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Leonhardt Lagoon at Dallas’s Fair Park

Leonhardt Lagoon at Fair Park

I’m regularly asked why I stay in Dallas, all by people who have never so much as visited. Yes, it’s hot during our seemingly never-ending summers. Yes, Highland Park produces people so plastic and artificial that they’re just waiting to declare war upon the Daleks. Yes, we’re not known as a haven for artists, writers, or musicians, or at least the work ethic-challenged wannabes waiting for their first million-dollar contract, no matter how hard some city leaders try to turn us into another Portland or Austin. Sometimes that’s the biggest appeal, though, because Dallas forces you to appreciate the little bits of beauty and protect them. Such is the case of the Leonhardt Lagoon in the middle of Fair Park, just south of downtown.

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon lilypads

Leonhardt Lagoon

Lagoon sculpture

No, the previous photos aren’t left over from a celebration of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. The singular lagoon sculptures therein were created by Dallas artist Patricia Johanson, who wanted to renovate the lagoon with structures evocative of ferns and duck-potato. Not only are they open to the public (in fact, the park encourages people to climb onboard and view the indigenous plant and animal life close-up), but the portions not easily reached by humans are full of basking turtles on most sunny days.

Lagoon turtle

The vast majority of the turtles in the lagoon are the native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), which feed on insects, fish, carrion, and water plants. Get up high, though, and be surprised at the mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) staying out toward the center. The real fun, though, comes in winter, where walking out onto the platforms might startle a still-active snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) into ducking back under a platform.

Lagoon turtle

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Not all of the wonders around the lagoon are natural. Half my life ago, Fair Park hosted the “Rameses the Great” exhibition of Rameses II artwork and artifacts, and the biggest trace was this commemorative stone left behind in 1989.

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Jumbo

Likewise, the former Dallas Museum of Natural History building adds a bit to the lagoon’s feel. Back in 1986, construction in downtown uncovered the nearly complete remains of a Columbian mammoth, and volunteers restored and assembled the skeleton at the Museum. (Until the recent move to the new Perot Museum in downtown, that skeleton was one of the highlights of the Texas Giants Hall on the second floor of the old museum.) “Jumbo” is a bronze sculpture intended to give a life-sized view of how the mammoth appeared in life, perpetually overlooking the lagoon but not quite able to get over there for a drink.

Lagoon cypress

And since the main draw of the lagoon is the flora, it’s hard not to notice the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) growing along the banks. T. distichum is a native Texas tree, if not necessarily a native Dallas one: it’s usually found to the east and the south, where wetlands tend to stay wet in the summer. Thanks to the shape of the area, though, the lagoon has a humid microclimate that sustains and encourages the cypress, and it tends to grow much larger here than in most places in Dallas where it’s been introduced.

cypress cones

Cypress knees

The famed “knees” of bald cypress are more formally known as pneumatophores or aerial roots, which allow the roots to absorb oxygen in otherwise completely anaerobic conditions. These are also seen in mangroves and other mud-loving trees, but they’re not quite as impressive. The knees in the Lagoon’s cypresses range in size depending both upon their proximity to the lagoon and their proximity to the rest of the landscape: lawn mowers tend to keep them trimmed before they get too tall.

Cypress roots

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

Honey mesquite

Across from the bald cypresses, off Jumbo’s left shoulder, is this little garden space, featuring a real Dallas native. Mesquite is so common as a shrubby tree in the Dallas area, especially in overgrazed former cattle land, that even many natives don’t know how big it can get given half a chance. Most guides go on about the medicinal uses of mesquite, and you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without someone talking about getting a cord of well-seasoned mesquite for the grille or smoker. Me, though, I just appreciate the big trees for what they are, and appreciate the shade they offer in the middle of summer.

Petrified log at the Lagoon

Finally, here’s a mystery right on the edge of the lagoon. As mentioned before, the whole of Fair Park was constructed as a World’s Fair exposition ground for the Texas state centennial in 1936, but a lot of history disappeared in the years after the city of Dallas took over the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas. Of particular note was this petrified log. Some stories relate that the north entrance to the fairgrounds featured an arch made of petrified wood, and this log has a concrete peg at one end that supports the idea (pun intended) of it being part of a larger monument. At the same time, though, nobody can find any definitive proof that any such structure existed. Yet the log exists, and it’s been sitting in that same space by the lagoon for the last quarter-century as proof. Anybody up for borrowing a time machine for a little while to take pictures of it in its old location? Or is it some silent sentinel from an unknown civilization in Texas’s distant past, just waiting for the right event to wake it up?

Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?

Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.

Image

Vulture in Garland

20120525-185152.jpg

And this is why I stay in Texas. Garland: come for the Zombieland jokes, and stay for the vultures on the neighbor’s front porch. It doesn’t get more bluecollar goth than this.

NARBC, King of the Monsters

A few months back, I described the joy of the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, complete with hat-tips to friends in the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society. At the time, the idea was to make plans for next year, because the NARBC only came through the Dallas area once per year, right?

Yeah, I thought that as well, until reading the newest issue of Reptiles magazine brought up a mention of an Arlington NARBC show at the end of August. It had to be a typo, right? We couldn’t be looking at a repeat of the biggest reptile, amphibian, and accoutrement show of its kind, and on Shirley Manson‘s birthday, could we?

Yep. August 25 and 26, at the Arlington Convention Center. Six months later, the cycle continues.

Now, as tempting as this would be for this year’s show, what makes life even better is the option for next year at that time. Next year at roughly the same time is LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 WorldCon, down in San Antonio, and friends and former writing compatriots have already started nuhdzing about my showing plants down there. Well, aside from the distance (mostly involving hauling plants in our famous Central Texas heat), there’s the near-impossibility of finding any vendor information on the site, and similar events run by the same people are notoriously unfriendly to any vendors selling anything other than books. Before the NARBC came up, my response was pretty uniform: “If I wanted to burn a weekend and a month’s pay listening to a herd of reactionary old people screaming about how the universe changed without their express approval and consent, I’d go to a family reunion.” Now, I’m welcoming. “Oh, sure, you could go to San Antonio with about 700 people who will arrive with one shirt and one $20 bill, and not change either for the next week, to an event run by many of the same people who ran the 1997 WorldCon. (And that’s a story I’ll tell for another time.) Or, OR, you could come up here and hang out for a weekend with anywhere between 3000 and 6000 of the coolest people you’ll ever meet in your life.” The choice is clear.

(And back to the subject of Reptiles, I’d like to recommend this new issue, just for the exceptional article on care of three-toed box turtles. Some of you may remember Stella, the world’s meanest box turtle, and her unrequited love affair with our cat Leiber. I can’t say that all three-toed box turtles have her level of personality, generally as vitriolic as it was toward humans, but I can definitely say they’re exceptionally intelligent and fascinating reptiles.)

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012: The Aftermath

Like the swallows of Capistrano, every year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009 starts and ends the same way. After spending weeks getting ready so nothing goes wrong, Friday morning opens and then EVERYTHING goes wrong. Grumble, grouse, contemplate going back to bed and not coming out until Monday morning. Rise above it, open up at 5:00 Friday evening, and then spend the entire weekend wishing that the party could keep going for the rest of the week. Come home and collapse, making plans for the next year as unconsciousness slides in. Repeat as necessary.

If there’s one big reason why I’m so enthusiastic about Frightmare, it’s because this show has one of the most interesting audiences I’ve ever seen. Quite literally, there’s no telling who may show up and say hello at the Triffid Ranch booth. Biology majors. Dentists. Stilt walkers. All of them come screeching to a halt and look surprised when they see a carnivorous plant vendor at a horror convention. I repeat: they’re the ones who are surprised.

By way of example, below is my dear friend Mischa Jordan, having left Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and Booga at home for the weekend in order to pose with a Nepenthes arrangement. Not only was she surprised to see an N. alata up close, but she was even more surprised to see the big stein it was in. (For obvious reasons, this arrangement was named “The Mullet of Metal”.)

Mischa Jordan with the “Mullet of Metal”.

Other than the initial difficulties of getting to the convention hotel and getting back out, thanks to ongoing road construction around DFW Airport, the only issue the whole weekend came from the lighting in the hall hosting the dealer’s room. Combine that with getting familiarity with a new camera, and I’ll state for the record that I plan to leave photography to the experts. Even with that aggravation, and lots of frustration with light levels and autofocusing, just look at the expressions on everyone’s faces.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

As always, talking with the kids at shows is one of the great joys of setting up booths at said shows, and I had a real surprise. Among other guests was Madison Lintz, best known for playing “Sophia” in the cable series The Walking Dead, and she took a break on Sunday from signing autographs to wander around the dealer’s room. Not only was she intrigued by the plants in the first place, but she had no idea that the Atlanta Botanical Garden has a large carnivorous plant collection, including a Nepenthes collection. Since she mentioned that her teacher back home was offering her extra credit if she came back with interesting science information from Texas, I gave her my last spare copy of the May 2011 issue of Reptiles. If she becomes the Tippi Hedren of carnivorous plants when she gets older, well, it’s all my fault.

Madison Lintz

As of last check, the crew at Texas Frightmare Weekend still doesn’t have a complete count of the attendance, but I’m glad nonetheless that we were in a much larger space in a much larger hotel than in 2011. Between the Czarina and myself, when asked if we were going to be out for 2012, our simultaneous response was “Oh, HELL yes.”

More photos to follow…

Have a Great Weekend

I wonder why all of the “Sounds of the Nineties” radio stations leave this song out of their playlists? Not enough impotent whining to interest the programming directors, I guess.

Introducing Hemidactylus turcicus

As mentioned for a while, we have a lot of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) in the Dallas area. As can be told by the name, they’re not native in the slightest: they apparently arrived in the US in Florida on potted plant shipments, and they’ve been steadily moving west since the 1950s. The first time I ever noticed them was in 1990, where large adults were taking advantage of porch lights on an old apartment of mine to snag insects. Today, they’re all over Dallas, where they’re usually only noticed when they wriggle away from approaching humans on brickwork and stucco walls.

For the ophidiophobes out there, the Medgecko is a much better neighbor than the Tokay gecko (Gekko gekko), which has tried and failed many times to become acclimated to the Dallas area. (Back in the Eighties, a popular suggestion for dealing with cockroach problems in apartment buildings was to buy Tokays and then let them loose in the apartment. Not only did this do nothing to the roach population, but those happy new Tokay landlords discovered that they had a beast that bit and bit hard when approached. Tokays also have the charming habit of getting directly over a person on a ceiling or wall, barking loudly, and then crapping on the eager upturned face trying to identify the noise. I’ve heard of Tokays becoming dog-tame, but I’ll believe it when I see it: I’ve had too many encounters with them.) H. turcicus is very skittish around humans, and most encounters with one consists of hatchlings getting into a house in search of new territory. A Medgecko may spend its entire life in a territory about three meters from where it was born, and most of its species’ prodigious migration is due to females laying their eggs on moving trucks and shipping containers (the eggs actually glue themselves to the chosen surface), where the hatchlings emerge hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the place of their laying. In Dallas at least, they don’t compete with indigenous geckos, and they do keep the bugs down a bit.

However, there’s always the joy of finding one inside, such as when the Czarina found a big adult in her bathtub a while back.

Hemidactylus turcicus

See the little dark patch in his abdomen? That’s his liver. H. turcicus is translucent enough that it’s possible to make out internal organs and stomach contents, and if you should be in front of a pane of glass on which one is resting, it’s actually possible to see its little heart beating. The translucency gives an idea of how delicate they are: many people come across them after they’d been captured by the local cat, usually with a leg or two broken and the tail removed. (The tail isn’t a big deal, as it auto-sheds at the slightest touch. It’s very rare to find a large one like this with a complete tail with proper markings, and most have tails the color of stale egg nog.)

Hemidactylus turcicus (closeup)

And before you ask, this little guy went back outside where he belonged. He couldn’t escape the bathtub, and now he’s ensconced in the greenhouse with others of his kind. Let them fight their war with the orbweaver spiders with one additional warrior.

Introducing Lonicera japonica

Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica

At the moment, the North Texas area is truly in the middle of spring. We’re past any reasonable chance of a freeze (although the area reached just short of freezing 39 years ago today, so it could happen), with about three weeks to a month before things start to get torrid. (Of course, as mentioned last year, it’s not truly summer until you can’t walk into a grocery store anywhere in the state without at least four old ladies accosting you to tell you “It’s HOT,” as if we always get snow flurries and sleet on the Fourth of July. Last year, I went grocery shopping early, because otherwise the place sounded like a pterosaur rookery.) When we aren’t being dragged to Oz by tornadoes (and the current count of last week’s April Madness was 17 in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area), the wind is mild, the sun tolerable, and the nights incredible. The evening air this time of the year makes the worst summers worthwhile, because it’s cool enough to get active while warm enough to leave the jackets and sweaters at home.

Right now, my best friend and I are getting particular mileage from those evenings, and I mean that literally. He bought a new Harley last summer, and spends the dusk and evening exploring exactly how far and how fast his monster machine will take him before he resigns himself to having to go home so he can get up for work in the morning. I’m no different, even if I’m on a mountain bike instead of a motorcycle. Back roads and bare paths, spooking armadillos and the occasional great horned owl because they didn’t hear me until we were close enough to touch…yeah, it’s that time of the year.

It’s during these perambulations that my best friend and I come into contact with one of North Texas’s most hidden-in-plain-sight invasive plants, usually as we’re buzzing right past. The air’s already clean, and then a quick whiff of fresh sweetness, and then it’s gone like a kiss from an ex-girlfriend. It’s Japanese honeysuckle season.

In all of my travels, the only other invasive plant I’ve come across that inspires as mixed a set of emotions as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) in Texas is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) in Oregon. In areas outside of Portland, Himalayan blackberry is an absolute menace once it’s established. It grows in huge clumps as much as eight meters tall. The canes are bandsaw blades with chlorophyll, and moving through a patch with anything other than plate mail is a great way to see how much blood the human body can lose at once. The plant gets established through seeds, cane tips, and runners from rhizomes, and extensive application of fire just encourages it. Gardeners and farmers spit and curse upon mention of the name, because clearing an established stand just means that the space is clear for a few birds to leave fresh seeds with their droppings and start the cycle again.

What makes it rough is that while the whole plant is a nightmare, the blackberries themselves are absolute heaven. At one point in the summer of 1996, my ex-wife and I stood at one spot in Washington State, right along the Columbia River, and picked berries for a solid hour without moving our feet except to get new containers. For most Portlanders, the Himalayan blackberry is becoming the New Zealand brushtail possum of local flora: yes, it’s wiped out whenever encountered, but summers also aren’t the same any more without local restaurants offering blackberry margaritas.

That’s about the situation with Japanese honeysuckle out here. Just whisper the name to gardeners, and wait for the shrieks. I understand that Debbi Middleton killed a big stand of the stuff all by herself, wielding a Garden Weasel like a naginata, in a classic battle that begs to be recreated by Peter Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mounted the tuber over her fireplace with the killing strike turned out toward the couch, so she could gaze upon it and snicker. When members of local garden groups get together to talk about the latest infestation, and they start mumbling “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit,” they aren’t kidding.

I understand. I sympathize. I join in with their justifiable wars against hackberry, greenbriar, and cottonwood seedlings. It’s just that I look at a clump like the one above, and remember how many times I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike in an attempt to stop and savor for a few seconds. Most people need a gallon of coffee to wake up in the morning. All I need is a bicycle, a bit of Hawkwind or Yavin 4 in the earbuds, and that insane scent in my nostrils to get me going. And so it goes.

Review: Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Machiavelli’s Lawn: The Great Writers’ Garden Companion, written and illustrated by Mark Crick
ISBN-10: 1847081347
ISBN-13: 9781847081346
Published: Granta Books (UK), 03/01/2011
Pages: 111
Language: English

Machiavelli's Lawn

When it comes to in-jokes, particularly extensive in-jokes, writers have two options. The better option is to write such jokes in such a way that the intended audience gets the humor, but that humor also gets those outside the loop. I say “better” because if the joke dies both with the in-audience and everyone else, the writer’s done. Science fiction is full of these failed attempts, where the only defense to a poorly written “comedy” is to yell “Oh, yeah? Well, I wrote this for the fans!” And what happens when the fans think that the resultant book or production is a pile of garbage?

The other option, rarely done well, is to ignore that urge to go for a larger audience. Go narrow and focused, and understand that 95 percent of the potential world readership will look at it like comedian Bill Hicks’s famed “dog being shown a card trick”. The trick isn’t to make the intended audience laugh. The trick is to be so good that it makes readers outside that vicious circle want to read the original reference and then go back to the in-joke. Occasionally, very occasionally, this works out, and the creator or creators are heroes in song and legend.

I won’t say that Mark Crick’s writers’ garden companion Machiavelli’s Lawn is going to appeal to 99 percent of the general readership. I can’t say that it’ll appeal to the vast majority of gardening enthusiasts. For those of us who spent far too much time reading things other than horticultural references, though, it’s a trip.

The conceit of Machiavelli’s Lawn is to write gardening guides in the style of various famous writers, such as Raymond Carver, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, and Pablo Neruda. That can be hard on its own, considering that the best material for parody is broad prose with a style about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail served at dinner. (This, incidentally, is why H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson are such an inspiration for aspiring parody writers as yet unable to work with the subtlety of Ray Bradbury or Mike Royko.) Discussing removal of tree suckers in the style of Bret Easton Ellis has its moments, but it’s not hard because Ellis’s style was practically a cliche from the second he started typing. Pulling off a parody of Martin Amis that was itself viciously funny (involving repotting an abused houseplant within a strip club) that’s more readable than an Amis story? Now that’s talent.

I might also add that Mr. Crick provided his own illustrations for this book with a similar mindset, as if the Ralph Steadman tribute wasn’t obvious. (I have to admit that I snagged this book because I first assumed that Mr. Steadman had moved from writing about wine and whisky to horticulture.) Here we also get treatments of Durer, Munch, Lichtenstein, Dali, and Robert Crumb, all distinctive and all appropriate for the essay being illustrated. If you aren’t familiar with any of these artists, don’t sweat it. Not knowing about them doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the illustrations. However, if you do…well, my Day Job boss is a proud Robert Crumb fan, and he got a good enough cackle over Crick’s hommage that he wanted to read the accompanying story just to get more context.

The problem here is that you have so many authors, and so many books, that could thrive under this sort of treatment that this book isn’t enough. In fact, I have one that’s been sitting in my head for a while, and let’s see if anyone’s sufficiently erudite to catch the reference:

“Amanda gets me a job as an arborist, after that Amanda’s pushing secateurs in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Amanda and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Amanda Thomsen.”

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

We made it to the end of March. No last-minute snowfall. No end-of-month freezes or frosts…yet. Oh, the trees and weeds are determined to wipe out all animal life with pollen, but that’s not quite the disaster of the big snowfall in mid-March 2010. And what do we get for our reward? Sarracenia blooms!

I once had an English professor who stated that everyone should write as if a new writer were given a total of three exclamation points to use over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t disagree, but I always felt that a better solution was inspired by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman”, with the writer relinquishing a year of life for every exclamation point used. Naturally, if this rather draconian example actually ever saw use, you’d see millions of YouTube and political site commentators dropping dead days after turning 15, but there you go. When it comes to Sarracenia, though, I willingly give up a year to emphasize the joy. In fact, let’s give up another one: THE SARRACENIA ARE IN BLOOM!

Sarracenia bud

The trouble starts with these little flower scapes. They’re usually an excellent guide to air and soil temperatures, and when I tell customers that the Sarracenia generally won’t be for sale until after St. Patrick’s Day, it’s because I’m waiting for these to come up out of their winter dormancy first. Since the various species in the genus Sarracenia usually depend upon the same insects as pollinators as for prey, they generally put out their bloom spikes first, and then start growing pitchers.

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

This isn’t to say that this is an absolute. Since many of the Sarracenia are still recuperating from last year’s drought, many stressed plants will forgo putting out flowers and concentrate instead on growing new pitchers. Incidentally, this photo was from a week ago, and the pitcher spike in the background is now nearly twice the size of its neighbor. If our current benevolent and humid weather continues, this one may have pitchers as much as a meter tall by the end of April.

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

But let’s get back to the blooms. A typical Sarracenia bloom is about the size of a ping-pong ball, with a large cap on the bottom. As with many other flowering plants, Sarracenia attracts pollinators with both color and scent. Sarracenia alata, the yellow pitcher plant, tends to have blooms with a rather cat musk smell, which both seems to attract cats and repel raccoons. Others range in fruity and rosy scents, including several that, as Peter D’Amato noted to considerable merriment, smell almost exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. I don’t laugh at him when he says this, because he was understating the case.

Now, the cap and the petals work together to capture insects, but not in the way you’d expect. The bloom’s anthers are within the cap, so insect pollinators have to force themselves through the petals to get to the flower’s nectar. The petals block the entrances merely by dint of hanging free, so the bug runs into the anthers repeatedly while trying to get out. The cap also captures pollen knocked free from the anthers, so the bug gets a Shake & Bake treatment by the time it finally gets out and goes to another pitcher plant bloom. (Among other things, this may help explain why Sarracenia species produce so many natural hybrids, as visiting insects are simply covered by the time they work their way out.) The plant doesn’t want to capture them permanently for their nitrogen: any carnivorous plant that captures its pollinators before said pollen can get to another plant isn’t going to be in the gene pool for long.

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

Not that this stops other plants in a clump (or, in this case, a nursery) from taking advantage of another’s pollinators. In this case, the little brown spots on the lip of this hybrid Sarracenia‘s pitcher are ants, all getting drunk and falling into the pitcher. Considering the huge colony of ants hiding out in the roots of a cactus on the edge of the growing area, this Sarracenia is going to feed very well this spring.

And now, back to the nursery. Among other things, it’s time to learn how to use this cell phone camera properly.

Introducing Cephalotus follicularis

At Triffid Ranch shows, the thirdmost common comment I get is “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” I usually try to help out as much as possible so as to prevent that in the future. The secondmost common comment comes upon viewing an iTerrarium, is “Finally: the only good use for a Mac, hur hur hur.” Since this invariably comes from some Bruce Sterling wannabe (Arioch help us) who both figures that no individual in human history has ever told me this and who desperately craves the attention he didn’t get from his parents, I usually smile and reply “You’re right. Macs suck…almost as much as Cat Piss Men.” The most common comment, though, is “Wow. I knew about Venus flytraps, but I didn’t know there were so many carnivorous plants.”

My response? “Oh, let me show you a few.”

The reasons why so many people never come across carnivores other than flytraps are multifold. Firstly, flytraps both move at a speed that surprises humans and have leaves that resemble mouths, so they become a direct manifestation of the highlights of the group. They’re also small enough to transport easily and readily reproduce via sterile tissue propagation, so they can be everywhere. Triggerplants only show off their speed when blooming. Sarracenia pitcher plants usually get too big for easy display in garden centers. Nepenthes pitcher plants just sit there and let the bugs do all the work. Sundews and butterworts move too slowly to get an immediate response. Bladderworts need a strong magnifying glass to view their prey capture: with terrestrial varieties, you both need to dig them up and put the trap structures into an electron microscope to see the detail. Flytraps are rock stars for these reasons.

Another reason why so few people see most carnivores is, to be honest, because they’re relative prima donnas. The Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum) cannot handle any root disturbance whatsoever, and only recently have carnivorous plant nurseries worked out methods to transport them safely. Only a few people propagate triggerplants, although that number, thankfully, is increasing. The cobra plant (Darlingtonia) is an alpine plant that both needs cool roots from snowmelt runoff and a significant temperature differential between day and night. (Considering that summer temperatures in North Texas really don’t drop much between day and night, the only really successful way to grow them would involve moving them into an air-conditioned area every night.) The sun pitchers of Brazil and Venezuela (Heliamphora) need cool conditions all year round. It’s the obverse for many of the lowland Nepenthes pitcher plants, which thrive under high heat and high humidity. Considering the specialized soil, humidity, and temperature requirements of many carnivore species, it’s no surprise that most don’t show up in most garden centers and nurseries. The employees at a typical home improvement center have a hard enough time keeping up with the care requirements for tomatoes and strawberries, and most potential customers understandably don’t want to take a chance on an expensive plant that may die a week after its purchase.

Half of the thrill of raising carnivores is discovering that their care and feeding is a lot easier than you’d believe. I’ve talked to serious orchid fanciers who tell me “Oh, carnivores must be hard to raise” at the same time they’re telling me how easy most Oncidium and Cattleya species are to keep, so long as you know their basic requirements. We then look at each other and say, almost simultaneously, “Yeah, but there are some that are slow growers.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That accusation definitely applies to Cephalotus follicularis, known commonly as the Australian pitcher plant and the Albany pitcher plant. As can be told, it’s a visually stunning plant…if you have a good magnifying glass when it’s young. The adult plants gradually grow pitchers about the size of an adult’s first thumb joint, but this can take years. Between this and a general sensitivity to root disturbances, most of the plants on the market are rather pricy, due to the time necessary to grow them to a decent size. This isn’t a plant to be purchased on an impulse, nor for anyone wanting a rapid grower.

Juvenile Cephalotus

That said, Cephalotus is a fascinating plant, and the Triffid Ranch now has a very limited supply of them, courtesy of Deryk Moore, the self-described “greenhouse gnome” at Sarracenia Northwest. Deryk is an absolute genius with Cephalotus (as are Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas, the proprietors at Sarracenia Northwest), and after some discussion with Deryk, I now have Cephalotus acclimating to Texas outdoor conditions. Thankfully, our humidity and cloud cover are more appropriate to Portland than Dallas at the moment, but I also know that Cephalotus can survive most Texas summers if given half a chance. Indeed, the only reason why my previous Australian pitcher died last year was because last September and October were lethal to native species, and it just couldn’t handle the severe lack of humidity before Halloween. Deryk recommends using African violet pots with Cephalotus, and what kind of idiot would I be to ignore his advice?

Cephalotus follicularis

Now, besides the little ones, I purchased an adult plant from Deryk. To quote Basil Fawlty, when anyone asks if this one is for sale, I hiss “THIS…is MINE” while grinning. Even the Czarina stays away when I grin like that.

Introducing Lupinus texensis

The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.

Lupinus texensis

As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.

Texas bluebonnets

Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.

Fields of bluebonnets

To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.

More fields of bluebonnets

And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.

Introducing Drosera regia filiformis

EDIT: A lesson to everyone, learned at my expense. I was certain that I was looking at D. regia here, but Ryan Kitko and a slew of other friends kindly noted “I hate to say this, but I think you have a Drosera filiformis instead of a Drosera regia here. Thankfully, I had my original receipt on hand, and discovered that what I had been calling “Drosera regia” really was D. filiformis after all. That said, if Black Jungle offers D. regia, buy one at once, and also consider that D. filiformis makes a great mosquito snare in the greenhouse, too. And now I take that tasty crow and turn it into a sandwich.

Drosera regia

Way back in the Eighties, when pterosaurs soared through the skies, VCRs cost most people nearly a month’s pay, and nobody was embarrassed to wear spandex in public, I was a tropical fish enthusiast. No, scratch that: I was a tropical fish junkie. Let me loose in a well-stocked fish store, and you might as well tattoo “JUST ONE FIX” to my forehead. In that regard, letting me loose in northeast Wisconsin in 1985 was like giving William S. Burroughs a key to a smack factory and telling him “We’ll be back in a month.” In the days before the Interwebs, there wasn’t much to do in places like Menasha and Little Chute (then not known as the future home of Ellen Ripley) during the winter other than watch the snow fall and pickling one’s liver, so the fish shops were valuable bastions of sanity for those who couldn’t drink, couldn’t smoke, and didn’t want to follow in the traditions of fellow residents Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Me, I practically lived in several fish shops, where I learned the vagaries of community tanks, the basics of saltwater arrangements, and the allure of exotics such as discus and red-bellied piranha.

One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was “Don’t trust the fish books, because the fish don’t read.” This is something else that needed to be tattooed on my forehead, because whoo boy does this apply to carnivorous plants. Every once in a while, you come across the right conditions for what are generally considered difficult plants, and they’re nearly impossible to kill. In my case, the book-breaker was the king sundew, Drosera regia.

Two years ago, on a trip to Boston, I purchased a king sundew, cultivar “Big Easy,” from Black Jungle Terrarium Supply. Having heard about D. regia‘s notorious reputation for being difficult, I figured, with the hopeful arrogance of most horticulture students, that I wouldn’t botch it up too badly. The sundew went into the greenhouse in July, right after I got back, and it promptly went berserk catching mosquitoes and fungus gnats. It appeared to die off in September, but I also knew how many sundews play dead for a while before growing back from the roots, so I didn’t dump the pot right away. Over the winter, it sat outside, where it froze solid in our big week-long cold snap in February 2011, and it suddenly came back in March.

This time, it went into a tall ceramic pot with no drainage, and it seemed to do even better. The plant grew nearly a meter tall, and regularly seemed to reach out to grab my hair as well as its usual prey. The 2011 heatwave started, and it kept going. July and August blasted the earth, and it kept going. Finally, when things really dried out in September and October, it appeared to die back again, but I kept watering it from time to time to make sure. Finally, the pot broke during a rearrangement of plants in winter housing, and I took a closer look at the freshly sprouting mass. You can imagine my surprise at seeing eight new plants emerging from separate rhizomes, each the size of a coat button, acting as if the weather of the last year was standard operating procedure.

Drosera regia

There’s not much more to tell at the moment. Right now, seven of the eight rhizomes are in a propagation tank, and I’ll probably bring out a couple to this weekend’s plant show. The eighth is going to go back into the greenhouse, where I’m going to figure out whether this is a new tolerant cultivar or I just ended up hitting the right conditions for it. Reports will follow.

Have a Great Weekend

No matter how much you love your Day Job, it’s hard not to hum this song on a Friday when spring starts in Texas. The fact that this was sung by an old and dear friend doesn’t hurt, either.

False Spring

Want to drive a gardener insane? Drop the poor schlub off in North Texas this time of the year and watch the reaction. Oh, sure, it may SEEM that winter is over, with ridiculously warm temperatures and only the threat of rain and the occasional tornado. Combine that with the local garden centers being overloaded with fresh new herb and vegetable seedlings, and it’s as if the earth itself is screaming “Go ahead. Put in that row of tomatoes. Everything’s fine. I promise.”

Longtimers such as myself know better. As a general rule, it’s best to wait until at least St. Patrick’s Day before planting anything that’s frost-intolerant or moving citrus from shelter, but that’s not an absolute. Two years ago, the Czarina and I moved into our new house on March 10, just in time to catch our second big snowstorm of the year, and gardening junkies still talk about the bad freeze we had in Dallas at the beginning of April 1997. As a general rule, though, any plantings by March 17 are usually safe. In fact, in this town, I recommend staying home and gardening on St. Patrick’s Day, instead of dealing with the annual city display of vomit and other bodily fluids. It’s just a bit more rational, y’know?

That doesn’t stop the newbies, the thrill-seekers, and the apprentice village idiots. “The weather’s fine. I can put in those tomatoes, and they won’t frost off.” Some are so determined, you’d think they were auditioning for the part in a slasher film. “Oh, don’t worry. Michael/Jason/Freddy’s just a myth. Now let me plant these peppers, and we’ll go have sex in that abandoned Indian burial ground turned chemical waste dump during the full moon.”

This isn’t helped by the great tempters. Longtimers know that you should wait until the local redbuds are in full bloom before risking frost-averse plantings, but it’s so, so tempting when everything else is going mad. Due to our abnormally mild winter, the daffodils and paperwhites were beaten in the early blooming sweepstakes by flowering quince, followed by magnolia, dogwood, and crabapple. However, the real harbinger of false spring is the local weed below.

Pseudo-cilantro

I’ve heard this described as “cilantro”, by people who know a lot more about local weeds than I, and it certainly superficially resembles that most beloved and detested of cooking herbs. In North Texas, our local cilantro is considered a pest because it takes over in most poor soils. Out here, the textbook illustration of “poor soil” is any photo of a lawn, so you can imagine how insane people can get about wiping it out. Me, I generally leave it alone, because it bolts, drops seed, and dies early in the year, much like most of our wildflowers, and it’s only a pain in spring.

Oh, but is it a pain. Those purple-red flowers are attractive, but the mass of the weed tends to grow quickly enough that the local city inspectors are handing out ordinance warnings two days after a fresh mowing. Mowing through a clump leaves the whole neighborhood smelling like a great Mexican restaurant (should you have wild garlic in the back yard to go with it, as many people in houses formerly frequented by big dogs, mowing makes you uncontrollably hungry for fresh pizza), but many of the individual stems stay out of range of the mower blade when the others give their lives. This means that two days later, the yard is once again scraggly and unkempt, and who has time to mow three times a week?

I should also mention another aspect that makes this weed a beautiful menace. It forms big pillowy bunches, true, but those tend to conceal road trash, bottles, chunks of wood, or anything else that couldn’t outrun its growth. Because of this, the first mowing of the season can be more exciting than mortal man can tolerate. There was that big patch, for instance, that was hiding a nearly full plastic bottle of battery acid back in 1987, and thankfully I saw a corner of said bottle before running it down. Insert your very own “Sounds like an ex of mine” joke here, because I was thinking it, too.

The real danger, though, comes from those blooms. Drive past the front yard, and see those rich flowers. Drive down the street, and watch them taking over everything. Head down the highway, and catch that scarlet flash at 70mph. After a while, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that the long winter is over and start with the weekend garden regimen. Then, when the last big freeze of the season hits, this fake cilantro, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. It’ll come back for another two months, while you whimper over the blasted black mess that used to be a sturdy heirloom tomato.

The good news to all of this? I have a mulching lawnmower. I will make fake cilantro pay for tempting me like this.

The first Triffid Ranch show of 2012: ConDFW

In previous years, I’ve avoided attempting plant shows before April with good reason. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, we had such foul weather through February and March that I wasn’t worried about the plants freezing on their way to the event. Instead, I was more worried about my frozen corpse, still seat-belted into the van, being found in a drainage ditch halfway there. Last year, we had a solid week of sub-freezing weather in February, which may not sound like much to the denizens of higher latitudes. Out here, though, that’s begging for arriving at a show with a batch of sundews indistinguishable from a batch of frozen spinach.

However, my friend Amie Spengler nuhdzed and nudged at previous shows about ConDFW, a big literary science fiction convention that runs in Dallas in the middle of February, so the Czarina and I decided to take a chance this year. I still had sundews and bladderworts potted up in containers and ready to go from last November’s disastrous Friends of Fair Park show, and we figured “What could it hurt?” The weather coincided with our plans: lots of rain on Saturday, but otherwise exceptional weather both setting up and breaking down on Friday and Sunday. And who knew that carnivorous plants would be so popular among the Texas A&M student volunteers helping out here while preparing for Aggiecon?

Brad at ConDFW

Some folks came by just out of curiosity, or because they’d seen the Triffid Ranch booth at previous shows. Brad, though, came out specifically because he wanted carnivores. He left with a spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to go with the big grin on his face.

Beth at ConDFW

Beth is a very old friend, with my having first met her back during my science fiction writing days. She had a craving for green in February, too, as can be told.

ConDFW

Another happy sundew adopter.

Tiffany at ConDFW

And then there’s Tiffany from local gaming company Roll2Play. Tiffany’s main hobby at these shows is to gang up with the Czarina and leave me crying in shame and humiliation as they demonstrate that it is possible to kill at 30 paces with a sharp twist of the tongue. Thankfully for my fragile self-esteem, she took a small break from wielding her wit cannon, took pity on my runny nose and puffy eyes (it was from the flu, honest) and snatched up a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) before anybody else got to see it.

Medusa Head at ConDFW

A closer look at that medusa head. It wasn’t just that Tiffany loved the pot. She particularly loved the detritus within it, and threatened to kneecap anyone who messed with it. Time for me to hunt down a few more pots like this, I think.

And now it’s time to get ready for the next show of the season: All-Con 2012 in March. I’m even thinking of joining the costuming festivities after the main dealer’s room hours, with the obvious head explodey that goes with it. I can’t tell if 2012 is going to be a good year for shows, but if it isn’t, it won’t be from a lack of trying.

There’s always time for orchids

It’s always amazing what shows up at Gunter’s Orchids in February. (This is why the Czarina doesn’t worry about me when she goes out of town. Other wives take off on a week-long vacation in San Francisco and worry about their husbands doing things that require delousing, castration, or deportation afterward. Me, I go straight for the nurseries as soon as she’s on the plane, and usually in search of things to surprise her when she gets back. This Valentine’s Day, it was a beautiful Cattleya that she spotted as soon as she walked in the door.)

Orchids at Gunter's

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

Orchids

And should I mention that Gunter’s has a regular orchid gazing event in the middle of March that’s worth the trip to Dallas?

A Cthulhufruit Boozeup

It’s now been eight years since my dear friend Allison Lonsdale introduced me to the awe and wonder that is the Buddha’s Hand citron. Or, as she likes to call it, Cthulhufruit. In the intervening four-fifths of a decade, I exaggerate not a whit when I say that Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis led me on quite the adventure. Trust me: orchids aren’t addictive. Citrus is addictive.

By way of example, finding a suitable source of Cthulhufruit for culinary experiments is much easier today than it was in 2004. Back then, the only hope for finding it in Dallas was during the two or three days of the year when the local Whole Foods had one, and that’s after getting past the managers apparently fired from Borders for arrogance and surliness. Now, the local Central Market tends to carry it in season, just as much to terrify the customers as for actual use. I still have a suitable supply of candied Cthulhufruit from a big cookup a year ago, so now it was time to go for another grand experiment. Now it’s time to make Cthulhufruit flavoring extract.

As mentioned in the past, I share one thing with my cousin Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and that is a complete inability to drink. I can appreciate the end-products of brewing and distillation, and I heartily encourage friends not to hold off on my account. Hence, the only reason why I don’t just say “Kids, today we’re making Cthulhufruit vodka” is because this really is for cooking. Now, if friends want to slam back a few shots, they’re welcome to it, but I understand from my best friend that this is a drink best sipped. When he tells me this, I just have to smile and nod.

Anyway, to start, you only need a few items before going to work:

3 ripe Buddha’s Hand citrons
1 2-liter glass jar with glass lid and rubber gasket
1 1.5 liter bottle of unflavored vodka
Sharp knife and cutting board

"If you go to Z'Ha'Dum, you will die."

To start, when choosing Cthulhufruit, your nose is your best tool. You want to buy one that is all-yellow, without any soft spots or mold, with a very clean citrus scent. As far as appearance is concerned, run amok, but remember that a lot of little tentacles will produce more essential oils than a few big ones. If you’re wanting to horrify friends and family, though, go mad and get the most horrifying one out of the batch. Other than that, avoid ones with brown bruising spots or ones that are obviously wilted or old.

The hold is full of leathery objects, like eggs or something.

Wash your Cthulhufruit well to remove any waxes or pesticides used on it in the orchard, and don’t be afraid to soak it in water for a few minutes to remove any dirt or dust collected during transport. Don’t soak it for hours, though, and definitely don’t use hot water. A five-minute bath should be fine.

Remove any moldy or soft spots

If you have to wait a few days between purchase and processing, put your Cthulhufruit in the refrigerator, preferably in the crisper. If it starts to mold, just cut out those soft parts with a sharp knife and toss them in the compost bin.

Remove the head and destroy the brain

At this point, it’s time to start slicing. The stem end needs to go. Until very recently, most Buddha’s Hand citrons were shipped with a little length of stem, mostly so they could be hung from the ceiling to freshen rooms. These days, with various nasty citrus diseases making the rounds, you won’t see any citrus leaves or stems on transported fruit, especially fruit that could be shipped to citrus-producing states in the US. Either way, you don’t want to leave that in your mix.

YOUR FACE, CLEAN OFF.

“Hasan…CHOP!”

Dismember your Cthulhufruit before it spawns

Starting from the stem end, get to slicing. Technically, you could mince up those Cthulhufruit in order to maximize the amount of surface area being exposed, but the idea is just as much for presentation as for efficiency. I generally slice until I get to distinctive tentacles at the blossom end of the fruit, and then separate those.

Hand-packing Cthulhufruit

Now take your clean glass jar, and wash it out if it isn’t already clean, and pack it with your freshly sliced Cthulhufruit. I generally stack the end slices in the center, leaving room around the edges for the tentacles.

Hand Packed Cthulhufruit

If you have more Cthulhufruit than you have room in the jar, don’t be afraid to put on the top and shake the hell out of it in order to get it to settle. Either way, that jar should hold three sliced citrons, unless you had a source for particularly big ones. In which case, I’m coming over to your house to eat your brain so I can steal your superpowers.

The choice pickling for Cthulhufruit

Now, some people may ask “Why use vodka? Why not use Everclear?” Well, that’s for several reasons. Firstly, most of the aromatics in citrons are both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble, so a good 90 proof mix works the best to get it all. Secondly, Everclear works best for making extracts of herbs and other purely alcohol-soluble spices. Thirdly, Everclear is ridiculously expensive, and vodka gets the job done for a much cheaper price.

As for the type of vodka used, that’s between you and the supreme deity of your choice. I’d recommend against flavored vodkas, because they’d likely overwhelm the more delicate notes that you’re trying to capture from the Cthulhufruit. My personal choice is Dripping Springs vodka, because I’m a Texas patriot, it’s very good vodka for the price, and it’s available in most liquor stores in North Texas. If you find anything better, please feel free to let me know.

Pour vodka over the sliced Cthulhufruit

Fill the jar right up to the rim with your vodka. If you have extra, that’s great. If you don’t, just do your best to keep the air gap at the top of the jar as small as possible. (I’ll explain why later.)

You say he was inside the bottle, sir?

Once the jar is full, seal it up. If you can possibly help it, use a jar with a glass or strong plastic lid, because you do NOT want this mix corroding a metal lid.

YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!

Finally, put this in a dark, cool place and don’t touch it for at least three months. In my case, I have the perfect place: the bar in the corner of the living room. It’s almost completely undisturbed all year round, and if anyone looks inside, won’t they be surprised?

When that steeping period is done, what remains is to drain off the vodka, bottle it, and put the extract back into a cool dark place until you’re ready to use it. It works very well in small doses, no more than a teaspoon, in fish dishes, and it can be used to complement the flavor of lemon and/or lime. This batch here is going to come in very handy with an experiment in kicking up a Key lime pie recipe I’ve been wanting to try for a while, and you can only imagine what will happen with adding it to lemon bars.

Now, I warned against leaving a large air gap at the top of the jar while the Cthulhufruit is steeping, and that’s for a very good reason. This new batch is being made because I left the last one steeping for a bit too long, with a little too little vodka. The oils and the vodka reacted with the oxygen in the air in the jar and some of the compounds oxidized: it’s still good for drinking and for cooking, but it adds a caramel-like flavor that drowns out the subtlety of many of the aromatic oils.

Giving up Nyarlathotep's share

Another factor to consider is that, no matter how good a seal, you’re going to lose a certain amount of alcohol from evaporation through the lid seal. In scotch production, this is referred to as “the angel’s share,” although I’m sure that no angel wants anything to do with it. Let’s call it “Nyarlathotep’s share” and leave it at that. The more vodka you have in the jar, the less Nyarlathotep’s share you’ll have by the time you’re ready to drain off the jar, and the less air that’s inside the jar to hasten oxidation. The above photo shows what happens after a year, and when you consider how much evaporation occurs through a whiskey barrel, now you understand why twenty-year and thirty-year scotch are so much more expensive than 12-year.

Cthulhufruit soup, anyone?

Another problem with leaving it too long is that the pulp tends to disintegrate slightly. Again, this doesn’t affect the drinkability or cookability of the extract. This just means that trying to strain the extract when bottling it isn’t going to work very well. I normally use a gold-plated coffee filter to strain Cthulhufruit extract, and after a year, the pulp sediment was just thick enough to jam up that filter.

For he IS the Kwizach Haderach

As can be seen, some of the vodka is absorbed by the Cthulhufruit pith, and Nyarlathotep’s share takes the rest. I plan to try both this and the fresh batch as extracts in different meals, and the rest of this one is going to friends. Now all I need is a new jar, a fresh Cthulhufruit, and a label reading “Specimen preserved in formalin, 8/20/1890”.

Ensuring marital bliss, one aneurysm at a time

The end of January, particularly this January, can be the most cruel of times for Texas gardeners. The wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity, one day below freezing and the next too warm for jackets, tempt even the most wizened souls to attempt something in the garden. Logic tells you that anyone planting anything frost-intolerant in North Texas before the middle of March is an idiot, and that your only options are putting in dormant fruit trees and maybe a batch of brassicas, such as bok choi or Brussels sprouts. One look outside on a morning like today, though, and logic gets shouted down: “C’mon. LOOK at it. We could probably get in a good two dozen orange trees and a row of tomatoes before lunch.”

It’s especially rough on me because of the weather. Having barely survived the big bout of flu that took us both down over the last two weeks, the Czarina listened to my coughing nearly to the point of vomiting and stated with authority “You are NOT allowed to get pneumonia this year.” Although I fear her proclamations as much as her elbows, I think she’s being completely unfair. If I get pneumonia, syphilis, Dutch Elm Blight, and kuru before May, I’ll have enough purchase points to get Captain Trips and hemmorhagic fever for free. The dealer will even throw in a couple of intestinal parasites and an ingrown toenail if I get in before the deadline.

The Czarina’s complete and total inflexibility on these matters is why I don’t tell her about some of the new projects I have planned. She won’t let me get a crocodile monitor, she won’t let me get a display case for a crocodile monitor, and she definitely won’t let me set up my orbital laboratory and death ray, even if I pay for it from my own allowance. Is it really my fault, then, that I spend my rainy day fund on new garden sculpture?

And yes, the sound you hear from the horizon is the sound of Czarina elbow piercing the top of my skull. You’d think I’d have learned after I told her I wanted to have a Meet the Feebles-themed birthday party just after we got married.

The Doom That Came To Dublin

I have to admit that, in my advancing years, I get increasingly tired of the foofarol concerning defunct cultural institutions when said institutions died for rational reasons. Namely, the crying and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over restaurants, stores, and other venues that died because potential patrons were being sentimental about them instead of, say, actually buying something. Much of this hatred comes from my science fiction writing days, where every magazine that shut down was greeted with the hysterics expected from the deaths of rock stars or celebrity chefs. Never mind that if the magazine’s fans actually bought a copy, or read anything other than the submissions guidelines page before defecating into the slushpile mailbox with their latest Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfiction, said magazine might actually still be around.

In a few cases, not only do I understand the urge, but I join in the mourning. Today is the day Dublin Dr. Pepper stopped production.

It’s hard to explain to non-Texans why a carbonated soft drink should be such a big deal, except for the fact that it was everywhere. For a very long time, the company was a major employer in the Dallas area, with its main bottling plant on Mockingbird Lane. Dr. Pepper was hyped as a hot as well as cold beverage in the Fifties, and you could still find little electric cup heaters with the logo (for dunking into a coffee cup) in garage sales when I moved here. Just about every venue that featured a soda dispenser had Dr. Pepper as a selection, and until about 1982 or so, asking for a “Coke” really meant you were getting a Dr. Pepper unless you said otherwise. It was even an official sponsor of the Dallas Cowboys, long before current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turned that credit into a joke.

And yes, I bought into it as well. When Coca-Cola went into its ill-fated fling with New Coke in 1985, I became a Dr. Pepper junkie. One of the many reasons I moved back to Texas in 1986 was because of Dr. Pepper: I was so miserable in Wisconsin that I spent many an hour in a horrible Burger King in downtown Appleton solely because that Burger King had Dr. Pepper on tap. Friends wanting to make bar crawls or concert runs just had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t drinking anything stronger than DP, and I think I managed to evade getting stomped at one of the last shows at the famed Theater Gallery in Deep Ellum outside of downtown Dallas because the skinheads saw that I was more straightedge than they were.

Times change, and they didn’t necessarily get better. The Dr. Pepper plant on Mockingbird was shut down shortly after the company was bought by what is now Dr. Pepper/Snapple/Cadbury, with lots of promises to renovate the historic landmark as a shopping mall or other general attraction. Those promises were lies, and the building was demolished in 1997. (I’d make all sorts of snide and perfectly accurate comments about the apartment building that went up in its place, but that always leads to at least one SMU brat crying about how mocking rich cokeheads, particularly with words of more than one syllable, is “class warfare”.) Long before then, the recipe changed from using actual cane sugar to the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup, with a corresponding loss of flavor.

Six years ago, the Czarina’s family and I made a summer vacation trip to Banff, Alberta, and everyone was shocked at how good Dr. Pepper tasted in Canada. I explained that it was because it was bottled in Canada, a country that neither subsidized its corn industry nor tried to embargo Cuba. The vast majority of the supply of this ambrosia in the US uses the loathed HFCS, but the tiny town of Dublin, Texas was allowed to sell Dr. Pepper with real Imperial cane sugar. It shouldn’t be any surprise that locals and visitors, given a taste test, were willing to pay premium prices for Dublin Dr. Pepper, and it should be even less of one that we addicts were willing to travel to get our hits. For one niece of mine, she forswore most birthday presents so long as we showed up with a six-pack of Dublin Dr. Pepper, in glass bottles, so she could ration it out while back in college.

And how does this involve a horticultural blog? Well, aside from the Texas history, it came down to a personal issue. Considering extensive and deep budget cuts to Texas schools and libraries, I understand all too well that lecturer speaker fees take money from already nearly nonexistent budgets, and I’d rather have that speaking money go into books, supplies, and teacher goodwill. Hence, when it comes to public schools and libraries in the North Texas area, my speaking fee for Triffid Ranch lectures was always the same: one bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper, preferably cold. It’s not quite on a par with Iggy Pop and the Stooges’s concert rider, but I like to think that I’m paying back just a little bit for the terror I inflicted when I was a student.

That was then. With the announcement that the Dublin bottler is shut down, with the corresponding loss of jobs to the Dublin area, I’m not just cutting out Dr. Pepper consumption in general. I have to find a new currency for school lectures. I’d go back to an old friend but the Eighties, but Jolt Cola is now made with HFCS instead of cane sugar, so what’s the point?