Category Archives: Thursday is Resource Day

Thursday is Resource Day

They say that you learn as much from experiments that failed as experiments that succeeded. I don’t know who “they” are, or if they’re related to every emergency medical tech’s nemesis, “Some Guy.” Like Some Guy, “They” tell you to do, say, or act in a way that immediately threatens life, limb, or sanity. The difference is that Some Guy is more active. Some Guy tells you to pee on an electric fence, and when you do it, he disappears, leaving you to explain the situation to family, spouses, or law enforcement officials. They simply stand back, whispering ideas, and let you take the hit yourself. They tell the absolute truth, and They have no reason to dissemble or fabricate anything. The problem, of course, is that you only learn this when you’re trying to explain to your wife exactly WHY the cat’s head is shaved on only one side.

Ginkgo seeds
The power of They particularly presents itself with any of the culinary arts. You’ll hear a murmur of “They say that canning tomatoes is easy,” or “They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with Buddha’s Hand citrons.” What THEY never tell you is the details, so you have the learning experience, and they never will. They always hide in the background while you do something “easy”, like extracting honey from honeycomb, and vanish when you look over your shoulder, covered in honey and waving an electric uncapping knife over your head like Toshirô Mifune, and yell “So what do I do NOW?” And that’s how They got me to try frying ginkgo nuts.

It was inevitable that They were going to get me once again, and I heard the bullet before it got me. A few months back, a confluence of factors led to further study of ginkgo trees, which led to contemplations of the proper way to roast and eat ginkgo nuts. “People have been doing it for thousands of years,” I thought. “Nobody would be doing it if it weren’t worth the effort, right?”, They whispered. I’m sure They were just as persuasive when convincing Napoleon that invading Moscow in the winter was a good idea, and it might have been so if They hadn’t left out just a few teeny tiny details.

Procuring fresh ginkgo nuts itself wasn’t a problem. Being this close to Chinese New Year, many local grocery stores have at least a few mesh bags of ginkgo or “white nuts” on hand, and many of the Asian grocery stores in the vicinity sell ginkgo nuts in bulk. I knew that the nutmeats are toxic unless cooked, and that some people have issues with contact dermatitis from working with or eating them. Okay, that’s a start. I came across a lot of fascinating recipes for using the nutmeats in stirfry and in soups, but not much on their preparation. Most started with “get a skillet, put one tablespoon of oil in the bottom, heat until the oil starts to smoke, and add nuts.” Yeah, They left out a few details that made the experience a lot more interesting.

Ginkgo seeds

The first thing to consider is that the shell of a ginkgo nut isn’t particularly tough. It’s not as thick as, say, that of a pistachio. However, it makes up in ability to retain pressure what it lacks in armor, which means that a critical failure leads to a small steam explosion. Picture a popcorn seed popping, only with sharp shells going in one direction and a green lump of what looks like slug snot flying in another. Do that in an open skillet without a lid or cover, and your kitchen rapidly resembles the scene of a Drazi loogie-chucking competition. Oh, and popcorn merely burns a bit when a freshly popped kernel flies out and lands on your hand. Ginkgo nutmeats fly out and stick.

Lesson #1: ALWAYS KEEP A STOUT LID ON ANY PAN USED FOR FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Since They didn’t warn about detonating nut hulls, it stands to reason that They wouldn’t say anything about the type of oil necessary. That’s because They didn’t say a damn thing about how hot those ginkgo shells would get when resting on the bottom of the skillet. To get enough heat to cook the nutmeats sufficiently, the shell tends to scorch. If the shell is scorching, then it stands to reason that the oil will smoke. Well, it might appear to do so, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools and children. In a classic example of “failing to master the basics before moving to experimentation,” I thought “I really like chili oil, and I can only imagine that it would improve the flavor of the ginkgo nuts.” And with the same hubris, General George Armstrong Custer went to Little Big Horn.

Nearly 30 years ago, I found myself in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, going through Nuclear/Biological/Chemical warfare training as part of US Army Basic Training. At the end of the day, while wearing protective masks, all of us were marched into a chamber loaded with CS gas, told to take off our helmets and masks, and the drill sergeants waited to see our reactions. Not only did the indescribable pain of a lungful of CS gas teach us all the importance of getting on our masks in future encounters so we’d never have to deal with this again, but it still haunts my occasional nightmares. Even better, since I was the “nice guy” in the platoon, I knew that the drill sergeants were waiting for us to bolt for the door, where they’d ask a herd of semi-paralytic teenagers such vital questions as “What’s your name, Private?” and “What’s your First General Order?” before letting us through. Therefore, I stayed in for about twenty minutes, not realizing that two groups had entered and left past me, waiting my turn for interrogation and release.

I’m not saying that chili oil smoke compares to CS gas. Among other things, exposure to chili oil smoke still allows you such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control. However, I now know how grizzly bears feel.

Lesson #2: NEVER USED CHILI OIL WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Because They never whispered a word about the use or misuse of chili oil, They also got great mirth from the realization that a standard kitchen stove fume hood wasn’t going to be enough. The smoke detectors in the house went off. The cats ran to hide in the bathroom. The Czarina didn’t say anything, other than to open up the windows and turn on the industrial-grade venting fan in the garage. Asking her “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” didn’t do a whole lot, either, and I now know exactly how long it takes for a bruised spleen to stop aching and pulsing.

Lesson #3: ALWAYS HAVE GOOD VENTILATION WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Finally, the house cleared, and since the outside air was running just about freezing, the command decision was made that we’d vented as much smoke as possible. I swore that if I ever used chili oil again, I was to do it outside. The current batch was finished anyway, so I poured it into a bowl, waited for the nuts to cool, and started to dig in. Before that, though, it was time to turn off the fan, close the windows, and reset the heater, because while it wasn’t going to get brutally cold, the great outdoors weren’t going to get any warmer.

The next morning, I woke up to find one of the cats in one of the windows opened for venting. Specifically, Cadigan was letting me know her supreme displeasure in discovering the one window I’d missed. Did she make her displeasure known before dawn? Oh, of course not. Her amusement just increased when I looked at her and told her “Okay, cat. You’re getting a job or you can move out.”

Lesson #4: ALWAYS CLOSE THE WINDOWS AFTER FUMIGATING THE HOUSE WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Not only are They really good at avoiding complete information, but They’re also good at passing on what seems to be good advice. Since I’d received several warnings that ginkgo nuts needed to be cooked because the raw nuts are toxic, I worried about the nuts that hadn’t popped. “What if they’re only medium rare, and I turn purple and explode?” Reasonable, but They gave a suggestion: “why not put the unpopped nuts into the microwave? A minute or so should settle the matter, right?” In retrospect, this was a classic example of the Texas demonstration of an individual’s fitness for public office: “Hold my beer and watch this.” Again, remember what I said about fools and children.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite meals when left to my own devices was an egg and cheese sandwich. Pulling out a skillet and frying up the eggs was too much effort, and I discovered very rapidly that putting two or three eggs in a bowl, covering it with Tillamook cheddar, and putting the mess into the microwave was a lot more fun. I knew that leaving the bowl uncovered was an impending disaster, so I covered the lot with a good stout plate, set the microwave for about 4 minutes, and let it rip. I didn’t have to listen for the oven’s beeper: instead, I listened carefully for the aftermath of the outside of the yolks cooking faster than the inside. After a time, enough steam pressure built up inside that the yolks exploded, and THAT was my Pavlovian cue. I also knew enough to let things cool down, because I didn’t want red-hot egg yolk spattering me when the yolk ruptured while being moved.

These days, I look back on that recipe and remember Dallas musician Jeff Liles‘s crack in his first Cottonmouth, TX spoken-word album about a sandwich “grabbing my heart like a fist.” Even though I haven’t had one in nearly three decades, those sandwiches taught me very valuable lessons about microwave oven science. Namely, when something starts going off in the oven with very sharp reports, don’t assume “Oh, my wife is storing 5.56 mm ammo in the microwave again.” You cut the power. Thankfully, I had a top, too, but the ginkgo nuts built up a bit more pressure before detonating. The successive percussions didn’t take out the cover, but it did look like Yog-Sothoth took one long sneeze in the bowl. The nuts were still edible, but they were missing something. I think what was missing were the seedling embryos’ souls.

Lesson #5: NEVER PUT GINKGO NUTS IN THE MICROWAVE.

Will this escapade stop me? Oh, hells no. Another batch later, and practice makes perfect. Just so long as They don’t convince me that the best thing to wash down ginkgo nuts is a durian smoothie, the Czarina won’t kill me in my sleep this week.

The News:
From a botanical and mycological standpoint, the understanding of organism migration, with and without human help, keeps offering up more surprises. For instance, discovering that the death’s cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is spreading across the planet, isn’t news. I can see that every time the fruiting bodies emerge from the thatch in my front lawn and threaten to block out the sun. (Go ahead and laugh. After three steady days of rain, you’d think I was growing Prototaxites in the front yard. It’s also endlessly engaging to note that many plants, including orchids, depend upon a symbiosis between the plant and a similarly unique fungus, which fuse the plant’s root system to the fungus’s mycellia network. In this case, the plant supplies carbohydrates while the fungus provides nitrogen from various sources. Those “various sources” can include decaying organic matter (hence the fungus in my lawn feeding on grass thatch, dead leaves, and the occasional squirrel dropping), but in the case of the eastern white pine tree, its symbiote gets its nitrogen by capturing and absorbing springtails and other insects that it catches and digests.

The real surprise, though, is coming. As a recent article in Slate by Cat Adams notes, A. phalloides is now found on every continent but Antarctica, mostly due to the transport of spore- or mycella-contaminated soils to new locales. The kicker? Its expansion across the planet involves it not being so fussy about its oak symbiote as other fungi, and it moving to support different oaks as well. Considering that the one absolute component of North Texas flora is its wide range of oaks, the surprise is that A. phalloides hasn’t taken over the entire state. Which it probably has.

Likewise, most people today don’t consider the noble bottle gourd other than for its shapeliness, a few look at its historical value, and very few consider its origins. Those who do, though, have a great story to tell. Based on DNA analysis between known North American bottle gourds and those of Asia and Africa, it appears that the bottle gourd came across the Atlantic on its own, instead of being transported by humans. Obviously, the “how” is an interesting question, but it’s not impossible: it’s very easy to see bottle gourds and other squash species being transported via flotsam rafts in floods, as it seems to work very well for other species. The “when”…well, that’s a question where I suspect that the answer will be even more entertaining than anyone realized.

The Reading:
Now that the snow and ice are gone and we can be reasonably sure that the Dallas area won’t be hit with crippling temperatures for the rest of the year, it’s time to start plotting and scheming plans for miniature gardens and arrangements. This means lots of time in the work area, building new frames and setting up new enclosures, so it’s time for inspiration. When contemplating taking a series of enclosures to a new level, it was time to dig out my copy of High Aztech by the exemplary Latino science fiction writer Ernest Hogan. Part of this is because I’ve been proud to call Ernest a dear friend for 25 years now, and part is because his view of the resurgent Tenochtitlan of 2045 offers a lot of room for experimentation. As he’s always pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the past if you’re using it to build the future, and I already have some serious ideas involving Mexican butterworts and futuro-Aztec backdrops.

Likewise, most reading material should have a soundtrack, so it’s time for suggestions in that regard. This week, check out the new album Down Time by DJ earWIG. It’s not necessarily greenhouse music (as related many times, my preferred greenhouse working music is a bit more lively), but it’s excellent music for reading, writing, studying, and generally expanding the cerebrum beyond all normal limits.

The Store:

I’m of two minds about beekeeping these days. While I certainly support anyone raising and caring for honeybees these days, I’m nostalgic for my beekeeping days back when I was in high school, but not so much as to get my own hive. That said, I know that at least one hive is in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, considering the number of honeybees who come out to drink water from the Sarracenia pools, slurp up nectar from the fresh blooms in spring, and collect by the dozens in the traps in fall. This is the time of year where I start looking fondly at the Dadant beekeeping equipment catalog, not because I want to spread myself further with my own hive, but because I missed the smell of fresh wax and propolis more than I knew. One bee suit…one suit wouldn’t be bad, would it?

The Event:

Any excuse to head out to Fort Worth is a good one. Whether it’s causing trouble at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History or wandering about in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, I look forward to reasons to make the road trip. February 20, we have a humdinger, as author Amy Stewart presents a chat on her new book The Drunken Botanist at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas. Considering how much I enjoyed her book Wicked Plants, I may skip out of work early to make sure I can make it.

Thursday is Resource Day

The absolute best thing about February, other than that it’s blessedly short, is that it’s a good month for planning and organization. The Christmas holiday season is over, everyone’s recovered from that stress, and one of the better ways to fend off cabin fever is to plot out the next few months’ activities. In our house, that mostly involves upcoming shows and events, especially now that the Czarina went freelance at the end of last year.

Triffid Ranch booth at FenCon X

Among cohorts, “So when’s your next show?” only yields to “So what shows are you thinking of doing?” when it comes to talking shop. Anyone doing trade shows, conventions, or art shows asks the same questions. Sometimes, it’s because the person asking it wants to wander around as an attendee instead of as a vendor, and wants to hear some options. Some want to expand into new events and venues, and need options in order to make an informed decision. Some want the war stories, so they avoid wasting time, money, and energy on a waste of a show. And others just want to compare notes. Either way, in these tight economic times, we’re all looking to minimize the risks: the last thing any of us can afford is to get stuck with another FedConUSA, so we share information as best as we can.

I’m often asked by people why I show plants at science fiction conventions, and I can say with complete honesty that it’s because of the crowds and the scientific leanings of said crowds. Within people who regularly attend such conventions, they ask how I choose paricular shows, and I admit that science goes right out the window when I go for gut instinct. I also warn that my opinions shouldn’t dictate another vendor’s decision. Oh, I can name at least a good dozen factors with shows and events that trip my internal alarms, but what might set off my gag reflex might set off another person’s salivary glands. Some folks prefer the thrills of first-time shows, while I’m extremely cautious about any event that doesn’t have, at minimum, two years of history. I’ve had extremely bad experiences with “charity” events, but just because I didn’t sell a thing at the event and received no support from the organizers after my booth fee check cleared doesn’t mean that someone else might do well. There is one factor, though, that I warn everyone in the trade show and art venue circuit to avoid, and I can sum it up in all of two words. Just two.

You’re going to laugh.

Unless you’ve been exposed to this before, I know you’re going to laugh.

The only reason you won’t laugh is if you’ve been a vendor at a show where these two words were a major part of the promotion. If so, you’re too busy screaming in rage and horror.

Those two words? “Live DJ”.

Now, to start, this isn’t a slam against actual DJs. We’re talking the DJs who regularly play clubs and intermissions between live music events. I have nothing but respect and love for my friends who do this for a living, on everything from hiphop to electronica, because much like standup comedy, I know hard it is and how I don’t have the skills for it. One slightly mistimed song, or one that breaks a theme that’s lovingly kept people dancing for the last hours, and you’re done. The good ones know why they’re there, and know that if they have a reputation for being one of the Good Ones, it’s because they understand their audiences, and get a thrill out of a venue that’s packed to the gills.

For years, I used to complain about the loudness in most clubs, and how it made communication in anything other than text message or semaphore flag nearly impossible. Of course, I talk too much, so for me, anything that inhibits my twenty-hour vowel movement crimps my style and threatens my reputation. A DJ friend explained to me, though, that a club environment that’s too quiet is a club environment that’s crashing. The main source of income for most clubs comes from alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, preferably consumed in mass quantities, and talking gets in the way. The standard volume in a dance club precludes small talk, so patrons have one of two choices: drink or dance. You drink, you feel full of confidence, and you get out on the dance floor. You dance, you get tired and/or dehydrated, and it’s back to the bar to get more fuel. If alcohol isn’t your thing, then most clubs carry lines of various energy drinks that both encourage dancing and offer enough of a markup to be profitable. When you either run out of energy entirely or meet someone that encourages a different use of that energy, the idea is then for you to get out of the way, since you can’t just sit around and talk, and make room for newcomers who bring in additional revenues for the club owner. Turn down the music and you destroy that dynamic, and the club eventually changes the locks and puts out a “For Lease” sign.

Now, consider this dynamic with any kind of retail venue. Even the local Hot Topic turns down the volume to a dull roar, because customers and retailers need to be able to communicate. Ever notice that auto dealerships and optometrists don’t have DJs playing every day? That’s because the salespeople working those markets need to be able to communicate nuance: what this product does for you and how it’ll do it, and that’s absolutely impossible when screaming.

That’s one reason to avoid any show or event with lots of loud music, but that isn’t foolproof, either. Many live music events have vendor spaces out front or along the edge, but the organizers (the good ones, anyway) understand the need for customer communication. That’s why, at the big downtown music festival, the vendor booths are all along the edge. About the only ones close to the speaker stacks by the stage are those where customers are happy to point and throw money, such as for T-shirts. In those sorts of events, even the food vendors are further on out, both to avoid the crush of bodies and to hear a customer’s requests.

No, the other reason why I run screaming from any event that advertises a “live DJ” is that, without fail, none of these ever have a real DJ. Without fail, it’s always someone who thinks that being a DJ would be such a cool opportunity because it’s a job that doesn’t entail work. The costume is identical: plaid shortsleeve shirts over an “ironic” pseudo-vintage T-shirt, Cory Doctorow birth control eyeglasses without lenses, moustache and beard that resemble a kid’s attempts at learning to blow bubble gum on a dusty playground. The Target-purchased trilby that he insists is a “fedora”. Ex-girlfriend’s jeans and filthy Converse sneakers. Oh, and a smirk that only the wearer’s mother would think was cool. The idea here isn’t to get people to dance: it’s to shove the DJ’s musical tastes or lack thereof down everyone’s throats. fresh from the DJ’s brand new MacBook Pro. Odds are, he’s spent months nagging everyone he knows about being given a chance to play something other than his little sister’s birthday party, and he’s been given this opportunity so the organizer’s phone is no longer full of pleading and whimpering.

So here’s what happens at any kind of trade or craft show where this noxious pest is allowed to hold court. Crowd piles in, and he starts up his carefully crafted playlist of Nineties-era whiner rock. The crowd gets comfortable, asking vendors questions, and the sussurus of conversation starts to overwhelm the godawful music, so the DJ turns it up. The crowd gets louder in order to be heard, and the DJ gets louder still. By this time, the DJ is already flummoxed that passersby aren’t throwing undies at him instead of noting the chorus from Beck’s “Loser” and asking “So…is that an offer?” The music gets even louder, and any request, civil or otherwise, to turn it down is met with verbal negatives or hand gestures. By this point, the crowd leaves, the vendors are nearly homicidal, and the DJ cranks up the music even louder to impress the cute girl on the opposite side of the venue. (She isn’t paying attention: she learned years ago how to block out lousy music at college parties.) Finally, the music finally stops when the vendors pack up and leave or when the organizer literally pulls the plug, leaving our DJ sobbing “You people are so RUDE!” as he stomps off.

“And how many times have you had to deal with this?”, you may ask. Well, let’s just say that this is why I’m so leery of first-time shows until I can wander the grounds as a potential customer. I escaped before the Creed retrospective got too thick, and I’ll also note that with every show that featured a pantomime DJ of this sort, the organizers never had a second show, mostly due to vendors bringing up some variation on Proverbs 26:11. Correlation may not equal causation, but I like to call this “dodging a bullet”.

The News:
Because I raise and sell carnivorous plants, I’m constantly exposed to the misunderstandings among the general public about what carnivorous plants do. I understand the apprehensions among kids about getting close to Venus flytraps: all they know about the plants is what they’ve seen on television and in the movies, and that’s generally not positive in the slightest. After years of seeing CGI flytraps that swing back and take chunks out of the unwary, they’re understandably concerned that the flytrap won’t pull itself out of the ground and chase them down the hall. At the very least, they see the trapping hairs on the edges of a flytrap leaf and assume that they’re sharp, so I regularly explain “Want to get an idea of how strong those hairs are? Reach up and touch your eyelashes. That’s how strong they are.” I did this once in a school lecture, and even the “too cool for this” kids were surreptitiously reaching up to check it for sure.

The biggest one, though, is a regular complaint among the carnivorous plant community, and that’s the automatic assumption that these plants will magically wipe out every insect and other pest within the time zone. I’ve complained about this before, where I gently have to explain that no, a berm of Venus flytraps around a house won’t act as a deflector shield against invading arthropods. As with the kids, most of this is understandable, as [interesting plant] + [potential practical application] + [youth of customer] = [one hell of a lot more interesting than a potted mum]. It’s the people who won’t take the hint that asking the same question eighteen slightly different ways won’t give a different answer. And then there’s just the squick factor of oversharing of pest issues, such as with the hipster who came up to my booth last year, saw the word “carnivorous plants” in the banner, and yelled “Cool! Got anything that will control bedbugs?”

When it comes to dealing with insect and other arthropod pests, we’re losing, we’ll always lose and we lost the entire war the moment our distant tetrapod ancestors climbed out of Devonian rivers. I liken the efforts to keep our domiciles, our bodies, and our foodstuffs free of exoskeletal invasion with the efforts to keep your bike from being stolen when parked in public. If they’re determined, really determined, they’re going to get what they want, so the secret is to make their objective difficult enough that it’s not worth the time. This requires understanding the problem and the real solution as opposed to the hoped-for one, which often requires more study than glancing at the back of a can of Raid before blasting away and screaming like Bill Paxton in Aliens.

(A slight digression. Having a lot of friends in different fields means that I’m able to compare notes with people in all sorts of interesting avenues of study, and we all have the one catchphrase or movie quote that we have thrown at us day in and day out by people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of life on Earth to make that comment. Dentist friends hear half-remembered quotes from Marathon Man all day long. Antarctic researchers already know all of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing by heart, after having it quoted to them over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaur references don’t begin and end with Jurassic Park. Myself, I’m so desperately sick of Little Shop of Horrors quotes that I’d fall over dead from joy to get one reference to Bill and Josella Masen. Since I only know one entomologist, I’m constantly looking for new references, because I can only imagine that they’re nearly homicidal from years of Starship Troopers references yakked at them. It’s time for all of us to expand our cultural horizons, folks.)

This is why I’d like you all to meet Gwen Pearson of Charismatic Minifauna, who forgets more about insect, arachnid, and crustacean issues every night when she goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn. In particular, she’s constantly looking for new material on humanity’s war with the Class Insecta, including new Center for Disease Control warnings about the misuse of pest strips and injuries related to insecticides used for bedbugs. I’m not saying that reading one of her blog postings will eliminate your very ingrained and justifiable phobia of small critters with more than four limbs, but it will make you consider the why of your reactions to said critters. Also the “who,” but that’s a different story.

The Reading:

Three years ago, I was lucky and honored enough to have one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had, by way of an article on carnivorous plants in reptile and amphibian vivaria for Reptiles magazine. Having been screwed over by some of the most aggressively incompetent editors in the science fiction community (Hi, Charlie Jane!), working for Russ Case and his stable of editors at Reptiles was a joy, only improved by getting a payment check exactly when promised. There’s very little about my old writing career about which I’m particularly proud, but that article for Reptilesthat is one I’ll cherish for a very long time.

In the meantime, I may have to get to work on further pieces. Reptiles and its sister magazines were recently bought by I-5 Publishing, and one of the first actions by I-5 was to update the magazine’s Web sites. Hence, not only is the new Reptilesmagazine.com easier to access and view, but the magazine itself is available in digital versions for phones and tablets, free with a standard subscription. My previous article isn’t available save for references, but it may be time for a revised and updated view based on new information.

The Store:
The Dallas area has a lot of interesting secrets, which usually have tiny hints that they even exist. One of those is the little storefront here in Garland at the corner of Plano Road and Walnut Street that simply reads “BONSAI” from the sign out front. On the weekends, it’s closed, with the parking spaces filled from the laundromat next door, so the joy comes from visiting the website for Dallas Bonsai Garden. Tools, supplies, soil, and whole plants, at remarkably reasonable prices, and if you live in the area, you can call in an order and pick it up to save on shipping. Of course, all orders over US$75 come with free shipping, so it’s completely your call. All I can say for sure is that I have plans for a hon non bo project that requires properly shaped ginkgo trees, so Dallas Bonsai Garden is going to be getting quite a bit of business from me this year.

The Event:
Finally, you have longrunning horticultural groups in Texas, and then you have the Heart O’ Texas Orchid Society down in Austin, running strong for nearly a half-century. I bring this up because the Society’s next Orchid Rodeo is scheduled for March 22 and 23, and I’ve needed a good excuse to visit Austin’s Zilker Botanical Garden and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden therein. Not only is flying from Dallas to Austin a superior experience to driving there, but this will be after the national nightmare that is SXSW. Win/win, all the way around.

Thursday is Resource Day

So last week started with a new haircut. For those who don’t understand the significance of this, one needs to consider my tonsorial history. Much like the cleaning of my office, hair in length, color, and style tends to remain in stasis for long periods before a sudden and very drastic explosion of activity. The last run went on for a very long run: nearly 15 years, in fact. I realized the other day that I have old and dear friends who have never seen me with anything other than my exploded white locks, and these are people who’ve known me for nearly a third of my life.

That tonsorial history, well, that’s a story in itself. I can say with authority that I don’t know what my natural hair color is any more, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. I started out light blond, and since my sister and I are the only blondes in a family rotten with gingers, we’ve both gone for red-shifted artificial intelligence at one time or another. Since 1987, it’s gone from red to white, to black, to red again, and then platinum for the last 14 years. Most of the transitions required chopping or shaving to get rid of the previous traces, so the styles went from “Uncle Duke” bald all the way to “long enough to sit on”, with a Mohawk for a very short time in 1994. (I have nothing but admiration for those who can pull off a good ‘hawk, because I don’t have the right skull for it. Well, that and my hair makes very good Velcro when contacting the stubble.) Yes, go ahead, make the obvious fannish joke about these sorts of drastic revampings: when I came home after the latest cut, I had to warn the Czarina “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”

(Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve made a habit of scaring the hell out of many of my childhood role models, all completely by accident, and the hair was usually a factor. With the last big change, I’d threatened for several years that it was going to happen, and nobody believed me, so I waited until I was a guest at Readercon, a big literary science fiction convention held every year in Massachusetts. The guest of honor that year was Harlan Ellison, and the high point of my whole professional writing career was for Ellison to see me with shoulder-length red hair in one panel, see me completely shaven six hours later, and tell me “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!”)

In any case, a week later, the ongoing habits associated with long hair are slowly fading. Swinging your head around when brushing your teeth so as not to get toothpaste in your hair. Shaking like an English sheepdog in the shower, and still needing two towels to sop up the water afterwards. Checking bike helmet buckles to keep from snagging. After a decade and a half, these habits will take a while (they took long enough to get established), but it’s worth it just for the expressions on people’s faces.

The News:

A regular discussion I’ve had with friends and co-workers on the future of the American space program involves the disconnect between how so many of us fortysomethings half-remember the enthusiasm for space exploration versus the reality. Yes, the perception is that the US was completely space-crazy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that was true…for kids. Now that those kids are all middle-aged, we can either mumble in our Metamucil about how we’d have those bases on Mars and manned missions to Saturn by now if we just had the will (what is now referred to in political circles as “the Green Lantern theory“)…or we can do something. Planting seeds, say.

As far as planting seeds, there’s a lot we can do, and some of that seed-planting is literal. With talk about various countries returning humans to the moon and staying there, nothing beats agriculture for both atmosphere cleansing and food production. New data confirm that the lunar poles contain large amounts of water ice, and the lunar regolith has most of the trace elements necessary for proper plant growth. The bigger issues lie with lower lunar gravity and a lack of shielding from solar and cosmic radiation on the lunar surface, which require well-designed experiments to ascertain how well food plants can handle the stresses. So why not let the general public get involved with said experiments?

That’s the idea behind NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge, encouraging students to design and test their own growth chambers and relay their results back to NASA. Obviously, no single experiment can take into account all of the variables faced by the first lunar or Martian farmers, but at least the Growth Chamber Challenge might mitigate or eliminate some of the more pressing concerns.

The Reading:

The Financial Times Book of Garden Design

While rampaging through Galveston Books at the beginning of the month, I dug out some surprises, but none so ultimately fascinating as a book entitled “The Financial Times Book of Garden Design“. If the book were newer, I’d have assumed that it was either a deliberate oxymoron, along the lines of “The Starlog Book of Grooming and Hygiene” or “D Magazine’s 158 Favorite Rehab Clinics”. As it was, I picked it up on a lark, assuming that it was a vanity offshoot of the main magazine. Some of the more hubristic projects coming out of once-successful magazines can be great entertainment in their own right: very few people remember the line of science fiction novels to be released by Wired back in 1996, but you can’t go into a used bookstore without tripping on the piles of CDs, books, and comics pumped out by OMNI staff throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and some of that was actually enjoyable.

To be honest, The Financial Times Book of Garden Design is a bit of a vanity project, in that Financial Times actually sponsored and designed a series of gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in the early 1970s. Even today, Financial Times keeps very close tabs on horticultural news in the United Kingdom, and those roots go deep. This book isn’t just a time capsule of English garden design from four decades ago, although it’s an excellent guide for comparison to today’s styles. More interestingly, it’s a compelling view of a time in publishing where such strange side-projects weren’t done for tax reasons or for what might be construed as money laundering, but because the editors and publishers thought they were doing a very legitimate and honorable public service by sponsoring such a project. Considering how badly magazine publishing is imploding these days (one of my favorite practical jokes to scare writer friends is to drop idly “You know, I’ve been thinking of starting up a magazine for newsstand distribution. You don’t know of anyone who might be interested in financing it, do you?”), this book is a similar time capsule from a time where the costs of editing and publishing a book like this, through a successful magazine company, practically would have come out of petty cash.

The Store:

With the possible exception of the old-style Swiss Army knife and the Leatherman, most blends of essential tools become less than the sum of their parts. Having been given all sorts of doohickeys and extras by well-meaning cohorts and relations, the one multitool that gets continuous greenhouse use is my Victorinox Climber. That’s especially true for various gardening multitools: with most, the unused tools actually get in the way of the ones used regularly, and when the regularly used tools dull or break, the whole collection is worthless. Most serious gardeners have a bucket or bag full of various tools, and they never bother with most multitools because of both cost and economics of scale.

That’s why, when several friends brought up the Crovel Extreme II, I had to laugh. ThinkGeek has a regular category of dubious tools for those who half-prepare for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, and I generally look at those who stock up on weapons and Spaghetti-Os for the upcoming armageddon with generally the same expression as for the transhumanist crowd wanking about The Singularity.
Namely, if these are the people who are supposed to be the grand survivors of the crash, let’s make absolutely certain that the crash never happens, eh?

Let’s get off discussion of ridiculousness and talk about the practicality of a combination crowbar/shovel. Effectively, the Crovel Extreme II is a fusion of pry bar and standard US Army trenching shovel, with all of the limitations of having one at the end of the other. I could see some of the merits of having a pry bar in tight situations (having to break old cement overspilling in a planter bed, for instance), but the real eye-opener is the price. US$140, plus extra for the cover and the “super steel spike”, when a wrecking bar from the hardware store and trenching tool at a garage sale can cover most jobs so much better?

Besides, anyone in the know laughs at the dolts waiting for an upcoming zombie apocalypse. It’s obvious that the real threat comes from triffids.

The Event:

We’re now three weeks away from the next North American Reptile Breeders Conference event at the Arlington Convention Center. The Triffid Ranch won’t have a booth there for many reasons, but don’t let that stop you from coming out for the festivities. Between this and the upcoming Dallas Repticon, the herpetologically inclined in the Metroplex have a lot going on this year.

Thursday is Resource Day

After a very long absence, it’s time for a return of an old feature: “Thursday is Resource Day”. Each week, expect a selection information and commentary on upcoming events and developments, most of which might not justify a full posting. As always, suggestions are welcome, and feel free to add to the discussion in the comments.

The News:

Firstly, the biggest concern in North Texas right now is the nightmare known as “cedar fever”. Every January, the indigenous Ashe cedars (actually junipers, but let’s just run with it) start disseminating pollen on the winds, and I use the verb very deliberately. This year, the cedar pollen rates are at the highest ever recorded, both due to the ongoing drought and to the wild fluctuations in temperatures this winter. Nearly four years of an extensive regimen of allergy shots keeps my reactions to the pollen to a dull roar, but friends and cohorts have it bad this season. I know this because after they finish clawing out their eyeballs, spit-polishing them, popping them back into their sockets, and then wiping waterfalls of snot off over my day job desk, they all ask “What can we do to kill those damn things?”

I’ve tried to explain that the current suggestions are futile. Juniperus ashei is a tenacious opponent, and nearly any potential treatment makes things worse. The trees are resistant to many herbicides, and everything other than the fleshy cones, commonly assumed to be berries, is intensely toxic in turn to almost everything that tries to eat it. The foliage exudes natural herbicides that both kill other plants and inhibit the germination of seeds stuck underneath, so burning it or cutting it down just encourages the ready growth of dozens of new trees. Their roots run both wide and deep, allowing them to compete with mesquite, and a mutant variety previously only found in valleys along the Brazos River is even more drought-tolerant than its parent. This gives it an extra advantage on both overgrazed ranchland and areas where everything else was stripped for development. Oh, and I mentioned the voluminous gouts of pollen so thick that they can be mistaken for smoke, right? Combine all of these factors, and even taking off and nuking the entire state from orbit does nothing other than remove the potential competition. Thankfully, the Ashe cedar isn’t as flammable as eucalyptus, thus sparing us the additional brushfire hazards currently facing California.

The only good news to this is that the situation may be controllable before too long. We don’t want to wipe out the Ashe cedar (among other things, the cones growing right now are a major food source for wildlife through the winter, and the trees themselves are essential habitat for songbirds and other denizens), but getting it under control would spare a lot of asthmatics that much more pain. Thankfully, a new paper in Nature suggests that soil fungi and other parasites help keep any one species in species-diverse areas under control, which also suggests a course of action. Let the Ashe cedar get too far out of control, and the appropriately applied fungus might help it die back to tolerable levels. Now to find a readily accessible and fatal species of fungus to spread around.

The Reading:

Speaking of gymnosperms fending off fungus attacks, several months back, I was lucky enough to meet Peter Crane, former director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, as he was conducting a publicity tour of his new book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot. The book goes into considerable detail on the history of this singular genus, including its uses by humans over the centuries, the reasons why it does so well as a city tree, and its very peculiar form of reproduction. Among many interesting observations is that the ready ability of the leaves to fossilize (and Dr. Crane includes photos from his extensive collection of fossil ginkgo leaves dating back to the Permian Period, with one specimen confirming the presences of ginkgoes in Antarctica before it froze over) is tied to the aggravation of raking up and bagging ginkgo leaves in autumn. Both fossil and extant ginkgoes had so much resin in their leaves that a pile of gathered ginkgo leaves would weigh almost twice as much as those from most commonly encountered trees. Buy this book now, or miss out on some fascinating history of this tree both in and out of Asia.

And here’s one to drop on friends: Ginkgo biloba, referring to the two-lobed split leaves found under certain growing circumstances, is one of four species of animal or plant referred to by its full genus and species Latin names as a common, instead of one or the other. This puts the ginkgo in the company of Aloe vera, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Boa constrictor. Even Escherchia coli gets an abbreviation.

The Store:

Having searched for a full decade, I have yet to find a resource comparable to the loons at American Science & Surplus that ships outside the United States and its territories. For friends and readers outside the US, this just means that you need to find a USAnian friend and ask, very nicely, to receive and then reship AS&S packages to them. As a quick perusal through the print and online catalog will tell you, AS&S collects and sells a ridiculous number of items to those with unorthodox expectations of what to do with them. Myself, considering the number of experiments I plan to run with sterile tissue propagation while the Triffid Ranch is on hiatus later in the year, I already have a list of glassware for flasking and isolating meristem tissue samples.

The Event:

Finally, if you’d told me thirty years ago that Dallas would get a reputation for something other than obsessive shopping and Presidential assassinations, I’d have laughed in your face. Hell, if you’d asked me that fifteen years ago, even a few well-placed kicks to the ribs couldn’t stopped my giggling. We Dallasites tended to get incredibly insecure about this, too: legitimate criticism about the city, such as when Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La” while visiting us during the 1984 Republican National Convention, tended to get an oversized response that could only be described with the invention of the word “butthurt”. Mike’s been dead for nearly 17 years, and I suspect that he still has a note in a file somewhere that if he ever returned to Dallas, he wasn’t to be taken alive.

That was then, and Dallas and Fort Worth are drastically different cities today as compared to 1984. As the Intertubes facilitated the killing stroke on the concept of the shopping mall, we had no choice but to reinvent the city. It’s not perfect (among other things, we still have an understandable instinct to hide interesting places and events from excessive public view so the SMU crowd doesn’t overrun and ruin them), but now the Metroplex has a lot of reasons for outsiders to come in, instead of locals having lots of reasons to live elsewhere.

One of those reasons starts this weekend. Okay, so Irving isn’t technically part of Dallas, but this year’s ZestFest still qualifies as one of the best reasons to come to North Texas in January. Hundreds of vendors, thousands of products, and one huge celebration of all things spicy. Speaking from long experience, I can make two recommendations: firstly, get out early, preferably on Friday afternoon or evening if you can, because the Irving Convention Center packs solid by about 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Secondly, get a stout basket or cart, because no matter how badly you tell yourself “Oh, I won’t find anything worth buying out here,” you WILL wear yourself out unless you have something with which to haul around your purchases. You WILL find something to your tastes, and you WILL regret not bringing it home if you don’t buy it right then. You have been warned.

Shoutout: The Savage Garden Revised

The Savage Garden Revised

Ten years ago, I was at a bit of a loose end. I had just moved back to Dallas from Tallahassee, freshly married and freshly unemployed. With plenty of free time between nonproductive job interviews, the only option to stay sane was to stay busy. Returning to writing simply wasn’t an option, and that had taken up a little more than a third of my life at that point. Finding a new life path was rough, but it beat returning to the one I just left.

Shortly after I moved to Tallahassee, I had my first exposure to carnivorous plants in situ, with the indigenous Sarracenia pitcher plants and sundews on the grounds of the Tallahassee Museum. While fascinating, not once did I think of raising my own outside of the Tally area. After all, how would I learn how to keep them alive?

Right after I got back, though, everything changed. An errand to the local Home Depot for poplar boards for bookshelves led to a quick look through the gardening section, and on a shelf was a set of cups full of carnivorous plants. Not just Venus flytraps and not just the few species of Sarracenia I knew from Florida, either. Strange sundews, butterworts, cobra plants, and Asian pitcher plants lay in those cups, and I snapped up an example of every last one. Keeping them hale and healthy couldn’t be that hard, could it?

A week later, as the sample flytrap and cobra plant were fading, I realized that I needed assistance. Back then, that meant making a trip to either a library or a bookstore to find reference material, and in Dallas that meant either of the two big chain bookstores. I was no fan of Borders, but one did reside between me and that Home Depot, so I gave a shot at finding something in its Gardening section that might help. That’s when I found the one book that changed the rest of my life: The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. In the intervening years, I’ve built up as complete a carnivorous plant reference library as is possible, and that original copy of The Savage Garden, stained and battered, still holds a place of honor within that library.

It’s no exaggeration when I tell beginners that The Savage Garden is the first book they need to purchase before raising carnivores. To this day, I scour used bookstores for copies to give to friends, and I hand them over with a wild-eyed grin and an exhortation of “Let me tell you about my church.” Is it my fault that many also became carnivorous plant addicts? Maybe, but I did warn them that Ministry’s “Just One Fix” is my gardening theme song.

Part of the reason why I recommend The Savage Garden over any number of others isn’t just because its author is owner and operator of California Carnivores, one of the largest carnivorous plant nurseries on the planet and definitely one of the largest in North America. I recommend it for its accessibility, especially for beginners who can’t tell a cultivar from a colander. (In fact, I first encountered the word “cultivar” among its pages.) As beautifully written and illustrated as they are, Stewart McPherson’s volumes are a little too technical for anyone starting out. Everyone in the field could cover Adrian Slack‘s dinner tab until the end of time and we couldn’t come close to returning the favor he did us by reviving the popularity of carnivorous plants in the 1970s, but his books are just a touch dry. The Savage Garden, though, is the book you need to get the most out of Slack’s, McPherson’s, and in fact everyone else’s volumes on carnivores.

And the next fix is in. A new revised version of The Savage Garden, with 48 additional pages on new species and hybrids unknown when the original was written in 1998, is currently available for preorder. Considering the veritable explosion of information on carnivores available since the original came out, this is going to be an event. Get yours now, because you can’t borrow mine.

EDIT: I’ve already ordered my copy, and now it’s all about waiting. And yes, it WILL be the subject of a review on this site.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a while since the old Snail Mailbox was opened and cleared out, but oh the wonders therein. The periodical market may be coughing up blood after the demise of Borders, but I can still point to quite a few magazines that make the old model still worth paying for.

To start, yes, Facebook is now overloaded with single-subject obsessives with all of the depth and critical thought of a movie poster, and poking through a Timeline is a bit like being stuck in traffic behind that character with the station wagon held together with bumper stickers. However, sometimes you need to sift through a mountain to find gold. I can’t remember which friend turned me onto Florida Gardening magazine, but the first issue reminded me of everything that I loved from living in Tallahassee a decade ago. Of particular note is a cover story on the gardens of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which was still under construction when I came through the area in 2008.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Jay (Jake) Carter’s end column, “The Exterminator”, because his certainty about the intelligence of local vermin matches mine. To quote, “I am ill equipped o do any real damage to the world’s pest populations. However, the image I am presenting to them is one of a crazed killer who will go to ANY lengths to get rid of them, even if the effort ends in my accidental poisoning or I blow myself up.” Oh, I empathize. The rat trap atop the roof, apparently carried there by a hawk that snatched the rat inside for an early morning snack, is proof of that.

Likewise, the newest issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived just today, and seemingly half of the issue is full of new carnivorous plant cultivars. That’s in addition to a study on bladderwort functions, and Nigel Hewitt-Cooper‘s guide to raising Drosera regia. The last is of particular note, considering my mistaking D. filliformis for D. regia, and it may be time to try raising this beauty under Texas conditions.

And then there’s vindication. My subscription to Gothic Beauty is nearing its end, but I still go through every issue from cover to cover. Of especial interest was a letter to the editor complimenting the “Gothic Gardening” columns in back issues: it’s just a real damn shame that the columnist was fired by the publisher in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, isn’t it?

Thursday is Resource Day

Believe it or not, today is a beautiful day for miniature garden discussions. It isn’t just that Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens keeps giving me all sorts of interesting ideas for projects. It isn’t just that the new issue of Reptiles and the new issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived on the same day, and they always inspire. No, it’s because I promised Janit that I was going to get around to giving her a guide to several very unorthodox books that should be essential in any miniature gardener library, and I might be able to get that written up this weekend.

As a taste, though, I’d like to pass on word about an event this weekend that should be essential for any serious miniature gardener. Squadron, our friendly neighborhood mail-order plastic model kit supplier (quite literally, as its headquarters is right down Highway 190 from my house) hosts the regular model kit expo EagleQuest, and EagleQuest XXII (PDF) starts tomorrow and runs until Saturday evening at the Embassy Suites Dallas Hotel in Grapevine. I’ll explain later, but any serious miniature gardener NEEDS to be out here if necessary. The cross-pollination will do both miniature gardening and plastic kit modeling a world of good.

Likewise, here’s a tip for those needing miniature gardening tools. Micro-Mark, one of the best sources for modeling tools out there, is holding its annual summer sale, with lots of specials. Again, I’ll explain later, but I’ll leave you with one word: Milliput. If this stuff isn’t already your best friend for construction, repair, and modification, then let me introduce you and hope you have lots of babies.

And before I forget, the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adult museum event tonight, with the subject tonight being “Space Cadets”. This also ties into gardening in its way, because arriving early means getting a good view of the Leonhardt Lagoon and surrounding environs, which is just rotten with animal and plant life right now. I’ll explain exactly why this is so important later, so don’t worry about taking notes.