Tag Archives: Observations

Information, Even If You Don’t Want It: Integrated Pest Management

One of the issues with which we struggle at the Triffid Ranch is a bit of a logical leap in what carnivorous plants can do. Based on phone calls, emails, letters, and incessant queries at shows and events, the logic starts with the given “Carnivorous plants attract, capture, and digest insect and other animal prey” and veers Immediately into “carnivorous plants will take care of my bug problem.” This leads to calls and queries. “My house abuts a stream, and the stream attracts mosquitoes. I need a pitcher plant to eat all of the mosquitoes.”  “My kids leave the door open all day, and we need a Venus flytrap to eat all of the flies they let in.” “My roommate won’t take out the garbage, so I need a flytrap to eat the flies on the garbage.” Sometimes this goes to extremes: “I saw ants at the end of the driveway, and I want to build a berm around my house and cover it with flytraps to get the ants.” Or my personal favorite and a reason why I refuse to return to one show at which I displayed plants in 2013, “Cool! Got anything that will eat bedbugs?”

To all of these, I try to explain, over and over, that while you can get great satisfaction in watching a Cape sundew digest mosquitoes, and even add Battle Boy sound effects to liven things up, one plant or even a thousand won’t get rid of every insect in your time zone. It’s not even a matter of picking wildly inappropriate plants, such as the people who ask repeatedly about using Venus flytraps to control fleas. (The simple answer: they won’t. Even sticky-trap carnivores such as sundews and butterworts may catch fleas, but they won’t break the life cycle.)  Besides, as entomologist and brilliant bug blogger Gwen Pearson notes, you’ll never bug-proof. your house. We lost the war against bugs, spiders, and other exoskeletal creepies about 400 million years ago, and barring a mass extinction that wipes out every arthropod (up to and including the millions of skin mites that eat dead skin cells on your body), we stand no chance of changing that.

That said, while wiping out pests is a lost cause, it’s possible to keep their depredations down to a dull roar. That’s the basic idea behind the concept of integrated pest management, which attempts to minimize horticultural chemical use by understand that complete annihilation is impossible, but cutting populations down to a dull roar isn’t. 

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“You are Number Six.”


For example, one of the more pernicious pests in most households this time of the year is a recent invader, having only been documented in large numbers since 2004. Since then, the shelf elf has been found in living rooms and bedrooms across the United States and Canada, never appearing in the same place twice during the holiday season, and resisting all attempts at capture or restraint. Not only will they return each year, but they have a propensity for breeding out of control, and all efforts at spaying and neutering have been complete failures. They also have a distinctive hive mind, reporting back to a central dominant individual known as a sinterklaas, thereby making efforts to collapse the hive structure nearly impossible. Recent reports suggest that they’re able to communicate with the sinterklaas from considerable distances, but whether this is by telepathy, by Extra Low Frequency vibrations through earth and water, or by pheromones or other vaporous output is unknown. What IS known is that they seem to be especially astute at viewing and modifying the behavior of children, merely by watching and waiting, and the intimation of a reward in exchange for those behavioral changes. Also unknown is the reason for initiating the behavior changes, but research suggests a model comparable to that of the pathogen Toxoplasma.

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“It’s an ugly planet, an Elf planet, a planet hostile to life as we know it!”

Thankfully, there are ways to deal with this menace using IPM, so let’s fire up the appropriate soundtrack and get going,.

The first and most obvious control, chemical, is problematic for multiple reasons. In fact, that problematic nature is why integrated pest management was founded in the first place, because the overuse of pesticides was becoming a significant issue in both farmlands and in residential areas. As a last resort, chemical repellents and poisons have their place, but be warned that most of the effective options for invasive elves also have negative effects on the human population. Butyric acid in aromatherapy bottles works sporadically as a repellent, but the enterprising and cost-conscious homeowner should consider making a custom mix of 75 percent potassium nitrate, 15 percent sulfur, and 10 percent charcoal, or an equal weight of gasoline and polystyrene foam. When ignited, both have an effect on local elf populations: when mixed up in sufficiently large quantities, the effects may be seen from low Earth orbit.

The second control, mechanical, applies to most traps, grinders, zappers, or pitfalls. Repeated vivisections of shelf elves reveals no vital organs or internal structure particularly susceptible to anything other than overwhelming force, and documented sightings exist of shelf elves recovering and attacking immediately after crushing or flattening that would kill most Earthly life. With this in mind, further research continues with finding all-inclusive mechanical controls that can anticipate and neutralize shelf elves before the sinterklaas can give them new orders. The choice of mechanical control is up to the one applying it: from personal experience, while American, Chinese, and Australian controls are have their advantages, Russian controls are low-maintenance, exceeingly durable in multiple environments, and extremely effective.

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“Elbow rocket…NOW!”

This leaves the obvious and logical choice: biological controls. Since shelf elf study really only started a decade ago, many “facts” about their behavior, reproduction, natural history, and evolutionary history are little more than assumptions, and are forcefully disputed. One of the most disputed involves predators in their original environment before coming in contact with humans. Due to their lack of internal structure, which leads some palaeontologists to make comparisons to the extinct Ediacara faunas of the Vendian Era (Crusher, Franklin, & Shaw, 2010), nothing other than highly contentious fragments exist in the fossil record, and genome sequencing has been stymied by a complete lack of sequenceable DNA (Banner, 2011; Richards, 2012; Hoshi, 2012). One thing is certain, though: in multiple tests in captivity, a wide variety of predators actively attract, capture, consume, and digest shelf elves (Logan, West, & Furter, 2015). No widespread field tests on predator selection have been done to date, and the understandable concern is that any effective introduced predator may itself become an invasive species, as demonstrated with the introduction of the cane toad (Bufo marinus) in Australia (Benway, 1959; Duke, 1971).

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One very promising avenue of biological control involves the use of exoparasites, which utilize host organisms during stages of their life cycle. Again, the largest concern involves whether the exoparasite stays with one host or utilizes multiple host species. An equally vital concern, based on recent studies, is whether shelf elves will evolve changes in structure or behavior to bypass parasitism, causing the exoparasite to seek out new host species or become extinct. Using cicadas as a model, extreme predation or parasitism may cause shelf elves to spread out infestations over multiple years, in an attempt to keep parasites from depending upon them every holiday season. Alternately, shelf elf emergence may start earlier in the year: reports of shelf elves being spotted as early as July may be examples of this new behavior.

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“It has a funny habit of shedding its cells and replacing them with polarized silicon.”

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“I could lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”

Due to the challenge of the shelf elf life cycle, with large populations accumulating only in the month of December, the secret may be in finding a combination parasite/predator. A predator that subsists through the rest of the year either in hibernation or on the occasional early emergence, only to reproduce during the height of the shelf elf cycle, may be the only effective way to get populations into something approximating control.

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“Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

In some cases, while biological controls may seem to be the best option, the available biological controls may be organisms that may themselves become pests under the right conditions: for instance, Asian ladybugs becoming pests in vineyards when they feed on ripening grapes and taint the resultant wine. Sometimes the best option is to use several types of control organisms, especially when needing to ensure that one species doesn’t become a threat with increased numbers.

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Finally, one remaining option is now available due to advances in technology. A possible alternative to wiping out the shelf elf may involve introducing organisms that outcompete it for available resources, such as food or nesting sites. In many areas, the beneficial Bench Mensch has made inroads into shelf elf habitat, but future control may involve a combination of mechanical and biological controls. A competitor that can remain in hibernation for years or even centuries between shelf elf infestations, with an active resistance to retaliation, and a built-in weakness should it become a pest: the future is here.

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“Shiny and chrome!”

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.

Peering upon Hello Kitty hell

So far as I can tell, and as far as the chronicler of Hello Kitty Hell can attest, almost nothing in this universe is too foul, too sacrosanct, or too pure to be turned into a licensing tool for Sanrio’s Hello Kitty juggernaut. And yes, I mean the term “juggernaut” in its original sense, as in “something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice.” Ar-15 rifles, age-inappropriate halloween costumes, pipes, sex toys…I’m waiting for Hello Kitty-branded Mars rovers and thermonuclear weapons next.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Hello Kitty cult has infected gardening. And that’s fine. Really. Much like being one of the only businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that hasn’t received a “Best of Dallas” award from D magazine (mostly because the main qualification for being one of the 783 entrants in each and every category, as announced every month, is paying for the advertising space), the Triffid Ranch is and will always remain Sanrio-free. No Hello Kitty planters, no tomato stakes, no terraria, and no cow manure compost. With the last, that would be redundant.

However, I can understand the appeal of attaching one’s products to an existing brand and running with it, hoping that this translates to business for the company’s other products. I just need to find something a bit more wholesome than Hello Kitty. You don’t think that Peter Jackson would have any issues giving a license for a line of Meet the Feebles garden gnomes, do you?

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?

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 5

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 5: Set off its traps with your finger.

Home improvement stores are dangerous places to be when you’re married to the Czarina. On any given day, she has one interesting project or another that’s cooking, from making new necklace displays to building mobile bead tray racks, and that means the folks at the local Home Depot and Lowe’s stores know us on a firstname basis. If she’s not buying up PVC pipe and walnut molding, I’m buying up epoxy putty and Gorilla Glue. What’s scary is that I can exclaim, in my best Red Green voice, “Today on Handyman’s Corner, we’re going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”, and I hear loud and robust laughter from the checkout clerks. At our local traditional hardware store, I had to explain who Red Green was, and this was a store that was hosting an autographing and photo session.

Anyway, I tend to wander through the garden section at those big stores as well. Most of the time, it’s to rescue some poor neglected Dendrobium orchid or random succulent in the deep discount rack, but every once in a while, it’s to see the latest trends in carnivorous plant packaging. Not in variety, nor in propagation methods, but in packaging.

As mentioned a while back, my father was, before he retired, a packaging engineer of some reknown. Every time you see one of those aluminized Mylar packages of Doritos or Fritos in an office cafeteria vending machine, you’re looking at my dad’s work. As also mentioned a while back, the family was hoping that I’d be another Larry Ellison instead of a Harlan Ellison; not much rubbed off from the family’s fascination with engineering. However, just enough rubbed off that I can appreciate the commercial horticulture trade’s attempts to protect its Venus flytraps.

One night, I saw a beautiful example of this in action. I was in a Home Depot picking up some extra garden hose gaskets, and peeked in the garden section. That section was hosted by a girl who was maybe 19 if a day, and she was standing in front of a big rack full of Venus flytraps. These were in those sad plastic containers that were popular at the time, with one clear dome atop a flimsy clear cup, and she was popping them open one at a time. I stepped closer, and I realized she was setting off every trap on each plant with her finger. Once every trap was closed or closing, she recapped the cup and moved on to the next one, and when she saw me, she waved me over. “Watch this,” she said, as she set off another trap.

At that point, I winced. “You really shouldn’t do that. That’s not good for the plant.”

“Oh, it doesn’t hurt it,” she said, going back to molesting the flytraps. Seeing from her badge that she was the garden center manager, I decided that arguing with her was a waste of time, and I simply left.

Right there, with that manager, the entire fascination with flytraps stands revealed. Here is a plant that closes up mouth-like traps, not under any touch such as with Mimosa pudica, but under the specific stimulus of setting off trigger hairs within the trap. The Venus flytrap can count and keep track of time, as the trap won’t close unless two of those trigger hairs are set off at the same time or one is stimulated twice within ten seconds. Even better, if the trap was triggered by something inedible, such as a raindrop or a twig, or by something too big for it to catch and hold, the trap gradually re-opens over the space of hours or sometimes days.

Well, that’s the popular legend, and it’s all true. It also leaves out a lot of particulars that can kill the plant if ignored.

Firstly, when looking at a Venus flytrap, it’s easy to see the trap as something growing off the end of a leaf. In actuality, the trap is the leaf, and the “leaf” is actually what’s called a petiole. Although the leaf’s secondary adaptation is to catch and digest small prey, it’s still a photosynthetic surface, no different from a maple leaf in that regard. The reason why flytraps just sit there and wait for prey is because, like all other plants, they’re relatively low-energy organisms compared to animals. They can afford to wait because their main source of energy comes from the classic conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars and connective tissue.

What this means is that if a trap gets set off with prey inside, the plant benefits from the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bug being digested (possibly along with trace elements, but I haven’t found any research to ascertain what else they may absorb), but the actual photosynthetic surface of the leaf is out of commission until the digestive process is complete and the trap re-opens. If the trap closes without capturing prey, yes, the trap will re-open. The problem is that the return on captured nitrogen just barely makes up for the energy expended in re-opening it, and an empty trap doesn’t even get that. Close enough traps at the same time, and wondering why the plant dies is like holding you down, clamping your nose and mouth shut, and wondering why you’re turning purple.

Incidentally, this also ties into a regular complaint I hear about how “my flytrap won’t eat.” The closing process is a very ingenious use of topography, but opening is a simple growth process. Picture it as opening a mostly-closed door by shoving wedges into the crack between hinges until it pops back open. Add enough wedges, and the door can’t shut at all. After a flytrap’s trap has been set off about four or five times, the trap curls slightly and now acts as nothing but a photosynthetic surface. In that regard, it’s perfectly suited for its job, but no force on earth or heaven will get that trap to close ever again.

This doesn’t explain why flytraps kept in colder conditions, such as those going into winter dormancy, are so loath to close, but it doesn’t have to. Between lower temperatures and lower light levels during winter, any trapped prey in a dormancy-bound flytrap will rot before it ever gets a chance to be digested, so don’t worry about feeding your flytrap over the winter. Giving it plenty of light before snow or ice kill off the current year’s traps is good enough.

Next: Step 5 – Feed it hamburger.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 4

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 4: Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.

I have a lot of reasons for hyping fellow carnivorous plant sellers, besides the idea that we’re all in this together. I view Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest as the crazy cousins I never had (well, I have crazy cousins, but not horticulturally inclined crazy cousins), and I enthusiastically turn friends and cohorts in the direction of northwest Oregon when Jacob and Jeff host one of their biannual open houses. This isn’t just because they know their plants and obviously love them. It’s because they’re constantly challenging me. In my old age, I’ve become more convinced than ever that it’s better to be correct than to be right, and they’ve taught me too many times to shut up, listen, and make sure that any questions I ask or comments I make weren’t already answered a week ago. (They also have better stories. I only have to worry about treerats digging up the dragonfruit and geckos hiding in the pitcher plants. They get Pacific treefrogs laying eggs in their aquatic bladderwort tanks and piglets sneaking through the fence from their neighbor’s lot and playing in their lot. The only way I’m ever going to top this is by getting that crocodile monitor after all.)

Anyway, the Sarracenia Northwest tagline is “No terrariums. No myths. No nonsense.” It’s succinct and accurate, and one of the reasons why Jacob and I may be found by palaeontologists 90 million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian fighting dinosaurs. It’s not that he’s wrong. He’s just lucky in that he and Jeff live in a locale where humidity levels aren’t so obscenely low.

One of Jacob’s tenets is that most carnivorous plants can and should be grown outside, in full sun, just the way they do in the wild. He also posits that most carnivores are much tougher than most people assume, and that most adapt to outdoor life much better than expected. He and Jeff offer living proof at their open houses, with growing pools just overloaded with big, bright, sparkly Sarracenia that make my guts ache with jealousy to look at them. Flytraps, bladderworts, and even their beloved Darlingtonia cobra plants…all outside, or maybe under fabric covers if the plant is particularly sensitive to strong summer sun.

To give you an idea on their commitment to researching proper growing traditions, they went into the wild to visit feral stands of Darlingtonia. Tourists may know of the Darlingtonia State Natural Site southwest of Portland, but Darlingtonia californica can be found among seeps throughout the mountains of Oregon, Washington State, northern California, and parts of British Columbia. Darlingtonia is one of the big El Dorados in the carnivorous plant field, having a reputation for being particularly temperamental and likely to die if you look at it cross-eyed. In fact, one of the absolutes that was taught to most carnivore enthusiasts, myself included, is that they can’t handle heat for any length of time. Jacob and Jeff decided to challenge this, taking temperature measurements in prime Darlingtonia habitat and showing that Darlingtonia can handle Dallas-like daytime temperatures in daylight hours with aplomb. (The secret to raising Darlingtonia is that it’s technically an alpine plant, and that it grows in seeps in the mountains fed by snow melt. The assumption was that it needed cool water on its roots at all times: the real issue is how cool the area gets at night. In North Texas, that means lots and lots of air conditioning, because it depends upon the steep temperature drops in the mountains at night, even during the summer.)

This has led to many friendly arguments about whether terraria should ever be used for carnivores. Jacob in emphatic that terraria aren’t necessary, and that he has customers who raise bog gardens in the desert and get great results. I respond that as much as I agree with him anywhere else, some carnivores can only survive in Dallas in an enclosed container. Not only do we receive almost twice as much sunlight as Sarracenia Northwest gets, due to the SN nursery being above the 45th Parallel North, but we also have a dessicating south wind that stops only between October and March. Even on good years for plant-raising, the area regularly drops below 50 percent relative humidity. In bad ones, such as this year, Dallas has lower relative humidity than Phoenix.

Now, you may ask yourself “What does this have to do with the price of cheese?” It’s time for another digression, and a short one this time. Back in 1985, I picked up a 29-gallon aquarium at a garage sale, and promptly drove everyone around me insane with my sudden passion for freshwater tropical fish. While co-workers were sneaking home to read Hustler before their wives and girlfriends caught them, I was sneaking home with the latest copy of Tropical Fish Hobbyist before my roommates knew what I was planning. In the process of learning just enough to be dangerous (and this included keeping, for a very short time in Wisconsin, a red-bellied piranha named “Bub” that would come to the surface to get his nose rubbed), I noted that different authorities gave different advice about the same fish, sometimes in the same book or magazine. That’s when the owner of the sadly defunct shop Neenah Tropical told me “You should never trust the books, because the fish don’t read.”

That’s absolutely true for carnivorous plants, as well. Always take my or anybody else’s advice on keeping carnivorous plants with a healthy skepticism born of actual knowledge. Those of us with expertise will try our absolute best to help, but there’s always the odd exception. If you’re smart, you’ll accept the unique conditions and circumstances in your area that allow success when everyone else falls on their faces. For years, I was able to keep a batch of Darlingtonia raised from seed alive and healthy in Dallas, and I didn’t smirk about how I had special understanding or superpowers. Instead, I stood back and exclaimed in surprise and delight that I’d somehow beaten the odds. And when this kidney stone of a previous summer took them away from me, I took it as an object lesson.

And here’s where I have my very friendly dispute with Jacob and Jeff. I don’t dispute that Venus flytraps are best kept outside. At times, though, they need a touch of help.

In my own experience, I’ve discovered that flytraps grow best when the relative humidity around them stays, day and night, above at least 60 percent. When the humidity goes below 50 percent and the temperatures go above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), they tend to produce small or nonfunctional traps, and won’t produce new ones until either humidity jumps or temperatures drop. When the temperatures stay this high and the humidity drops below 30 percent, which it did quite regularly in North Texas last summer, the plants simply can’t handle the strain and they die. It doesn’t happen right away, and they can recuperate if conditions improve when they start to fade.

Since a typical Wardian case offers that sort of control, the automatic response to this sort of humidity fluctuation is to put flytraps into a terrarium of some sort. As understandable as this is, this is also dangerous for a flytrap. What I’ve discovered the hard way is that flytraps not only require a lot of sun (at least six to eight hours of direct sun) and a lot of humidity, but they also require a LOT of air circulation. This is why Jacob and Jeff recommend raising flytraps outdoors, where they can get the air circulation they need. Put one in a standard terrarium, and the combination of stagnant air and decreased light intensity are doubly lethal.

A second consideration: even if your flytrap does well during the summer, remember that it’s going to need a winter dormancy period. This leaves you with one of two options. You can put the terrarium outside during the winter, which removes any opportunity to enjoy it during the season where you’ll need a touch of green the most, and risks its being damaged by cold or ice. Alternately, you can remove the flytrap and put it into artificial dormancy in a refrigerator, and then spend the winter looking at the hole in the terrarium where the flytrap used to be. Instead, you might be better off enjoying a tropical carnivore such as a tropical sundew: it may slow down over the winter, but it won’t actually require a full dormancy.

A third factor to consider against a standard terrarium: since the air circulation is so poor in most smaller, seemingly flytrap-friendly terraria, putting one in direct sun is a great way to produce Venus flytrap pottage. Terraria, Wardian cases, greenhouses, and just about any other enclosed space can be used to demonstrate the square-cube law. The smaller the volume, the larger the surface area in proportion to that volume. Put a 100-foot greenhouse in the sun as a two-cup terrarium, and the terrarium reaches killing temperatures much faster.

At this point, you again have two options. You could fit your Wardian case with a solar-powered fan, thereby taking care of the immediate air circulation issue. This, though, does nothing about the dormancy situation. Or, or, you could try a container that helps simulate the best conditions for best health for a flytrap. I’ve discovered that large glass bowls, such as very large brandy snifters or even goldfish bowls, tend to work well in combating Dallas-level low humidity. The container can be put in full sun, where excess heat escapes out the top. Humid air is heavier than dry air, so the humidity stays around the flytrap. Best of all, it can be left outside all year, only pulling it under cover when there’s a risk of snow or ice.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was one more catch. This catch is that while flytraps like moist conditions, they cannot handle standing in water for any appreciable length of time. With that in mind, if you try a large bowl, go for one that’s strong enough to handle the peat/sand mix that’s required for flytraps. Again, many experts recommend against using perlite around flytraps under any circumstances, but I’ve found a layer about one inch (2.54 cm) on the bottom, followed by about four inches (10.16 cm)of equal parts milled sphagnum peat moss and high-quality silica sand, works best. Dress the top with long-fiber sphagnum, wet everything so that it’s moist but not soggy, and plant the flytrap on top. Under most circumstances, flytraps in this sort of enclosure seem to do much better during dry summers than unprotected flytraps, and MUCH better than ones in greenhouses or other covered enclosures. But that’s just me.

Next: Step 5 – Set off your flytrap’s traps with your finger.

Horticulture and publishing, part 6

Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.

The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.

When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.

Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.

As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.

Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.

And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.

This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 3

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 3: Water it with tap water.

As related before, I constantly hear from kids who want to know why their Venus flytraps died, but they’re afraid that I’m going to yell at them about their mistakes. Anything but. In fact, I spend a lot of time talking down kids and teenagers who think I’m going to get angry. It’s not just because only an idiot yells at a kid who literally had no way of knowing better, especially when they were given bad care instructions in the first place. It’s also because I’ve been there myself.

My first experience with growing Venus flytraps, or attempting to do so, was similar to those of most kids in the 1970s. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and spotted a “growing kit” in a local Big N, a chain department store. One dollar later, and I had a styrofoam cup full of peat, a plastic bag for retaining humidity, and a basic instruction guide on the lid. Add water, it said, and put the cup in a sunny window and wait for the seeds to sprout. As with Big N itself, the end results were disappointing: the only seeds that germinated were for grass, and to this day, I have no idea whether the company selling these ever put any flytrap seeds in it in the first place. By the end of summer 1977, my cat Morris got the grass, the peat moss was dumped in the garden, and I was leery of any grow-your-own kit for nearly 30 years.

Two years later, my family was living on the south side of Chicago, and I saw my first live flytrap in a garden center. After poking through the flat of flytraps for the one with the biggest and most traps, I settled on one particularly hirstute specimen and took it home. It did rather well through the autumn, but was still green and presumably live when we moved to North Texas. And then everything went kerblooey.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Chicago’s municipal water was extremely soft at the time, particularly compared to what we were going to encounter. In Chicago, the flytrap was doing well, and it survived the move across country to Texas. In fact, it moved in the car along with a travel-loathing cat, a carsick dog, and four hyperactive kids, so I can attest that Venus flytraps are tougher than most people give them credit for being. However, it wasn’t ready for Texas, specifically a little wide spot in the road at the time called Flower Mound.

Now, there’s a lot that can be said about life in Flower Mound at the time, and one of these days I might be able to say it without peppering it with profanities. (This might be a challenge. According to family legend, I said my first words to my paternal grandmother, and those words were “Damn you”.) The one absolute is that Flower Mound got its municipal water from a combination of wells and from nearby Lake Lewisville, a reservoir constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. 90 million years ago, Flower Mound resembled South Padre Island, being a narrow barrier island on the North American Seaway. Today, the area is mostly mesquite and live oak scrub, but a little digging turns up multitudes of fossil shells, gypsum crystals, and the occasional dinosaur.

The upshot of this is that both the wells and reservoir are in what used to be marine sediments, and those sediments were and still are loaded with salt. Lots of calcium and iron, too, to the point where the dissolved iron stained concrete and stucco a bright rust red on surfaces exposed to lawn sprinklers. Even today, the taste of the water is distinctive, and using municipal water for watering houseplants leaves the pots full of thick mineral crusts after a month or so. Sometimes the salt was strong enough to kill cactus after a while.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that while we were holed up in a hotel waiting for the moving truck to schlep our stuff from Chicago, I figured that my flytrap needed a touch of water. It went into the sink for a quick soak and drain, and I removed it and put it back in the windowsill.

An hour later, as I passed by, I saw that the flytrap wasn’t green any more. Flower Mound water had killed that plant in less than an hour, and with no warning.

23 years went by between my last attempt and my revival in interest in carnivores, and I never forgot what happened. Once I discovered what happened and why, when confronted with the “I used to have a Venus flytrap…” lament, I asked first of all “Were you using tap water to water it?”

Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, I refer to the local water as “crunchy”. It’s good for showers and for drinking, but for carnivorous plants, you might as well spray them with napalm and Agent Orange with a Roundup chaser.

The discussion of water quality for carnivores, much like that of the proper potting mixes, can be a point of debate and even anger among enthusiasts. This is often aggravated by varying water authorities in given parts of a larger community, and different sources for said water through the seasons. (Both with friends in Louisiana and with a great-aunt in northern Michigan, they depended during the summer on well water so loaded with iron and copper that anyone drinking it for more than a month was left temporarily ginger. One of those friends had been drinking that well water for so long that she didn’t know she was blonde until she moved to Dallas and her hair faded out.) Therefore, some will swear up and down that their tap water is perfect for carnivores, and that everyone should use it. I just smile and nod, and put in more rainwater collection tanks. The summer of 2011 was so foul that 500 gallons (1,892 liters) of rainwater in early June was down to ten gallons by the time we saw any rain again in September, but using tap water simply wasn’t an option.

Okay, so to play it safe, no matter what: rain water or distilled water. What else?

  • Contrary to popular opinion, “steam distilled water” is not the same as boiled water. Steam distillation means that you boil the water to leave behind the calcium, iron, lead, mercury, and other contaminants in water and then recondense the steam into nearly pure water. This happens in another container, unconnected to the first. The only thing boiling water will do is kill microorganisms and volatilize dissolved gases. It won’t remove minerals at all, which explains why I was honestly gobsmacked when I came across a book on carnivores that advocated this. Boiling water to remove minerals will actually concentrate them in the liquid left behind. Do this for carnivores, and think of it as boiling maple sap of death to make death syrup.
  • Likewise, bottled drinking water is just as bad. Pure water tastes flat to us, so most of the time, bottled water is extracted from a good-tasting source. Said good taste comes from dissolved minerals and gases, many of which may be lethal to your plants in large quantities. Even better, many bottled water companies add various salts for flavor. If using commercially bottled water, make sure it reads “distilled water” instead of “drinking water”.
  • Even when using rainwater, consider the source. Minerals leach out of concrete or stone rooftops or gutters, and they’ll definitely leach out of concrete pools unless those pools are sealed well. Likewise, with the current understandable concern about collecting rainwater for summer use, make absolutely sure that your container is scrubbed and rinsed before it’s used for capturing water for carnivores. That 55-gallon rainwater barrel you liberated from the side of the road may have been used for transporting olives or soft drink syrup, but it may also have been used for transporting hydraulic fluid or soap. Ironically enough, the first two can be just as lethal to your carnivores as the latter.
  • Finally, reverse osmosis filters can be a godsend for those who can’t depend upon rainwater, but make sure that your unit can provide nearly pure water. More importantly, check the filter cannister and its prefilters on a regular basis. Dallas water is particularly rough on reverse osmosis filter operation, and the last thing you want to do is discover that the osmotic membrane blew out after you’ve used the output to water your prize-winning Sarracenia.

With all of this talk about water quality, you want the punchline? Remember that “Grow Your Own” cup I purchased in upstate New York? I’m glad that it didn’t work out. What I didn’t learn until I was older was that most of the available water had rather high levels of dissolved radium in it from the local granite in the Adirondack Mountains, and many of the mineral springs in Saratoga Springs have enough radium per liter that drinking more than a glass per week could lead to radiation poisoning. Just what the world needed: radioactive mutant Venus flytraps on top of everything else. Laverne & Shirley reruns were bad enough.

Next: Step 4 – Keep it in a terrarium.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 2

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 2: Plant it in your garden.

Running a carnivorous plant nursery means you get a lot of interesting phone calls and E-mail messages. This tends to double after a television or newspaper interview. I gleefully drop everything to help out the kids who call because they need help with recent carnivore purchases, because they were usually given nothing other than the “Really Eats Bugs!” schpiel, and they pay attention. (I’ve even had kids who asked for advice show up at Triffid Ranch shows years later, proudly showing off photos of their latest successes, and I suspect I’ll hear from a couple of Nobel winners in another twenty years.) The same is true for elementary and high school science projects, because I’m always amazed and awed by the originality and innovation of the students coming up with particular experiments. And then there are the, erm, others.

Some are just aggravating, such as the woman who demanded that I find a commercial greenhouse that would store her Boston ferns over the winter without charging her for the privilege. Others are a bit daft, such as the woman who needed map directions so she could come over to “buy carnivorous plant food,” and called me a liar when I pointed out that this is a market that hasn’t been touched by Ralston Purina. Yet. Some are a bit obtuse, such as with the woman whose husband saw a plant on television that “he can’t describe and he doesn’t know the name for it, but he wants to know everything about it.” Some elicit sympathy, such as the administrative assistants whose bosses expressed a vague glimmering of interest in getting a flytrap, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t have a plant on the boss’s desk on Monday morning. (Those actually hurt when they call in the dead of winter, and I have to tell them that my flytraps are all in dormancy.) And then there are the ones that leave me absolutely gobsmacked, such as the demand from one individual who drove all the way out to the Triffid Ranch maildrop and wanted me to reimburse me for his gas and mileage because I wasn’t there to let him “see your plants.”

(As an aside, I love you all. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t offer tours of the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to liability issues. If you want to see the plants, you’re more than welcome to come out to a scheduled show, but private tours are something that won’t happen for a while. This had to be stamped in stone after the call from the woman who wanted to come out from Tyler to see plants at her convenience, and her convenience was at 2 in the morning. As I said, I get odd calls.)

The most common calls after “I want to see your plants,” though, are a mystery. At least once per month, and at least four or five times per show, I get a request for carnivorous plants. Not one or two or even a dozen, but pallets full of them. Once, this was for a birthday party where Venus flytraps were going to be given away as party favors. Most of the time, though, I heard the same sentence over and over: “I want to plant them in my yard to eat up all the bugs.” One guy wanted to put a solid line of them around his house to keep ants from getting through. Another wanted them to take out the mosquitoes in his neighborhood so they’d stop taste-testing him when he was gardening. All of them, though, seemed to think that putting carnivores in their yards would act as some sort of shield against insects, spiders, scorpions, hermit crabs, and any other member of the phylum Arthropoda that dared attempt to intrude on human territory. Heck, even my sister-in-law wanted to buy a stand of Sarracenia, because she thought they’d helpfully zap every last bug that came near her swimming pool.

I’m still clueless as to where this misapprehension on carnivores and their pest control powers comes from, unless the assumption is that anything that eats bugs is some arthropod Terminator. (I’ve come across the same assumptions with both purple martin and bat house purchases, even though both purple martins and bats go after much larger prey than mosquitoes. When I explain that the best biological control for adult mosquitoes requires a healthy habitat for dragonflies, they start this funny squeaking and chittering in horror.) I used to try to explain that because carnivorous plants can’t get out of their pots and chase prey, they have to attract insects as food, and said insects could very easily veer off and decide that humans or their food is much better. After one such call, where I was told repeatedly “Well, I was a doctor for 37 years, so I think you’re wrong,” now I just smile and nod and refer them to a much less organic pest control system.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use carnivorous plants as biological controls. You just have to look at a smaller scale, and understand that the bugs won’t leave for good unless you remove the factors that attract them. For instance, Peter D’Amato at California Carnivores relates that he’s heard of people using sundews and butterworts as organic flea traps. Set up a hungry sundew in the center of a room, and put a light directly over the sundew. When the room goes dark, the fleas gather at the light, jump at it and miss, and adhere to the sundew’s leaves. It works to feed the plant, sure, but a more conventional flea control is both more cost-effective and easier to maintain. (Likewise, I heartily recommend using lanceleafed and spoonleaf sundews to assist with controlling problems with fruit flies in kitchen areas. Set the sundew in the kitchen sink at night, remove the cover if it’s in a jar or terrarium, and leave it open all night. In the morning, close it up and put it back in its normal locale to photosynthesize, and each fruit fly it captures helps break the fruit fly life cycle. This, though, is in combination with one obvious fruit fly control: cleaning your kitchen so the fruit flies don’t have any reason to come back.)

The biggest issue with the whole “wall of flytraps” pest control method, though, involves planting them in your garden. Unless your garden is a sphagnum moss bog, with extremely acidic soil that’s nearly nutrient-free, a flytrap’s life expectancy in that garden can be measured anywhere from days to hours. Standard garden soil is usually too alkaline, too dry, and too salty for a flytrap to stay alive for more than a couple of agonizing days. Planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums, or constructing a bug killer berm for them, is a waste of good flytraps.

To get an idea of what flytraps and most other temperate carnivores need, you don’t need to visit Tallahassee, Florida, but an understanding of its weather and soil is almost as good. Tally is situated on relative lowland, with a soil that’s usually about half sand and half humus. Because of the regular and intense storms, the more mellow of which would set off tornado sirens in Dallas, most of the soluble minerals and salts were washed out over thousands to millions of years. The top layer of most bogs in the area is a thick layer of live sphagnum moss, which secretes acid in an attempt to crowd out competing plants. In addition, what little nitrogen that was in the soil is usually trapped in evergreen needles, which is in a form pine trees can use but precious few other plants can touch. Carnivores bypass all of this by getting their nitrogen and phosphorus from insect prey, so their roots rarely get exposure to either element in large quantities. They’re also susceptible to salts, so with most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in garden soil being in the form of various salts (either in various salts in commercial fertilizers or urea with animal manure), standard garden soil will burn their roots right off before too long.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants. That bog garden can be constructed inside a container, a large freestanding pool converted to the purpose, or even a specially constructed area that minimizes the effects of soil nutrient runoff from other areas. Just don’t expect it to offer a magical cure for your mosquito problem.

Next: Step 3 – Water it with tap water.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 1

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 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween.

About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases. Sometimes, they’re in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivorous plant sharing the space. Most of the time, though, they’re in one of the dreaded cubes, or in a similar plastic sleeve or tube. They may come with a basic guide printed on the tube, or a sticker with basic care tips, or simply a label reading “Really Eats Bugs!” The one absolute, though, is that they’re usually stacked up in a well-trafficked area, sometimes with autumn mums and toy bats, encouraging customers to take a chance.

Considering that the nearly universal mantra of one-time carnivorous plant growers is “I had a Venus flytrap, but it died,” it’s not hard to figure out what happens with the vast majority of those impulse purchases. Even if it doesn’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap gradually goes black and appears to die off in November and December, and it gets thrown out or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job.

The funny thing is that most of the time, the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb belowground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves (and the traps are really just modified leaves) for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed.

Now, this dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with precious little warning. Not “may”: “will”. You can attempt to force the flytrap to keep going, by keeping it indoors under artificial lights to extend its photoperiod. What happens, though, is that the plant muddles through for a while. The slightest bit of change in that photoperiod, though, can set off growth of a bloom spike, and the plant dies in the process. In some cases, it doesn’t make it that far, and the flytrap simply blackens and expires. Attempting to feed it over the winter is usually a waste: if the traps even work, and they’ll usually slow or stop their standard trapping response, the flytrap may not be able to produce enough digestive enzymes necessary to break down prey. If you’re lucky, only the individual trap goes black, slimy, and dead. Sometimes, the rot spreads to the whole plant.

The length of time necessary for winter dormancy is just as important as establishing it. A minimum of three months works the best. Here in North Texas, I use holidays as a guide. By Thanksgiving, they should all be arranged outside, and they’ll stay outside in unheated conditions until at least St. Patrick’s Day. For the most part, if they’re being kept in a reasonably-sized pot, they won’t require additional care, other than protecting them from the north wind. If local high temperatures go well below freezing, particularly for more than a week at a time, I cover them with old sheets for insulation, and remove them when the cold snap ends. With last February’s record cold snap, where North Texas generally never got above 16 degrees F. (-9 degrees C), these were the only precautions needed, and every last flytrap at the Triffid Ranch came back without problems. (The record heatwave and drought was a different story.)

Warmer and colder climes offer slightly different solutions. In much colder areas, where the soil can freeze solid for months, flytraps can be dug up and sheltered in an unheated coldframe. (As a rule, unless the top of the flytrap has already died off, don’t put them in an unlit space such as a garage or shed, because any remaining green leaves will continue to photosynthesize.) Alternately, many experts recommend heavy mulching around the flytraps with pine needles or straw. In much warmer areas without extended cold periods, such as around Galveston or in southern Florida, it may be necessary to dig up the flytraps, cut off the tops, carefully wrap the bulb with moist long-fiber sphagnum moss, and put them in the refrigerator and NOT the freezer. Either way, too long of a dormancy period is better than too short of one.

Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes, including Sarracenia pitcher plants and temperate sundews, also need that dormancy period as well or they’ll die. Again, it’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). And whatever you do, resist the temptation to buy that for-sale flytrap at Christmas unless you’ve got room in the refrigerator for it around New Year’s Eve.

Next: Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Introduction

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

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, or asking about a plant that could eat the questioner’s ex-spouse, the comment is always the same. “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.”

What happens next varies. Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the seller’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying or for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some people relate that this happened decades ago, with a plant they purchased from a roadside stand, and others talk about the flytrap they purchased at a Home Depot a few weeks earlier. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die.

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Out of those ten, maybe seven will be amazed to discover that any other carnivores exist, and of the remaining three, they’ve definitely never had the opportunity to examine one. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or “home improvement center,” and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies.

What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their employees honestly don’t know, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good half-dozen species, of at least three genera, that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. Sarracenia pitcher plants get much larger, sundews and butterworts are easier to feed, and triggerplants move even faster when set off. That said, I can understand exactly why flytraps have such an appeal, and they’re an essential part of any properly stocked carnivorous plant collection. You just can’t have a carnivore collection without one.

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy and thriving for years. It doesn’t take any special requirements, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines.

Over the last few years, I’ve built up a list of basic questions to ask when I’m told about a customer’s dead flytrap. With very few exceptions, I can usually pinpoint the cause of death within three questions, and most require no more than two. Over the next few postings, I’ll share those points, so that you can kill your own flytrap with the best of them. Or prevent that from happening, as the case may be.

Step 1 – Buy your flytrap at Halloween.

Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.

Step 3 – Water it with tap water.

Step 4 – Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.

Step 5 – Set off its traps with your finger.

Step 6 – Feed it hamburger.

Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.

Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Now these are the main things to watch for when trying to kill your flytrap. Pay attention to these tips and avoid them, and you’re likely to have a flytrap that lives a very long and healthy life. Most of all, you’ll be the envy of your jealous friends, all of whom will tell you about how “I had a flytrap, but it died.” If you’re a real friend, you’ll pass on what you’ve learned, and they’ll have happy and hearty flytraps, too.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe, y’all.”

Officially, we started autumn nearly two weeks ago. North Texas apparently didn’t get the memo. Oh, we’re no longer skinnydipping in pools of molten concrete, but we’re still in true drought conditions. According to Weather.com, we’re officially registering at 15 percent relative humidity. Yesterday, when the official report was at 23 percent, I measured a whole 9 percent relative humidity next to the Sarracenia growing area. I’ve now given up on trying to grow carnivorous plants, and I’m switching instead to ranching sandworms.

Very seriously, I already have the official position as the Weather Oracle at the Day Job, mostly because I’ve been kindasorta accurate before. Back in April, I was warning everyone that if we didn’t get a lot of rain between then and the middle of June, we were facing one hell of a heatwave. They laughed. I didn’t blame them, seeing as how a weather reporter’s “10-day forecast” makes me see nothing but eighteen shades of red. Now, though, they listen when I tell them I’m worried about this winter. As in “Some say Texas will end in fire, some say in ice.

For people, at least, the current weather is impeccable. The Czarina was a regular vendor at the late Jazz on the Boulevard music festival in Fort Worth during the first half of the Aughts, so we traveled out that way on Saturday night to catch its successor, the Fort Worth Music Festival. The air was the clearest I’d ever seen in Fort Worth in my entire life: no dust, no haze, no water vapor, no burning chemical factories. The moon looked clear enough to pluck right out of the sky, and I fervently wished I’d hung onto my old telescope to take advantage of the spectacular viewing conditions. Normal relative humidity for this time of the year usually ranges between 40 and 60 percent, so the drier air actually made the fest attendees even more mellow and relaxed than usual, and considering that we’re talking about Fort Worth, that’s saying something.

Everywhere else, it was the same story. If people weren’t going out to the park, or to art or music festivals, or to something outdoors, they were cracking open their garages to get some work done on the car while the weather holds. My next-door neighbor was tuning up his Harley, and my best friend was putting more miles on his. As a sudden biological imperative, just about every human in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex decided that it was time to go outside, and for most, that meant anywhere but the mall. The weather practically demanded it.

And that’s what scares me about the rest of the year. I still have very fond memories of the autumn of 1989, which was roughly the same as now as far as temperatures and humidity. My first real autumn-that-never-dies came through that year, and that October really did seem as if it would go on forever. At the time, I was working a night shift manufacturing job for Texas Instruments, so I would stay up until nearly dawn every single night and watch the stars. I was bicycling all through Dallas, so this gave me a perfect opportunity to explore. Even when the first blue norther came through in mid-month and shifted the usual steady wind from south to north, it wasn’t a hard or oppressive wind. True, I was having to water the plants on my back porch a lot more, but I could deal with that.

What I didn’t know at the time, and precious few other people suspected, was that we’d gotten a bit too dry that season. November was chilly, but not viciously so, and I remember Thanksgiving weekend as being just cold enough that when my then-girlfriend accidentally burned a batch of rolls in the open, it was a bit too cold just to open the doors and windows and vent the smoke. Even the early part of December wasn’t nasty.

And then we got what was, at that time, the worst winter storm in our history. Right in time for Christmas, too: officially, we reached a whole one degree Fahrenheit (-17.22 Celsius), which was just unheard of. The snow and ice that came down in the storm didn’t melt off because the ground was too cold, and I arrived at work just in time to be told that the plant was being shut down due to weather. Yeah, folks in Calgary can laugh about this, but it wasn’t just an inconvenience: this was cold enough that anyone skimping on antifreeze had their car radiators melt (or, if they had older vehicles where the hoses weren’t as flexible as they used to be, engine fires). Nobody down here had reason to wrap pipes against the cold, so there went water and sewer lines across the Metroplex. Me, I nearly died from a good wrist-slashing, but that was my fault: since the day was shot, I figured that this would be a perfect time to take care of my then-girlfriend’s birthday present. When picturing this young idiot trying to move a movie poster-sized piece of glass down an ice-covered hill by himself, just label that image “Fools and Horses”.

Now, I’m not saying that we’re going to get another 1989-level freeze. I’m not even going to note that our most extensive precipitation between January and April for the last two years consisted of record snowfalls, and we already had the worst sustained freeze in recorded Texas history this last February. I’ll just be stocking up on weatherstripping for the house, caulking for the greenhouse, wool socks for myself, and insulation for the water pipes in October, while the weather is nice and the supplies are cheap.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that must DIE NOW

In his classic novella “Frost and Fire,” Ray Bradbury described a world of horrible extremes between day and night. Nights were killing cold, and anything caught outside when the sun rose above the mountains burst into flame. The story itself followed the descendants of a band of colonists, all of whom lived their entire lives, from birth to death, in eight days. These people, and their descendants, rushed out as soon as the ice melted and took advantage of the short hour where plant life emerged, rushing back to hide in their caves before the temperatures became too dangerous. In return, they rushed out each evening, retreating only when the cold became impossible to endure.

This, naturally, is a perfect metaphor for life in Texas. Now you understand why Chicago columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La”: I’m slightly ashamed to say that the malls occasionally keep us sane in the worst of our weather. And now that it’s possible to go outside without getting second-degree burns on the insides of your lungs, we’re going berserk.

(Not that the heat is completely done. We recently broke our 1980 record of 100F-plus degree days in Dallas, and we could get a few more before the end of the week. However, it’s possible to go outside in the morning and think “autumn is here” instead of “the next time the weatherman predicts a chance of rain and it doesn’t come through, I’m going to tie him to a tree, get a stick, and use him as a Viking pinata.”)

The urge to get outdoors means that half of north Texas wants to evacuate the hydrogen bomb shelters we laughingly call houses all at once. This means that we have lots of outdoor events. LOTS. Live music shows, hot air balloon races, Renaissance fairs, the State Fair of Texas…heck, even Lewisville takes a break from singing the high school football fight song for a hearty tournament of bobbing for French fries. (Actually, I kid. Lewisville is a lot more civilized than it was when I lived there in the Eighties. I understand the place even has indoor toilets these days.)

Because the weather will, with fits and starts, remain roughly like this between today and Christmas Week, this means that people try to start their own events to go with or compete against existing ones. That’s about the time the Triffid Ranch gets letters and phone calls, from all over, asking about about participating in lectures, fairs, tours, and the occasional Discovery Day. This usually culminates around Halloween, because carnivorous plants just make Halloween a little sweeter. After that, not quite so much, but there’s still a lot to show, a lot to talk about, and a lot to do, and every event keeps me from having to deal with cleaning out the greenhouse. I mean, you should see it these days.

I try to do as many as I can, weather and season permitting, but sometimes circumstances get in the way. (An old friend regularly invites me to show plants at a show she manages in Dallas every year, and the only reason I regularly have to decline is because it runs in February. When all of the temperate carnivores are in winter dormancy and the tropical carnivores are muddling along, waiting makes much more sense.) Sometimes, an invitation coincides with an event already scheduled months or even years earlier. Other times, logistics get in the way, such as with well-meaning invitations well out of state. (The cost of permits for commercial transport of plants across state lines means that there’s simply no way to recoup costs unless the show is huge.) And others…well, it’s about time to talk about that.

Now, one might assume that because we don’t have children that we dislike them. Anything but. Shows for kids are the best kind, because kids ask the best questions. I’ll drop just about anything to show plants to students of all sorts, because there’s something about the light in their eyes when they learn about, say, the bats that roost in Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitchers. Adults try to hide their interest with snide comments and Little Shop of Horrors references, but the kids really want to know.

On another side, many might assume that because of my background in science fiction literature, I’d stay away from science fiction conventions. In fact, I’ve argued for years that most conventions are full of serious gardening enthusiasts who are neglected and ignored by standard garden shows and garden centers. It’s to the point where I’m half-tempted to organize a gonzo garden show, just for the enthusiasts with no time for cutesy garden gnomes and packets of cosmos seeds. I only draw the line at gaming conventions and literary science fiction shows, and that’s purely because of economics. Gaming conventions attract gamers, who generally climb into tournament rooms and refuse to leave for the weekend, so they rarely visit the dealer’s room. Literary conventions are instead full of wannabe writers who preface every sentence with sob stories about how they spent every last penny they had to get to the show: the old Comdex joke about how attendees come out with one shirt and one $20 bill and never change either for the entire weekend is, sadly, far too true for literary conventions.

No, the one absolute is with music. I’m not talking about events where vendors and musicians work together, such as with the Fort Worth Music Festival. It’s the events that advertise a deejay that should be avoided at all costs. The problem is that the deejay who works in a dance club or between sets at a live music venue is mostly interested in getting as many people as possible out on the dance floor, not only freeing up seats along the side but getting everyone hot and sweaty enough that they want lots of drinks. The focus is on the music. At a show and sale, invariably the alleged deejay is some fedora-wearing hipster who’s determined to jam his tastes in music down everyone else’s throats. It’s a sale, so customers try to talk over the horrible whiner rock or Seventies nostalgia trips. The deejay gets hurt that the customers aren’t paying attention to him, so he starts turning up the volume. Customers try to yell over him, so he cranks it up even higher. Before you know it, the decibel level rivals that of an F-16 at takeoff, and potential customers leave because they’re tired of having to scream to communicate basic concepts. The Czarina and I were at a show a few years back where the deejay was so obnoxious that we could only communicate via dry-erase boards, and trying to explain the vagaries of carnivorous plants is nearly impossible under these circumstances.

(I say this because several friends have already brought up the upcoming Etsy Dallas Jingle Bash in November, and I’ve tried to explain that we’re not attending because of the nightmare that was last year’s show. Apparently, the complaints about the deejay racket at last year’s event caused the Etsy Dallas crew to organize a Bash Pass, allowing those willing to pay an extra $20 to shop an hour early without musical accompaniment. While that’s a brilliant way to bring in an additional $1400 for the show, why not skip the access fee, put the hipster back on “funemployment,” and encourage even higher attendance for those with an aversion to Pomplamoose and Marcy Playground?

Silly question, that. Yet another reason to talk about organizing that gonzo gardening show.

And for those with a local show seeking something different, if this tirade doesn’t dissuade you, give a yell. Next year should be a very interesting year.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 4

Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.

And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?

If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.

Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.

Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.

By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.

The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)

Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.

The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.

The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.

One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.

And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.

Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?

Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

Okay, enough hinting around. It’s time to discuss an uncomfortable truth about the publishing industry, or at least the side that covers horticulture and gardening. The growth of the big-box chain bookstore both created and metastasized the current dire situation, and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders only made the situation more noticeable. This discussion will probably infuriate a lot of old-time readers, writers, and publishers, but that’s like stamping your foot in anger at a supernova.

The reality of the matter:

Most horticultural magazines and book imprints aren’t going to survive the next five years A.B.L. (After Borders Liquidation) in their current form.

The horticulture magazine as we know it today probably won’t exist at all in another five years.

The current book and magazine distribution system supplying readers with literature probably won’t exist in its current form in another five years.

Any publisher depending upon its current distributor or audience base probably won’t last the whole five years ABL.

For all of the noise about urban chicken-keeping and the like, making a sudden push for a nebulous “young audience” will probably accelerate any collapse.

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

The reality right now is that you have too many books vying for bookstore shelf space. You have too many books desperately trying to snag the attention of too few readers, and far too many redundant titles competing against each other. That’s just with books in general, of which horticultural and garden books are a subset of a subset that’s lucky to get its own marked subsection in most bookstores. With online sales, not only is everyone drowning in excessive content, it’s that much harder now to tell if a particular book answers a customer’s needs. Bookstore owners and employees understandably complain about their stores being used as Amazon.com showrooms, where customers come in, browse the selection, and buy their selections online. The stores are simply caught in an artifact of the big chain store days, where customers have been trained that if they wait a little bit, they can get the same book for significantly less. This speaks just as much about the decline of discretionary spending in a typical household as in customers not wanting to pay top dollar for a book that may be completely obsolete within five years. In ten years, the idea of people hanging onto huge book and magazine collections due solely to their initial cost is going to be as quaint as keeping music purchases on vinyl.

It’s even worse with magazines, and not just because of the amount of content online for free or damn close to free. The model for magazine sales was that newsstand copies built up enough interest to encourage readers to buy subscriptions, and the subscription money and advertising revenue brought in enough income to pay for printing, production, and administration. Either that, or the magazines ran on the trade publication or weekly newspaper model, where the individual copies were given away for free or at a drastically reduced price in order to get a minimum guaranteed circulation for advertisers. As magazine distributors folded or were assimilated, the number of available venues willing or able to sell magazines kept crashing, until now it’s nearly impossible to buy most print magazines outside of a big-box chain bookstore. At the same time, Borders management in particular encouraged customers to come inside and use the magazine section as a reading library. Some publishers saw actual subscriptions coming in this way, from either the blow-in subscription cards that littered the bookstore floor like autumn leaves or from the constant “Subscribe now!” house ads within the magazines. A lot of others, though, died, especially when Borders followed its usual invoice practice of paying for sold magazines”when we bloody well feel like it”. The current shutdown and liquidation of Borders only accelerated a shell game that was going to fold anyway, sooner or later, and many magazines couldn’t afford to wait upwards of four years for payment for issues long-sold and counted on Borders’s balance sheets. (And that’s with actual sales. Several former Borders employees have related the ridiculous number of magazines with covers ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit, with returns well above 70 percent on many titles. Even with big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast or Time Warner, this sort of expenditure was unsustainable, even if the idea was to get readers who may subscribe at some time in the future.)

With these factors, change is inevitable. Failing magazine publishers can no longer talk about “going on hiatus”, or presume that some rich benefactor is willing to throw away thousands or millions of dollars on supporting a publication that will never be profitable. Oh, it can happen, as with the recent purchase of Newsweek. It’s just not going to happen with the thousands of others. (With the ones whose business plans include either a purchase by an eccentric millionaire or a purchase by a big publishing conglomerate, rotsa ruck. In a few cases, as with one former science fiction magazine editor of my acquaintance who regularly whines about the unfairness of a universe that won’t supply said rich benefactor to keep him employed, the only real response is “Sometimes, very occasionally, the invisible hand of the market is both just and fair.”)

A lot of this change is going to be even more painful than it already has been. A lot of individuals in publishing who have kept gainful employ in the field are going to fight, the way newspapers fought against the Web as being “just a fad,” as one big newspaper publisher put it in 1996. In the last fifteen years, the potential market for newspapers has dwindled to the point where the average reader age is well above 50, and anyone under the age of 20 looks at the idea of getting news and information from a newspaper with the same incredulous awe as the idea of listening to AM radio or using a television with a manual channel selector dial. Books and magazines are going to go the same way, but only if we let them.

In the following collection of essays, I’ll try my best to look at viable options for horticulture publishing, but I’m definitely staying away from the one-fit panacea “We’ll put it online.” E-book and E-magazine publishing is an option, but it’s not the only option. The technoweenie fantasies of Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, where you give away everything for free and somehow make up the cost in volume, aren’t going to work, at least without other mechanisms available to pay contributors and staffers. Neither is simply saying that publishers need to embrace some nebulous younger market, without talking about how that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to have The Answers, or even some answers. All I want to do is light a fire under a few of the right butts, because I don’t want to see a collapse of my favorite publishers any more than you do.

Beyond the poinsettia and the Venus flytrap

As people who have attended previous Triffid Ranch shows can attest, the one carnivorous plant that’s in short supply at shows is the Venus flytrap. It’s not that I have anything particularly against flytraps: the flytrap is, after all, the definitive carnivorous plant. It’s just that while everyone asks to see one, they generally don’t sell.

One of the reasons why they don’t sell, to be honest, is because of their bad reputation as a difficult plant. No matter the circumstance, when I bring up the plants in conversation, I get two responses. The first, big surprise, is “Have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?” (I have a very dear friend who is an exceptional soapmaker, and she’s as bone-wearingly tired of references to Fight Club as I am of references to Little Shop of Horrors. I’m probably the only person who could get away with cracking wise “This…is a chemical burn” when she gets a lye burn, but I last did that in 2003, before she’d actually seen the movie. If I tried that now, she’d make sure to let me see the inside of my brain before I died.) The other phrase that always comes with a discussion of Venus flytraps is “I used to have a flytrap, but it died.”

At this point, I have a checklist that’s now comprised of eight different possibilities that could have caused the demise of those poor flytraps, and I can usually hit the exact cause of death by the third. (In Dallas, I rarely go past “one,” but that’s because Dallas’s municipal water is so laden with salts that it’s best described as “crunchy”.) That complete list is for another day, but it highlights why I don’t recommend flytraps as a beginner’s plant. They’re very particular about their light levels, the quality of their potting mixes, and their water quality, and that’s before discussing their need for a winter dormancy. Instead of arguing, though, I’d much rather recommend other plants, such as spoon-leaf sundews (Drosera spatulata) or terrestrial bladderworts (particularly Utricularia sandersoni), that are much better for a beginner.

To be really honest, another reason why flytraps are a bit lacking at Triffid Ranch shows is because I really only need one. Everyone asks if one is available, but it’s solely to attempt to trip the traps. I really can’t stress this highly enough: tripping traps on a flytrap, just to watch them close, is a Really Bad Idea. As recent research has confirmed, every closed trap is a photosynthetic surface that’s unavailable to the plant until the trap reopens. Do it often enough, with or without prey, and the plant dies, as it uses about as much energy reopening the trap as it would have gained in photosynthesis over the leaf’s lifetime. When I explain that this really shouldn’t be done, and that the plant is better off catching its own prey in its own time, most people lose interest. Again, if the fascination is with the motion, Australian triggerplants will reset their blooms over and over after being set off, and won’t die if too many blooms get set off.

This month’s Today’s Garden Center magazine contains the last reason. Kevin Yanik’s article “Pushing Past the Poinsettia” sums up the issues many independent garden centers have every Christmas season, when big box stores in the US are overloaded with what are called “99-cent poinsettias”. At the end of November, those big stores are packed to the gills with pots of poinsettias, which may sell for 99 cents with or without a comparable purchase. Not only does this make things impossible for those stores that can’t get fantastic bulk discounts, but it also devalues the plant. Poinsettias are fascinating plants in their own right, but it’s amazing how they’re unappreciated when they only sell for 99 cents. It’s no wonder that more and more garden stores are looking at alternatives: they want to make sure that you’re happy with your purchase, not only one that lives longer than a month or two, but also one that makes a great impression upon you and upon passersby.

This is the same situation with standard flytraps. Grocery stores and hardware stores are full of flytraps around Halloween, and they’re meant to be as disposable as poinsettias in another two months. If they don’t actually die from inadequate instructions or inadvertent neglect with light or water quality, they go into winter dormancy around the end of November, and most people assume they’re dead and pitch them. There’s absolutely no reason why a flytrap can’t thrive for years with proper care, but they’re still presented as quick impulse purchases and are priced accordingly. Enjoy them for a couple of months, pitch them, and buy a new one the next fall.

Unfortunately, as we all see, a lot of new flytrap owners are so traumatized by the deaths of their plants that they never take a chance with another carnivorous plant. They don’t know what killed the first plant, and they don’t want to take a chance on another dying for the same unknown reason. That’s completely understandable, and why I went for over 20 years between my first flytrap and my second. There’s also that understandable suspicion about price: if it’s that cheap when on the shelf at Wal-Mart, then something must be wrong with it. When the plant dies two weeks after it comes home, that assumption is completely reasonable.

This is why you don’t see lots of flytraps at Triffid Ranch shows. I’m glad to bring them out for customers, especially those who want some of the more intriguing cultivars such as “Red Dragon” and “Cupped Trap”. I just also know that most of my customers are beginners, and I remember all too well what it’s like to be a beginner without any adequate knowledge on proper care of a new plant. Hence, it makes more sense to introduce fellow beginners to plants that can take a bit more roughhousing. They’re happy, I’m happy, and the plant is obviously happy. Now, when you’re ready, come back for the flytrap. I’m in no rush.

Introducing Hylocereus costaricensis

In what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in recorded Texas history, there’s a few bits of good news. Namely, it’s a remarkably good season for dragonfruit cactus.

Hylocereus costaricensis

The genus Hylocereus is one of the two genera of true cactus raised commercially for food: the other being the prickly pear Opuntia. In the US, two varieties generally appear for sale in Asian markets and high-end grocery stores, and both are sold under the common name “dragonfruit”. It’s not hard to see why, between the color and the scales, as shown below.

Dragonfruit

The difference between the two is really only obvious when you cut one open. H. undatus has white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. H. costaricensis, though, is a brilliant red-purple, about the color of fresh pomegranate juice, with the same black seeds. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which variety is which solely based on the rind, but it really doesn’t matter as far as the flavor is concerned. First-time dragonfruit eaters are often disappointed at the seeming lack of flavor in the ripe fruit, as it’s really subtle, but the crunchy consistency makes up for it. (I personally prefer it well-chilled, quartered, and served with the rind on the back of each segment, but it’s also a great addition to fruit salad or smoothies, and dragonfruit jam is apparently quite popular in England. I’ve heard of recipes that involve broiling dragonfruit like grapefruit, but dragonfruit doesn’t last long enough around the house for this to be an option.)

Sliced dragonfruit

With one big caveat, both commercially available varieties of Hylocereus are very easy to raise in propagation. They can be grown from seed taken from ripe fruit: my best results have come from mashing a chunk of the fruit gently with the flat of a knife, smearing the pulp atop standard potting compost, and keeping the compost moist but not wet. The only real problem with this method is that the resultant seedlings are very slow-growing, and they tend to be rather susceptible to large changes in environmental conditions. A much more dependable method of propagation involves cuttings, and considering how often branches break off, simply putting the cutting atop a pot full of compost can produce a full-sized plant within a year instead of three to four for seedlings. Most branches grow aerial roots whenever the ambient humidity is above 50 percent, so just sink those into the compost and watch the plant take over.

As a potted plant, H. costaricensis makes a spectacular hanging basket. In the wild, Hylocereus climbs trees with the help of those aerial roots clinging to bark, but it also apparently sprouts in the crooks of large trees or rocks and hangs downward. Since it’s a tropical cactus, Hylocereus cannot handle sustained freezes, and should be brought into shelter when the outdoor temperatures drop below 40 degrees F (4.44 degrees C). Since it adapts very well to both standard pots and hanging pots, though, this generally isn’t a problem. The typical cactus spines are both small and fragile in Hylocereus, and don’t appear to set off any sort of allergic reaction, but be cautious all the same. Other than giving it full sun to light shade whenever possible, these cactus are very low-maintenance: I water whenever dry, and fertilize with bat guano about once per month.

Hylocereus costaricensis in hanging basket

Remember the caveat mentioned before about dragonfruit propagation? If you’re planning to grow any Hylocereus, don’t expect the cactus to start blooming until it gets big. Most growers report that the individual plants won’t bloom until they weigh at least 10 pounds (4.53 kilograms), and some varieties may not bloom until the total weight of the plant is over 20 pounds (9.07 kilograms). The good news is that unlike most other cactus, Hylocereus is self-fertile, with some plants producing fruit without being pollinated at all. They’re also apparently capable of producing viable hybrids within the genus, leading to quite the entertaining assortment of cultivar names, ranging from “David Bowie” to “Physical Graffiti”. In addition, the night-blooming flowers are huge, resembling giant white versions of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) and very sweet-smelling.

The only complaint I have about raising Hylocereus is minor. Namely, growing them is addictive. Expect to see several plants at next month’s FenCon show, and we can all sing Ministry’s “Just One Fix” together.

Tell it to the bees

Tapdancing around the elephant: the Triffid Ranch has become quite the wildlife refuge as of late. The Czarina fills up hummingbird feeders in the evening and they’re half-empty within 24 hours, thanks to the (at least) three species of hummingbird visiting them as a regular foodsource. The Mediterranean geckos move inside the greenhouse in the evenings in search of water, and wait for their prey to follow suit. I figure that the anoles will take over the greenhouse during the day, especially when they see the new mister I put inside. I’ve even seen hints that Harold the possum sneaks inside for a quick drink of water, because he won’t close the greenhouse door. And then we have the bees.

Local honeybees scrambling for water

Somewhere within a kilometer of the main Sarracenia growing space is a hive of honeybees. I don’t know if they’re from a wild hive, or if a neighbor decided to domesticate a swarm. I’m not particularly worried, either, because they’ve done a spectacular job of visiting every last bee-pollinated flower in the area. It’s just that you can tell how hot it is based on how many bees are collecting in the pots: most evenings, anywhere between 75 and 100 bees can be found at any given time, and they may be even more prominent during the height of the day.

More honeybees

You may be asking about why they’re visiting pots instead of open water sources of all sorts, and you’d get several answers. The first is that bee tongues are very good at drawing up liquids via capillary action, and that capillary action works just as well in very moist peat as in a bowl of water. The second is that they can draw up that water without worrying about drowning or being snatched by an aquatic predator. The third? Well, it’s that this area is reasonably permanent, and bees are creatures of habit. Sure, they might be attracted to overflow from lawn sprinklers or condensation from car air conditioners, but those are temporary sources that are usually only available for short times during the day. The pots, though, will be there all day long.

Back in the mid-Eighties, my father and I kept bees in our back yard in Flower Mound, and we made a point of setting out a birdbath and keeping it full at all times during the height of the summer. The reason is that while gatherer bees may be collecting water to keep the rest of the hive hydrated, it’s also to keep the hive cool. When things get too hot inside the hive, you’ll see workers at the entrance, frantically fanning their wings to force hot air out of the hive. If the temperatures don’t go down, gatherers return with stomachs full of water, which they regurgitate on the floor of the hive. Between the fanning and the evaporation of that water, this is usually enough to keep internal temperatures stable until after dark. This requires both a lot of water and a steady source, hence the birdbath. On bad days, they could drain it in six hours.

That said, I think it’s time to set out a couple of shallow trays for the bees. They’re working hard enough as it is, and I definitely want to encourage them to come back once the fall growing season starts.

Introducing Proboscidea louisianica

As with any standard garden, 2011 had such promise for the Triffid Ranch. As with any standard garden, 2011 proceeded to make fools of us. We’re not losing whole crops out here the way West and Central Texas are, but that’s mostly because I had the opportunity to invest in a near-tripling of the previous rainwater cache, and that’s the only reason why half the plants aren’t dead. Many of the experiments were utter failures, and others survived for a short time before collapsing in the freeze in February or the early stages of the June drought. Not all has been a failure.

Surprisingly, the biggest success this summer wasn’t in the usual contenders. It’s been a banner year for exotic Capsicum peppers (including surprising successes with Bhut Jolokias, still considered one of the world’s hottest), and I’m getting ready to start more in preparation for this autumn. The real surprise, though, was with a species I was told was extremely hard to start: Proboscidea louisianica, also known as the unicorn plant or the devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica, the devil's claw

As Stewart McPherson notes in his book Carnivorous Plants and Their Habits, Volume 2, Proboscidea is problematic. In many ways, it appears to be carnivorous, as it attracts and captures various small insects on the bottoms of its leaves. However, nobody has found evidence either of actual digestive enzymes being produced by the plant, or of an animal proxy (as with the South African plant Roridula that does the digesting in the plant’s stead. McPherson notes that the leaves and stems secrete a considerable amount of mucilage, with an odor that attracts mosquitoes and fungus gnats. I’ve also noted that under UV light, the leaves have a very high fluorescence: even more so, in fact, than its blooms. P. louisianica may not be a full carnivore, but it’s definitely leaning that way.

Anyway, after being warned repeatedly by such authorities as Peter D’Amato that getting Proboscidea seeds to germinate was very difficult, I looked on with my usual hubris, said “Let me give it a shot,” and ordered a package from the International Carnivorous Plant Society seed bank. Due to weather fluctuations and prior commitments, I wasn’t able to sow them until the end of May, and I suspect that a consistent soil temperature of above 75 degrees F (23.88 degrees C) for at least thirty days is a major factor. Next winter, I plan to experiment with heat pads intended for sprouting tomatoes and peppers, in order to remove the possibility of light influencing germination.

The plants themselves were stunted somewhat by the dryness, but 14 out of 16 seeds sprouted, with 12 plants alive today. Throughout May and June, they produced large numbers of pink, yellow, and white flowers, which bore markings resembling a mouth with teeth. These were exceedingly popular with both bees and wasps, with both jostling each other for pollen. By the beginning of July, the first fruit formed, which helped explain the common name “unicorn plant”. The pods look much like okra pods, but with a long, thin extension at least as long as the rest of the pod. As they matured, they split from the tips of the extensions, explaining the other common name: devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica seed pods

A quick note to anybody interested in CGI effects for film or video: I’ve been joking all summer that devil’s claw pods look more like an early ship design proposal for the Nineties science fiction show Babylon 5 than anything floral in origin. Have fun.

Devil's claw seed pod

Most articles on Proboscidea suggest that the seed pods evolved to take advantage of Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths and ground sloths, for seed distribution. It’s easy to understand why. Most devil’s claw seed pods have two prongs, but occasionally they’ll show four. At the tip of each prong is a very strong and very sharp claw, which have no problems with snagging on fur, hair, clothing, and bare skin. Even though the direct evidence is lacking, the surmisal appears to be sound, as these dried seed pods are ridiculously strong as well, and could drop off kilometers away from where they were picked up by an inattentive mammoth.

Devil's claw interior

The interior of the seed pod, though, is just as interesting. Each pod noted so far has four seeds that hang very loosely on the inside of the pod. Those tend to break free with the slightest jostle, such as from the removal of a pod from the plant stem, and scatter on the ground immediately underneath. (If you’re trying to collect seed from your own plants, I highly recommend putting a plastic bag around the seed pod before trying to remove it.) The others, as shown in this photo, remain locked inside for a time, and are gradually shaken free. As McPherson suggests, this not only allows the plant to drop seed in a known area amenable for Proboscidea growth, but also to take it far beyond its original range. This helps explain why Proboscidea ranges throughout the southern and southwestern US, into Mexico, and down into South America.

Now, most accounts of Proboscidea note that the unripe seed pods are edible, but I haven’t taken the chance to find out. That may come later: as with tomatoes, Proboscidea seems to die back slightly in extreme heat, but produces buds that expand later when growing conditions are more suitable. This fall, I’ll get to find out if this hypothesis is accurate. More details will follow as the year continues.