Tag Archives: cthulhufruit

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Cthulhufruit

And out of the depths of winter comes the promise of spring. After months of cold and chill, Earth progresses in its orbit around the sun, with daffodils and quince blooming in anticipation. Two weeks short of the official vernal equinox, life and weather celebrate the change…with six inches of snow. Welcome to Dallas.

While it might be reasonable to assume that the Triffid Ranch shut down entirely over the last four months, I compare it more to hibernation. The plants were sleeping, the garden dormant, and available shows and events dropping to next to nothing, so the last four months involved a very extensive and thorough cleaning and reorganizing. When your best friend refers to the purges of unneeded books, magazines, fabric, and other items from the house as “Stalinesque”, and when you consider that this is a man who stretches the term “minimalist” until it screams, you get an idea of the effort involved. All of December, all of January, almost all of February: the house is better organized than any time since we moved into it five years ago. Some of the particulars:

  • Okay, so having Colorado as a relative neighboring state leads to lots of Beavis and Butt-Head chuckling about “grow houses” these days, but technology allowed a big expansion. Namely, the whole need for a separate office for computer work died off with CRT monitors and landline phones, so the Czarina and I made a command decision: why waste two perfectly good rooms on our separate offices when we were doing all of our correspondence and show organizing on laptops anyway. The whole of an 11-day holiday vacation went into stripping out both rooms, converting one into work area and dry goods storage, and the other into an interior propagation area for tropical carnivores, orchids, ferns, and other flora that couldn’t handle the temperatures in the greenhouse. Technology also assisted with the propagation racks: LED shop lights may cost a little more than standard fluorescent fixtures, but they work beautifully for sundews, bladderworts, and the one Tahitian vanilla orchid that survived last summer. We’re not quite ready for a full-time retail venue, but it’s getting a lot closer, and the increased production means being able to do more shows in 2015. Best of all, the LEDs mean more light and less heat for less power, and the plan is to move to high-output LED fixtures before the end of the year for more light-hungry plant species.
  • While it’s been quiet out here otherwise in preparation for Texas Frightmare Weekend in May, it’s not that quiet. The Triffid Ranch leaves its hiatus for an appearance at the Discovery Days Earth event at the Perot Museum in downtown Dallas this coming April 11. Considering that we have a bit of a track record for late snow and sleetfall in March over the last half-decade, any last-minute freezes should help keep emerging temperate carnivores chilled so they start blooming in April. If things work well, this means showing off both Sarracenia pitcher plant and triggerplant blooms in time for the event. Details will follow.
  • Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend, the year-long hiatus means lots of preparation for the tenth annual Frightmare show, and not just with plants. This year’s Frightmare spread includes new displays, new items, and a lot of larger plant arrangements that were just too big to justify bringing out to previous events. All told, the plans required getting an additional table to hold everything, and we have live video from the house upon getting the news that a second table was available:
  • And after that? If we don’t get completely snowbound, the fun continues. Due to both Day Job schedule conflicts and various issues outside of the scope of this posting, three-day convention events aren’t going to be practical for most of 2015, but that means lots of one-day shows and lectures. Keep an eye open for details on these as well.
  • Some of the conflict on show schedules involves other factors, including several big secret projects over the next nine months. In addition, influenced by Reptiles magazine republishing my 2011 article on carnivores in reptile enclosures, expect not quite a book, but something almost as good, by the end of the year. Either way, I’ll be stuck to the couch, frantically writing away, when I’m not tinkering in the greenhouse.

Oh, and about the beautiful photo from the top of the post? One of the few good things that came from 2013’s Icepocalypse was a deeper understanding of citrus trees, especially my beloved Buddha’s Hand citron. After a decade of attempts to stave off bloom and fruit drop, December 2014 gave up three full-sized and completely ripe Cthulhufruit, and the greenhouse is currently full of blooms for this year’s crop. The trick, which hasn’t shown up in any citrus guide I’ve encountered in the last ten years, is that Buddha’s Hands require much more humidity than most citrus trees. Mexican limes and Meyer lemons thrive in Dallas levels of low humidity in spring and summer, but Cthulhufruit requires humidity that only rarely goes below 60 percent. Once I understood that, well, that promise of homemade Cthulhufruit bars becomes more plausible every winter, and maybe even in time for Cephalopodmas. And so it goes.

The Triffid Ranch On The Road: With the Fangirls

So there I was, week before last, frantically getting plants repotted for the big Texas Frightmare Weekend show at DFW Airport. Literally up to my my armpits in sphagnum moss, both milled and long-fiber. Lighting tiki torches and stabbing them in the garden not out of any hint of stylishness, but in a desperate hope that low-flying mosquitoes might catch afire and crash before they could drain my last few thimbles of blood. In all of this, I get a message from a friend asking “Would you be interested in a radio interview?” Amidst the screams of flaming mosquitoes and the gaseous burble of rehydrating sphagnum moss,  I game her the only answer I could: “If I nail a duck’s foot down, does he waddle in circles?”

That’s the short version of how I ended up on the “Fangirls: Dames of the Round Table” show on Deep Ellum On Air on the last weekend of April. I won’t even start with the by-now expected sight of my spending early Sunday morning catching rainwater during another rare cloudburst. Suffice to say, that’s how I ended up in Deep Ellum on a Sunday afternoon with tubs of carnivorous plants, wondering “Do I look as strange hauling tubs of Sarracenia flava as I feel?” If the answer had been anything but “Yes,” I’d have been worried.

Fangirls of the Round Table

Now, after a few years of television, newspaper, and radio interviews, you’d think I’d have been prepared for oddness. What I wasn’t expecting was the long-running tradition of the Fangirls to show off their costuming skills. Or, I should say, I wasn’t expecting multiple interpretations of Dr. Pamela Isley, better known to comics enthusiasts as the Batman villain Poison Ivy. This was more than fair: I’d ingested and inhaled enough peat moss that morning that I felt like AJason Woodrue.

Fangirls of the Round Table

The cross-pollination started early, after meeting Natalie in her lab coat. That, naturally, was my opportunity to ask her if she’d heard the song “Lab Coat” by the immortal New Orleans lab rock band The Consortium of Genius. And it only got going after that. By the time the actual interview got started, we’d already gone through a good dozen different odd subjects, including asking “Do you mind if we fed the ants on your tubs to the plants?”

Fangirls of the Round Table

Fangirls of the Round Table

Fangirls of the Round Table

In the end, everything turned out incredibly well, with all four going home with their own carnivores and my offering that if they needed more plant geekiness, I’d be there. (Among other things, Hillary, our board operator, was blown away by the idea of “Cthulhufruit“, so I may have to bring out a few when the Buddha’s Hand citron in the greenhouse ripens the half-dozen fruit on it right now.) If you need a dose of four brilliant women and an utter spastic discussing exotic flora, check out the video below, but be warned. I have a voice that Fran Drescher finds nasal and annoying.

Fangirls: Dames of the Roundtable 4-27 by DeepEllumOnAir

Autumn serendipity

In the house, it may be spring cleaning, but the best time to clean out the greenhouse from stem to stern is in autumn. Well, it is in Texas, where we’re still seeing temperatures considered “balmy” in higher latitudes. It’s warm enough that I can clear out all of the tropical plants, check for spots that need to be clipped, and set them outside for a few hours , but it’s also cool enough that the usual pests are at a minimum. After this year’s horrible mosquito season, I enjoy any day where the smell of citronella tiki torch oil doesn’t get into my pores.

This sudden stripdown and rebuild was particularly important, as the greenhouse was underneath an aging and rapidly dying silverleaf maple, Silverleaf maples were a rather popular addition to many North Texas suburbs forty years ago, where they promised rapid growth and extensive shade. Well, both are true, but they also live about as long as our indigenous cottonwoods, and anybody in the area knows that you never want to encourage cottonwoods in your back yard. This silverleaf offered plenty of shade for the first two years we were here, but it was obvious that it was having problems after last year’s drought, where its companion planting didn’t make it. The tornadoes in April only compounded matters, and it’s now become a wreck. The tree’s heartwood is now nothing but punk wood and fungus, the dead branches produce a never-ending fall of sawdust from boring beetles, and the live ones threaten to fall if you look at them cross-eyed. I regret not being able to leave it alone, but either it comes down, or it takes the whole adjoining house with it, and possibly a neighbor’s house as well. Sic transit gloria.

In order for the tree to come down, the greenhouse had to come down and relocate, and that’s where the joy came in. Last summer, I learned exactly why nobody ever uses citrus wood when examining my Buddha’s Hand citron: one of the branches that died during the 2011 freeze had sprouted a single water shoot before it expired, and now the rather larger branch was hanging onto its roots by a sliver of tissue and a handful of dry rot. Pull out the rooting hormone, starter trays, and lots of rich potting mix, and start setting cuttings. Surprisingly, more cuttings survived than died, and if the state department of agriculture gives a full approval that these are disease-free, they might be up for sale within the state of Texas next year. Of course, that’s also dependent upon what sort of winter we have this year, so I’m not saying anything else.

No, the real surprise was getting ready to pitch a flat of presumably dead seeds and seeing a flash of green. Last spring, I purchased a set of seeds for Roridula gorgonias, a singular carnivorous plant from South Africa. Both species of Roridula look like gigantic sundews, but they can’t absorb nutrients directly from the insects and other animals they capture. Instead, in their native biomes, they depend upon a symbiotic relationship with an indigenous ambush bug, where the bug feeds on the prey, it defecates on the leaves, and the plant absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces via special channels in its leaves. I’d had suspicions that established plants would do very well in the Dallas area, but the problem was getting established plants. Repeated attempts with seeds, both in standard peat mixes for carnivores and in peat mixes exposed to smoke, did no good, and I was about ready to give up.

It turns out that I was just a bit premature. This latest batch hadn’t sprouted at all over the spring or summer, but it finally started germinating in November. The trick, apparently, is both to expose the seeds to high heat (daytime highs above 40 degrees C) and to let the soil mix dry out for a week. The seedlings, obviously, can’t handle complete dryness, but they apparently need much drier conditions than in a standard germination flat to get established. I’ll try some experiments this winter, but between this and the sudden cold front we had two weeks ago, something set off the little monsters.

In the meantime, I understand all too well why Chinese panda breeders refuse to name a baby panda until its eyes open, because the mortality rate among infant giant pandas is so high. Hence, no pictures until we get the first full set of true leaves. That may happen before we know it, but you won’t know if the seedlings suddenly succumb to fungus. If they take off, though…

More fun with Cthulhufruit

In other developments, I’ve discovered some very interesting things about the Buddha’s Hand citron, Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, and its proper propagation in Texas. I already knew that to encourage blooming in spring, it had to be protected from excessive light at night, such as from streetlights and back porch lights. A bit of nighttime shade from a new fence, and it promptly started blooming. What I didn’t know was that Dallas isn’t known for its lack of citrus trees just because of our occasional cold winters. While this doesn’t stop kumquats, grapefruit, or lemons, our poor Cthulhufruit needs much higher humidity, and more stable high humidity, in order to keep it from dropping immature fruit.

Yeah, this was all learned by accident, when I came across a brand new fruit, about the size of my thumb, on the poor little recovering tree. A quick search revealed four fruits at varying stages of growth. That’s when I made my other big discovery. Most books and references on citrus treat Buddha’s Hand trees spend maybe a paragraph or two on Cthulhufruit before moving on to more respectable trees, usually with a snippy aside of “Only grown as a novelty” or something similar. A few might mention that the fruit comes in two forms, the “closed hand” and the “open hand”, with the latter generally commercially known as “goblin fingers”. NOWHERE does anybody say ANYTHING about how this isn’t a difference between different cultivars of C. medica var. sarcodactylis, but instead a difference in relative humidity during the early development of the fruit.

Naturally, I was thrilled with the developments, and made tentative plans for the ripened fruits come winter. That’s when the tree said “Oh, HELL no,” and dropped one of the goblin finger fruits.

Immature Cthulhufruit

Was this disappointing? Yes. Was this aggravating? Definitely. It didn’t stop me. A good healthy dose of fresh bat guano to feed the tree, and that dropped budlet became a perfect little LOLPlant:

Let Cthulhufruit give you the finger

Now you know why I’m so fond of Buddha’s Hands. The local gardening clubs look at me the way citrus writers look at them.

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”.

Lovecraft’s Birthday

Saturday, August 20 is the 121st birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, possibly one of the most influential American writers of the last century. Not only has his unique contributions done for horror fiction what van Gogh did for painting, but his work is distinct enough that the adjective “Lovecraftian” is used by people completely unfamiliar with his stories. (One day, I”ll make sure that “Leiberesque” gets the same use, but I’m still working on it.)

I also have a personal interest in “Grandpa Theobald,” as he called himself, as he’s a distant relative on my mother’s side of the family. In fact, if I’d been just one more week premature, I’d share a birthday with him instead of with Glen Matlock. (Hell, if I’d been a few hours more premature, I’d be exactly the same age as Shirley Manson. How’s that for a bummer?) Ergo, that love of the unknown goes back a little ways.

In tribute to my famed cousin, and in hopes of fending off heat-stress psychosis, it may be time for a trip to the garden center to make a Lovecraft-themed garden. Obviously, I already have a Buddha’s Hand citron, and I’m currently checking with a source further south for those seeking one of these beautiful trees in Texas. Carnivores are an obvious choice, especially with the cultivars named after HPL’s characters, and then we have the succulents. If you’re in the need for something that really stretches the meaning of the term “Lovecraftian”, may I recommend giving a hand to a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) or a rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)?

The Liveliest Awfulness of dessert

On a sideline, I’ve been working on additional recipes using Buddha’s Hand citron, also known as “Cthulhufruit“. I’ve learned several very valuable lessons from one such experiment conducted this weekend:

Numero Uno: Soaking sliced Cthulhufruit in good vodka (I highly recommend Dripping Springs) produces a very good sipping vodka, but some of the better nuances of the extract don’t survive baking.

Numero Two-o: It’s possible to add Cthulhufruit extract to standard Key lime bar mixes, but one day I’m going to have to make my own batch of Cthulhufruit bars from scratch.

Numero Three-o: Only in a universe that regularly uses non-Euclidean geometry can one box of Key lime bar mix produce 16 bars, even if they’re the size of a postage stamp.

Numero Four-o: The Square-Cube Law applies when you use two boxes of Key lime bar mix. 30 minutes’ baking won’t cut it.

Numero Five-o: Not paying attention to the Square-Cube Law doesn’t produce bad Cthulhufruit bars. It just produces bars that are a little too goopy for consumption by hand. However, heated up slightly, the mix is spectacular atop good French vanilla ice cream. Ergo, I have no worries about it going to waste. Anyone want a fresh batch of Cthulhufruit cobbler for H.P. Lovecraft‘s 121st birthday this August 20?