I’m regularly asked by showgoers about where I get my containers and pots, and I answer honestly “From all over.” Among other things, I take advantage of everything from going-out-of-business liquidations to estate sales, all with the idea of finding something different. Half of the fun is finding something horribly inappropriate for its original intended use, but that works beautifully with carnivores. I regularly tell people “If you like it, grab it, because I doubt I’ll be able to find another.
One of the best examples involves the inexplicable boom in miniature aquaria from the 1980s. Starting around Christmas of 1987, stores were packed with two-liter to four-liter aquaria, all advertised as “everything you need”. Without fail, the packaging showed off a completed and filled tank with dozens of fish inside, never bothering to tell novice aquarists that the horribly underpowered air pumps and completely inadequate filter systems would be lucky to keep a single betta alive, much less dozens of guppies or tetras. Many were bought and discarded when the piscine massacre ended, others were put into storage with the idea of trying again one day, and others were purchased as gifts and never opened until the executors of the estate had to clean out the house for its eventual sale. Having bought one in 1988 for a then-girlfriend, I knew that most were designed by companies that wanted to cash in on the trend but that didn’t really care about whether or not they’d work as promised. I also knew that while they were deathtraps for fish, they’re absolutely exquisite for displaying and raising terrestrial bladderworts.
Case in point, the enclosure above was quite common in department stores in the US around 2001, as well as in the now-defunct line of Discovery Channel Stores in shopping malls through the US and Canada. As advertised, it included a built-in periscope to watch your fish at bottom-level, a fish food holder so you could submerge food and watch the fish as they ate, various plastic reefs, an air pump and airstone, and a pocket full of gravel. Oh, it also came with a clear blue plastic top to keep fish in, and a cardboard backdrop of an exciting ocean scene. The latter was what made things interesting.
Shortly after the Czarina and I started dating, she expressed interest in both getting a betta and in getting a small tank so she could enjoy said fish on the kitchen counter. Having had a bit of experience with bettas, I figured that a small tank of this sort might work, especially with additional aeration provided by the included air pump. I knew better than to try to keep anything else in the tank, so I figured that this wouldn’t be too bad of an investment. And it wasn’t. The Czarina was thrilled, and it was a reasonably happy home for her betta until he died of old age several years later. At that point, she hung onto the tank for a while, and then gave it to me so long as I could do something with it. And I had ideas.
The biggest problem with the Underwater Explorer had everything to do with that top and the backdrop. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between cookie jars and apothecary jars when building terraria. A good glass cookie jar will have a lip on the inside of the lid, right next to the rim, to deal with condensation from the natural moisture of the baked goods. If it were to escape, the cookies would go stale, so any excess moisture condenses on the inside of the lid, rolls to the lip, and drips off into the bottom of the jar. An apothecary jar, though, is to deal with trying to control humidity from the outside, so its lid allows condensation to the outside of the jar, helping to keep the contents as dry as possible. With cookies or aspirin pills, condensation on either is barely noticeable. However, with lots of fluid in each type of container, it becomes very noticeable, very quickly.
That’s where things went wrong. The designers of this setup apparently went crazy with the ingenious periscope, and probably never bothered to test how well water spray from the aeration system would impact the cover. Turning on the air pump meant that spray condensed on the inside of the lid, and it promptly dripped off the cover to the outside of the tank. Since the backdrop was just printed cardboard, it rapidly got soaked and mildewey, and nobody apparently thought of sealing it in plastic to extend its life. Within a week, it peeled off and had to be cut free, and use of the air pump had to be cut way back to keep from coming home to a half-empty betta tank in the middle of a large pool of dribbled water. Keep the lid on, and it inhibited air circulation to the surface, preventing more dissolved oxygen from infiltrating the tank. Take the lid off so the betta could breathe, and her cat Tramplemaine because a lot more intrigued by the new playmate. It just wasn’t going to work as a fish enclosure.
For terrestrial bladderworts, though, it was a dream. Many of your tougher species of terrestrial bladderworts, such as Utricularia sandersonii and U. lividia, thrive on extremely boggy soils, and this enclosure was very good at retaining water. The sides were clear, meaning that a windowsill or a good desk lamp offered enough light for proper growth. The periscope allowed plant’s-eye views of the bladderwort foliage, seeing as how it looks like turtle grass at that scale, or of the bloom spikes in spring. The interior kept up the plant’s beloved humidity. Best of all, this container had a story behind it, and that story was enough to get someone to take a large U. sandersonii clump home that day.
Other people say “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” I say “That’s my story, and do you want to hear more?”
More to follow…