Category Archives: Introductions

Introducing Ipomoea batatas

Sweet potato vines

Although she rarely has any involvement with actual growing facilities at the Triffid Ranch, the Czarina asked for an exception this year. While my dislike of sweet potatoes isn’t on a par with that of butternut squash or bell peppers, planting them for my own use never really came up on the radar. However, she adores them, and she regularly shares roasted sweet potatoes with our cat Leiber. Yes, the cat loves sweet potatoes, and since his consumption seems to cut down on piles of cat vomit randomly encountered in the dark, that’s a reason alone to try my hand at growing my own.

The reality is that half of the fun of experiencing a new plant is not knowing anything about its initial growth, and watching the whole process. The other half is having a growing area that was criminally underutilized. Since the big silverleaf maples came down two years ago, this space had little to no shade during the worst of the summer heat, and the usual assemblage of tomatoes, white potatoes, or other essentials burned off by mid-June. When the Czarina gave me a stored sweet potato that had started sprouting and asked if I could plant it in the space, I told her “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises.” I knew they could handle Texas heat, but could they handle our ridiculously low North Texas humidity?

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The growing area had become the depository of nearly five years of kitchen compost, dead Sarracenia and Nepenthes leaves, extra potting mix from repottings, and the occasional bag of grass cuttings dumped on top to keep things moist. Five years of earthworms, ox beetle grubs, and the occasional armadillo later, and the soil in that depository had become a fluffy, rich loam, absolutely perfect for both growing and harvesting any root crops growing in it. Harvesting wasn’t a matter of digging out as it was simply brushing off dirt and hauling it in.

Sweet potato flower
But I get ahead of myself. Much like the sweet potato cousin the moonflower (Ipomoea alba), the biggest issue with sweet potatoes is getting them established. I suspect both species work in symbiosis with fungi in a commensual relationship, because the first year of trying to get either to grow is a bear, but after that first year, the seeds or tubers practically sprout the moment they touch the ground. I don’t know if I actually got any sweet potato seeds in the growing area this year, but judging by the number of stunning flowers growing under the foliage, I may luck out. Unlike other members of the genus Ipomoea, these flowers remain hidden under multiple layers of foliage, and I suspect that they fluoresce extensively under UV light, possibly encouraging night pollinators.

Sweet potato foliage

About that foliage, that’s one thing about sweet potatoes. It’s not shy about taking over the planet. By the beginning of August, mowing the lawn around the greenhouse was a proposition, as the sweet potato vines spreading outward tend to wrap around and tangle up lawn mower blades. This was about the time we discovered that sweet potato leaves made excellent additions to stir-fry or as a substitute for spinach in various recipes. At that point, the questions was whether the sweet potato would ask for UN citizenship to protect it from the Czarina’s depredations. It actually worked out well, because until Halloween weekend, it was growing new leaves faster than she could strip them out. In the meantime, the vines also offered great shelter for praying mantises and anole lizards, so building a trellis alongside the greenhouse and encouraging sweet potatoes to act as shade plants might be an option.

Sweet potato stems

Sadly, with Halloween came the threat of cold weather, and if there’s one thing that will ruin a sweet potato harvest, it’s the rot spread by dead and dying vines killed off by a good frost. This meant that they had to come out and start curing in a high-humidity area before they went bad. As mentioned before, the soil was so loose that the only hardship was finding the base of the plant. I say this after the vines had swallowed a rain gauge, two sprinkler heads, and a chiminea, but lifting up the mat of intertwined vines finally revealed the crown of the plant, and some quick grubbing around it came across the first of the tubers.

Sweet potato harvest

Having never done this before, I fully expected the usual beginner’s harvest: two or three tubers, and won’t I feel great about my accomplishments? Apparently, though, all of those composted Sarracenia leaves contributed to the tilth, because one removed tuber would reveal another. And another. And another. By the time things were finished, I managed to get nearly 15 kilos of tubers out of that tiny little space, and I still think I missed a few.

Sweet potato harvest

With the soil not consisting solely of Black Prairie clay, cleanup was remarkably easy: a quick wash with the hose, setting them in the sun to dry, and a quick inspection for damage or rot. Both the wife and the cat were even more impressed by the harvest: Leiber has never had interest in raw sweet potatoes before, but he looked half-tempted to take a chunk right then and there.

Monster sweet potato

Another thing about this adventure is the realization that what we think of as “typical” sweet potato sizes are more dictated by market pressures than by any plant-imposed maximum. The first few dug up were “typical” in size, and then this one revealed itself. I now understand the source of canned sweet potatoes, as this one was too big just to cook up and eat, so it became the core of several batches of sweet potato bread. I had no real interest, but judging by the way friends were tearing into it, it was that much more for everybody else.

Sontaran head

Finally, we got this beast, nearly the size of a soccer ball. Upon seeing pictures of this one roasting in a casserole dish, after FIVE HOURS of roasting to get it cooked all the way through, old friend Cat Sparks exclaimed “That’s not a sweet potato! That’s a Sontaran‘s head!!” I couldn’t disagee, and if I can get more spherical ones such as this, I may have a viable replacement for pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns that can grow in our heat. But first, I’m training the next batch to climb up trellises, grow up onto the roof, and shade the garage. I have my priorities in order.

EDIT: Since people started asking about the sweet potato bread recipe, here’s the Czarina’s own recipe, in her own words:
So, I’m giving you the recipe for sweet potato bread. However, be warned. I’m renaming it ‘crack bread’. You have no idea how addictive this bread is. On one side, it is low in carbs, and does have some protein, but it’s not calorie-free.
You’ve been warned.

Sweet Potato bread-

2 cups of brown sugar
1 cup of white sugar
3 eggs
2 cups of cold mashed sweet potatoes
1 tsp of vanilla extract
2 3/4 all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 (or less) tsp of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup of chocolate chips, dark chocolate preferably.

Now this mixture will get Thick, so I’d pull out the mixer. I nearly killed my little handheld mixer.
In a bowl, combine sugar, eggs, sweet potatoes, and vanilla. mix well.
add all the spices, mix well.
combine flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, and mix in gradually into your sweet potato mixture. Lastly, add chocolate chips, or if you prefer, a cup of pecans.

Bake at 350, for about 45-50 minutes, testing to see if a toothpick will pull out cleanly at the center of the bread. Time may vary on oven. One mixture equals about three smaller loaves for me.

Now don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Introducing Potentilla indica

Potentilla indica

Anybody with any passing familiarity with candy knows that the flavors commonly attributed to various fruits have no real connection to the original. Banana, watermelon, mango, pineapple…none of the confectionary analogues come close to the originals, and don’t even get me started on the horror that is “blue raspberry.” The biggest and most unfair lie of all, though, comes with the overuse of the phrase “wild strawberry.” For those whom have never had the privilege of coming across a hill full of wild strawberries and picked every last tiny morsel, the term “abomination,” when used to describe the artificially flavored nightmares blithely stealing the name, may be a bit extreme. However, it’s also accurate.

This, in a roundabout way, explains my sad and regretful relationship with a common weed rather common in North Texas suburban environments. Potentilla indica is often known as “Indian strawberry“, but it’s best called “false strawberry”. Lying, tricksy, false. In a way, P.indica taught me one of the best object lessons of my entire life.

As far as a garden and lawn weed is concerned, you could do a lot worse than P. indica. In North Texas, at least, it’s not invasive, and it’s not particularly obnoxious, either. It grows low to the ground, in both sun and shade, but doing best in places with a little bit of protection from the worst of local weather. It usually shows thanks to seeds deposited by birds, and birds absolutely adore the ripe fruits. Other than that, it doesn’t choke out more desirable garden plants. It doesn’t attract mosquitoes or armadillos. It doesn’t jam up lawn mowers or Weedeaters. It has no spines or toxic sap, and in fact the leaves are edible both raw and cooked. Compared to most of the flora generally labeled “weeds” this area, P. indica isn’t exactly the visitor who wouldn’t leave.

Potentilla indica

The problem, of course, is that its leaves and runners are very similar to those of wild strawberries, and the green and ripe fruit are also very similar, thus explaining the common name. In fact, that resemblance explains why so many beginning gardeners let it move in. For those lucky enough to have tasted real wild strawberries, it’s completely understandable. Even though the fruit doesn’t look exactly the same, there’s that hope, you know?

Potentilla indica

That’s where P. indica gets you. The fruit isn’t toxic, or even noxious. It just tastes of disappointment. It tastes of school field trips to the bank. Getting school supplies for your birthday. Spending your Christmas bonus on a CT scan to check out that “anomaly” on your lung, and not even getting a chestburster alien for your trouble. Quitting your last job because of the insufferable idiot in the next cubicle who wouldn’t quit braying every last thing that passed through his microscopic mind, and discovering that your next-door neighbor at the new job is an even bigger and more obnoxious idiot. The premiere screening of Star Trek III. Ordering the latest E.L. Doctorow and discovering that Amazon.com shipped you the latest Cory Doctorow instead. With no expectations, false strawberries aren’t absolutely horrible: they’re mostly water, with the slightest hint of wintergreen, but nothing you’d want to cultivate in huge quantities. But with the memory of wild strawberries on the tip of your tongue while popping a false strawberry in your mouth? It’s the taste of ash and despair and your prom date’s mother setting a curfew of midnight because “that’s late enough”.

Yeah, I made the mistake of letting false strawberry get established in my yard, a third of my life ago. The lesson I learned was to take advantage of current thrills, not past regrets, so I never held it against P. indica for trapping me the same way it traps birds into spreading its seeds. I will say, though, that the foliage is quite tasty, both raw and cooked, and that guarantees that it won’t be overtaking my yard again any time soon. If only scarlet trumpetvine were so easy to deal with.

Introducing Phidippus audax

It’s amazing what you find during a standard greenhouse cleaning, and it’s even more amazing who you find. In the process of moving a growing bench, I had to clear off a shelf, and found someone I haven’t seen in a while. One and all, I’d like to introduce you to M’Nuuuurc, sole remaining diplomatic liaison from Metabilis 3, and someone who definitely appreciates a greenhouse full of terrestrial arthropods needing a bit of population control.

Phiddipus audax

On a more serious basis, the jumping spider Phidippus audax, if you needed a spider in your house, is one of the best choices around. I’d never call any spider friendly, but P. audax is more likely to recognize humans as harmless to them than most others. In return, they’re completely harmless to humans, they don’t spin obtrusive webs, they actively dislike contact with human skin in any way, and they’re absolutely voracious predators. When found indoors, they’re usually feeding on such pests as silverfish and firebrats, but I’ve also seen them take down prey as large as juvenile grasshoppers. In the greenhouse, they’re always welcome, especially with dealing with insect pests, such as those aforementioned grasshoppers, that see nothing wrong with munching on pitcher plants.

Phiddipus audax
But this one? I’ve viewed a lot of jumping spiders over the years, but never have I come across one this size. In many ways, I’m very glad that these spiders only bite humans in the most desperate self-defense, and that their venom doesn’t seem to have any effect on us in any case. The moment they decide to cooperate and go after larger prey, we’re in trouble.

Phiddipus audax

Introducing Myocastor coypus

Nutria

I love terrorizing my UK friend Dave Hutchinson with tales of the horrible, vicious wildlife in Dallas, because it’s like poking a Knox Block with a stick. He refers to Texas as “Australia Lite”, because he knows that unlike Australia, not every life form in my native land would try to kill him. No, most just want to knock him out, drag him back to their lairs, and lay their eggs in his chest. Worse, I have a passport now, so I just might come out to London, drag him onto a plane to Dallas, and sing to him the whole way back.

Anyway, so that Dave doesn’t soil his bedsheets every night, I wanted to show him something here that wouldn’t try to kill him, enslave him, or steal his wimminfolk. That can be a tough order, especially coming from a guy nearly taken out by his bicycle being hit by an armadillo in my back alley. (Not only can those little armored pigs run, but they JUMP, too.) It took an exotic intruder in one of the oddest places in the area, but I finally succeeded.

As mentioned a while back, I took a new Day Job out in the Las Colinas area of Irving, close to DFW Airport. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Las Colinas started out in the early Eighties as a tech hub, culminating with it becoming quite the symbol of dotcom excess about 15 years ago. All of that turned back into pumpkins and mice, but some of the oddities remain. First and foremost is the network of canals that run all through the eastern side of the area: apparently originally intended to make slightly hilly Dallas prairie a bit more tolerable, the canals had the side effect of attracting all sorts of wildlife. Egrets, herons, softshelled turtles the size of a garbage can lid, the occasional water snake, and the very occasional alligator all show up in the canals, but one of the biggest surprises here was a little guy I met on the daily commute from the train station to my office.

A few people here may know the story of the nutria, a South American water rodent that pretty much fills the niche there that the muskrat fills in the US and Canada. Nutria were first brought to the US as a possible source of cost-effective furs when beaver became endangered through the States: the market never took off, but nutria breeding numbers did, and they rapidly became a major pest in Louisiana. Part of this was due to their voracious feeding habits, and part was because nutria prefer to dig deep burrows into steep riverbanks. When said “riverbank” is a flood levee…well, you can imagine why they’re not exactly loved through the area.

Even fewer know that nutria are a rather common invasive animal in the Dallas area, but that’s because they’re incredibly shy and secretive. While I’ve seen the occasional burrow along creekbeds through the area, the only time I’d seen one before was when two ran out in front of me in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. They’re usually so secretive that one doesn’t even hear them slip into the water and swim off, which was why spotting “Gustavus” here in the morning light was an even bigger shock. His favorite lounging and feeding spot is a canal bank in the middle of a large park in the middle of Las Colinas, and he’s completely unafraid of the innumerable joggers and bicyclists who race right by his grazing area.

Nutria

That is, until one of those cyclists stops and tries to get his picture. Well, it’s not like he’s going anywhere soon: the three-foot alligator I spotted in another canal is a ways off, and Gustavus is big enough to be a major challenge for a gator that small. Which brings up the eternal question: in such a blatantly artificial and manufactured venue as Las Colinas, are introduced species residing therein really quite the menace they would be in more pristine areas? Or is this just giving them running room to spread out further? Either way, I suspect Gustavus is going to be here for a while.

Introducing Tempusetsiti gilliami

The slogan for the company should say it all: “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”. Most of the time, it’s able to follow through. Every once in a great while, though, it exceeds the expectations of even the oddest people to come through the door. It gives everyone involved with the Texas Triffid Ranch great pleasure in announcing that it will be the one and only nursery on the planet Earth, and probably any other planet, to carry seeds and juvenile plants of the incredibly rare tree known as the Pink Bunkadoo, Tempusetsiti gilliami.

Long a highly coveted tree, the Pink Bunkadoo is a monotypical species, belonging to the order Strepitusiciae, which also includes such rare flora as the Varga plant and the Whomping Willow. While casual observers can’t get over its exceptional height (rumored to exceed 600 feet [182.88 meters] in mature specimens), its main attraction in the horticultural trade comes from its bright red foliage. Growing in a wide variety of conditions, from arctic to tropical, the Pink Bunkadoo is easily coppiced, trained into espaliers, and trimmed into hedges, and its only shortcoming is its odor, commonly described as “a stench that could burn the nose hairs out of a dead nun.”

More details are forthcoming, such as the Pink Bunkadoo’s ability to draw out and process radioactive isotopes from contaminated soil or its equally fragrant fruit making a nutritious sandwich spread, but first a moment of tribute. After an absence of twelve years, we need to recognize the efforts of one Edgar Harris, formerly the sports editor for Science Fiction Age magazine, for getting viable seeds and photos of the mature plants. If not for his outstanding efforts at hunting down and collecting specimens, the Pink Bunkadoo would remain nothing more than a legend.

Pink Bunkadoo

When Harris first got in touch, all he had was a photograph from the Pink Bunkadoo’s native habitat in the plateau of Maple-White Land, located on the border of Venezuela and Brazil. After consulting experts on its authenticity, we wired him the money to gather samples, which just arrived. The Pink Bunkadoo produces large fleshy seed pods with many of the same attributes as ginkgoes and durian fruit, so transporting one back to the US was impossible without access to cargo helicopters. However, he was able to snag viable seeds, from which we plan to offer our first trees.

Pink Bunkadoo seed

As can be told, the actual seed is both huge and very heavily hulled, requiring extensive scarification to allow germination. A currently prevailing theory is that the ancestors of the Pink Bunkadoo produced those fruits to attract large dinosaurs to swallow the seeds, thus passing them only after being thoroughly tumbled in the beasts’ gizzards. Other experts suggest that the hulls were protection against forest fires and the occasional volcanic eruption, and the seeds only seem to pip after being dropped from fast-moving vehicles onto busy highways. This alone, along with the weight of the seed, preclude any hope of offering fresh seeds to garden centers. Sorry, friends, but the only hope here is in getting leaf or branch material for sterile tissue propagation.

Another fascinating trait of the Pink Bunkadoo is the deep scoring of the outer seed hull, often resembling writing. We were assured by Harris that not only is this common, but the markings are different between seeds in the same fruit. Others seemed to read “POST NO BILLS,” “PROPERTY OF KANKAKEE POLICE,” and “EVER GET THE FEELING YOU’VE BEEN CHEATED?” The only absolute was the difference in color between viable and nonviable seed, as demonstrated with the first documented germination.

Germinating Pink Bunkadoo seed

In this photo, you can see the seed coat cracking under the stress of germination, and Harris attests that the tap root will start to sprout any day now. The actual sprouting, though, requires specialized conditions, including red silk pillows, a mister loaded with chocolate sauce, and the rich melodies of Barry White. Or so he says.

Pink Bunkadoo seed closeup

As can be expected, this is extremely exciting, and we ask potential retailers and customers to hold off until we can present the final trees for sale, probably on 2/30/2015. Until then, keep checking back for further developments, and thank you, as always, for your support.

Introducing Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia purpurea
Dedicated to Velvet, an old friend who helped me appreciate Newfoundland more than she realized. If I ever develop a unique cultivar of this plant, I’m naming it for her.

When first exposed to carnivorous plants, most people are amazed that they aren’t all denizens of strange exotic jungles in tropical zones. They’re surprised to discover the range and variety of pitcher plants along the Gulf Coast of the United States, or the vistas of sundews and butterworts through Europe. When they learn about Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, and its place in Canadian history, they’re even more surprised. A regular pitch is “Lots of countries put out stamps and other memorabilia involving carnivorous plants. My people, though, are so badass that we made one a provincial flower.”

Sarracenia purpurea

The provincial flower part is true, and it’s the real reason for the plant’s common and Latin name. Although S. purpurea grows in a wide range of colorations, from deep maroon and purple to a nearly pure green, the flowers are consistently colored a deep royal purple. These emerge in spring when the plant comes out of its winter dormancy and droop over the plant’s crown, and then the pitchers emerge after the odds are pretty good that the flowers have already been pollinated. As with other members of its genus, S. purpurea has no problems with capturing its pollinators if given the opportunity, and blooming before it produces traps is a good way to avoid the opportunity.

Sarracenia purpurea

When compared to other members of its genus, the first things that stand out are the height and shape of S. purpurea‘s pitchers. Instead of the long, fluting pitchers of other species, S. purpurea pitchers are squat and short. Likewise, the lids that normally protect the mouth of the pitcher in other species acts as a scoop for rainwater. After a good downpour, purpurea pitchers are usually full of fresh rainwater. This rainwater may act as a lens for incoming sunlight, giving a better opportunity for light to hit chloroplasts on both inside and outside of the pitcher. What’s absolutely certain, though, is that the open pitchers provide a habitat for various lifeforms, which feed upon drowned insect prey and any other organic matter that falls within.

As with other Sarracenia, S. purprea has no issues with digesting insect prey, with the assistance of bacterial action and larger organisms such as midge larvae, but that’s not its only option. In the book Gardening with Carnivores: Sarracenia Pitcher Plants in Cultivation & in the Wild, Nick Romanowski noted the high numbers of rotifers living inside S. purpurea pitchers and feeding upon bacterial colonies within, to the point where the potential nitrogen absorbed from rotifer waste alone exceeds the amount needed for plant maintenance, growth, and reproduction. Combine that with S. purpurea‘s tolerance of much more alkaline habitats than other Sarracenia species, this helps explain why S. purpurea grows in a much wider range. All other known Sarracenia species are native to a relatively small area of the southeast United States, with most concentrated within Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and northern Florida. Two subspecies of S. purpurea, S. purpurea purpurea and S. purpurea venosa, grow along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to far eastern Florida, and then north up the East Coast to Newfoundland and Labrador. It then grows due west, through bogs in Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, and Minnesota, and ultimately reaching Alberta. Romanowski also surmises that both rotifer cultivation and tolerance to relative alkalinity helps explain why S. purpurea is often one of the first plants to move into freshly denuded areas after a glacier retreats. Considering that the soil on a glacial plain is little more than rock dust and clay, any plant with the ability to gather its own nitrogen has a decided survival advantage.

Sarracenia purpurea

All of these factors, with an additional tolerance for lower humidity than what most other Sarracenia prefer, make S. purpurea an excellent plant for bog and container gardens through North Texas. For best results, go with typical basic care for Sarracenia (full morning sun, rainwater or distilled water only, and potting mix comprised of two parts sphagnum moss to one part sharp sand), and S. purpurea responds by spreading out into thick clumps. Once the first hard frosts arrive, the tips of the pitchers tend to brown and burn at the tips, but they generally don’t die entirely with anything less than a week of temperatures remaining below freezing. Any pitchers that don’t die off still collect sunlight while the plant is otherwise in winter dormancy, but the real action starts in mid-March in North Texas conditions, when they start blooming and then producing pitchers.

Sarracenia purpurea

And now the Canadian angle. Sarracenia purpurea gets its genus name from famed French naturalist and doctor Michel Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who first described it after he emigrated to what was then New France in 1685. At the time, the plant was used as a treatment for smallpox, and its carnivorous nature wasn’t confirmed until Charles Darwin’s experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. As other relations turned up in North America (and, in the case of Heliamphora, in South America as well), Sarrazin’s name was also given to the whole family, the Sarraceniaceae. Sarrazin died without learning of S. purpurea‘s range and habits, but the purple pitcher plant became a favorite of a famed horticulture enthusiast of the end of the Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria. She was so taken by the scrappy little plant and its beautiful flower that until Newfoundland entered Canadian Confederation in 1949, the back of the Newfoundland half-penny coin featured a purple pitcher by order of the queen. Even today, it remains the provincial flower of the province, partly because of its previous history, and partly because it’s one of the first plants to bloom in the province in spring. If you’ve ever visited Newfoundland and Labrador, especially in the very early spring, you’ll understand why this is such a big deal.

In a way, S. purpurea could be the Canadian national flower, too. It’s a natural survivor, low-key yet tenacious, humble yet possessed of a unique beauty. If that doesn’t describe every Canadian I’ve ever met, I don’t know what does.

Introducing Arilus cristatus

Arilus cristatus

When trying to study the natural history of North Texas, always pay attention to annual patterns to be sure, but don’t be afraid to note longer patterns. Many plants and animals here don’t obligingly make themselves visible every single year: many disappear for a year or two, and then suddenly they’re everywhere as if they’ve never left. With many others, they never left, but they suddenly become prominent for inscrutable reasons. We’re already famous for our various floods of grasshoppers and crickets, and a few are lucky enough to witness the sudden explosion of tiger beetles, mantises, or tarantulas in geographically tight areas. This year, my own personal surprise was seeing the return of the ambush bug Arilus cristatus, generally known locally as the “wheel bug”. I’ve looked high and low since coming across my first one in a tree in the summer of 2000, and haven’t seen a single one until this past week. In that week, though, I’ve encountered four of them, including this dying specimen here, and I fully expect to find even more camping out among the pineapples and Bhut Jolokia peppers in my smaller greenhouse, feeding on anything they can catch.

Looking at one from the side, it’s easy to see where the “wheel bug” name came from. In this specimen, the individual teeth in the crest are damaged in the center, but most look as if someone stuck a watch gear into its back. (Yes, I’m also glad that nobody’s calling it a “steampunk bug“. Yet.) Incidentally, for those without a Latin background, that crest is also where A. cristatus gets its species name. According to some authorities, this crest may be an identifier for birds and other predators that the wheel bug tastes as badly as it smells: in that regard, it shares with its true bug kin a very recognizable and extremely unpleasant metallic stink when disturbed.

Not that the stink is all that wheel bugs have for protection. Unlike their cousins the stink bugs, ambush bugs are all very aggressive predators (including the ones that live in symbiosis with the South African carnivorous plants Roridula spp.), so their beaks are designed to pierce flesh and carapace. If you want to know about the pain of a wheel bug bite, or the subsequent healing process, please feel free to check with someone else, because I haven’t been bitten yet nor do I plan to do so. Avoiding contact with ambush bugs is generally a good idea, whether in real life or in fiction.

Arilus cristatus

Taking a look from above, A. cristatus can fly. In fact, it’s a remarkably good flier, even if it doesn’t have particular speed or agility. Swat at one, and it’s much more likely to take off and buzz away rather than risk being damaged. Not that this happens all that often anyway: wheel bugs both have excellent camouflage when against tree bark or reflective leaves (in my recent experience, they’re particularly fond of camping out in both pineapple plants and on live oaks), and they tend to hide in plain sight and attack unwary prey. During the summer, though, they’re just as likely to track prey underneath street lights, and that’s when the big ones come out. Just last Saturday, while running late-night errands, I came very close to accidentally stepping on one that was as long as my thumb.

Arilus cristatus

Another thing to note about A. cristatus is the bend in each antenna. That isn’t damage or a deformity: the upper half can wave back and forth at the end of the lower half, like a cat toy. I don’t know if wheel bugs use these to attract prey, like the caudal lure on immature copperhead snakes, or if the waving helps as camouflage, but this might be a useful experiment.

Arilus cristatus

And with closeup photos, the wheel bug just keeps getting better. On the lower right corner, you can see the two clawed toes on each foot, obviously used for climbing and for hanging onto prey. The head is to the left, with the eye and beak being particularly noticeable. Also note the fuzziness in the photo, because that isn’t from the camera focus. While barely visible to the naked eye, wheel bugs are covered with very fine hairs, and these grow thick enough along the legs and underside of the body that it’s easy to believe that the problem lies with the camera than with the bug. Another experiment, for this evening, is to see if these hairs fluoresce under ultraviolet light, or if they actually absorb UV and make the bug blend into its surroundings even further. Lots of ideas, and nowhere near enough time, so here’s hoping that we see more of these guys over the remainder of the summer.

Introducing Manduca sexta

Tobacco hornworm caterpillar
In places like North Texas, using the phrase “fell out of the sky” gets quite the workout. Several years back, I talked to a gentleman who worked for an aquarium maintenance company who was klonked on the head by a hatchling turtle apparently dropped by a passing seagull. (Yes, we have seagulls from time to time. For inexplicable reasons, they tend to congregate in Target parking lots at random times of the year.) I knew someone in my teen years who had a great horned owl lose its grip on a gigantic skunk and drop the skunk carcass into her convertible. We get fauna, flora, minerals, and occasional pieces of space junk that drop through the area, and this doesn’t always involve tornadoes or high explosives. I finally experienced this myself when I stopped after a bike ride home from the Day Job and found this beast stuck to my shirt.

For the record, this is the caterpillar form of the tobacco hornworm moth, Manduca sexta. Technically, it’s distinguished from its cousin the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) by the number of stripes on the side of the body (M. sexta has seven on each side, while M. quinquemaculata has eight), but they’re indistinguishable from each other in one respect: both feed on plants within the Solanaceae, which includes tobacco, nightshade, potatoes, tomatoes, and Capsicum peppers, and rapidly strip tomato plants down to the thickest stems.

Tobacco hornworm caterpillar

I have to admit that I’m ambivalent toward tobacco and tomato hornworms for several reasons. Firstly, the adult hawkmoths fill the same niche for night-blooming flowers that hummingbirds fill during the day, and at dusk, the moths can be mistaken for hummingbirds. Not only do the hawmoths hover and fly backwards, but they have a tremendously long tongue for feeding on the nectar in deep flowers such as angel trumpets (Datura stramonium) and moonflowers (Ipomoea alba). Plant a stand of either, and the hawkmoths keep showing up for as long as the flowers keep opening. They also tend to frequent my Sarracenia pitcher plants during full moons, carefully extracting nectar along the lid and throat of every pitcher if given a chance. They even steal nectar from hummingbird feeders if given half a chance.

The other reason I’m ambivalent about the damage they cause is that these are also common hosts for several species of exoparasitic wasps in the area. In every case, the adult wasp lays its eggs deep within the caterpillar’s body, where the wasp larvae grow along with the caterpillar. With one species, the larvae emerge from the body and form cocoons that remain attached to the caterpillar’s body, looking like little spools of glass wool; when the wasps emerge from their cocoons, the caterpillar dies. Another simply rips free from the caterpillar, a la the film Alien, and pupates elsewhere. The real surprise, though, is one species where one to two undeveloped larvae remain within the caterpillar’s body while the others pupate, forcing the caterpillar to remain in the vicinity and protect the wasp cocoons until they emerge or it dies of starvation. Either way, the caterpillar goes out in a rather nasty fashion, but that also gives a chance to its brethren to grow to full size, bury themselves in the soil to form a very distinctive pupa with a long pitcherlike “handle” for the tongue, and then emerge as adults in spring.

In this case, since it wasn’t going to be part of an extended photoshoot and it wasn’t an immediate pest, this one went out onto the Datura plants in my back yard. With a bit of luck, it might come back next year to feed on next year’s flowers. And so it goes.

Introducing Sphenodon punctatus

At the end of the day, the only thing you can do with some shows is laugh and try to say one good thing about the whole fiasco once you’ve gone home and unpacked. So it was with a Mother’s Day art event at the Dallas Zoo this last weekend, where the Czarina was showing her artwork. We’ve both had some bad shows, including both ones where the staff was at no fault of their own for the debacle and ones where everyone involved should have been hung by their big toes and used as Viking pinatas by the vendors and attendees. This one couldn’t have been improved upon if it had opened with the announcement “Hi! I’m Johnny Knoxville…”

Well, I’m one of those guys who can sit in a room full of horseflop and exclaim “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” In fact, at times, the Czarina accuses me of treading dung in a huge pit of it, occasionally feeling a pony as it emerges from the deep in its search for fresh toes to chew. That’s how I found myself in a momentary escape from the booth, sneaking out to hit the reptile house. Say hello to the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), one of the most unique reptiles on the planet today.

Tuatara at the Dallas Zoo

I won’t go into details on tuatara physiology, habits, or distribution, nor will I say anything other than that the Dallas Zoo deserves its reputation for being one of the most exciting venues for reptile care and captive breeding on the planet. In fact, the Dallas and Fort Worth Zoos have a very friendly rivalry involving results in captive breeding programs. That’s why the fact that the government of New Zealand was willing to allow a loan of two tuatara to the Dallas Zoo is such a singular honor. After the show season is over, it’s time to go back, with a much better camera than my phone and with a lot more time, and get more photos. Seeing the Zoo’s crocodile, Perentie, and Komodo monitors was enough of a thrill, but barring making that long-anticipated trip to Aotearoa to see tuatara in the wild (a very unlikely occurrence, as visits to the islands frequented by tuatara are strictly regulated by the New Zealand government), this was as close to fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was three as I’m going to get.

Introducing Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri

I have friends from outside Texas who ask me regularly “Why do you stay there?” The general impression of Texas is that it’s a hostile, horrible place full of dangerous wildlife, most of which is human. The more specific impression is that Texas is just like Australia, only instead of drop bears descending from trees, we have armadillos that jump up for home games of “Ow, My Balls!” Several years back, on a trip to Banff, Alberta, the Czarina and I stopped by a tourist center and talked with several Canadian national park rangers, and all they wanted to talk about was the number of venomous snakes in Texas. “I couldn’t live there. Between the rattlesnakes and the alligators…”

My response was “Dude, you live in a province where all of the garbage dumpsters are armor-plated to fend off GRIZZLIES. And even we Americans know how dangerous pikas can be. Bloodthirsty little monsters.”

No, I stay here because of the unorthodox beauty. The sort of beauty, for instance, that presented itself on a side lot of the Day Job. Say hello to Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, better known as the Texas rat snake.

Texas rat snake

Texas rat snakes get their common name for obvious reasons. Yes, they’re from Texas, as well as Louisiana and Arkansas. They’re also obviously snakes. The “rat” part, though, comes from their eating habits. While rat snakes of all types won’t turn down birds and various small mammals, their diet consists mostly of rodents, all of which are constricted instead of being dispatched with venom. As such, they tend to hunt on the edges of farms and grain fields for rats and mice, often moving inside barns and stalls while seeking prey. Our local indigenous rats, along with the introduced Norway rat, also have a thing for hiding out alongside human dwellings, and where they go, so do the rat snakes. More often than not, the snakes slither down rat burrows, chow down on the rats, and then claim the burrow as a hiding area.

Texas rat snake

After hearing stories from co-workers about the giant snake inhabiting one outdoor courtyard, I’d hoped to spot it one of these days, but it was my boss who saw it while looking down off a balcony normally used by the smokers at work. Knowing the number of ophidiophobes on site, we figured that the best thing we could do was move it away from the building so as to prevent any misunderstandings between reptile and human, but otherwise leave it alone. After all, neither of us want the rats around. Since I’m probably one of the only people on site who knows anything about reptile handling, I came in for a closer look, identified it as a rat snake as opposed to any of our rather rare venomous snakes, and held it long enough for identification. I wasn’t absolutely sure, but based on experiences with indigenous king snakes, I suspected this one was gravid and looking for a place to lay eggs, so we called it “her” in the interim.

Texas rat snake

This wasn’t the first time I’d come across Texas rat snakes, or even ones as big as this one. The area around the Day Job is loaded with various winter and summer wheat fields, with the unfortunate side effect that snakes hunting for rodents get hit with all sorts of horrible pesticides. Most of the time, the snake is dying or at least extremely disoriented because of the spraying, so it was a singular honor to examine one in excellent health. Oh, and she was. In fact, she was point-blank cantankerous until she settled in and realized that I wasn’t a threat.

As for the much-hyped bad attitude of this species, that’s a matter of attitude. Having kept snakes at one time or another since I was three, I’ve handled everything from garter snakes to water moccasins (once, and I don’t recommend it without safety gear), and Texas rat snakes are nowhere near as cranky as water snakes or black racers. I’ve personally kept a beautiful bull snake and an equally beautiful speckled king snake (named “Madcoil” by the request of a then-girlfriend who was heavily into the comic Elfquest back when we were in high school) that did their best to kill me before I could pick them up, and this one wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that. Even so, she managed to get in one quick tag on me before I secured her head, and it was such a soft bite that I didn’t even realized she’d touched me until I noted the blood.

Texas rat snake bite

Aside from biting, Texas rat snakes don’t have much in the way of defense. Like the aforementioned bull and speckled king snakes, they vibrate their tails when started or threatened, sounding like a rattlesnake’s rattles if in leaves. (Again, they’re nothing like black racers: hatchling black racers not only vibrate their tails, but they have markings nearly indistinguishable from those of pygmy rattlesnakes.) That doesn’t do a whole lot against their natural enemies, which include hawks, coyotes, and the occasional ambitious housecat. When in hand, she first tried to strike at my face, and then calmed down when she realized that I wasn’t going to take a bite out of her. Snakes aren’t particularly intelligent compared to other reptiles, and they’re really just mouths and stomachs with a mobility system, but the rat and king snakes are smart enough to understand when a human isn’t a threat.

In the end, it was fun, but my boss and I moved this snake out and let her climb a tree far enough away from the front of the building that nobody would come across her when leaving work for the day. She’ll probably be back, but seeing as how she’s been around for this long, I don’t begrudge her this a bit. With luck, she should get in another decade of basking on tree limbs and snagging rats and mourning doves, and I don’t begrudge her that at all, either.

Introducing Sarracenia flava

The joke all throughout Texas goes “Don’t like the weather? Hang around for five minutes.” Our reality isn’t much better. While not getting the rain we were promised (as of this week, we’re now facing the driest spring registered in North Texas since 1971, and we’re heading straight toward Year Three of the worst drought seen in the state since the “drought of record” in 1952-56), Saturday was average for the area and the time of the year. Then Sunday hit, and it’s time to pull out the winter coats and gloves again. By Monday and Tuesday, we faced low temperatures below freezing, which isn’t a big deal further north, but here? I’ve lived here for two-thirds of my life, and I apparently missed our last big late freeze in 1997 by being trapped in Portland, Oregon at the time.

Anyway, the cold coming through so late in the year couldn’t have hit at a worse time. The plans to set up the new greenhouse went into standby, as the winds on Sunday were ferocious enough that attempting to install greenhouse film would have whisked me to Oz or at least to Nehwon. The citrus trees and the new blueberry, recently purchased to replace the “Pink Lemonade” blueberry bush that died during last year’s fall immolation, went under cover, as did all of the hot pepper bonsai just trimmed and wired. I couldn’t do much for the Sarracenia in their wading pools except trust in their ability to handle light frosts, but I pulled in two yellow pitchers, Sarracenia flava>, inside to protect their new blooms.

Sarracenia flava

Early spring isn’t a good time for control freak carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly those engrossed in Sarracenia. As mentioned elsewhere, all of the North American pitcher plants go into dormancy by mid-November, and we got enough cold, including our freak snowfall on Christmas Day, to kill off most of the autumn pitchers by mid-January. That’s not a problem, because come March, they grow more. What to do about the scraggly mess hiding the blooms, though?

Sarracenia flava

At this point, the best thing to do is cut off anything that’s gone brown and evaluate any new growth, as well as remove weeds that sprouted up at the same time. In this photo, you may note that this S. flava still has a kindasorta live trap from last year, even if the top is burned off, and two new tall pitchers starting to sprout. If you’re trimming yours back, leave anything that’s still green attached to the plant, especially this time of the year. The plant needs every last photon it can capture to get a good start on the year, so as tempting as it is to snip those half-traps, leave them on until they actually die off.

Sarracenia flava

While giving these guys their new spring tonsorials, taking the time to go through it carefully has its reward. Hidden among the wreckage wasn’t just a tiny little pitcher that emerged at about the time the plant bloomed, but a handful of violets sprouting in the sphagnum moss. The pitcher was interesting in its own right: because most of the pollinators for Sarracenia are also potential prey, most plants bloom and only start opening up traps after the blooms fade. This little pitcher, though, was probably working hard at catching mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and anything else it could snag, passing on what nitrogen it could from digestion to the main plant while the main pitchers started to emerge. It stays, but unfortunately the violets are going to go…probably into a bog garden arrangement. The flowers don’t last long, but the leaves have their own merits if they don’t burn off in the summer heat.

Sarracenia flava bloom

Speaking of blooms, the only thing more impressive than Sarracenia traps are their blooms, and this one helps explain why the common name is “yellow pitcher”. The traps tend toward chartreuse, but the blooms just blaze. In the years I’ve kept Sarracenia, I’ve noticed these blooms ranging from canary to a very light green. The scent tends to be a bit like cat spray, which can be a bit overpowering in enclosed areas, and I’ve heard of problems with cats assuming that the analogue is the real thing and attacking bog gardens for that reason. These, though, were all completely odor-free, but I’m not sure if that was because of the bloom or the insane lack of humidity in the area at the time. However, look at them under ultraviolet light, or even under a good full moon, and get a good idea of what a pollinating insect sees.

Sarracenia flava bloom

When most people see Sarracenia blooms, the understandable concern is that the plant traps bees, wasps, and other big potential pollinators. As mentioned earlier, the plant produces its first traps after the blooms open, to remove the risk of snagging a freshly pollen-covered wasp and thereby preventing its genes from passing on to new generations. The bloom is a trap all on its own, though, but not a fatal one. The bottom cap or shield seen in this photo protects the flower’s stamens from rain and wind, and the only way in is through slots in the cap. Those caps are covered by the petals, which are about as strong and stiff as cling wrap or chunks of burst balloon, so an insect seeking nectar or pollen can push the petals aside and get in under the cap. Problem is, the petals also conceal the slots once the bug is inside, so it tends to wander around for a while, getting dusted with pollen both from the stamens above it and with loose pollen within the cap. I’ve seen honeybees escape a cap that were absolutely antiqued with fresh pollen, and there’s enough in an individual cap to expedite the pollination of a whole stand of pitcher plants.

Eventually, the fun ends. When the flower finally gets pollinated, the petals drop off, other insects wipe up the excess pollen, and the seed pod in the interior swells, matures, and then dries out. By the end of summer, I gather the mature pods, stratify them in the refrigerator over the winter, and then pot them in fresh sphagnum moss in spring. And the cycle continues.

Introducing Cercis canadensis

Redbud portrait

26 years ago, I was in a rather bad place. I was stuck in a dead-end groundskeeping job at a now-long-dead Texas Instruments site, where I had the option of paying rent or buying food but not both at the same time. In an attempt to get into a better situation, I moved at the end of February 1987 to a much more amenable apartment, without considering that moving, in the short term, can cost even more than staying put. Hence, I was beyond broke, forcing myself to go to work with levels of willpower that should qualify me for a Green Lantern ring one of these days. In fact, the only thing that kept me going for the first month of spring was that the new apartment’s porch overlooked Carrollton’s Greenbelt Park, and that park was full of huge redbud trees.

Redbud branches

Although ranging through most of North America (hence the Latin name Cercis canadensis), redbuds are as much of a part of Texas as armadillos and mesquite. When I first moved here, the common advice given to new gardeners was to wait until the redbuds bloomed before planting anything freeze-sensitive, because they only exploded when we were reasonably safe from killer frosts. (That wisdom may be challenged this weekend, by the way, but seeing as how we last saw a late killer frost in 1997, we’re overdue.) For about two weeks, their blooms brighten otherwise stark woods and parks, to be replaced with pear, peach, and crabapple blooms as they sprout leaves. For the rest of the year, they’re curious ornamental trees, bearing big heart-shaped leaves and seed pods that resemble nothing so much as snow peas. They don’t get overly big, they don’t choke out other trees, they offer sporadic but reasonable shade, and they thrive on the poor soils that are practically a North Texas trademark.

Redbud blooms

Redbud blooms

Redbud blooms

Those seed pods, by the way, not only give away their heritage, as redbuds are woody members of the pea family. They also give a hint on edibility. Specifically, while the seed pods are tough and stringy, the flowers are not only edible but tasty if you like snow peas. Pluck them after they open, preferably after a rainstorm so they’ve been washed of dust (instead of washed in dust, the way this spring has been going), and eat them raw. The Czarina is particularly fond of garnishing salads with them, and as soon as she can figure out how to preserve them without their turning to mush, I expect to come home one evening and find the freezer stockpiled with fresh-frozen redbud blooms.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning that if you plan to get a redbud tree, do so NOW. Various cultivars exist, mostly ranging in bloom intensity between light pink and a deep pomegranate, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them when they’re not blooming. Likewise, when they stop blooming, they tend to blend in with other trees, so unless your powers of botanical identification are fully operational, you’ll walk by even fully mature trees in scrub woodlands. The trick is to get them now, so that they’re fully established for next spring’s fireworks, and let them grow a bit into a decent shape.

As for bonsai possibilities, don’t ask me. Yet. One of these days, though…

The last moonflower of the season

Ipomoea alba

The biggest problem with getting vining moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) established isn’t getting the seeds to germinate. It’s getting the first year’s plants through that first year. I don’t know for sure if moonflowers require symbiotic fungi for growth, but the first year attempting to get a decent moonflower vine going has been a nightmare, ever since the first time I tried it nearly fifteen years ago. The year after, though, the problem is keeping them under control. This autumn was especially rough on the small enclave I planted along the garage fence, but finally one bloomed. One single bloom, and sufficiently shaded during the day that it didn’t fade the way they normally do.

Ipomoea alba

With luck, this flower gets some attention from the local bees and wasps, and produces seed before the first big freezes come in. If that happens, then expect to see them again next year and every year where they’re able to go to seed. As compared to the completely unrelated but superficially similar blooms from angel trumpets (Datura stramonium), these are nontoxic, they’re generally noninvasive in North Texas, they produce quite a bit of habitat for local lizards, praying mantids, and assassin bugs, and they offer food for both night-dwelling hawkmoths and the occasional very early hummingbird. Combine that with their generally low-maintenance habits, and they’re perfect vining flowers for that bluecollar goth of your acquaintance.

Maclura pomifera, redux

Maclura pomifera

Osage orange, horseapple, brainfruit…whatever you want to call it, this was a very good year for the local representatives of Maclura pomifera. This tree last year had maybe one fruit per clutch, and now it has anywhere between six and eight.

Maclura pomifera

And on discussions as to whether or not Osage oranges were a regular food item for the Pleistocene megafauna of Texas, such as Columbian mammoths and ground sloths, I really need to ask a few keepers at either the Dallas or Fort Worth Zoos if they’ve ever offered them to the resident elephants. I’m really curious as to how well modern-day megafauna relatives, other than horses, would take to them. All I can say for certain is that these aren’t anything that humans are going to want to eat any time soon, even with all of the catsup and Tabasco sauce in the world.

Maclura pomifera

Introducing Dasypus novemcinctus

Armadillo

We don’t get too many cloudy days in Texas compared to other places, which means that we cherish the few that we get. One of the best surprises comes when the cloud cover is particularly thick, such as it was last Friday morning, and more nocturnal denizens don’t get the memo that they need to go to bed. This means that on my morning bike ride to the Day Job, I see all sorts of interesting things. Screech owls catching one last drink from a puddle formed by lawn sprinklers. An especially fat opossum checking to see if someone left cat food out on the back porch. Raccoons caught up trees in road medians, as they realize they can’t get across the road until after rush hour traffic ends. Very occasionally, a lone coyote or grey fox sitting in the middle of a field, watching the sun come up. Very, very occasionally, we even get one of Texas’s great symbols digging in lawns and weed patches, slurping up grubs and worms in the freshly wet and cool dirt.

Upright armadillo

While the nine-banded armadillo isn’t unique to Texas, it’s lived here long enough to qualify as a native. The armadillo is currently the only member of the Edentata left in the continental United States, although it used to have quite a bit of company with anteaters, ground sloths, and glyptodonts during the last ice age. In the Anthropocene Epoch, it’s done quite well, even with the addition of cars, dogs, and fire ants.

Armadillo

Now, I could bring up all of the usual points shared with people who have never seen an armadillo in the wild. I could bring up that armadillos always have four pups in a litter, and those four are genetically identical. I could note that armadillos are the only mammals besides humans to carry and transmit leprosy. I could hint exactly how flexible that armor can be, especially relating the time I found one in my back yard, squeezing underneath the fence door like a cat. I might even relate how their eyesight is so poor that they’re nearly totally blind, but their hearing is so acute that if they let humans see and even get close to them, it’s because they simply don’t care. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that they’re fast and incredibly nimble for something in a shell. Every time I encounter one, I rediscover how fast: the first time I saw one in the wild, nearly thirty years ago, I learned that their main defense is jumping as much as a meter high. I learned this as I tried to capture one and the little monster nearly knocked out my front teeth in the process. The night before I took these photos, I learned it again when I accidentally spooked one on my bicycle, and it paced my bike for a full minute before I slowed down and let it pass.

The real sign of how fast these guys can be? This one was moving so quickly while foraging that I didn’t even get the chance to adjust my camera to decent settings. At least, that’s my excuse, and I’ll blame the armadillo instead of my horrible photography skills.

As far as other notes on armadillos, most guides make noises about how they’ll curl into a ball, but they’re usually too busy running to consider doing something like that. What’s usually left out, though, is that they have an absolute addiction to beer, the cheaper the better. Hence, some longtime Texans may remember this set of ads from “the national beer of Texas”, involving a giant armadillo that ripped delivery trucks in half:

Even under the best conditions, the little American earth pigs ultimately realize that the day is getting long, and it’s time to go to bed. For armadillos, that’s usually in thick tangles, among greenbriar vines and other obstructions, and they dig tunnels just deep enough for them to hide their vulnerable parts. Just like a cat, when they’re done, as this one was, there’s only one view you get of them as they say goodbye.

Armadillo butt

Introducing Didelphis virginiana, a.k.a. “Harold”

Cat Found

For the last few years, friends have been posting a “Found Cat” flyer that continues to crack me up. I don’t know why, but the “I think he might be scared” comment gets me every time.

Well, I have great news. On my way to the Day Job, I found that kitty again. Yes, I think he might be scared.

Harold the Opossum

For folks outside of North America, this is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum. Besides being the only indigenous marsupial in the United States and Canada (which is why I nickname the resident opossum “Harold”, after the nephew of Canada’s answer to Doctor Who), opossums also qualify as one of the native mammals that I’m glad to see in the back yard. Between their personalities and their eating habits, raccoons are hipsters with fur. Armadillos are both dumb as posts and likely to jump at the slightest noise, and one nearly knocked out my front teeth the first time I encountered one. Skunks are best viewed from a distance, and that can be doubled for coyotes and bobcats. Comparatively, if I find a possum waddling across the back yard in the middle of the night, he’s comparatively welcome, even if he does look like a half-drowned rat.

Harold closeup

Sadly, all of the possums in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch are nicknamed “Harold”, and not just because they tend to look alike. The best natural lifespan for D. virginiana is about two years, with owls and early-rising hawks getting the ones that aren’t killed by cars, coyotes, or dogs. This little guy was apparently checking out the tree for edible fruit or flowers, found himself trapped by encroaching humanity, and figured that he’d just hold still until we all went away. After all, if the motto “Quando omni flunkus, moritati” worked for the fictional Harold, why shouldn’t it work for the real one?

Introducing Convolvulus arvensis

Bindweed

While researching the spread and dispersion of noxious invasive species of fauna and flora, one of the issues I keep noting isn’t just how many really vile invasives were introduced deliberately, or even inadvertently. What stands out is how many invasives get out of control mostly because they’re just attractive enough to avoid utter extermination. I get a giggle over how heather spread throughout South Island of New Zealand thanks to the accidental importation of heather seeds as an unavoidable contaminant in sacks of oats, and how the early explosion of heather throughout the island was suggested as a deliberate attempt by Scottish immigrants to mark New Zealand as Scottish territory forever by introducing the national flower. (Speaking as someone of Scot ancestry, you should all be so lucky. After hearing tales from relations in Aotearoa about Riddell family history, if we’d wanted to claim South Island, everyone else would have known it when they woke up with their throats cut. Twice. And that’s just for uttering in public the filthiest four-letter words you could ever utter at a Riddell family gathering: “Last Call”.)

Bindweed 2

When looking at bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), it’s not hard to see why the US Department of Agriculture lists it as a noxious plant in Texas. It grows in soils so poor that even bluebonnets have problems. It climbs up and buries just about any other plant in the vicinity. The tendrils are tough enough that I can see where Frank Herbert got the inspiration for shigawire. Trying to run through a field infested with bindweed is a good way to break an ankle, leg, or neck. (I will say that running through a field of bindweed is still better than running through a patch of saw greenbrier: I still have scars on my legs, right above my knees, from where I did that nearly a third of a century ago. I think trying to remove my lower legs with a bandsaw would have caused less damage and hurt considerably less.) I’ve jammed up Weedeaters by getting the head too close to a bindweed clump, having the line snag a tendril, and watching as the whole clump tried to murder the Weedeater in a display of self-sacrifice, and I even did that once with a riding lawnmower when I worked as a groundskeeper for Texas Instruments. Not only does bindweed laugh at most pesticides, but its seeds are so popular with small birds that no matter how many times you think you’ve wiped it out, it comes back the next season unless you fit every last sparrow, wren, and finch in the time zone with diapers.

Bindweed 3

Unfortunately, as with Japanese honeysuckle, you have a determined and virulent invasive with enough charisma that non-gardeners don’t immediately scream “Get me the flamethrower!” when they see it. I have occasional nightmares involving a little old lady somewhere who managed to fill her garden with every last invasive in the US, and everything’s absolutely fine until the day she leaves the gate open and everything escapes. In this nightmare, bindweed is the decorative bedding alongside the Brazilian pepper trees and beneath the Ailanthus.

Bindweed 4

On a purely scientific level, passing clumps of bindweed has its moments. About one flower out of one hundred has a tinge of pink to it, which is particularly noticeable on cloudy days. I also suspect that it has quite the ultraviolet signature, judging by the number of insects racing to the flowers in the early morning. Oh, and small harmless snakes such as garter snakes and ground snakes love to hide within the tangles as they chase prey. It’s not all that bad: I just don’t want it in my front yard.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri

Anyone care to venture as to what this might be?

Opuntia pad skeleton

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

Opuntia skeleton detail

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

Old Opuntia

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

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

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

Opuntia fruit

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

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

Opuntia in a dead tree

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

Introducing Anolis carolinensis

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

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

Sunbathing Carolina anole

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

Carolina anole closeup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.