Monthly Archives: June 2014

Introducing Delonix regia

Delonix regia

As mentioned before, the big trip to Nicaragua at the end of May/beginning of June was work-related, which puts certain restrictions on botanical sightseeing. It’s bad enough being the only person in the general party actually thrilled to see my old friend Hylocereus costaricensis, the dragonfruit cactus, in the wild (or possibly its cousin H. undatus), and confirming that they grow best in medium to heavy shade during the hottest parts of the year. It should be understandable that my cohorts weren’t going to stop the bus every time I saw something vaguely interesting along the side of the road, and much of the area around Grenada had very handy cliffs and even a few volcano calderas to throw me into if I didn’t stop whining. Because this was business, I settled for biting my tongue, grumbling slightly, and trying my best to get decent photographs before the drivers had us on the other side of the galaxy.

(Incidentally, I learned something very handy and very thoughtful that hadn’t come up in years of bicycling in the States. For many reasons, Nicaragua is absolutely loaded with bicycles, and I watched fathers with two kids on the top bar cruise through traffic with grace and elan. Only recently have motorists in the States, particularly in Texas, accepted the increasing number of bikes on the road, so I still deal with the occasional jerk who thinks it’s still 1983 and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with someone over the age of 14 on a bike, under any conditions. Because of that, I was still rather defensive of anybody honking behind me, as that usually meant an idiot who expected the bikes to get off the road just for them, even if they were the only other person on the road. I’m serious: I had one bozo blast her horn from her SUV for a good half-mile, tailgating me the whole way, and then finally pull around just in time for us both to look at each other at the stoplight. Well, I looked at her: she stared straight ahead and did her best to avoid eye contact while her kids stared. I just told them “You’re all right, but your mom really needs to up her medication” before pedaling off.

(Anyway, it took a trip of this sort for me to make sense of a horn habit that hadn’t made sense before. As mentioned, I used to get defensive about people honking at me, and would get angry when a motorist would pass with a quick double-tap on the horn. “Yeah, I know, I’m in your way. I’m trying to get out of it.” What I discovered was that for Central America at least, this is a sign of respect: the double-tap is to inform the cyclist that a car or truck is coming up behind, and that the driver saw and acknowledged the cyclist’s presence. Now, when I get this at home, I don’t get surly. Instead, I wave and thank them, and the drivers are always surprised that the crazy white guy on the bike actually gets it.)

One of those minor grumbles came up over and over with a particularly beautiful tree that was so brilliantly orange that it was visible from the air well over the Managua airport. Everywhere we went, these trees followed, so orange that I thought the foliage was orange. Upon closer inspection, the coloration was from the blooms, but what blooms! I thought our native crepe myrtles did a great job of hiding their foliage among brilliant cascades of flowers, but this one could have taught the crepe myrtles about eight or nine lessons. My problem was being given a chance to focus in on an impressive canopy of them while moving at speeds that threatened to blue-shift the pigments.

Delonix regia

Finally, I managed to get close to a small specimen, and just stood and stared at the blooms. Each was easily the size of my hand, looking more like something manufactured from steel or bronze than anything botanical. For the rest of the trip, I’d gaze contentedly at those trees as they passed by on the highway back to the airport, telling myself that one day, I’d come back and give them much more time and attention.

Delonix regia

The real surprise on this is that while I and everyone else in the group thought these were indigenous trees, our not having seen them before was only because we lived far too north. We’d encountered Delonix regia, commonly and appropriately named “flamboyant”. Originally from Madagascar, the flamboyant tree grew enthusiastically and vigorously any place where the conditions were right, and went feral over most of the Earth’s tropics. In the US, they’re apparently only found in the Rio Grande Valley in far southern Texas and in southern Florida, but they’re as cosmopolitan a tropical tree as can be managed.

Delonix regia

That was another big surprise: while the northern half of Nicaragua may be jungle, the area around Grenada was much drier and scrubbier, and I saw a lot of analogues to plants I would have seen in North Texas that were thriving under many of the same conditions. The surprise was seeing so many plants, particularly cacti, that I recognized from just about any garden center or commercial nursery back home. At first, I thought that these may have originated in Central America and gained their current popularity due to imports to America and Europe, but D. regia‘s range makes me wonder about that. Time for more research, and the hope that I might live long enough to finish it.

Travels Abroad: La Bocona

Signs to La Bocona

Among many other wonders in Grenada, Nicaragua, one of the greater mysteries of Grenada was literally across the street from the hotel in which I stayed. Right by the front door of the building across the way was a large statue, carved out of volcanic rock, built into the side of the doorway. A very helpful gentleman working at the hotel passed on what he knew about the statue, which he was the first one to admit wasn’t much. Then again, nobody else seems to know, either.

La Bocona
The statue is called “La Bocona,” which roughly translates to “The Big Mouth”. La Bocona is a fixed point in Grenada: Grenada attracts a large number of international tourists and expatriates, and even those completely inept in Spanish, such as myself, can recite the name and have everyone in the city point you in the direction of the statue. In fact, the statue now has several concrete pillars in front, to prevent drivers and cyclists from taking out the front door while being distracted by its odd shape. La Bocona may not be in the center of Grenada, but it’s close enough that it’s very handy as a guide to the central market, the fire department, and any of the central cathedrals in the city.

La Bocona

With it being a landmark, you’d think that La Bocona would have more of a history, but that’s where things get odd. Apparently it was excavated during the construction of a sidewalk, with different versions saying in the 1940s or 1950s, and the owner of the property had it installed in the front of the building so everyone can see it. Other than that, it’s a mystery. La Bocona has no myths coming up around it, no outre explanations as to how it got there, or why it was constructed. It’s just there, and I suspect that filling in some of the questions about it would disappoint everyone, as the mystery seems to feed upon itself. Trying to give it an explanation would ruin it, but everyone has their own basic ideas, which they keep to themselves.

La Bocona
After a while, I shared that sentiment. I have no doubt that archaeologists have already examined and documented everything they can about La Bocona, and now I want to hunt down what they’ve written. I myself have a sneaking suspicion as to what the artist was trying to capture, and if I’m wrong, you’ll never know. In the meantime, it just perches at that corner, unseeing, as wonderful humanity rushes by. It did so before it was buried, and it’ll probably do so centuries after I’m gone.

Image

Cat Monday

Leiber

Travels Abroad: Grenada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua

I try not to let personal life issues affect Triffid Ranch activities, which is why they very rarely ever come up. One of those involved my previous job, which had been souring for a while. Between regular depletion and bizarrely scheduled annual layoffs, timed to guarantee that the parent company saw a double-digit return for the year, the job was becoming more and more of a chore instead of a career. As with any long-running tech company, it managed to gather its particular collection of dysfunctional characters, and many were brittle enough that you never knew what might be the one factor that caused one or five to come in with high-powered weaponry. Between the birthers, the young-earth creationists, the conspiracy theorists, the Freecycle addicts, and the Cory Doctorow cultists, any given trip to the break area was like reading the comments on a Yahoo! news article. It was probably pure coincidence that my bike tires were slashed at least once after I answered The Vital Question in a project meeting, “Star Wars or Star Trek?” with “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy,” but the timing fit. Either way, take a bit of advice: you know that guy that every tech company has, who practically curls up on the break room counter in impotent rage because “I’m angry at my government”? When he asks your advice on schools where he can send his unvaccinated children because “vaccinations cause autism,” do NOT bring up that they may have more to worry about genetically inherited connections to paranoid schizophrenia. Just saying.

So it was time to leave, and just in time, too: three months to the day after leaving the old position and the few remaining people for whom I still cared, the company was sold to a crew notorious for liquidating new acquisitions, so I dodged a few bullets. The new position is just as obscure as the old one, which is just exactly what I needed: if anything, I get my fill of the crazy by taking the train to work, and being told by former Texas Instruments and EDS engineers on the same route that I need to get a new bicycle seat because “if it doesn’t have a channel in it, you can get prostate cancer.”

Anyway, one of the criteria for the new position required getting a passport, as the opportunity for making company presentations around the world was a serious possibility. My measured and professional response was “Oh, TWIST my arm!” Previously, world travel was a bit like being handed an operational Green Lantern ring: oh, you can talk about the possibilities, but who’s going to give you the option? And then the word came through that the whole company was making a journey…to see Grenada, Nicaragua. Not what I was expecting, but I definitely wasn’t complaining, as I’d wanted to visit Central America since I was five years old.

Sadly, since this was business, this wasn’t the botanical tour for which I would have arranged had this been purely for pleasure. That said, I have no regrets. Grenada is a stunning city, and I hope to visit it again when my conversational Spanish might be described as something better than “you’re going to starve to death in a restaurant if your waiters don’t know English.”

The streets of Granada

Anyway, over the next few days, I get to resurrect a grand tradition that’s been missing from American culture for the last thirty years: boring friends and relatives to death with photos from your last vacation. This, though, should be a blast.

More fun with UV lasers: The Aloe Edition

Aloe bloom

Let me state up front that I hate Nerine Dorman, the acclaimed South African horror writer. This isn’t a minor hate. I have plans for a vicious and vile repayment for everything she’s done to me and for me, and she’ll have earned every last bit. This was the woman who, along with her husband, introduced me to the fynbos, the smallest and most fecund floral kingdom on the planet. They’ve forgotten more about fynbos flora, particularly aloes and euphorbias, than I’ll ever learn, but that’s not why I plan to gain revenge.

Aloe nobilis

It all started this spring, when my aloes started blooming. At this time, I only have two species on hand, A. vera and A. nobilis, and last winter’s repeated Icepocalypses did wonders for all of my South African and Australian flora. Instead of burning off or freezing off permanently, the cold snaps not only encouraged sprouting and growth in Roridula seeds I’d given up on, but it caused a bloom explosion in the aloes.

Aloe blooms
(As an aside, I’m regularly asked at shows by cactus and succulent beginners about their plants’ blooming or lack thereof. While many require at least some cooling period to encourage blooming, the biggest factor is ambient light. With most barrel cacti, regular interference from streetlights, porch lights, security lamps, and other artificial illumination throws off their circadian rhythms, even if it’s only for a few days during their normal blooming periods. I’ve also noted this in such common succulents as jade plants (Crassula spp.), and it’s absolutely vital for aloes. Protect your aloes from light pollution in the spring, and watch them go nuts.)

Aloe blooms
Now, things got even more interesting when taking a closer look at the blooms themselves. They closely resemble the blooms of indigenous North American plants that depend upon either hummingbirds or hawkmoths for pollination, and the confirmation that they had a similar attraction came when a ruby-throat hummingbird proceeded to give me grief when mowing the grass by the aloe planters. There’s a very good reason why Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, was often portrayed as a hummingbird, as these little monsters have no fear of man, beast, or god, and this one took severe umbrage at my interrupting his feed. Most people would look at the wonder of being attacked by a dinosaur in this day and age and move on, but I needed to know what set off the sort of response more likely to be encountered when haranguing a hummingbird’s nest.

Well, that night, I dusted off the UV laser flashlight used to view fluorescence in carnivores, and tried it on the A. nobilis blooms. The petals fluoresce slightly under UV, but the tips? Those glow a brilliant cadmium yellow, like a black light poster. Considering similar enthusiastic responses from hummingbirds from bladderwort blooms with comparable yellow fluorescence, this suggests either that blooms of this sort offer trace elements in their nectar needed by hummingbirds, or some other factor makes hummingbirds associate this sort of UV glow, and remember that hummingbirds can see well into the UV spectrum, with particularly good food. Time for more research, or at least time to pass on the observations to botanists and ornithologists who can examine things further.

Aloe bloom spike junction

With that observation, I then asked Nerine, without any other familiarity with aloe pollinators, about which birds might be attracted to the blooms. That’s when she informed me of sunbirds (Nectariniidae), which are enthusiastic aloe pollinators. Two groups of birds separated by the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the same floral cues for the same reasons, and a group of plants able to be pollinated by a bird group from the other side of the planet for precisely that reason…so do the birds call the shots, or the flowers?

Aloe blooms
This is why I hate Nerine as much as I do, and why I’m not going to rest until I come out to her house and talk her to death. At the same time as all of this, I lucked into a copy of the absolutely incredible book Fynbos: South Africa’s Unique Floral Kingdom by Richard Cowling, Dave Richardson, and Colin Paterson-Jones, and now I know where my next trip outside of the US is going to be. As if I don’t have enough realms to research: now I’m addicted to studying fynbos flora, and I CAN’T STOP.

Essential viewing for rose gardeners

As an aside from normal subjects, I’ve taken issue for quite a long time on the idea that horticulture is too boring a subject to be worthy of popular media renditions. After spending two separate days cleaning up rose bushes only now recovering from last winter’s repeated cold strikes, I beg to differ. Not only is there drama, excitement, and pathos involving roses, but the best documentary about pruning heirloom roses came out last summer:

And you think I’m kidding? After the second round on Thursday evening, call me “Cherno Alpha”, because I almost literally had my ass handed to me. Judging by the blood spray all over the back yard fence, either the rose gave as good as it got, or I had a very intense heavy petting session with a band saw. The moment someone builds real Jaegers for trimming back roses, Osage oranges, citrus, and mesquite, I’m buying it right then and there, because sometimes to fight monsters, you need to make monsters of your own.

Have a Great Weekend

And now some more personal interludes involving well-meaning friends trying to get me to attend that high school reunion. Considering that I have precious few good memories of those days, and in fact fell into an early love of the works of Harlan Ellison because of the parallels, they’re lucky I don’t call them every night at 3 ayem to do nothing but scream. In fact, when my mother related the viciously cruel trope “your high school years are the best of your life,” she’s damn lucky that this song still existed in my future, because I would have been singing it for weeks.