Tag Archives: green harlots

Introducing Stylidium debile

When I started studying carnivorous plants nearly a decade ago, I had no idea as to the level of trouble I was going to get into by now. I could count the number of carnivorous genera on my hands, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too hard to master these, would it? Nine years and seven months after I saw my first Sarracenia purpurea in the wild, this has become the hobby with no end. When I tell new beginners that this is one of the wildest periods of research into carnivores since the Victorian Period, I’m not exaggerating. New species, new genera, new hybrids, newly observed behavior…and all taking advantage of the great and mighty Interwebs to disseminate that information.

It’s that great research tool that first introduced me to Ryan Kitko and the genus Stylidium, and I’ll owe Ryan for the rest of my life for his gentle tap on the shoulder and redirection. In particular, I owe Ryan for introducing me to the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, because this little monster quite literally changed my life even further. I don’t want just to visit Australia to see the vast majority of known Australian species. I want to see the ones in Japan and Tierra del Fuego to see their indigenous species, too.

Stylidium debile

Experts still argue as to whether triggerplants qualify as full carnivorous plants, or whether they should be shoved into the taxonomic dustbin known as “protocarnivorous”. They have the ability to capture prey via sticky threads on their flower scapes, and they definitely secrete the digestive enzyme protease. Part of the issue seems to be that triggerplants seem only to be carnivorous during their blooming season. The rest of the year, they’re about as carnivorous as a rose. The carnivorous aspect of the blooms, understandably, is outshone by the reasons for the common name for Stylidium. Yes, the flower scapes can snag tiny insect prey, but so can many other species of carnivore. How many carnivores have a column between their blooms’ petals that thwack insects with pollen?

While the common name “frail triggerplant” may scare beginners, I assure you that this refers to the thin, wiry flower scapes, and not to its being overly delicate. As an introduction to triggerplants, S. debile can’t be beaten. I mean this almost literally. So long as its growing medium never dries out, it keeps growing. It seems to bloom the moment the temperatures rise enough to allow growth, and it keeps blooming until the first serious freeze. Its pot freezes solid, as what happened with a batch of them during the big Dallas blizzard of February 2011, and it comes back in spring. It readily sprouts from roots, so its container rapidly fills with its distinctive ground cover. It chokes out most weeds, and crowds the roots of most others if given a chance. If its pot has any light leakage at all, those leaks are filled with new plantlets. During the worst of last year’s head and lack of humidity, when even the horsecrippler cactus were ailing, the S. debile pots were full of happy, steadily blooming plants that only had issues if the pot went dry for too long. And then you have those tiny hot pink blooms with yellow centers, just waiting for bugs to land on top so the column could whip forward and smack them with pollen.

Stylidium debile buds

Another common question I’m asked, half in jest, is “Do you have any real triffids?” (For the record, this is matched in the number of times it’s asked with “Do you have a plant that can eat an ex-husband/ex-wife?”) While John Wyndham’s carnivorous perambulatory flora are fictional, the triffid’s venomous sting actually has a slight parallel with the triggerplants’ columns. When set off, S. debile actually causes a bit of a disconnect. You see the column locked back in its “ready” state, and then see it touching the bug or intruding finger, but without seeing the transitional swing to get from Point A to Point B. A friend holding one of my first triggerplant clumps was so freaked out when she realized this that she dropped the pot, and I really couldn’t blame her.

Stylidium debile blooms

Other than the necessity of keeping the potting mix moist, S. debile is one of the most undemanding carnivorous or protocarnivorous plants you can keep. It thrives in full sun and partial shade, although it keeps blooming all year if given full sun. It can be left outdoors, in a windowsill pot, or kept in a well-lit terrarium. It doesn’t freak out and die if given a small bit of liquid fertilizer every month or so, and it’s relatively nonplussed as to water quality compared to most other carnivores. I don’t recommend it as a staple, especially during the summer, but it can tolerate the occasional watering with Dallas municipal water. It keeps growing under high humidity and dangerously low, during air quality alert days, and any plants that die off are rapidly replaced by new offshoots from the roots. In the six years since Ryan gave me my first plant, I have yet to see a single pest attack it, not even a green cabbage looper or stink bug. It even seems to repel squirrels, as I’ve come home to discover treerat rampages among the Sarracenia pitchers and the flytraps that left the triggerplants untouched. I keep mine in equal parts peat and sharp sand, and propagation consists of pulling the root ball from the pot, tearing or cutting it into chunks, and potting each new chunk in fresh peat. Best of all, when kids at shows ask me if they can set off the flytraps’ traps in order to watch them close, I instead show them the triggerplants and tell them “Here: setting these off won’t hurt a thing.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go bug Ryan about other triggerplants. I keep telling him that it’s no coincidence that my favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”, because I can look over my pots of S. debile and tell myself, honestly and truly, that I will NEVER get tired of them.

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.

Review: Vanilla Orchids by Ken Cameron

(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.)

Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron
ISBN-10: 0881929891
ISBN-13: 9780881929898
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2011
Pages: 212
Language: English

Many writers have particular phrases or literary misuses that drive them insane. Using the word “penultimate” to mean “even bigger than ultimate,” for instance, or the word “hater” used for any commentary on a person or subject that’s anything but utterly sycophantic. I have two. The most obvious, considering my background, is the description of any old, obsolete, or hidebound person or concept as a “dinosaur”. It’s not because I’m one of those humorless pedants who nerks “Well, you know, dinosaurs were dominant lifeforms on this planet for 130 million years,” but because it’s simplistic. Sadly, my suggestions on expanding our vocabularies by comparing anachronisms to arsinoitheres, anomalocarids, or arthrodires go over about as well as my recipes for venison sorbet.

The other? Describing any bland, blah, boring, or blase item as “vanilla”. Vanilla: the one flavor in Neopolitan ice cream packages that’s left for last, because it’s supposed to be “plain”. Artificial vanilla extract in cupcakes and bad supermarket bakery cookies. Nilla Wafers. George Romero’s second movie. All of which are revealed as blatant lies the moment you smell a properly cured vanilla bean for the first time and realize exactly how subtle yet complex real vanilla can be.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the difference between vanilla and vanillin. Vanillin, while one of the main aromatic components in vanilla extract, is actually a compound found in many plants. To give an example of how common vanillin is, you may or may not remember the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry given to Mayu Yamamoto for his method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. Vanillin production is also a first-year organic chemistry stunt, thus inadvertently contributing to the stigma against vanilla proper.

It’s bad enough that vanilla as a flavoring is now downplayed as mundane and wallflowerish. We forget how this spice became one of the most valuable and important spices on the planet. Never mind that chocolate as we know it today would be far too bitter without the proper and precise application of vanilla. Walk through any perfume counter in any department store after smelling a well-cured vanilla bean and note how most of the world’s most popular and successful perfumes depend upon vanilla’s long-lasting notes. The real stuff pops, but we’re so overwhelmed with cheap imitations that we barely notice unless we take the time.

And then there’s the orchid that produces this miracle. All commercial vanilla production comes from one species (Vanilla planiflora) and one natural hybrid (Vanilla x. tahitiensis). With the exception of salep, vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid food product, and about all that’s shared is a vague picture of an orchid on “French Vanilla” ice cream and the like. Most people are in shock when they discover that vanilla comes from an orchid, and even orchid enthusiasts have rarely seen members of the genus Vanilla. Most orchid books include Vanilla planiflora as an afterthought, mentioning vaguely that it produces vines a bit like Vanda orchids, and that “if they bloom, pollinate the blooms by hand to produce your own vanilla.”

A few months back, I saw a collection of rather ratty Vanilla orchids on sale in a Dallas garden center with that advice, and I scared several potential customers with my laughter. (Of course, I’d been laughing for a while, especially since this same garden center was advising Venus flytrap owners that they could remove minerals from Dallas tap water by letting it stand out overnight. If my smile makes people suddenly regret leaving Ripley and Parker to look for the ship’s cat, what does my laughter do, I wonder?) If you want to see vanilla orchids in action, go to Gunter’s Greenhouse in Richardson, Texas especially when the store hosts its spring open house and the orchids are in bloom. The back greenhouse has a big V. x tahitiensis on display, and the vines are as big around as a man’s leg. Very seriously, this beast is supported with repurposed cable racks previously used for lugging telephone cables, and I don’t think anything less could support the mass. To Gunter’s credit (and I say this as someone in perpetual awe and jealousy of the greenhouse’s crew of orchid geniuses), this one blooms prodigiously and extensively, but the idea of the average Park Cities gardening dilletante growing one, much less getting it to bloom, is just silly.

Again, at this point, this is where most orchid books and references stop. Outside of V. planiflora, all discussion on Vanilla orchids just stops. Nobody discusses the other species found in the Americas, or the wideranging ones from the Old World. Nobody discusses how the genus Vanilla contains some of the only vining orchids known. Nobody talks about relationships with other orchids, or how V. planiflora may have been domesticated in the first place, or the tremendous debt our culture owes this undeservedly obscure genus.

This is where Ken Cameron walks in. This isn’t a popular account of the history of vanilla, as in the case of Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. This is precisely what orchid enthusiasts and researchers need: a good, thorough view of the natural history of the entire genus, from a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for discovery but who also doesn’t go overboard. Discovering, for instance, that Vanilla is related to basal orchids suggests, as Professor Cameron notes herein, that the whole group may have been much more extensive in the distant past than today. Considering that orchids were almost definitely a component in Cretaceous flora, then this gives a whole new aspect to palaeontological art, as well as to anyone designing prehistoric gardens. I don’t think we’re going to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta adding Vanilla orchids to its Cretaceous Garden, but this news might influence someone else to give Vanilla and close cousins from New Caledonia a good shot.

I know this is getting tiring, but more kudos to Timber Press for offering this book. Considering how Vanilla information is neglected by both orchid references and food guides, the cliche “essential reading” actually applies in this case. The Czarina has been hinting at starting a Tahitian vanilla vine for a while, and finally I feel confident enough in knowing the plant’s needs that it might not be a complete pipe dream. Some day this year, I’m going to walk into Gunter’s, walk up to that monstrous V. x tahitiensis, and give them the magic request of “Give me three feet.” (Now, if you buy this book, you’ll know that growing most Vanilla from seed is extremely difficult, and that the vines usually reproduce themselves when they fall from trees and break apart. We’re talking orchids that might actually require machetes to keep under control. How could you go back to raising Cattleya orchids after learning that?)

The definition of insanity

Okay, so last year’s seed experimentation didn’t work quite as well as I’d thought. Of course, you try predicting a “drought of record” back last January. Looking at the list of floral experiments from 2011, and it’s only slightly less painful than Bhut Jolokia-based jock itch creme. (Interestingly, the Bhut Jolokia plants were some of the only successes in 2011, and they’re going to make spectacular bonsai this summer.) Triggerplants, Nepenthes, Sarracenia, Drosera…on and on and on.

One of the learning-experience projects involved trying to see if the South African protocarnivore Roridula will do well in Texas. For those unfamiliar with the genus, Roridula superficially resembles a sundew or rainbow plant, in that its leaves are covered with sticky adhesive threads intended for trapping insect prey. The difference between the two species of Roridula and all other known species of sticky-leaf carnivore is that Roridula secretes resin instead of mucilage as its trapping adhesive, and digestive enzymes can’t pass through the resin. In the wild, Roridula compensates for this with a symbiotic relationship with at least one native species of ambush bug. The plant traps prey which is then fed upon by the ambush bugs, and the ambush bugs reciprocate by defecating on the plant’s leaves. The leaves have special channels intended to capture said feces, so it’s carnivorous by proxy thanks to that foliar feeding. Considering that stories circulate about the larger species of Roridula, R. gorgonias, capturing small birds, both bugs and plants seem to flourish under this relationship.

Not that I’m wanting the ambush bugs (although I’m intrigued as to whether Texas-native ambush bugs, such as our famed wheel bug, might fill the niche), but I’m very curious as to how well either Roridula species might do in Dallas once established. Hence, I ordered a small bundle of seeds of R. gorgonias and sowed them under recommended soil and light conditions. Unfortunately, this was right about the time the drought really set in and the relative humidity came awfully close to negative numbers, so no seedlings. I still have hope, though, that maybe the seeds needed a bit of cold treatment, so the pots remain outside for the winter, and if they don’t sprout by May, then I’ll give it up as a bad experiment.

The real danger is with doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. As Mark Twain told us, that’s the definition of insanity. That’s also the definition of gardening. Since the cold outdoors is just enough to make me a bit stir-crazy, it was time to put in an order with Silverhill Seeds in Cape Town and see how well the smaller species, R. dentata, might do this summer. Results to follow.

A hint of Stylidium debile

Five years ago, Ryan Kitko, a man I look upon as my smarter younger brother, first introduced me to the awe and wonder that encompasses the triggerplants. Some may argue as to whether or not the members of the genus Stylidium are carnivorous or merely protocarnivorous: all I can tell you is that the the multitude of tiny wasps and mites found caught on sticky threads on triggerplant flower scapes certainly don’t fuss about it. They’re too busy being dead.

Anyway, as usual, Ryan stirs me to action: he’s currently sharing pictures of the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, in his greenhouse. I was already planning to update plant care sheets on the main Triffid Ranch site on S. debile, and this encourages me to get those done and write a bit more about this nearly indestructible species. So long as the soil doesn’t go completely dry, S. debile is nearly impossible to kill. It can survive heat that can fell a mesquite tree, days of sub-freezing cold, hailstorms, gullywasher thunderstorms, extremes in high and low humidity, and even the gentle ministrations of squirrels, rats, opossums, and armadillos. It makes an incredible container plant, and neglecting and abusing it only makes it grow more luxuriantly and bloom more prodigiously. I can’t recommend the little monster highly enough: for me, it’s the anti-Venus flytrap, and one of the best beginner carnivorous plants you can ever receive. Thank you for introducing me to them, Ryan.

Ah, Nepenthes

Nepenthes pitcher plants are on my mind as of the last week, and not just because I’m researching plans for a new greenhouse. (The Czarina offered last year to build a new Nepenthes greenhouse, and not just so she can demonstrate that the claw hammers in the house get used on something besides my head. She one with a bungee cord wrapped around it that she calls “Mjolnir”, and you’d swear that she can throw it around corners.) Last year’s drought still hasn’t ended, we’re not exactly looking as if we’re going to repeat 1990’s or 2007’s record rainfalls, and I’m in need of a new growing area that maximizes humidity without drying up a municipal reservoir to do so. I’m also looking for something that’s not too big and not too small, but juuuuuuust right.

All of the carnivores suffered last year from North Texas’s ridiculously low humidity, but the poor Nepenthes just looked ridiculous. As a rule, both lowland and highland Nepenthes can squeak by with average daily humidity going above 50 percent, with their producing larger and more elaborate pitchers the closer the relative humidity goes to “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on”. This is why I’m viciously jealous of Hawaiian Nepenthes growers, and it’s not helped by the Czarina hinting that we could always set up shop in Galveston. Dallas’s air may be a bit thicker than it was when another resident with lung issues moved here, but it’s not sopping wet enough to keep the Nepenthes outdoors, much to my regret.

And the history of the genus keeps getting more interesting. Longterm carnivorous plant enthusiasts may be familiar with the Nepenthes “Queen of Hearts” introduced by the wonderful folks at Borneo Exotics, but not know much more than the basics about it. Well, it turns out that “Queen of Hearts”, cultivated from seed saved from a cleared forest in the Philippines, is a new species now named Nepenthes robcantleyi.

As is the case with many Nepenthes species, N. robcantleyi may be extinct in the wild, or examples may still be available in hidden areas of Mindanao. Fellow carnivore enthusiast François Sockhom Mey is keeping closer tabs on developments than I could, so I refer you to him. From this hemisphere, though, it’s time to get that greenhouse built, because I will have one on display by the time the decade is over.

The Drooling Sundew

Contrary to the opinion of random passersby who want to come by at all hours “to look at the plants,” the Triffid Ranch isn’t a full-time operation. Oh, it’s a full-time operation, but it’s not the only jobs we hold. Especially during the winter, when all of the temperate carnivores are dormant and the tropical carnivores are resting, having a standard day job like everyone else is a necessity. Among other things, the day job provides health insurance, a steady background income, and a surplus of scintillant conversation from my co-workers. And no, I’m not exaggerating, because I work with a crew of truly unique talents, and we literally have no idea how much our mutual experiences can benefit the other. Ask the engineers circling the coffee machine about their weekends, and the responses sound more like plotlines to a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Anyway, compared to the professional musicians, semi-pro glassworkers, and enthusiastic amateur knifesmiths on board, my passion for carnivorous plants marks me as one of the Quiet Ones, and not the oddball in the back corner of the office who isn’t trying to drink himself to death every night. (And yes, I’ve worked in that sort of office. Remind me to tell you about my days working at Sprint one time.) Every once in a great while, though, I can fend for myself, and sometimes even bring something to the lunch discussions that leads to a good bout of Head Explodey.

By way of example, I recently brought a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to its current space in my cubicle, mostly because it was a needed touch of green next to a window full of brown. No, let’s be honest: BROWN. Even before the current freezing nights hit, everything was a uniform blasted tan out the office window from the drought, and it was about as pathetic and depressing as a Firefly marathon on SyFy. Indoors, under a good stout 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in a desk lamp, that sundew promptly perked up and started throwing off new leaves, and I fully expect for it to demand full rights from the UN by spring.

That little sprig of green got more than a few questions from co-workers and project managers, and the first question was “When are you going to feed it?” Since I knew that they’d be less than thrilled by my bringing in a tube of wingless fruit flies, I decided to demonstrate the one commonality between carnivorous plant and human: an appreciation for chocolate.

In his classic volume Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin understandably went a little crazy in his enthusiasm over Drosera of all sorts. This book details most of his experiments in understanding sundew mechanics and responses, and he discovered that sundews respond to two different stimuli in different ways. Firstly, the long sticky hairs (officially called “tentacles”) were sensory hairs in that they picked up the movement of prey caught in their glue, and consistent movement of one tentacle caused others in its vicinity to converge on the area, further trapping that prey. Secondly, specialized glands at the tip of each tentacle could ascertain the relative nitrogen content of the item trapped. If the stimulus was something relatively non-nitrogenous, such as a grass stem rubbing against the sundew’s leaf, the tentacles might respond, but the plant wouldn’t try to digest the intrusion. If the stimulus was high in available nitrogen but unmoving, such as a dead bug landing on the leaf, the tentacles wouldn’t respond right away, but they’d ultimately detect the morsel and move to claim it. And chocolate? It’s sufficiently nitrogenous that a sundew might mistake small pieces for gnats or other tiny insects, but without rotting or growing mold while digestion took place.

One of the reasons why D. capensis is perfect for this demonstration is that it’s one sundew that’s singularly enthusiastic in its feeding response. It doesn’t close on prey as quickly as some Drosera species, but its entire trapping surface wraps around prey, sometimes completely surrounding it. Even better, D. capensis‘s output of digestive enzymes is not just visible to the naked eye, but it’s voluminous. Put a mosquito on a Cape sundew leaf, and you get more puddling drool than a doorbell in the Pavlov house.

Anyway, since one of my favorite co-workers asked to see sundew trapping behavior, I pulled some leftover dark chocolate Halloween candy from the department stash (since it’s in a Halloween cardboard display, it’s referred to as “the candy coffin”), scraped off some crumbs, and sprinkled them on the sundew’s leaves. She was a bit disappointed by the immediate response, as she expected something more energetic. “Patience,” I said, “you have to give it some time. If that chocolate was moving, we’d see much faster movement, but it’s still not something you can see in a few seconds.” We left it alone and continued through the day, checking back every once in a while to verify the chocolate’s status.

This morning, my friend came in shortly after I did, and immediately visited the sundew. That’s when she viewed this.

Drooling Cape sundew (Drosera capensis)

Another reason why Cape sundews are great subjects to demonstrate active trapping behavior is that they’re extremely active compared to many other good beginner’s sundews. Note the several folded leaves, where the trapping surface actually folded in half to surround the chocolate. Even better, notice the one on the right that’s curled like a fern fiddleback? That one caught a chocolate crumb near its tip, and the shine down the leaf is digestive fluid. Yes, like most people, Cape sundews drool like fiends when given chocolate.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: I do NOT advocate feeding Cape sundews chocolate on a regular basis, and I definitely don’t recommend it at all for most sundew species. Don’t even think of doing it for most other carnivores. More importantly, as with people, the best results with sundews come from reasonably fresh dark chocolate, so spare the poor plant that dried-up Hershey’s bar that’s been in your desk since 1998. Absolutely importantly, keep the feeding to crumbs: your plant and your co-workers will hate you if you drop a whole Godiva’s truffle in the sundew’s container. As for everything else, anyone have any high school-age kids who want a science fair experiment on sundew sensitivity to different varieties and brands of chocolate?

Discovery Days: The Final Assessment

Last weekend, the folks at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park were considerate enough to invite the Triffid Ranch to display plants at its regular Discovery Days event on reptiles and other critters. This year, the “other critters” extended to flora, both by showing off carnivores that live in symbiosis with various reptiles and amphibians (in particular, a big display of Nepenthes ampullaria, based on its relationship with the frog Microhyla nepenthicola), so it was time to show off temperate carnivores before they went into winter hibernation and tropical carnivores before the new greenhouse goes up. Naturally, the Czarina wanted pictures.

"Introducing Carnivorous Plants" banner

The first sign that We Have Arrived: a literal sign stating who, why, and where. It’s probably time to write up a standard lecture rider that explains what we need at shows, probably plagiarizing heavily from Iggy Pop’s standard concert rider.

Bob the Builder

Being right next door to the “Bob the Builder” traveling exhibition meant that this guy right here was my nemesis and my salvation. “Nemesis” as in how every child under a certain age (I suspect below retirement age) wanted to drag Mom and Dad inside to see Bob, and “salvation” in that the kids and parents all went nuts over plants after they’d received their Bob fixes. The little disc at Bob’s feet was a motion sensor that normally set off one of three different affirmative comments. Apparently, so many little feet had tromped on it that the sound card went off randomly, and then it stopped working entirely by Saturday evening. I didn’t want to ruin the fun for the kids coming out to see Bob and Pilchard, so I filled in for that wayward sound card with the expected Canadian twist. Every kid should learn “Remember, if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy,” right?

The Texas Triffid Ranch at the MNS Discovery Days

A basic cross-section of carnivores and containers for display, along with a particularly ugly brute brought in to haul the big hexagon tank and scare wasps away from the pitcher plants. That beast could make a sundial run backwards, couldn’t he?

Paul

“Just because I only have nine fingers doesn’t mean my name is ‘Frodo’.”

Carnivorous plant books

Accompanying the main display was an additional table, giving plenty of room to show off a cross-section of the best books on carnivorous plants on the market today.

Magazines

The two magazines in the Riddell household that get read first, without question.

Paul

We were located right around the corner from a display demonstrating the fluorescence of scorpions. “Twenty bucks says I can hit the back wall with the next sneeze. Thirty if I replace the scorpion with a cockroach.”

And before anyone asks, yes, I’ll gleefully return for next year’s Discovery Days, or any other event held by the Museum that requests my presence. This was just too much fun.

Contest: Anyone want a free FenCon three-day pass?

Okay, so FenCon VIII is only 16 days away, and the Triffid Ranch booth in the dealer’s room should be quite full. At least, that’s the idea, and the variety of plants available depends upon whether or not our relative humidity (currently running about 15 percent) ever goes up. When the humidity is this low, the Sarracenia can photosynthesize or they can grow, but they generally can’t do both.

Anyway. One of the issues with holding a plant show at a science fiction convention lies with people either unfamiliar or uninterested in the rest of the festivities. Either potential Triffid Ranch visitors are understandably unsure as to whether they’d have the time or the inclination to get their money’s worth out of a day pass, or they’d prefer to put the money for a badge into plants. At the same time, the crew at FenCon has been very good to the Triffid Ranch crew for the last three years, and I’d like to return the favor and make sure that the convention continues to run for a very long time. (I’ve let loose so many mea culpas over my initial suspicions about the viability of the convention that I went hoarse in 2008, and I’m very glad to see it finishing up its first decade.)

So here’s the deal. I currently have one three-day regular membership at FenCon VIII, a $40 value, reserved for one lucky individual. In order to sweeten the pot, four other participants will win Joey Boxes. All you need to do is:

  • Numero Uno: Come up with a plausible story as to why you could best use this membership. You’ve never been to a convention in your life, but would be willing to give it a shot. You’re normally a regular, but finances got in the way. You’re going to be in Dallas that weekend anyway, and you want to do something more entertaining than wandering around Dealey Plaza all Saturday. You’ve been wanting to see carnivorous plants for your entire life, and your head will explode if you can’t see a Nepenthes for yourself. You don’t believe the stories about the Czarina’s elbows, and want to witness them sliding from their sheathes and drooling venom on the carpet all for yourself. If you don’t have a plausible story, lie, but be entertaining about it.
  • Numero Two-o: No matter the story, get it under 500 words.
  • Numero Three-o: Send it in to contest @ txtriffidranch dot com before midnight on September 12, 2011.
  • Numero Four-o: Before sending it in, include a name and contact address, so that a custom admission badge will be ready for you at the convention.

In return, here are the restrictions:

  • Only one entry per person and/or E-mail address. If you want to stuff the box, knock yourself out, but you’re going to need more than one story.
  • This membership may not be exchanged for cash or for any other item in the Triffid Ranch inventory. The membership is non-transferrable, except at the sole discretion of FenCon management. If you can’t make it to the convention, you have the option of asking for a Joey Box instead, and the membership will be offered to the runner-up.
  • The judges’ decision will be final. One grand prize of one (1) FenCon VIII regular membership and four (4) Joey Box packages will be given during this contest, based on the judges’ decisions.
  • The winner will be responsible for the cost of travel to and from the convention, as well as for accomodations. Any requests or demands for the Texas Triffid Ranch to cover hotel reservations, food, transport, or any other costs, other than any agreed to by both parties in writing, will both be denied and openly and publicly mocked.
  • The Texas Triffid Ranch will not be held liable for any damages or liabilities, including injury or financial loss, incurred by the winner at the convention. In other words, should you do something really, um, interesting, don’t call us for bail money.
  • All entries become the sole property of the Texas Triffid Ranch, and they may be shared on the main Web site or on this blog at any time. In fact, bet on it. (If you don’t want to share your name with the general public, just say so with your entry.)

And so it begins. If you can’t make it, please feel free to pass on word to friends and cohorts. If you can, get in your entry by midnight next Monday morning, and pull your 300-pound Samoan attorney out of storage. For this weekend, you’re going to need him.

A death in the family

The summer has been rough on all of the plants, and a few casualties were inevitable. Sadly, one of the most poignant for me was the death of the Nepenthes hamata I recently purchased from Sarracenia Northwest. The next time I try this, I’m getting a full air chiller system: it was handling daytime temperatures for the most part, but the house was just getting too warm during the day and wasn’t cooling off enough at night for it. It’s for the best that the Czarina didn’t see my reaction when I discovered it this morning: the last time she’d seen me cry like that, I was watching the end of Alien, when the only well-developed character in the movie besides the cat was blown out the airlock.

“Civil behavior must be rewarded, Captain, or else there’s no use for it.”

You have to love the Internet. Fifteen years ago, most people had never heard of the famed corpse flower Amorphophallus titanum, and advance notice on one blooming in captivity usually arrived after the bloom had shriveled and collapsed. Now, the biggest surprise is how many A. titanum specimens are in captivity in the United States alone. I somehow have this image of corpse flower groupies, traveling the country in old Volkswagen Microbuses like Grateful Dead fans, somehow scraping together enough money to make it to the next blooming before it’s gone.

Anyway, the latest news on A. titanum doesn’t involve a bloom, but rather a companion. The Houston Museum of Natural Science just saw its corpse flower “Lois” bloom, and the Museum just received a donation of a new plant, just starting to sprout. Apparently the new plant needs a name, so the Museum opened up a naming competion. The prize for the winning entry is the usual “bragging rights,” as well as a museum membership and a private tour with the Museum’s horticulturalists.

My only disappointment so far is that some of the suggested names are good and dark, but not good and dark enough. C’mon: “Morticia” and “Wednesday” are okay, but we’re talking about a beast with the common name “corpse flower”. What’s wrong with “Bub”?

“Oh, we have such wonders to show you.”

The Czarina is quite fond of quoting a book by Eric Hansen called Orchid Fever. In it, Hansen describes an orchid enthusiast in Spitzbergen, above the Arctic Circle, who keeps his collection in a well-heated greenhouse during the summer and moves them to a space in the laundry room for the winter. His wife refers to the orchids as “his green harlots,” so the Czarina sympathizes whenever she looks inside the greenhouse.

Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. I mean, I could be like a lot of other husbands. I could insist upon dragging her out into the cold on Sunday mornings in December to watch Dallas Cowboys games. I could pull the bedcovers over her head and then pass gas. I could plan a roadtrip and charge the 300-pound Samoan attorney to her credit card. (I’ll do that with the crocodile monitor, but only when she’s out of town. Once she looks into its beady yellow eyes, she won’t want to send it back, especially if it’s already gotten used to its lizard bed by then.) I just have a rather disturbing addiction to plants that eat flesh, and it’s not like I’m raising opium poppies or making breast milk cheese.

That said, I made the plunge. I have a Nepenthes hamata from Sarracenia Northwest on its way. Where is your God NOW, er, I mean, what can it hurt?