Tag Archives: Projects

Interludes and Background

It’s been a while since the last update, what with just-finished shows and other events. Let’s rectify that, shall we? After all, Midtown Artwalk is a little over a week away, and Black Friday is two weeks from now…image
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Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 3

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

Want to know what’s going on? Start from the beginning.

We’ve got the growing container situated and the plants selected, and now it’s time to wrap up everything. This means that we need to add the little touches that distinguishes this arrangement from just any toilet garden. When selecting accessories, think “What would Janit Calvo and John Waters do if they were landscaping partners?” and run with it.

When first planning this project, I was considering any number of figures for the bowl. Submarines,  plastic gerbils, crabs…oh, the possibilities. Then I came across an officially licensed Creature From the Black Lagoon kid’s bank at Keith’s Comics in Dallas, and it was all over. Since Empire Pictures never got around to licensing official Ghoulies merchandise, this will have to do.

Bog GardenImportant Tip: While carnivorous plants love lots of sun, that sun may be decidedly unfriendly to many varieties of plastic, or to the paint atop the plastic. Before putting a beloved model in a garden, spray it down with at least one good coat of a UV-resistant urethane spray, either gloss or matte. This won’t stop the inevitable wear and dissolution, but it’ll definitely slow the inevitable fading and changing of paint colors and preserve some of the plastic’s flexibility.

Important Tip: When working with hollow plastic items, weighting them down can be an issue. Metal as a weight isn’t an option, because most metals best suited for the job will either corrode or leach into the potting mix. I recommend using standard glass marbles: not only are they chemically neutral and resistant to weathering from immersion in a bog, but you can adjust the placement and angle of the figure by letting the marbles find their own level.

Bog GardenSince that original clump of Venus flytraps was ridiculously large, I gently broke it apart and spread both those and one invading Drosera binata (coming from seeds produced this summer) across the bowl. By this time next year, the flytraps would be spread across the top of the bowl., obscuring the base of the original. Maybe one of these days, when I have a tub to work with, I might expand on the figures, but right now, this is just the right size without overwhelming the bowl or making everyone ignore what’s growing there.

And because when it comes down to bad taste, I horrify spouses, friends, family, and casual passersby, this arrangement needs one last touch. Namely, considering its name, it needs something Scottish, as well as a reminder of this actor’s breakout role (video clip probably not safe for work, and definitely not safe for lunch). Now, with a different arrangement, I might have gone with a Darryl Dixon figure, because who else can forget Norman Reedus’s encounter with a flying toilet in the film Boondock Saints?

Bog GardenImportant Tip: For those wanting to add action figures to a miniature garden, take into account that many figures today have battery-powered features such as sound chips or LED lights, and you do NOT want the batteries corroding in your planter or arrangement. Some offer easily replaceable button batteries, which is a start, but removing anything metal from the figure would be a better idea unless you knew for a fact that it was completely sealed and watertight.  Discussing the hows and wherefores on removing electronic augmentations from toys is well beyond the scope of this article, but I recommend getting a watch case knife and a bottle of your favorite superglue before starting.

With all of this done, all that’s left is to enjoy it. This is the scene that greeted my lovely wife when she came home that Sunday evening:

Bog GardenIf this doesn’t scream “true love,” I don’t know what will. I’m not talking about the Bog Garden itself. I’m talking about being left alive to write about it. I really shouldn’t tell her about the Aldrovanda tank I’m making from a bidet.

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 2

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

Want to know what’s going on? Start from the beginning.

Naturally, a toilet garden isn’t a garden without a commode, but a toilet garden without something in it is just an ugly porcelain structure that accumulates squirrel droppings and produces mosquitoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if you’re particularly inclined to new taste sensations, but let’s stick with the project at hand. Last installment, we cleaned out a commode and made it more plant-friendly, and now it’s time to introduce the plants.

The biggest problem with working with a large porcelain structure is drainage. Even with bog-friendly plants, such a small area filling up with, say, a typical Texas gullywasher thunderstorm can be problematic for anything more terrestrially-inclined than water lilies, aquatic bladderworts, and Aldrovanda. The issue here is making sure that the tank and bowl retain water, but not too much water, and that depends upon your locale and general rainfall.

For most carnivorous plant growing in North Texas, the best thing to do with the water tank on a toilet garden is to seal it up. Plug up both the outlet where the flapper used to be, and the hole where the inlet valve used to reside, with rubber corks, wads of plastic, or anything else that strikes your fancy, and seal the plugs with aquarium silicone or plumbing-grade epoxy putty. HowEVER, should you live in Houston, Tallahassee, or any other locale with significantly higher levels of rainfall, having a bit more drainage might be desirable. The trick, of course, is to allow water to leave without taking planting mix with it. Let me introduce you to the bog gardener’s secret weapon, landscape fabric.

Landscape clothMany landscaper and gardener friends consider polyester landscape fabric to be of the devil, with many cursing its use in courtyards, garden edges, and all sorts of other locations where removing it five and ten years later is one’s idea of the perfect eternal punishment. Personally, I look at that perfect eternal punishment as removing Bermuda grass from a flower bed, but that’s only because Bermuda indirectly tried to murder me in 1982. I can agree with the nightmare that is pulling up buried landscape fabric, but for container gardening and terraria, it’s the perfect separation layer. For instance, for those wanting to put down a layer of perlite in a terrarium to encourage drainage, a sheet of some sort of separation layer is absolutely essential to prevent the perlite from floating to the surface with a stout rain. Likewise, it’s a cheaper,  more durable and more ecologically friendly material for covering the bottoms of bonsai pots than window screening, and it does a much better job of keeping soil from running through the drainage holes. It can be cut with standard scissors, into just about any shape you want, and wadded, wedged, and prodded into irregular surfaces. I picked up about five rolls of a discontinued green landscape fabric, recycled from used soda bottles, about two years ago, and even with all of my recent projects, I should have to get more fabric around 2018.

In this case, one big sheet of landscape fabric goes down into the bottom of the tank, allowing water to run out the former inlet valve hole. Should you want to conserve water, or add to the total effect, simply plug that hole and allow water in the tank to run out through the outlet, and it’ll go straight into the bowl. Oh, won’t that be a lovely look during the first stout rain.

Now, the bowl is, strangely enough, easier to work with. In areas with lots of rain, just put a sheet of landscape fabric in the bottom, wide enough to retain soil, and leave the pipe intact. The U-bend in the bottom of the bowl will retain enough water to keep the plants in the bowl from drying out right away, and excess will drip out as the U-bend fills. If you’re not looking forward to snide comments about leakage and jokes about WOW! potato chips, then you can block up the pipe. Anyone with a five-year-old can make suggestion on great materials for blocking up a toilet bowl: my brother can tell the tale of trying to flush an empty toilet with buckets of silver paint (please don’t ask, as the statute of limitations only recently expired), but I know from personal experience that the best material around comes from dry cleaning bags.

Personal interlude: friends can’t understand why I can’t watch the IFC series Portlandia, even after I explain to them that “comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else.” Nearly two decades later, I can say that my signature Portland moment came one day in the spring of 1997, when my now-ex came down with a horrible bout of stomach flu on a Sunday morning. That’s bad enough in itself, but the toilet line to our floor and the two above us was completely jammed because one of my hipster neighbors had decided to entertain himself by flushing plastic dry cleaning bags down the john the night before. Since this was a Sunday, the owner of the building first told us that we’d have to wait for work to be done on Monday, and begrudgingly called for her maintenance man, also known as her nephew, to come out and take a look. He showed up in a suit and tie, as he was he was heading to the Portland Opera, and told us that he couldn’t do anything before he had to be at his event, because our building handyman and plumber didn’t want to ruin his new shoes. It was only upon pointing out to the owner that a nonfunctional toilet line made the apartment building unfit for human habitation, and Oregon law required that the property owner would have to put up her tenants in hotel space until such a time as repairs were made, that she relented and paid Sunday rates for a real plumber. Her nephew got to the opera on time, my ex had use of a functional toilet, and the hipster neighbor apparently was still there, flushing grocery bags this time, after we finally escaped about six months later.

Filling the Bog GardenWith that done, it’s time to start putting in plants. Atop the landscape fabric went about a liter of perlite, and then another layer of landscape fabric to keep it in place. Immediately after that went just straight peat. You can add sand to the mix, but that not only adds significant weight to the final planting, but it’s not really necessary.

And the plants? Never let it be said that studying ikebana techniques for live plants never paid off. It would seem to make perfect sense to put short plants in the tank and big flowing ones in the bowl, but planting tall ones such as Sarracenia in the bowl would block off and prevent appreciation of any smaller plants behind them. I finally opted for three species of Sarracenia in the tank to keep up the Heaven/Man/Earth balance necessary for a decent ikebana arrangement. Those wanting to set up an indoor arrangement for tropical species might want to invert this, with a Nepenthes pitcher plant draping from the tank while the bowl contained pygmy sundews or Cephalotus. It’s completely your call.

Sarracenia purpureaThe first was a very old friend: Sarracenia purpurea, the provincial floral emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador. Considering how squat S. purpura remains, it’s perfect for “earth”.

Sarracenia minorThe second is a species not seen as often in carnivorous plant collections because of its slow growth and fussy temperament about low humidity. Sarracenia minor has more in common with its very distant relation Darlingtonia californica on the west coast of North America than with most of its cousins in the southeast. In both species, they have deep, dark hoods and small transparent windows (officially known as fenestrae) along the back of the hoods, so insects inside the hood fly toward the fenestrae, bounce off, and get trapped within the pitcher. This one is three years old, and it’s only now coming into its own: when carnivorous plant experts refer to this species as slow-growing, they aren’t kidding.

Sarracenia leucophyllaThe third is so obvious that it shouldn’t need an introduction: Sarracenia leucophylla, the white pitcher plant. The tallest of the North American pitcher plants, considering how much these glow under a full moon, its placement here should be obvious.

Sarracenia medley

Before finishing up, take into account a very important consideration about planting. When putting in plants, take into account both growing habits AND the possibilities of soil settling after a while. I recommend filling the tank and bowl with wet sphagnum, letting it drain for a bit, and then adding more water to fill any air pockets. Also, unless you like cleaning up peat stains around your new planter, try to keep the soil in the bowl and tank at least two centimeters below the edge. This way, unless you’re getting the classic Texas or Michigan thunderstorm, incoming rain has a place to go without washing out plants. When you live in a place that can get ten centimeters of rain within 30 minutes, you have to take these things into account.

For the bowl, its U-bend makes it perfectly suited for one particular carnivorous plant that loves moisture but hates having soaked roots. I’m not saying that toilets were designed for growing Venus flytraps, but you have to wonder, you know?

Venus flytraps Meanwhile, while all this was going on, I looked up to find an observer other than the anole lizards running around the back yard. Our very own Cadigan had to add her commentary, and give me her absolute best GrumpyCat impersonation.bog_garden_10262014_14 CadiganYou don’t have to be a telepath to know what she’s thinking right now: “Oh, when Mom gets home, you are SO dead.” Naturally, she had to lead the Czarina to the bedroom window, as if to say “Looooooook at what heeeeeeee diiiiiiiiiid…” With a cat like this, I don’t need children.

More to follow…

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 1

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

I freely admit that I risk sudden and terrible death at the hands of my beloved wife with some of my garden ideas. I fully subscribe with the attitude of famed director John Waters that an appreciation of bad taste requires very good taste, because you have to know WHY you’re laughing. This is why I don’t engage in many horticultural and landscaping trends beloved by my ancestors. My paternal grandmother, for instance, would never have considered saving old tractor tires and turning them into planters for the front yard; at least, not until they had at least two good coats of bright pink latex paint before they were loaded with fill dirt and seeded with cosmos. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Unfortunately for her, my ability to go completely deadpan and her natural innocence (she was once told that she should look in the dictionary in her high school library, because the entry for “gullible” had her picture next to it) means that it’s remarkably easy to mess with her. On a trip to Alberta years back, she spotted a gate bracket on the side of a pine tree that looked remarkably like a spigot, and I explained that this was for collecting pine syrup. After all, all we good Canadians used pine syrup on their pancakes, and only kept around maple syrup for Americans who couldn’t handle the good stuff. When she realized I was joshing her, she showed her sexiest trait: that vein in her forehead that pulsed when she was angry. This time, it was pulsing like the lights in a goth club during a God Module show, and I knew then that this was something I wanted to see again and again.

This is how the whole discussion on converting a used toilet into a carnivorous plant pot started: the desperate need for more phlebotic strobing. After a while, it became an in-joke that only made sense to us, much like talk about getting a lathe or my spending the mortgage money on drugs. (I’ll explain later.) Driving through the neighborhood on Large Trash Day and noting neighbors  doing extensive house renovations, she’d usually see an abandoned commode three blocks up, and even before I could turn to her to make a suggestion, she’d just yell “NO,” as if I were an English sheepdog looking for a good dry library in which to shake off eight hours of snow and ice. After a while, it became a game to spot it first and then focus on something she’d be more likely to accept putting in the back, such as that wheelbarrow full of black market livers and kidneys that went bad when the power went out. “Say what you want,” she’d sniff, “but at least we can cook and eat those.”  I neglected to tell her that my plans for toilet renovation included turning a big metal prison toilet into a barbecue grille, complete with it playing “Ring of Fire” when you started it up.

(As I write this, my beloved is out with friends. I know  she’s thinking of me, though, because I can hear that vein, playing “Your True Face“. Nyarlathotep help me if she thought I was serious.)

The reality, though, is that putting together a toilet planter, at least once, teaches many valuable lessons for other, less worrisome gardening projects. The first is understanding how to work with unconventional planters. The second is learning how to roll with punches when these unconventional planters don’t work out for the originally considered purpose. The third is getting an understanding of the difference between a planter and a plant arrangement. The fourth? Exactly how far you can go before spouses, neighbors, landlords, and municipal code authorities say “Okay, we’re done” and put you in a big can until spring. If you’re lucky, they’ll poke holes in the top before sealing you in.

Bog GardenThe whole mess started years back, when I got into an online discussion with friends about unconventional planter sources. I’ve seen some beautiful Sarracenia planters made from old clawed-ball bathtubs, and the discussion went rapidly toward conversion of sinks and other fixtures. That’s when I realized that, in many ways, a commode was halfway to perfect for the purpose. It had drainage that could be blocked up, as anyone with an enterprising five-year-old could tell you, it was already water-impermeable, and it’s available in any number of eye-catching colors. This was the conversation where I realized that a spare urinal would make a great planter for Nepenthes pitcher plants, dragonfruit cactus, and other saprophytes, but it’s best not to say anything now. That’s a project for next week.

After years of joking, nuhdzing, and putting up with her own vagaries, the Czarina finally relented. I could do it, so long as I didn’t work on it in the house, it wasn’t visible from the street or the house, and that it would be temporary unless I wanted to move it into the greenhouse. I agreed: unless someone was paying for a custom assignment, this would have to remain a proof of concept project, because I definitely didn’t have room to set up more than one without building a new greenhouse.

And so it came that a house on my Day Job bicycle commute just finished a renovation job, and the Czarina let me have the car for another errand. I checked it out before snagging it: no obvious byproducts of human metabolism, no black widow spiders nesting inside, and no once-loved toys caught in the U-bend. A quick run with the hose, and then the work could begin.

Bog GardenThe biggest problem with the conversion, strangely enough, wasn’t with stopping up the main outflow drain. That could be done with any number of things, and I was tempted to use a cannonball to add to the strobing. (Long before we ever formally met, she had a neighbor in her apartment building nicknamed “Cannonball.” He got the nickname not because he used a Civil War-era cannonball as a sex toy, but that he’d apparently forget he’d left it in until he got up in the morning for his morning constitutional. After the second time he knocked a fist-sized hole through the bowl, he got evicted, and he apparently became a standard by which bad tenants were judged ever since.) The real issue was with all of the gear that made this American Standard such a gleaming example of sanitation science. It couldn’t stay in, both because of the potting mix and said mix’s acidic effects on the components. I once heard that the best way to understand dinosaur anatomy was to dissect a chicken while you were eating it, and if I didn’t already have teeming respect for plumbers, I would have in the process of unscrewing, unbolting, and prying off the apparatus in the tank.

Bog GardenHere’s a good idea of what needs to be removed: the flapper, the float valve, the float, and the seat. You may think that leaving the seat intact is essential, but trust me: it’s not. That seat will yellow and blister in the sun, it’ll get in the way of watering and cleanup, and it will generally make a mess. You could permanently affix it upright with epoxy putty, but “permanently” is a shaky concept in gardening, and would you want your favorite plant crushed because that “permanent” adhesion gave out at the worst possible time?

Bog GardenLooking from the interior of the tank, you’ll notice two big brass bolts, the outlet leading to the bowl, and the hole on the right that was where the float and float valve used to be. The flapper pipe can be removed by unscrewing it, but the float valve is attached to the tank thanks to a big nut, usually plastic, on the underside of the tank. Take the time to unscrew all of this properly: you don’t want to go through all this effort only to crack or shatter the tank because you got impatient and used too much force.

Oh, and about those two big screws. These are brass, which when left in may contaminate the potting mix at the bottom of the tank. However, if you take them out, there’s suddenly nothing keeping the tank planted atop the bowl. You have quite a few possibilities for sealing these up, but I’d recommend covering them with an epoxy putty so as to minimize contact. The two actual holes will be dealt with later.

Now it’s time for the seat. The seat is held onto the bowl with two nylon screws on top and two matching nuts on the underside, with slots just the right size for a Swiss Army knife screwdriver blade. The screws are covered with caps to keep ordure from building up in the slots, and that’s when I discovered new advances in toilet technology. Apparently, kids taking apart their toilets is enough of a problem that these screws had child-safe caps, requiring a hard twist to the left before they could be pried off. All I thought upon seeing this is that I missed out on a great opportunity when I was three or four to make sure the whole family had stories for the next family reunion. You know, the one to which I wasn’t invited because I swiped the toilet seat to go sledding, and shredded the finish after being dragged around an icy parking lot by an 18-wheeler.

Bog GardenNow that the easy stuff is done, it’s time to remove the flushing lever. To keep people from wandering off with the handle, the handle and lever are held in place with a square nut set. That set needs to be removed before the handle can be removed from the tank, and make sure you realize that this set has counterclockwise threads. Forget this and use a stout wrench to remove it, and you’ll probably shred the whole assembly. And don’t think about just leaving it in, either: that whole lever is brass coated with copper, meaning that combining it with the highly acidic potting mix in a carnivorous plant garden will probably kill your plants. Just junk it, or keep it as a novelty backscratcher.

Bog GardenNow that the lever is gone, you’ll have to consider what to do about the hole left in the side of the tank. Unless you plant below its level, every watering and every rain is going to lead to excess water, with lots of dissolved tannins from the peat, dribbling out of it. As disgusting as excess leakage of the usual sort may appear, the jokes after about three years worth of peat staining will just write themselves.

Bog GardenWell, time to get back that novelty backscratcher, and grab a hacksaw with a metal-cutting blade while you’re at it. Before you do anything, though, remove the nut and bolt arrangement and put it back in place in their old location. Just make sure to face the outfacing bolt in the right direction, for reasons explained momentarily.

Bog GardenMeanwhile, get to work with that hacksaw, and cut the flush handle from the flush lever. Leave a stub, and pitch the rest of the lever. Run the stub through the bolt hole, make sure that the flush lever is pressed as close to the tank wall as possible, and secure the other end with either silicone sealer or epoxy putty. Whatever you do, make sure that everyone understands that this is for show, not for go, and that as much as they want to sing Gwar’s  “Jiggle the Handle” (Link not even remotely safe for work or sanity), doing so would be a very bad idea.

Bog Garden

Bog GardenAnd while we’re at it, don’t forget the bottom. That disgusting-looking mess on the bottom isn’t what you’d expect: this is the remnant of the wax seal used between the toilet and the sewer pipe. Scrape it off or don’t: it really doesn’t matter, as you won’t see this end of the final arrangement. If you’re planning to move it somewhere after you’re done, though, I recommend cleaning it off, or else you’re going to get toilet wax all over you the first time you move it on a warm day.

Now, directly underneath the bowl is a hollow, left there both to prevent cracking or explosions in the kiln with a solid piece, and to cut down on weight for transportation. It’s completely up to you if you want to put a weight, such as poured cement, into this space, but considering how top-heavy a toilet can be, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

After all of this is done, it’s time for a good stout cleanup. Don’t be afraid to use a scrubbing brush and bleach, but try not to use anything metal as the metal can mar the finish. If the toilet is particularly encrusted with lime, rust, or calcium deposits, you may have to go for something stronger than elbow grease. I very highly recommend CLR, but if it isn’t available in your area, any analogue should work. Whatever you use, even if it’s just ammonia and vinegar, rinse out the toilet very well when you’re done. And then do it again. And a third time. Yes, it seems excessive, but do you really want chemical residue in among your Sarracenia or Heliamphora?

One of the good things about cleaning porcelain is that thanks to bathroom fixtures, we have lots of possibilities for cleanup. I personally found a very low-grade brand of liquid dishwasher detergent that does wonders on porcelain with the help of a scrub brush, and its low-suds tendencies make dedicated scrubbing very easy. The bottle on the left is of a now-discontinued brand of Dawn dish soap that advertised itself as a “bleach alternative”, and it works so well on paint smears and rust stains that I bought every bottle I could in anticipation of the day I couldn’t get any more. All four of them, and no, you can’t have one.

Bog Garden cleansersFinally, and this seems to surprise many gardeners, but big top-heavy planters tend to be a bit ungainly when they’re moved or the ground shifts underneath them. Combine the weight of the original container, roughly double that with the weight of potting mix and water, and add a slew of plants that you just might not want to macerate while righting your falling and failing pot, and you might want to keep the phone number and Google Map of a good doctor on hand. When used for their stated purpose, toilets are bolted to the floor because it’s effectively riding atop the sewer line. The particularly unlucky might have had experiences with using commodes in restrooms with rotting or otherwise failing floors, and they’ll all sympathize with Shipwreck Kelly after a few minutes.

Barring the urge to bolt your bog garden to a concrete porch, which can be done if you really love the whole idea, a stable base is essential. For this one, I used thin cinder blocks left over from another project, but you can go with stone, wood, thick ceramic, or even plastic slabs such as plastic shipping pallets. What matters is that the base is at least as long and wide as the toilet itself, to spread the weight, and that it’s not made of anything that can separate as it settles. If you don’t, expect to find your creation lying on its side, or possibly smashed to bits, after the next storm.

Bog Garden baseMore to follow…

Renaissance Circles: Ginkgoes and Fruit-Eating Crocs

Ginkgo

A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.

This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.

Dr. Peter Crane

Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.

Ginkgo leaves

The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.

Ginkgo

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.

And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.

DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.

Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.

The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.

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

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

Gerrold's Vindication backdrop

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

Gerrold's Vindication detail

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

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

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

Gerrold's Vindication detail

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

Projects: Living in the future

One of the side effects of last weekend’s show at the Perot Museum was the realization that there’s not really an easy way to show people the inside of a pitcher plant, no matter the particular genus or species, without a bit of help. Sarracenia pitcher lids can be bent back a bit, but it’s hard for a group to get a peek inside without risking damage to the pitcher. It’s even worse with Nepenthes pitchers, and trying to do some investigation of Cephalotus pitchers? Forget it. This requires a bit of technology.

The question started up yesterday afternoon, when a trip to the allergist made me think “What about an endoscope? I mean, if you can use one to view the inside of someone’s trachea, how hard can it be to get one that can be slipped down a carnivorous plant pitcher to view the inside?” All of a sudden, the possibilities: surveys of prey items and their numbers, searching for various animals living inside, investigating the difference in prey caught at night and during the day, all without having to cut the pitcher open.

That’s when an old friend in New York turned me onto USB-ready endoscopes, complete with adjustable LEDs for illuminating the view. They’re already waterproof for viewing plumbing issues, so they’re absolutely perfect for getting into the equally slimy and grungy environment found inside a Nepenthes pitcher. Better yet, between getting live video through a computer screen and taking screen captures, presentations at museums and schools just got a LOT more interesting.

Thank you, Pat, for the help. Now I need to find a really small one, otherwise with the same features, for getting into really small plants. It may be time to look further at Nepenthes ampullaria as a tadpole nursery.