Howard’s death, the town of Cross Plains hosts Robert E. Howard Days, a series of readings, lectures, presentations, and parties, culminating in a barbecue held on a ranch just outside of town.

National Register

Robert Howard's workspace

The trip itself is a good excuse to get out of Dallas for a while, but it’s also a great opportunity to research Texas history and natural history. Once west of Weatherford, the land switches back to its primordial charm, and civilization still attempts to keep the wilds at bay instead of attempting to dominate it. With the right kind of eyes, it’s not hard to see what the area was like back in the 1920s and 1930s, where automobiles were still relative novelties for people still using horse and buggy to get around the area. With other eyes, Howard’s eyes, it’s also not hard to see the wild wonders that filled his more fantastic stories peeking out in plain sight.

Tim Truman

You can see my problem. While everyone else was there to talk to fellow Howard enthusiasts, such as famed comics artist Tim Truman and Howard savant Mark Finn, and with good reason, I went wandering a bit to find bits of that wonder. Fossil shells in the front yard of the Museum. Viewing the converted sleeping porch Howard used as his bedroom and work area, and remembering when I was living and writing in a space not much larger than that twenty years ago. Noting fresh armadillo dig marks at the base of a pile of fresh sand around a dead tree stump. That’s about the time I noticed the goblin tree.

Robert E. Howard goblin tree

Between their natural propensity to grow in odd shapes, their tendency to heal prunings in grotesque ways, and ongoing stresses from sun and wind, Texas oak trees already stimulate the natural human tendency toward pareidolia, but this one practically came straight out of a Michael Whelan painting. The camera couldn’t capture all of them, but stretch the eyeballs a bit and see the faces, especially the profile of the turtle man in the old burl.

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

Robert E. Howard tree goblin profile

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

If it wasn’t hard to see monsters and supernatural beasts in that one tree, then it just kept coming. When joining the rest of the Robert Howard Days crew for the traditional Texas barbecue at the end of the day, I wandered off for a second and found the stump of a long-dead Western cedar tree, blasted by sun and heat for maybe twenty years or more.

Cross Plains dragon skull

If I can see the dragon skull lying in the dust, then very likely “Two Gun Bob” Howard could have, too. The difference is that I note the similarity and move on. He probably would have used that as a hook in a new story, and thrilled generations of new readers 77 years after his death. Many of his fans lament how an imagination like his was trapped in small-town Texas. Me, I think that imagination couldn’t have existed without that stimulation.

Tales From The Ranch: this year’s Opuntia blooms

Opuntia clump

This week brings typically Texan temperatures to the area, along with typically North Texan (lack of humidity). When faced with the slow oven outside right now, it’s hard to believe that we already received nearly two inches of rain on Sunday morning, and that we were still dabbling in near-freezing temperatures at least once per week just over a month ago. Sure, that’s typical for Maine, but for Texas? Oy.

The upside to the odd temperatures and the fierce rains hitting much of West Texas is that the area’s most familiar component of the flora, the prickly pear, is doing all right. The vicious summers of 2011 and 2012 only slowed them down, and the odd 2013 spring meant that they bloomed later and stronger than usual. Normally, by the end of May, the blooms would be long gone, leaving only the developing fruit, known locally as “tuna,” attached to the cactus pads. This time, though, I lucked out, and managed to get quite a few excellent shots of an exploding semidesert and the life therein.

Opuntia in bloom

Among other things, the rains and cold brought out an anomaly. Normally, the flowers of Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri are a brilliant canary yellow, but the weather seemed to encourage the development of orange ones as well. If these appeared only on individual cacti, that might make sense, but any given clump might have one orange to every five yellow. It’s not completely unheard of at the ranch: my father-in-law showed me photos of the ranch in 1990 with the same phenomenon. Of course, 1990 was marked not only with an unusually cold winter (including the coldest temperature ever recorded in Dallas), but with torrential spring and summer rains that left the Brazos and Trinity Rivers flooding as far north as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Are the orange blooms stimulated by similar weather conditions, or are other factors involved? Time for more research.

Orange Opuntia bloom

Opuntia bloom

Opuntia flowers

Opuntia flowers

Orange Opuntia flowers

As any entomologist will tell you, and Bug Girl in particular will tell you, the evolution of flowering plants and the domination of every landmass by insects go together like rum and Coke. Opuntia blooms produce impressive amounts of pollen, and the available protein in that pollen draws out any number of indigenous insects. Both native and honey bees go absolutely mad for prickly pear pollen and nectar, which made photographing them an aggravation. How are you supposed to get one to hold still when they’re practically rolling around in glee?

Opuntia with bee

Opuntia with katydid

That attraction doesn’t stop with bees, either. While its jaws are better suited for cutting than mashing, this juvenile katydid had no problem trying its best to down as much pollen as it could muster. Grasshoppers occasionally accompany the katydids in hiding within the blooms, but they apparently have no interest in either blooms or pollen as food.

Orange Opuntia with ambush bug

In any situation with lots of insect prey, you’ll find lots of predators, and Opuntia offers a handy hiding space and basking platform for them as well. Very occasionally, if you’re quiet and subtle, you might see a local fence swift (Sceloporus olivaceus) basking atop a prickly pear pad, snapping up bugs before returning to the top of the pad. No such luck this time, but closer viewing of this orange bloom revealed a rather large ambush bug hiding at its base. Considering the pain of their bite, I wasn’t so dumb as to try to capture it, so I settled for naming it “Irwin” before letting it go on its way.

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

Have a Great Weekend

Dublin Bottling Works: a blatant endorsement

Nearly eighteen months ago, the Dublin Bottling Works in Dublin, Texas lost its license to make the official all-sugar Dr. Pepper that kept its factory in business for years. If you want a perfect example as to why I’ve lived in Texas as long as I have, and why I keep moving back, it’s because the state constantly keeps producing people and organizations that keep fighting. Most companies, faced with that big a loss of income, would have just shut down everything. The Dublin Bottling Works not only retooled, but improved upon its original situation. Forget that old saw about “when given lemons, make lemonade.” When it comes to Dublin sodas, the lemonade is, actually, nowhere near as exciting as everything else.

All of this came up during last weekend’s trip to the Czarina’s family’s ranch in West Texas, when we stopped at the farmer’s market in Weatherford. Near the front register was a brand new cooler for Dublin drinks, and the Czarina and I figured that bringing a representative sample to the family might make their having to tolerate me a tiny bit better. For the purposes of experimentation, we grabbed one of every flavor available, and arrived with 12 fresh bottles, chilled and ready to go. Over the rest of that Saturday, the clan tasted, drank, and chugged every last bottle, on the condition that they shared their observations with us. The verdict:

Dublin Tart & Sweet Lemonade

Tart & Sweet Lemonade: For years, I wondered why soda bottlers had such problems with canned or bottled lemonade, with the flavor always being inadequate to freshly-made. When the US standard for bottled lemonade is Country Time, an alleged beverage that works quite well for killing fire ants and stripping the corrosion off car battery terminals, it’s hard to believe that many varieties are even worse. Not to say that Dublin’s Tart & Sweet is bad, but it lacks “lemon” to go with the “ade”. I could see this making an exceptional mixer, but since I can’t drink alcohol, that’s purely academic. C-

Dublin Orange Creme

Orange Creme: Now we’re getting somewhere. Cream sodas don’t get enough credit as sodas intended to be sipped, not chugged. Therefore, I can’t recommend this as a drink of choice in any circumstance where a quick and thorough body core temperature drop is necessary. On a quiet night in front of a campfire, though, it has just the right balance between tart and sweet, and a smoothness that actually makes you upset when you’ve finished the bottle without realizing it. A-

Texas Root Beer

Texas Root Beer: Not too much sassafras root. Not too much vanilla. Not too much carbonation. Try one bottle, and you’ll put that bottle of IBC back to use for killing weeds growing up through the sidewalk. This one had half of the family fighting the other over who got the rest of the bottle. A+

Dublin Rummy

Rummy: While the lemonade barely tasted of lemon, the grapefruit flavor of Rummy stands out and tears through your pockets looking for spare change. For those of us who enjoy grapefruit sodas, this is the undisputed king. Amazingly enough, though, it’s not overly sour, and the genius who developed this flavor deserves a raise. A+

Dublin Vanilla Cream

Vanilla Cream: As mentioned elsewhere, the fact that such a sublime and complex flavoring as vanilla became a synonym for “boring” and “average” is a borderline crime. Vanillin, one of the main components of vanilla, is now so heavily overused in food and perfume that most people have no idea what real vanilla should taste like. They definitely don’t know what a vanilla cream soda should taste like, as those went out of style over 50 years ago. (The closest most ever experienced was the Vanilla Dr. Pepper released for a very short time in 2002. The best things that could be said about the flavor usually involves the Ig Nobel Awards.) The most obvious sign of this came when my youngest niece took one sniff of an open bottle of Dublin Vanilla Cream and exclaimed “It smells like medicine.”

Yes, but does it taste like medicine? Not a bit. All of Dublin’s cream sodas emphasize the main flavors over the cream, and if you’ve never smelled handmade vanilla orchid extract, take a sniff of a bottle of the Vanilla Cream to get a good idea. Now I need to get a tub of ice cream, preferably Blue Bell, and a case of this and make ice cream sodas for friends until they pop. A

Dublin Blueberry Breeze

Blueberry Breese: The Czarina and I have an old and dear friend who has been engaged in a mad and futile quest for as long as we’ve known her. Poor Madelyn is obsessed with finding blue food. Not purple food. Not violet food. Blueberries are only marginally blue thanks to the natural waxes growing on their skins, and they’re not blue at all when cooked. After dropping blueberries, what’s left? You have a lot of blatantly artificial items with lots of blue food coloring, all with a flavor unlike anything else found on this planet. Don’t believe me? Have a friend or cohort slip you a “blue raspberry” candy when you’re not waiting for it, and then try to identify the flavor. The standard flavorings listed as “cherry,” “strawberry,” and “banana” on most candy in the US might have waved at a produce truck on its way to a grocery store, but “blue raspberry”? You might have grown up with a fruit growing in your back yard that tastes like blue raspberry candy…maybe, if you’re a Vorlon.

The best thing that can be said about Dublin’s Blueberry Breese? It’s blue. Vibrant blue. Brilliant blue. Blue the likes of which will burn holes in your retinae. The blue of lost summer mornings, the blue of a perfect birthday, the blue of joy and wonder and gentle sadness over days long gone. If there’s any blueberry in this, though, I’m not sure. C

Dublin Cheerwine

Cheerwine: The unimaginative might compare Dublin’s Cheerwine soda to the closest general analogies available in commercial soda distribution: Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola’s Pibb Xtra. That’s like comparing truffle oil to mink oil and coal oil. The only thing Cheerwine has in common with the other two sodas is use of cherry flavoring with other, unnamed flavors, but it’s considerably more subtle than those other two. The use of real cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup may have something to do with this, but I like to think that the individual who developed and confirmed this flavor was a genius. A+

Dublin Cherry Limeade
Cherry Limeade: Yet another hit among everyone, as it had both the advantages of fresh-squeezed limeade taste and excellent carbonation. A

Dublin Vintage Cola
Vintage Cola: Much as with vanilla, cola is a horribly abused flavoring, to the point where most people associate “cola” with the caramel coloration, not with the actual flavor. Not that this is an issue with Dublin’s Vintage Cola, so it’s worth the effort to see what real cola can taste like. B+

Dublin Retro Grape

Retro Grape: The assessment by the kids: not bad at all. The assessment by the adults: a little too sweet. When buying cases of the other flavors, pick up a six-pack of this, but its popularity depends on how much the kids like grape soda. C

Dublin Retro Creme

Dublin Retro Creme: Saying that Faygo sodas are about as endemically Michigan as Petoskey stones isn’t an exaggeration. Saying that Faygo Red Pop was a preferred alternative to Communion wine for many Michiganite Catholics, well, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one. For years, I took every opportunity to try to describe this elixir of the gods to the Czarina, but was at a loss: you can’t find Faygo in Texas, it was impossibly expensive to ship in the days before the Interwebs, and the local “alternative”, Big Red, was as much of a viable alternative as using used motor oil in place of blood plasma. I figured that if the Czarina was to understand why this made such an impression upon me as a kid, we’d have to make a trip back to my ancestral spawning grounds.

That was before picking up some of Dublin’s Retro Creme. This isn’t just great cream soda. This is loyhargil. In fact, this makes a great argument for a serious alternative to a classic Texas dessert, replacing the main ingredient with Retro Creme and pointing one particular phalange in the direction of Dr. Pepper’s current management. I’ll let you all know how it turns out. Off the Scale

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Cat Monday

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