Tag Archives: nepenthes

Enclosures: Hans-Ruedi II (2018)

One of the challenges of working with Nepenthes pitcher plant species that like to vine, particularly ones with heavy vines such as N. bicalcarata, is supplying a suitably strong and visually arresting backdrop to allow proper growth. Armed with a fascination for the New York series of murals by the Swiss surrealist Hans-Ruedi Giger (1940-2014), the final backdrop combines strength, anchor points for bicalcarata vines, and an object lesson in how Giger’s famous biomechanics works implied function and stress loading as much S aesthetics.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 36″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 91.44 cm x 45.72 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes bicalcarata

Construction: polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride hose, polystyrene foam, epoxy putty, silicone.

Price: $300US

Shirt Price: $250US

Upcoming Events – January 2016

lecture_12062015_1Okay, so the holidays are over, and the social calendar is pretty much shot until Groundhog’s Day. (Around here, watching Sid Vicious rise from his grave, look down at his shadow, and realize that he has to wait six more weeks until spring is an essential step toward knowing that winter is finally over.) You’re so burned out from holiday shopping that the thought of going near any crowded retail venue gives you hives, you’ve already seen every movie released into the January Sargasso, and even responded to trailers for the new Warcraft movie with enthusiastic bellows of “LEROOOOOOOY JENKINS!” It’s too cold to go swimming and too warm to go skiing, all of the interesting outdoor activities face horrendous weather at any time, and most indoor events require getting off the sofa, peeling the cats off your feet, and dealing with the same rainstorms, fires, floods, tornadoes, Christmas tree bonfires, and occasional Pearl Jam cover bands that keep you away from outdoor activities. When you’ve seen everything even remotely interesting on NetFlix and you’d sooner read a copy of D magazine than turn on terrestrial radio, what to do?

WELL, you have options, even if you didn’t know it. Make time in the calendar now to be in downtown Dallas on January 22. That evening, from 7 to 11 p.m., the Perot Museum of Nature & Science hosts its regular 21-and-up Social Science late-night event, and this month’s subject is “Glow”. It’s a tie-in to the Creatures of Light exhibition, with the advantage of a cash bar, and it’s already full of activities. The one addition will be a demonstration of fluorescence in carnivorous plants with the help of a trusty shortwave UV lamp, as well as presentations of what fluorescent blooms are available. (Considering that my aloes think that spring is already here, this may or may not include blooms that fluoresce so strongly that the glow hurts your eyes.) Tickets are going fast, so get in while you have the chance.

Incidentally, for those who can’t make it to Social Science, a smaller version of the same presentation will be available at the next Midtown ARTwalk on January 16, so come by for a preview. Either way, it beats staying home to watch Seinfeld reruns, eh?

Introducing “Sid”

Apologies for the quiet around here, but it’s been very busy behind the scenes as of late. Between the cold fronts finally ceasing, which threw the Sarracenia blooming and trap-producing schedule all to pot, lots of propagating and repotting, and the Day Job, sleep is something that exists as a vague concept. It’s all worth it, though, especially after the triggerplants started coming out of winter dormancy, and vending at Texas Frightmare Weekend promises to be the biggest Triffid Ranch show ever.

Anyway, this isn’t the only reason for the radio silence. Please allow me to introduce you to “Sid,” a Nepenthes bicalcarata from lowland Borneo. Sid has lots of hobbies, including photosynthesizing, encouraging ant colonies to live in special chambers in his leaves, and producing traps the size of softballs. Yes, he gets his name from the obvious inspiration, and like his namesake, he’s really quite harmless.
Sid
N. bicalcarata gets its common name “fanged pitcher plant” from the structures inside of each open pitcher. While officially these are called “nectaries”, and they secrete copious amounts of sweet nectar, many Nepenthes species grow structures off the lid or lip of the pitcher for unknown reasons. In N. bicalcarata, while it’s been suggested that its distinctive fangs discourage birds or monkeys from stealing prey out of the traps, the reality is that nobody knows for sure what function the fangs have. Either way, they’re impressive, and as much as I loathe the overused descriptives “needle-sharp” or “razor-sharp” (hearing “razor-sharp” to describe Tyrannosaurus teeth is hysterical, because tyrannosaur teeth have more in common with bananas than razors), getting snagged by a spare nectary isn’t a pleasant experience.

Sid

Anyway, Sid currently resides in a new home, but not in the way anyone expected. Tiffany Franzoni of the exemplary gaming store Roll2Play in Coppell has been a faithful and considerate Triffid Ranch customer for the last seven years, and a move to a larger space gave her room for other attractions and events. She could have gone with an aquarium or vivarium, but she wanted carnivores. Oh, did she want carnivores, but with a very full show schedule, she didn’t have the time to care for them on her own. Perfectly fair, and she also had a taste for carnivores that weren’t exactly for beginners. N. bicalcarata is a fascinating plant, but it’s not one for those with no prior experience with Nepenthes care.

Sara and Tiffany

And this is where that much-hinted back project finally sees the light. Starting in 2015, the Triffid Ranch offers custom plant arrangements and conversions of existing enclosures, with the option for the customer to buy or to rent. Rental includes regular checkups and prunings, feedings (or the opportunity for the customer to get in a feeding under supervised conditions), and general maintenance, as well as lectures and special events. Sid here is the first of many to be set up this year, with details on their locations, availability to the public, and feeding times to be announced as they’re set up.

Tiffany and Paul

What this means in the short term is that Roll2Play already has plenty of reasons for you to stop by, but this coming Saturday, April 4, is special. April 4 marks the first of many regular monthly raffles for customers to become one of a lucky few to feed Sid. Admittedly, this consists of dropping crickets into pitchers, but it’s all hands-on. Check the Roll2Play site for details, but expect to see the big ugly guy on the right of the picture above at around 1 on Saturday afternoon. Feel free to bring kids, girlfriends, spouses, and about anyone else who would normally look at you askance at the idea of going to a gaming store: not only is Roll2Play not a typical gaming store, but you get the additional expressions on their faces when you tell them “No, really. I’m not checking out Warhammer 40,000 figures. I’m here to feed the plant!” (Not that there’s anything wrong with doing so. I always felt that a good Nepenthes enclosure really needs a few Tyranids to make them interesting.)

And on one last note, Sid isn’t alone. I currently have another N. bicalcarata cloned from the same parent plant, in a nearly identical enclosure, available for sale or rental. The difference is in the name: ask on the status of “Soo Catwoman“.

The New Tenant

Most of this last weekend was a blur. Reports of an impending winter storm meant that getting everything secured for freezing weather was imperative, which required lots of time in the greenhouse. This included deadheading Sarracenia seed pods in order to get seeds for next spring, applying new greenhouse film, taping everything down, and otherwise cleaning up before our promised Icepocalypse 2014 arrives by Tuesday night. In go the hoses, back go the sprinkler heads, under cover go the faucets. The rainwater tanks are full, the spare pots moved into shelter, the tender succulents put next to thermal mass and the citrus up against a south-facing wall…I’m a firm believer in the power of negative thinking, where planning for the absolute worst means that you’re ahead of the game if the absolute worst doesn’t happen. (This is why I should have bought a decommissioned fallout shelter years back, because it would make a great tropical carnivore grow house, but that’s a different dangerous vision.)

Anyway, with the exception of a spare “Miranda” Nepenthes pitcher plant and a Brocchinia carnivorous bromeliad, all of the tropical carnivores were secured indoors for the winter, and I checked on the Miranda as I first entered the greenhouse. The whole neighborhood is infested with a rather large population of Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis), with their regularly camping out among sweet potatoe, Carolina jessamine, and hibiscus leaves, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find one in the greenhouse. The surprise was in one using Nepenthes leaves as a hammock.

Anole
Since I wasn’t completely prepared, I ran inside to get a camera, hoping that he wouldn’t run off in the interim. I’d forgotten that either anoles are loath to leave a good loafing lounge, or they’re hams. This one actually hung out long enough to pose for a while.

Anole

After a few minutes getting shots, Ta’Lon finally decided that I was hanging out too close and too long, so he got up to leave, keeping one eye on me at all times. While not possessed of the independent eye action of true chameleons, anoles have their moments. (By the way, take a closer look at the rear foot in the photo. Something that I hadn’t realized until this photo is that anoles have opposable toes on both front and rear feet. The difference is that theirs are the equivalent of our little fingers and toes. I can definitely see the advantages of this for a small lizard in grasping thin leaves and stems, but this was a wonderful surprise all the same.)

Anole

Well, I backed off for a little while, and came back about ten minutes later. In that time, had he been replaced with a new, brown lizard?

Anole
Nope: not at all. Anoles are regularly referred to as “American chameleons” because of their color changing abilities. They have neither the range of color or pattern as true Old World chameleons, but they can shift from a deep green to a deep brown in a matter of about a minute. Ta’Lon apparently decided that either the weather wasn’t quite right, or that I was aggravating him, because he started to switch back the next time I came through.
Anole

I’ve watched a lot of anoles in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one change color, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to photograph one in the middle of a color transition. That said, I realized that I’d have to check any plants being brought indoors for the winter for wayward anole eggs. The females have a habit of laying their eggs in planted containers because the soil is so loose and well-drained, and while I both enjoy hatchling anoles and their color-changing attributes, I’d prefer not to do so while trying to catch the baby frantically running up and down my bathtub in an effort to escape. Especially not in the middle of January.

Projects: “David Gerrold’s Vindication” (2013)

David Gerrold's Vindication (2013)Between the Day Job, Triffid Ranch shows, and general craziness, projects get delayed. Sometimes they get buried, and then it’s a matter of digging them up and getting them finished. Such was the case of the old Nineties-era console television conversion from last year, and it was looking for a theme. Cleaning it up, rigging it with lights, and making it as moisture-resistant as possible (hint: spar varnish is your friend when working with wood in high-humidity environments) was one thing, but this needed something other than the deathly dull pegboard backing with which it entered the world twenty years ago.  Even worse, with FenCon X coming up soon, it needed something with a science fictional theme that didn’t add too much weight, didn’t make it impossible to fill with plants, and didn’t require a Ph.D to install and maintain. It had to be reasonably nontoxic, if not necessarily for the plants, but as a proof of concept for an upcoming arrangement that needs to be friendly to both carnivorous plants and small reptiles. It had to do horrible things to a set of action figures given me by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer a few years back. Oh, and it had to make the Czarina look inside, shake her head, and ask “What the hell is WRONG with you?” Hence, we get David Gerrold’s Vindication.

Gerrold's Vindication backdrop

I’ve always held that it’s bad form to explain an inside joke: if you have to explain the joke to make it funny, or if the joke is so obscure that only a handful of people get any merriment from it, it’s not working. Let’s just say that the title of the piece refers to the famed science fiction writer David Gerrold, best noted for a lot of things in my childhood that permanently damaged my fragile little mind. Among many other considerations in his extensive television writing career, Mr. Gerrold can be credited with creating the concept of the “Away Teams” in Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, if following the conceit that every adventure of the original Star Trek series had to feature the senior bridge crew and one expendable character beaming down into hostile alien environments, why, all sorts of horrible things could happen. Or should happen.

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Another challenge was utilizing the actual shape of the backing for the original television. Aside from a plastic indentation intended to allow the cathode tube to cool via air circulation, the whole thing was nothing but flat pegboard: a little air circulation via the back was desirable, but too much would drop the humidity in the cabinet below the optimum for Nepenthes pitcher plants. Hence, concealing the majority of the ventilation holes while still allowing some air to enter (and some heat to exit) was necessary. It’s amazing what four coats of spar varnish accomplishes in sealing the backing, and it’s equally amazing how many adhesives will stick to spar varnish that’s been sanded lightly to give it “tooth”. Put a custom-cut piece of glass in the front and hold it in place with pegs, and it’s both accessible and disturbing.

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Aside from the obvious figures, everything else inside was hand-sculpted, including the eggs (jewelry-grade epoxy putty), the alien constructs (insulating foam), and the bulkheads and chamber walls (converted catering containers). In addition, as a tribute to my best friend’s comments a quarter-century back, it needed a bit of graffiti as well:Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

As an art project, the winner in the FenCon art auction was extremely happy with it. As a proof of concept, it gave me plenty of ideas on what to do with the next one. Most importantly, it taught me “make sure you have all the parts together when you start the next one, because you really don’t want to tear apart the garage again to find them next time.”

All-Con 2013: The Aftermath – 1

All-Con Triffid Ranch booth

With the booth stripped down, the cover sheets washed to remove incriminating evidence, the plants put back to bed, and the show equipment all lying in a big pile in the living room to annoy the Czarina, All-Con 2013 ended as it began. Namely, with an immense sense of self-satisfaction. All-Con isn’t as big a Triffid Ranch show as, say, Texas Frightmare Weekend, but any show where the local fire marshal insists that no more people can fit into the hotel by any technique other than pureeing qualifies as a big one. The best endorsement of the shenanigans out here: as of this time next year, I have been attending science fiction and media conventions of all sorts for thirty years, as an attendee, a guest and lecturer, and as a vendor. Maybe it was due to the number of high school and college students getting an early start on Spring Break celebrations, but this had to have been the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen at a Dallas convention since 1985. And since that show involved, among others, a soon-to-be-defunct hotel where convention participants were firing model rockets armed with explosive warheads from a handmade rocket launcher into the swimming pool, I’m glad that this one was much less rambunctious.

Medusa Head 2

Since All-Con coincides with the bare stirrings of most temperate carnivorous plants from their winter dormancy, a lot of interesting species weren’t available this time around. To compensate were a lot of flytraps, purple pitcher plants (with a few Canadian attendees who could appreciate the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador), and a few surprises. Of particular note was the popularity of my old friend Euphorbia flanaganii in a miniature garden arrangement. Yes, that Spartan can handle himself, but for how long?

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata

Likewise, one of the best things about the wave of new attendees was being able to share very recent news about carnivorous plant physiology. Between sharing how Nepenthes ampullaria pitchers serve as frog nurseries and Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitchers as bat rookeries, nobody was bored.

Uncle Sam's On Mars 2

And then we had fun with succulents. A gigantic hand-fired guacamole bowl just begs for a miniature garden arrangement with Crassula muscosa, doesn’t it?

Uncle Sam's on Mars 2

More photos to follow: it was an interesting weekend.

In defense of ultraviolet

By now, a fair number of carnivorous plant enthusiasts know about the new paper on fluorescence of Nepenthes, Sarracenia, and Dionea traps under ultraviolet light. First and foremost, for all of you undergrad and postgrad students out there, take this as a warning not to procrastinate in finishing and submitting a scientific paper. I was about maybe a month away from submitting my own paper to the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter on the subject, and not only did the authors of this paper beat me to the punch, but they produced an exceptional paper that presented distinctive blue fluorescence spots that nobody else had caught before now. They did exceptional work, they deserve every last bit of publicity they’re receiving, and I just regret not having the proper gear for proper research.

That said, there’s a lot more to be done with fluorescence in carnivorous plants. I can state with authority that many other genera of carnivore fluoresce under UV, including at least two species of Heliamphora,Darlingtonia, and the two carnivorous bromeliads Catopsis and Brocchinia. In fact, Catopsis fluoresces brightly enough to hurt. There are other advantages to running around your carnivorous plant nursery with UV lights, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The whole strange experiment with carnivores and UV started about five years back. Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores noted about three years ago how brightly some species of Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, seemed to stand out under moonlight, and I noticed that myself when looking over Sarracenia propagation pools during a full moon. Likewise, after damage from sudden hailstorms, I took a good look at the trap contents of those particularly bright Sarracenia and noticed that a majority of the prey items consisted of moths. The moths didn’t have any particular interest in visible light color variations, and many would have no interest whatsoever in the nectar secreted along the rims and lids of the traps. So what attracted them?

Since I was the sort of kid who cracked most Encyclopedia Brown mysteries by the third-to-last page and who went digging to verify the plausibility or lack thereof of Danny Dunn novels, it wasn’t hard to recognize that the moths were seeing something that I couldn’t without assistance. The initial research was easy, but I’m again getting ahead of myself. The problem involved getting photos that verified observations. Almost anyone who studied any level of high-school botany or natural history remembers photos of flowers taken “with a UV filter” that allows UV-blind humans to see the patterns on seemingly boring flowers that draw in bees and sawflies. Just try to get a breakdown on how to do this, though, especially in the digital camera age. Half of the advice I received was completely worthless (hacking your camera to detect infrared does nothing, and just wasted my time), or it was tantalizingly vague as to how those photographers managed to pull it off. I even hired my adopted daughter Jenny to take photos of Nepenthes and Sarracenia while using a UV filter, but the results were inconclusive at best. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so impressed with the photos taken by the Plant Biology authors: they bypassed all of that by using low-light photography and controlling the exact wavelength of UV used.

In further developments, I’m still publishing, but only after quite a bit of revision. Among other things, it’s time to note the number of other carnivores that show similar fluorescence, and the variations therein. For instance, Darlingtonia, the cobra plant, fluoresces along its trap aperture, but it also has veins of fluorescence along the ala, or wing, that runs up the shaft of the trap, presumably to encourage insects up the ala to the aperture. Venus flytraps fluoresce, with varying patterns with different cultivars. Oh, and the greatest fluorescence among sundews is at the tips of its trapping hairs, with the dew at the tips absolutely shining under UV.

Now, there’s no reason why you can’t experiment with this as well. In fact, after running a few tests, I hope to present a regular shortwave and longwave UV display at plant shows comparable to fluorescent mineral displays in rock shows. This sort of equipment isn’t absolutely necessary, though, and most experiments in carnivore fluorescence can be done with a simple UV light.

Black light fluorescent fixture

To begin, don’t bother with standard “black light” fixtures, either fluorescent or incandescent. Not only do these put out relatively little UV, but they emit so much visible light that the plant fluorescence is nearly unnoticeable. These will still work with one exception, to be related later, but for most investigation, save the money for a better option. About the only fluorescence you’ll get off a carnivore with one of these comes from dying leaves, and if you can’t spot that under visible light, this won’t help.

UV LED flashlight

That better option is a good UV LED light, preferably a battery-powered one that can be used in the field. These days, with the drop in prices in UV-emitting LEDs, it’s possible to find plenty of good LED flashlights at affordable costs, with and without standard white LEDs for double duty. I picked up mine from American Science & Surplus for two reasons: it has six UV LEDs surrounded by white LEDs so I can use it as a standard flashlight, and the switch glows in the dark. You may laugh, but drop one of these in the dark, and that improves the odds of finding it.

Sonic screwdriver - closed

And then there’s the one I use for plant shows with lots of kids, because they completely lose it when I pull it out and turn it on. This, of course, is my scorpion detector, as it’s just as good at causing scorpions to fluoresce as carnivores. It has one good, powerful UV LED in the tip, which already makes it very handy for shows, and it has a pen attachment at the other end for leaving notes on business cards and stickers. The best thing about it, though?

Sonic screwdriver - open

It extends. Particularly when showing the bright patches at the back of the throat of a Nepenthes pitcher, that’s a lot less intrusive than manhandling a pitcher into place for a larger light source. It won’t work well in bright light, but it gets the job done.

Now, instructions for using LED lights. If at all possible, try to use your new lights in as dark a set of conditions as you can get. When working outside, try for a new moon and a minimum of street and porch lights for the best effect. Indoors, go for the darkest room you can get and let your eyes adjust to the darkness before lighting everything. Contrary to news reports on how these “glow in the dark”, the effect is going to be a bit subtle, much like using UV lights on a piece of opal. With proper precautions, though, the effect is not only obvious, but one of the LED flashlights mentioned above can detect carnivores from as much as three meters away. Go for a longwave UV lamp, such as those used for diamond prospecting, and have some real fun.

And for a last word, there’s one additional benefit in wandering through your carnivorous plant collection with a UV flashlight. My dear friend Ryan Kitko recently wrote about the bladderwort, Utricularia bisquamata, that was infesting his shield sundew. U. biquamata has quite the reputation as an aggressive pest in carnivore collections, but I have a soft spot for it. Firstly, it’s very easy to care for, and it makes an excellent starter plant for those who want to work with bladderworts but who don’t have the facilities to raise any of the true aquatic species. Give U. bisquamata soggy soil and lots of light in a standard terrarium, and it takes over, producing lots of white-pink slipper-like blooms with a pastel yellow spot on the top.

The other reason why I’m so fond of U. bisquamata? Get outside with a UV flashlight and find out for yourself. That yellow spot may be pastel under visible light, but under UV, it fluoresces like a black light poster. Considering how many birds are able to see into varying frequencies of UV, I now understand why both the migratory ruby-throat hummingbirds and their competing rufous hummingbirds won’t stay out of my greenhouse. I’ve had hummingbirds literally tapping on my office window to get at U. bisquamata and U. sandersonii blooms, and now I know exactly why.

The next big project

As events and venues continue to expand, so will the Triffid Ranch, and things have outgrown (pun intended) the little hobby greenhouse from where all of this started back in 2008. Five years since the first Triffid Ranch show at the sadly defunct CAPE Day? Sheesh.

Side of the new greenhouse frame

Anyway, that expansion means that it’s time to set up a new greenhouse specifically for Nepenthes pitcher plants and other heat-loving, humidity-loving plants. The details are too long to go into, but a dear friend of the Czarina’s and mine had a spare shade frame that needed to be moved, and her sense of Scottish frugality is even stronger than mine. Hence, the new Nepenthes frame goes up right after this weekend’s show.

Front of the new greenhouse

It may not look like much here, and it looks even less impressive stripped to raw parts and put into temporary storage. In its full complete state, covered with fresh greenhouse film, and full of pitcher plants and bladderworts, though, it’ll look glorious.

The Aftermath: Discovery Days at the Museum of Nature & Science

Texas Triffid Ranch table

Last weekend’s Discovery Days show at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science went off without a hiccup, even with the slightly melancholy vibe running the entire weekend. As of September 16, when the current Planet Shark exhibition closes, so will the Science Museum building, previously known as The Science Place for the last three decades. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent over the last quarter-century in this building (the original Robot Dinosaurs exhibition opened on my 21st birthday), this was a second-to-last opportunity to say goodbye to an old and dear friend.

The welcome sign at Discovery Days

The idea was simple: come out with a sampling of carnivores for exhibition, and answer questions the attending kids had about the plants and how they lived. As with last year’s Discovery Days show, both kids and adults kept me on my toes with thoughtful, sharp, and detailed questions about carnivorous plant physiology and habits. What was new this year was the number of visitors, both from out-of-state and out-of-country, who had great insights. When I wasn’t talking to a Romanian engineer about Transylvanian dinosaurs (and he was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed) and his world-famous countryman Baron Nopsca, I was helping to identify pitcher plants on Luzon in the Philippines. If I was twitching by the end, it was only because of the sheer amount of information that attendees shared, and I only hope that I was able to return the favor.

A small selection from my carnivorous plant library

As I did last year, I brought out a cross-section of reference books on the subject to show examples of plants I didn’t have in my collection at the moment, but it may be time to get an iPad and go electronic. My back still hurts from hauling them out of the car on Sunday evening.

Sarracenia lid and lip

All of the plants were popular, but the big Sarracenia hybrid was the belle of the ball. In fact, a couple of people made precisely that comment. Not only did she draw interest in the first place, but she was ultimately more accessible to understanding basic passive-trap physiology than any other plant there. (In particular, one attendee had a slight freakout when I was demonstrating with a UV light how the lid interiors and lips of the pitcher fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and she literally squeaked “It’s a sonic screwdriver!”) That said, most of the kids liked her cousin…

The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador

I was regularly asked if I named individual plants, and I was half-tempted to nickname the two Sarracenia purpurea “Red” and “Harold” for the duration of the show. Considering the number of Canadians, not to mention us Canadian anchor babies, out to see the sharks, that may or may not have been prudent. Bringing “Red” out, though, was especially important for one four-year-old with a look in her eye that I knew well from her age: “Don’t you DARE patronize me.” She wanted everything explained to her exactly the way I would have done with her parents, and she asked as many questions as she could about the hairs on the lip and composition of the debris in the bottom of the pitchers with her admittedly slightly limited vocabulary. I hope to run into her again in a few years and see how far she leaves me in the dust in scientific inquiries.

Nepenthes ampullaria

And the other surprise hit? Explaining the number of mutualistic relationships between carnivores and various animals had some kids engrossed, especially when I told them about the relationships between Nepenthes ampullaria and the frog Microhyla nepenthicola. Frogs that nest and breed in pitcher plants? Oh, that shattered a few fragile young minds. (I’ll say the greatest satisfaction came with a group of teenagers who claimed that they were there to watch out for little brothers, and they must have hung out on Saturday afternoon for an hour, asking every question they could. I don’t know if they were too fascinated to pretend to be nonplussed, or if I treated them like adults, but they asked some of the sharpest questions the whole weekend long. And so much for kids today being lazy and stupid, eh?)

As mentioned before, this was the last actual event at the old Museum, but I’ve been assured that the crew wants a carnivorous plant presence at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which opens next year. In the meantime, I’m planning to organize one last outing to the current Museum on September 16, where those of us who remember the two separate museums in Fair Park can come out and have one last look around. For the Czarina and myself, it’ll be particularly important, as we were married under the Protostega in the Texas Giants Hall at the old Museum of Natural History, and this is as close to renewing our vows in the same place as we’re going to get.

Better Than Brawndo

Now, I’m sharing a rather intriguing paper in the Annals of Botany on digestive mutualism between several species of bromeliad and the bromeliad-living spider Psecas chapoda for several reasons. It’s not just because P. chapoda is just one of several species of spider adapted to living within bromeliads, with their feces and food scraps contributing toward the bromeliad’s nitrogen needs. It’s not just because further investigation may help develop new insights into why carnivory developed in so many flowering plants, as well as how the carnivorous bromeliad genera Brocchinia and Catopsis got their starts. It’s not just that this sort of digestive mutualism exists in many protocarnivorous and carnivorous-by-proxy plants, such as the South African genus Roridula. It’s not even because with enough true carnivorous plants that take advantage of assistance from animal predigestion of prey, such as frogs in Sarracenia, Nepenthes, and Heliamphora pitcher plants, this discovery may suggest that other plants are only protocarnivorous during the times of year when the spiders move in. On a personal note, it means I need to do more to encourage the indigenous jumping spiders in the area to move in among my Nepenthes and Catopsis.

No, the real reason I want to share is because in the course of a long and eventful life, I have a lot of very sick and sordid friends. In fact, I can see at least one of them making up a tiny outhouse for the pitcher of my Catopsis, or at least a little sign reading “Flush Twice: It’s A Long Way To The School Cafeteria”. I expect at least one to go electronic, and fit the Nepenthes racks with a motion sensor and a sound chip that chirps “DUDE! Light a match, will you?” I may be 45 going on 12, but my friends are even worse.

Thursday is Resource Day

The first week after two big back-to-back shows (one of which was purely the Czarina’s play) gets a bit crazy, especially when you look over the back lot and realize that it’s starting to resemble a location set for a George Romero movie. The grass is high enough to hide Buicks, the roses beg for deadheading, and the hot peppers require their own ZIP codes. The only joy in Mudville comes from having a relatively cool spring: we have yet to go above 33 degrees Celsius, which we broke last year toward the end of April. It’s coming, though. It’s coming.

Hence, the weekend will be dedicated to shoveling, dumping, pruning, trimming, and mowing. I’d like to invite gardener friends over for dinner without their looking out back and shrieking in despair.

With that in mind, we only have a couple of interesting resources to bring up this Thursday, but it’s all connected to horticulture in some way. It’ll have to do until the next post, right?

Firstly, I didn’t know that Carl Mazur of the International Carnivorous Plant Society had a blog, but Zone 6b: Growing Carnivorous Plants In Cold Climates is out there and it’s definitely worth reading. This week, he brought up a very intriguing point on wondering why Sarracenia oreophila produces traps and then blooms once it emerges from winter dormancy, instead of the other way around as with other Sarracenia. I have a suspicion as to a particular factor, but I’m going to need a low-light camera in order to document it. Yet another experiment on the creaking and swaying pile.

In completely different news, nearly anyone who has ever worked a customer service position has an appreciation for the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, if only because the film envisages a world where the customers actually saw an increase in IQ. (I spent nearly three years with a headset jammed onto my ear, and started referring to some of the language used by our most enthusiastic customers as “Conversational Ichthyostegid.” There’s really nothing quite like explaining to a cell phone customer that said phone was cut off because the last payment was reported as an unauthorized use of the paying credit card, only to be told “That’s not fair! I didn’t make that payment! Smitty told me that he’d pay my bill if I slept with him!”) Because of that, I’m quite impressed with a working Brawndo sports drink fountain, because we could have used that at my previous day job. After all, it has the electrolytes plants crave, even if nobody knows what electrolytes are. (And am I the only person on the planet who has noticed that Monster energy drinks and SuperThrive smell suspiciously alike?)

Finally, one of these days, I’m going to put together a postcard comparable to Tom Wilson’s famed form letter about the film Back to the Future, covering every last repeated question. No, I don’t have any man-eating plants. No, I don’t have any plants that can eat your ex-spouse. No, I don’t have any Audrey 2s, and I’m also fresh out of Delvians, Vervoids, Krynoids, or Vegetons, too. However, after a quick visit to Leilani Nepenthes in Hawaii, I’m finally going to sell triffids. This way, when the occasional person asks if I have a triffid available for sale, I can give that person a John Cleese glare and tell him/her “Here’s your plant, NOW BUY IT!” (I just hope they don’t get too big, because I’m not looking forward to branding season.)

Well, enough of that. Back to the linen mines.

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.

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.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 7

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores.

If you’ve been keeping up with the series so far, you might think that I’d never recommend that anybody keep Venus flytraps. That’s not true in the slightest. I’d never recommend them to beginners, for the same exact reasons I’d never recommend green iguanas, Sulcata tortoises, or Nile monitors as pets for anybody who’s never kept reptiles before. Venus flytraps are just as fascinating as any other carnivorous plant, but they’re just so particular about their light, their moisture levels, their potting mix, and choice of prey. I don’t tell a beginner “No, you shouldn’t get a flytrap.” Instead, I point out the merits, note the limitations on care and husbandry, and gently note that I know of a couple of carnivores much better suited for someone who’s never worked with one before. That person usually goes home with a Drosera adelae, and when I see that person again, s/he’s moved to any number of exotic varieties, and then starts experimenting with flytraps.

Back about eight years ago, a very short-lived trend started with bulk carnivorous plant sales to home improvement centers, and I’m glad the collapse of the economy stopped it. At the time, several companies offered carnivores to Home Depot and Lowe’s in the famed cubes of death, but there was one assemblage that just chilled the blood of anybody who knew enough about carnivores to be dangerous. Heck, it even scared me. This was a three-pack sampler, almost always with a Venus flytrap, an adelae sundew, and a Darlingtonia cobra plant jammed together into a cube.

For those who don’t understand, let’s put it into pet terms. Picture walking into a Petco or a PetSmart and seeing a one-cubic-foot package that contained a puppy, a parrot, and a pacu. The only thing they have in common is that their names start with the letter “p”, and these death cube collections of carnivores weren’t much better. As explained before in this collection of essays, Venus flytraps need high humidity and high lighting, but also good air circulation. The adelae sundew gets by on more constrained air than flytraps, as well as much less light, and it doesn’t need a winter dormancy period. The cobra plant needs a winter dormancy period, but it’s native to mountain seeps fed by snowmelt; most botanists consider it an alpine plant, as it needs cool water for its roots and the distinctive drops in night-time temperatures generally found in high mountains. You couldn’t find three more dissimilar species of plant if you tried, and like the puppy/parrot/pacu death cube, you might have one survive for a few months before it finally gave up.

Even with species of carnivore that live in the flytrap’s native or introduced ranges, you’ll find that they don’t exactly live together together. In the wild, flytraps may be found with a few species of sundew, but while they grow in bogs, they prefer more drainage than Sarracenia pitcher plants. Depending upon the species, many Sarracenia have no problems with their roots sitting in water (the parrot pitcher Sarracenia psittacina actually thrives on being submerged for a time in spring and early summer, and its traps apparently adapted to catching aquatic insect and tadpole prey while dunked), which is something that will kill flytraps in a matter of days. Flytraps like their soil kept constantly moist, but they cannot handle being waterlogged. Try to keep a flytrap in the same planter that best suits a terrestrial bladderwort or a Sarracenia pitcher plant, and you’re going to have mush before long.

As always, there are alternatives. In a large bog garden, putting flytraps so they remain at least six inches (16.24 cm) above the general water level works well, and the bog soil can be shored up to keep it from washing down into the rest of the bog during rains. In a large planter, I’ve actually had good results with putting a plastic tube at least six inches wide into the planter so the end rests on the bottom, filling it full of flytrap planting mix (the usual “one part sphagnum moss to one part silica sand” mix), and planting the flytrap above the general soil level for the other plants. In smaller containers and pots, though? Keep it by itself, but if various sundews start sprouting around it, leave them be. They won’t necessarily hurt the flytrap, and they can always be separated during repotting when the flytrap goes dormant for the winter.

Next: Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 6

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 6: Feed it hamburger.

Were I to assume that the publishing business will be in anything approximating a decent shape in five years, I’d put together a little book full of stupid memes, tropes, and general comments that have no attribution whatsoever. I’ve already got a great list of them: “Put butter on a burn.” “Poke yourself with a pencil lead, and you’ll get lead poisoning.” “Put boiling water in your ice cube trays, and the water will freeze faster.” “Mosquitoes die as soon as they bite you.” “You’ll make more money if you give away all your goods, services, or content for free.” “George Lucas is a cinematic genius.” Hell, I could do the book just on the idiotic advice wannabe writers give each other, such as “Writers make an average of $37.50 an hour” or “If you’re afraid that someone’s going to steal your idea, write it up and mail it to yourself so you’ll have proof.” (This last one always comes from individuals who think that writing Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic is a great idea, and would do so if they had the time.)

One of the biggest ones on that hypothetical list, though, directly involves carnivorous plants. I don’t know who started the meme “Even eats hamburger!” involving Venus flytraps, but it’s everywhere. If it isn’t plastered on flytrap containers in grocery stores and home improvement centers, it’s repeated over and over in any number of poorly researched articles and children’s books. The cliche of Venus flytraps eating hamburger is as established as the comparison between the early “proto-horse” Hyracotherium and the fox terrier, and I have it spouted back at me over and over. The difference between flytrap/hamburger and Hyracotherium/fox terrier is that fox terriers don’t die because of that cliche perpetuation.

To take on this misperception and send it back to Hell, we’ll need to look at three separate considerations. Before I go there, I won’t deny that it’s possible to feed carnivorous plants by hand. Based on recommendations from Peter D’Amato, I’ve fed tiny slivers of chocolate to Cape sundews, solely to watch the response. (It’s remarkably like a human’s, where the leaf wraps around the chocolate and drools on it.) But hamburger? Get a bag of assorted nuts and bolts and feed them one at a time to your flytrap, because it’ll cause less damage.

The first thing to consider is that flytraps get their common name for a reason. Readers of a certain age may remember a series of Life magazine encyclopedias on the sciences, profusely illustrated with black-and-white and color photos from the magazine. In the volume The Plants, carnivores received two pages, with one being dedicated to a large photo of a grasshopper with its head caught in a Dionea trap. Yes, that one was staged (among other things, a grasshopper with its head caught in a flytrap wouldn’t suffocate, as grasshoppers and other insects breathe through their abdomens), but that led lots of first-time flytrap owners to assume that their new plants could handle prey of any size. Trying this, though, usually meant that the prey rotted, the trap turned black and slimy, and ultimately the whole leaf fell off.

The reason for this has everything to do with the square-cube law: square the size of an object, and you cube its volume. A flytrap’s typical prey in the wild ranges from flies to small spiders to large ants because they’re large enough to offer a sufficient return. Flytraps and other carnivorous plants don’t capture and digest insects for energy the way animals do. They’re already getting plenty of energy from standard photosynthesis, and they’re eating insects for the additional nitrogen and phosphorus necessary for growth that they can’t get from the local soil. Any carnivore that produces its own digestive enzymes (and some don’t) has to take energy from maintenance, growth, and reproduction to secrete those enzymes, and they’re very energy-intensive. Hence, if the prey is too big for the plant to digest fully, it rots.

The second consideration? Flytraps can’t chew. For the last 600 million years or so of multicellular life on Earth, animals have some way to shred, crush, liquefy, or dismember food items, so those items get improved exposure to digestive juices. Spiders inject venom that liquefies prey from the inside, and scorpions both inject venom and use their claws to pulverize their prey. Millipedes and grasshoppers have shredding and pulping mouthparts. Mosquitoes, lampreys, and vampire bats all have specialized structures to draw up liquids from their food items. Birds carry gizzard stones that mash food before it’s passed to the intestines. Many carnivores, including Komodo dragons, pull their prey apart before swallowing the chunks. Even animals that swallow their prey whole, like pythons, have strong gastrointestinal muscles that crunch up and squeeze their food so the surface area exposed is increased. If you want a direct example, put your finger on your jaw joint and move your jaw from side to side. This motion allows your teeth to move laterally as well as vertically, thereby shearing and crushing food too bulky for simple up-and-down mastication to work. That side-to-side motion, along with the enzymes in your saliva, allow that lump of food, known as a bolus, to be digested that much faster than if you’d simply swallowed everything whole.

This, right here, is why we don’t have man-eating plants, as much as people nag and nuhdz me about growing them. It also explains why reported incidents of vertebrates being caught in carnivorous plants are so rare, and not just because insects and other arthropods outnumber us vertebrates by 9:1. Not a single carnivorous plant on the planet can chew, mash, chomp, or otherwise masticate its food. That’s not to say that they can’t do so with help: many animals, from spiders to crabs to frogs and geckos, live among carnivores and help themselves to excess prey. Green tree frogs live within Sarracenia pitcher plants and snag prey before it ever gets into the pitcher. Similar frogs are well-documented among the Heliamphora pitchers of South America, and some species of Heliamphora even have a slick spot within the pitcher that’s perfectly suited for a frog to camp for the day. The Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata even encourages ants to nest within special chambers within its leaves, and the ants rapidly daisy-chain down into the pitchers and tear apart prey. Best of all, the South African Roridula can’t digest prey on its own at all, and depends upon a symbiotic species of ambush bug to feed upon prey animals caught on its leaves.

All of this sounds unfair to the plant, but it’s not. With N. bicalcarata, the ants live in a commensual relationship with the plant: the plant offers a living space and nectar for additional food, and the ants clean up large prey and attack anything dumb enough to molest the plant. With the tree frogs in Sarracenia and Heliamphora, they defecate into the traps while hanging out, thereby predigesting prey into a more easily accessible form of nitrogen. Some Nepenthes not only encourage this behavior with frogs, but with tree shrews and bats. And then you have the other commensual animals that live inside of traps, such as midge larvae and the like…

The poor Venus flytrap, though, has no such option. Once it ascertains that the item within its trap is potential food, it closes all the way, and seals the edges of the trap like a purse to retain digestive fluid. Nothing gets out, but nothing gets in, either, to help it. Even with sufficiently-sized prey, a couple of days of particularly cloudy weather, or some obstacle that prevents it from getting full sun, and the trap goes black and slimy. However, the odds of successful digestion are much better at that point than with something, say, the size of your thumb.

And the third consideration has everything to do with fat. As a general rule, as a food source, most insects are incredibly lean compared to most commercially raised and harvested livestock, and some individuals advocate following the lead of much of the world in more commercial farming of insects as food because of this. Really lean meat, such as scraped beef heart, is as fat-scarce as most of the insects consumed by Venus flytraps; again, the flytraps aren’t eating for energy, so they don’t have the need for large amounts of fat nor the enzymes necessary to digest it.

And hamburger? Oh, big cheeseburgers get called “cardiac arrest in a bun” for a reason. Really lean hamburger can run as low as seven percent fat, but most of the good stuff runs anywhere between 15 and 20 percent. Several local grocery stores sell big five-pound bullets of “fine ground beef,” and the fat content? At least 30 percent. We can bypass this a bit by grilling our burgers so the fat melts and runs off, but you’re still looking at a rather high percentage of fat in the final burger. The moment you see a flytrap grilling its food before it digests it, get a picture FAST.

Okay, so let’s recap. Very theoretically, you could feed your flytrap hamburger. It would have to be large enough to be worth the plant’s time and small enough to be digested without issue, and it would need to be extremly fat-free. If you think you can get just the right size, every single time, and make sure it was fat-free, go for it. Letting the plant catch its own insects, though, might be a much easier and saner option. Just saying.

Next: Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

The rest of October is going to be relatively quiet for the Triffid Ranch, but things start livening up in November. Specifically, four weeks from this coming Saturday, come out to the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park for its “Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters” exhibition. And before you ask, just because it’s listed as a kid’s event doesn’t mean you have to be one to show up. If you’re really self-conscious about asking questions around a herd of sharp-as-whips third graders, don’t feel badly: I’m going to be the target.

As to why carnivorous plants should be included in an exhibition on reptiles and amphibians, well, I have a secret. If you’re unfamiliar with the Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes ampullaria, this should be your chance to see the one known carnivorous plant that acts as a frog tadpole nursery. And if that doesn’t intrigue you, I’ve got nuthin’.

More background is always a good thing

By now, thanks to the wonder of what I call “news churn,” just about everyone on the planet not obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s wedding has heard about the bird-eating Nepenthes in the UK. The Sun ran with it, the BBC ran with it, and surprisingly the Central Somerset Gazette has the only reasonably complete account of the situation. This is how I know I have friends who love me: I had literally dozens of well-intentioned friends E-mailing and calling me to let me know about the BBC article. I’ve also literally had to bite my tongue in one case to keep from yelling “YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO!”

Now, what’s really illuminating about this story isn’t that a blue tit was caught in a pitcher plant. Carnivorous plants capturing vertebrates is rare, but it occasionally happens. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter featured a cover a while back of a Venus flytrap with a baby anole caught in its trap, with only rear legs and tail hanging outside. Sundews are very good at catching newly metamorphosed frogs, and the protocarnivore Roridula has been documented capturing small birds. The widest range of vertebrate carnivory, though, is with the Nepenthes pitcher plants, ranging from frogs to lizards to rodents and even (anecdotally) baby monkeys.

I want to add, at this point, that many of these presumed cases of carnivory are probably accidental. Frog skeletons occasionally show up in Sarracenia and Nepenthes traps, but those are probably frogs using the traps as handy hunting sites that died of natural causes. The rodents found in particularly big Nepenthes were probably attracted by the traps’ fluid as something to drink, and this blue tit was probably trying to steal prey out of the trap when it found itself stuck inside. The surprise isn’t that the plant could catch a bird, but that the bird was so unlucky as to get caught in this situation.

If anything, this story demonstrates what happens when carnivores get prey too big for them to digest before it rots. Carnivores generally have no way to chew or otherwise process larger prey, and many species take advantage of animals that either remove large dead items or take over the job of digestion. In America, you have green tree frogs that camp inside of Sarracenia pitchers, snagging really large prey attracted to the plant and then defecating inside the pitchers: the plants don’t care about the source of nitrogen they’re receiving. In South America, Heliamphora pitchers work well as campgrounds for indigenous frogs as well. Spiders and other arthropod predators have no problem with snagging large prey, and one species, Misumenops nepenthicola, lives inside the pitchers and has special adaptations for dealing with the pitcher fluid.

The other aspect of the story that’s neglected involves Nigel Hewitt-Cooper, who’s already understandably respected for his plants. I first heard about him not just because of his gold medals for entries at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but because of his position as councillor of Croscombe and Pilton. He’s a very interesting fellow all the way around, and one day, I’m going to the Chelsea Flower Show just to meet him in person.

Information, Even If You Don’t Want It

Without fail, whenever I volunteer that I raise carnivorous plants, I get one of two responses, usually one right after the other. The first is, always, “Oh, so have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?”, and I weep that nobody even reads John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids any more. The second, without fail, when I mention that you generally don’t have to feed carnivores if kept correctly, is “Wow! I need one of those! They’ll be great for dealing with the bugs in my house!” And that’s when I killed them, Your Honor.

The reality of keeping carnivorous plants is that they’re not hardened killers of arthropod prey, waiting hungrily for their next victim. Well, they do, but they don’t have the energy to do so more than passively. While they subsist on captured flies, fungus gnats, and anything else they can subdue, carnivorous plants will no more wipe out the wasps attracted to your spilled rum and Coke or the roaches in your sink than they will the relatives who swore they’d call before they came to visit. If they did, then they’d be a lot more popular. Carnivores use all sorts of tricks and lures to attract prey, but they still won’t compensate for your filthy living habits.

That said, I’m still nagged and nuhdzed by cohorts and acquaintances about using carnivores for pest control, and I realized that I do have one surefire way to use carnivores to process at least one household pest. Most summers, the Dallas area is overrun with representatives of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. Contrary to popular presentations of their being fond of linedancing while lassoing runaway cats, the American cockroach, or “palmetto bug” as they’re referred to in these parts, is a critter with precious little to recommend them to anyone but entomologists. The good news about a beast large enough to bear hood ornaments and TireFlys is that they only stay indoors if the conditions are suitably foul for human habitation: in most houses, such as ours, they sneak indoors along pipes and vents, look around for a while in vain for food, and promptly keel over due to dehydration from the indoor air conditioning. They may keel over, but they aren’t necessarily dead: try to pick up one that looks dead, and it’ll usually decide then to crawl up your arm in an effort to convince you that you need to be in the next time zone. That tactic works remarkably well.

Anyway, the Czarina understandably loathes P. americana from her experiences from living next to a Thai restaurant during her first marriage. This means that while she normally has no fear of man, beast, or god, I’m the one she wakes up in the middle of the night to take care of the monster bug. Personally, I can’t blame her, and I’m glad she settles for waking me instead of taking off and nuking the entire site from orbit. These days, her understandable hate any my hobby combine, and it works out well for everyone but the roaches.

Now, to imitate my results, you’ll need a few things. The first is a carnivorous plant big enough to deal with our icky bugs. This is an Asian pitcher plant, species Nepenthes alata, native to the Phillipines. Let’s call him “Bub”.

Nepenthes alata

Being a very fast-growing Nepenthes, “Bub” has a good half-dozen pitchers already established, with more on the way. Nepenthes plants produce two types of traps: lower traps that remain along the ground, and upper traps for when the plant starts to vine and twine up trees and other obstacles, and many species have upper traps so different from lower traps that they’d be mistaken for separate species were they discovered separately. Below is a pristine freshly opened lower trap, noting the distinctive color that marks N. alata as one of my favorites.

New Nepenthes alata trap

Now, we need a bug, and nature always provides. Let’s call him “archy“.

archy the cockroach

Since we don’t want to be overly cruel, and since you don’t want the little darling scuttling up your arm, dispatch “archy” with whatever non-chemical means are at your disposal.

Smith & Wesson beats four aces

“Anyone else have any questions about the way things are going to run around here from now on?”

Now that you’ve subdued “archy”, it’s now a matter of getting “archy” to “Bub”. Oh, you can use your fingers, but considering the various diseases and parasites carried by cockroaches, don’t you want to use tools?

Chopsticks

And there he goes…

And in he goes...

If in case “archy” is a bit too large, don’t be afraid to use appropriate tools for the job. “Power tools…to make life easy…”

Power tools

Chainsaws are for wimps.

Bow saw versus roach, roach loses

Be warned that it’s very easy to overfeed carnivorous plants, especially when dealing with ones with Klendathu passports. This trap demonstrates a perfect case of Nepenthes indigestion, seeing as how “archy” was joined by his buddies “N’Grath” and “Truzenzuzex”.

This plant needs Alka-Seltzer

If you get more bugs than your pitcher plant can handle, don’t be afraid to use modern food storage techniques to save a meal for later. Here’s “Samsa” being prepped for next week’s dinner event.

Storing for the winter

Alternately, if you’re feeling particularly daring, feel free to keep your prey animals free-range. Just make sure to use appropriate methods to warn friends and family members as to your intent.

Needing much more cowbell

And see the benefits of your regular feeding? Not only is “Bub” responding so well that he’s producing new traps, but he’s even producing new sprouts from his roots, complete with brand new mosquito-sized traps.

New trap, ready for capture

Finally, remember that the secret of effective use of carnivorous plants for pest control lies with the pest, not the plant. With the right tools, any pest may become plant food. For instance, this pest also woke me up at three in the morning, intent upon nothing but eating, defecating, and shedding all over the place. Let’s call it “Mehitabel”.

Leiber, the famed "Freakbeast"

Hmmmm. I think I’m going to need more freezer bags.

Mr. Hanky visits the Triffid Ranch

Spend more than a few weeks studying carnivorous plants, and you see that the situations and boundaries get a bit flexible. Plants in general really don’t care where they get their nitrogen and phosphorus, and many carnivores don’t care if their prey was a bit predigested first. Sarracenia and Heliamphora are already famous for their tendency to attract frogs that live inside the pitchers, snagging incoming prey and using the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The genus Nepenthes, though, goes above and beyond in its coprophiliac habits, regularly attracting tree shrews and rats with nutritious secretions produced along the pitcher lid. In an adaptation that provides a regular supply of guano, Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata makes a home for bats from its traps. You even have the Asian frog Microhyla nepenthicola living and breeding in Nepenthes ampullaria pitchers, with the frogs and their tadpoles taking advantage of a reasonably safe environment, and the plant taking advantage of their various wastes.

I bring this up because apparently it’s now the geckos’ turn. I have one Nepenthes that keeps growing faster than all of the other pitcher plants in the greenhouse, and I’ve spooked baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos out of it every time. At first, I thought the geckos were trapped inside, and now I realize they’re taking advantage of the situation. Shelter and quiet: should I offer them tiny magazines and Kindles to keep them occupied, too?

“The garden hooligans are loose!”

Of particular note in the news from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is that Dame Helen Mirren has a new Nepenthes cultivar (of the hybrid Nepenthes spathulata x spectabilis) named after her, courtesy of Borneo Exotics. This, of course, goes very well with last year’s “Bill Bailey” Nepenthes cultivar, which I can state with authority is an absolute beauty in the greenhouse. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to attend this year’s Chelsea Flower Show: I keep getting invites to the Arsenal Flower Show, but I don’t know why. (Fat chance on that. We Riddells are going to be Manchester United Flower Show Enthusiasts until we die.)