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.