Tag Archives: triffids

Thursday is Resource Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“Poised, Keep Cutting Away”

Ken Thompson at the Telegraph recently wrote a column that hit a personal spot of white-hot rage in my heart: the constant portrayal of gardeners, horticulturalists, and botanists in fiction as dull and dowdy. Naturally, he’s absolutely right: even with the ones intended to be interesting, most characters with a passion for plants have other major failings. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may have a brilliant detective mind, but she presents herself as a batty old woman much more interested in fussing over the garden and knitting. Nero Wolfe may be both a genius detective and an orchid fanatic, but he’s also a neurotic agorophobe who only leaves his townhouse when absolutely unavoidable. Freeman Lowell is insane, Edward Scissorhands is socially retarded, Tom and Barbara Good are summed up with a very evocative speech by Adrian Edmondson, and the less said about American botany student Perpugilliam Brown, the better. The only even remotely exciting horticulturalist in fiction in the last century? Well, I’m biased, but I’d have to say Bill Masen, for obvious reasons.

The reality is that Mr. Thompson is angry about this cliche, and for the right reasons. Anyone who thinks gardeners and botanists are a tweedy lot obviously hasn’t known a lot of them. Yeah, we’re obsessive and sometimes a bit scary, but I like to think in a good way. I just like to tell people about famed botanist W.D. Brackenridge, the first botanist to describe the cobra plant Darlingtonia. The story has it that he found himself in the area around Mount Shasta, California, chased by very hostile natives with an armful of Darlingtonia specimens, noting while running for his life that butterflies were very interested in the pitchers’ distinctive tongue. And let’s not forget John Gould Veitch: this guy was willing to take on samurai for his plants. Non-plant people might think carnivorous plant expert Stewart McPherson‘s obsession with tracking and photographing carnivores in the wild to be dangerous and risky, but there’s not one of us in the field who, if we got a call to accompany him on a new expedition, who’d say “Sorry, but I have to stay home and prune the roses.”

As a final note, think gardeners are dowdy and dull? Share the news that the US Air Force is open to bids on energy weapons for weed control. Just look at it at face value: energy weapons for weed control. Picture your next-door neighbor with a phase plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, and now picture the demented rictus of glee on her face as she sends hackberry seedlings and nutsedge back to Hell. You’ll never again wonder what she’s doing with that Garden Weasel, because she’ll probably go Akira Kurosawa on your liver if you give her any grief.

What has to aggravate Mr. Thompson and myself the most isn’t just that this perception continues. It’s that this affects not just the general public’s perception of gardening, but the perception by businesses that would sell to us. Science fiction enthusiasts rightly get bent out of shape over the presentation of Cat Piss Man as the archetype for science fiction fandom, but what do gardeners get? The assumption that nobody under the age of 60, unless s/he’s severely broken in some way, has any interest in gardening, so (with one very prominent exception) there’s no need to try to sell to anyone else. Walk into a garden center with a leather jacket or motorcycle boots, and the staff will tell you the restroom is in back and the other customers will tell you to put their purchases in the backs of their cars. (I say this from experience, and I even had one woman at North Haven Gardens in Dallas blow up on me when I told her that I didn’t work there, as if that was my fault.) While the gardening trade makes lots of noise about getting younger gardeners into the hobby, it’s still pushing books, magazines, and supplies almost exclusively to the septugenarians, even as I’m seeing more reptile and amphibian enthusiasts getting into horticulture by way of raising live bromeliads and ficus trees for arrow poison frogs and chameleons. The market is out there, and it’s as far away from the popular media cliche of the gardener as you can imagine.

Even better, it may now be time to push a bit harder and follow another respected English tradition. Not only do I figure that gardening needs a bit of a perceptual revolution, but it needs a full shakeout and the opportunity to go in strange and wonderful directions. I’m still collecting ideas and possibilities on where to go (I keep joking about starting a gonzo garden show called the “Arsenal Flower Show”), but it’s time to build a brand new Bromley Contingent for the botanically inclined. And what else did you expect from someone whose favorite gardening song is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”?

The horror, the horror…

Lots of hyping of this weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park in this blog’s future, and I hope everyone can deal with it until after the show is over. In the interim, here’s something to give you an idea of what to expect. Last May, the exemplary local photojournalist Mike Kinney came out from our CBS affiliate to shoot some video, and this is what he got for his trouble.

And before anybody says anything, I know, I know: I have a voice that Fran Drescher finds nasal and annoying. I’m trying to rectify that, with an ice pick if necessary. However, considering that I’m also one of the few people on the planet whose driver’s license photo is preferable to real life, I chalk up the voice as yet another one of my character flaws. On the bright side, though, this is yet another bit of news reportage that states my name without starting with the words “convicted chainsaw murderer and cannibal” and ending with “…before being taken down by police snipers.” This annoys my sister to no end, and I plan to keep doing so for years and years.

Have a great weekend

A particularly appropriate song, considering that the heat and the pollen count are both going to be insane this weekend:

Have a great weekend

The Triffid Ranch in the news

For those in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, a quick heads-up. CBS DFW is running a short segment on the Triffid Ranch during its 4:00 newscast today, and it may run later. Either way, when the segment is available online, I’ll let everyone know.

EDIT: It’s now online. Why does nobody tell me that I sound like Fran Drescher on helium?

And now, your moment of wonder

They’re everywhere!

Have a great weekend

In the tradition of acquaintance and force of nature Jack Bogdanski, have a good weekend. (For me, it’ll be the first free weekend in well over a month.)