Tag Archives: winter dormancy

Sarracenia in Bloom…Kinda

Sarracenia buds

We all thought that by this time in April, winter would be dead. I’ve lived in Texas for nearly 35 years, and the last serious bout of freezing weather to hit this late happened the spring before I moved here. Most years, we could be assured that the last freeze was done before St. Patrick’s Day, and that April would be nothing but balmy mornings and rainy weekends. This has been a rather unorthodox winter.

Sarracenia buds

I wasn’t the only one affected by this, being struck with a bout of flu after last March’s All-Con that took a solid month to fend off. Several winters in the last decade were so mellow that both Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps didn’t get enough of a winter dormancy to keep them from blooming once and then dying. This year? All are only now starting to bud, and as of this evening, only two Sarracenia flava had opened their blooms. It’s not just the Sarracenia, either: most of our native trees and bushes are so far behind that they also only started blooming within the last two weeks. At the rate we’re going, we’ll need snowblowers to clear off the drifts of pollen in the streets.

Sarracenia buds

And are we done? Of course not. Three days after taking these photos, the temperature took a dive once again. The middle of April, and we’re looking at one last two-day run of freezing, and the Sarracenia are too far along to cover without damaging the bloom buds. Of course we’re getting one last freeze, only three weeks until the next big show. Of course.

Iced Sarracenia – 4

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 3

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 2

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 1

Iced Sarracenia

Nearly a week after Icepocalypse 2013 started up, the snow and ice are finally leaving, and with them, touches of beauty. The cold guaranteed that the Triffid Ranch’s collection of Sarracenia pitcher plants went into a full winter dormancy this season, as opposed to Dallas’s “Winter Without A Winter” 12 months ago. In addition, the ice came down hard and just liquid enough that it froze on available surfaces as clear as epoxy, leading to beautiful views in the early morning night. I don’t want to go through this again any time soon, but at least some good came out of the extended freeze.

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

End of Sarracenia Season – 4

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

End of Sarracenia Season – 3

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia purpurea

End of Sarracenia Season – 2

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

End of Sarracenia Season – 1

Sarracenia

And so the Sarracenia growing season ends. Last week’s surprise but not completely unexpected hard frost finally put paid to the taller growth in the Sarracenia pools, and they don’t have much longer until all of them go brown and die back. Considering the weather forecast for next week, with lows pushing freezing, we’ll get a classic Sarracenia autumn: lots of brilliant color as the traps die off, and then quiet until spring.

Sarracenia

One of the benefits of the heightened color is that the insects still around are even more mesmerized by the coloration, and the plants have no problems taking advantage of the arthropod bounty. This way, the plants get one last boost of nitrogen and phosphorus before the winter sleep, and in anticipation of large and healthy blooms in March. More than at any other time during the growing season, this is when passing by a Sarracenia stand yields the odd sound of flying insects attempting to fly or climb out of the pitchers, only to have the shape of the pitchers produce a downdraft towards the depths every time they try to fly out. The pitchers also act as acoustic horns, so that angry buzzing travels a lot further than one would expect.

Well-fed Sarracenia

And what’s in the pitchers? This time of the year, it’s usually a combination of moths and bees, both attracted by the pitchers’ fluorescence under UV and by a particularly generous secretion of nectar along the lid and lip. This year was surprising, though, because a significant number of traps also caught at least one stink bug at a time. I don’t know if they were attracted by the nectar or the promise of a hiding spot, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that next year’s stink bug population drops every time the plants feed.

Well-fed Sarracenia

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 3

The theme for the end of the season, from what should have been the most influential song of 25 years ago:

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Oh, and remember my noting a couple of years ago that those Dunecraft Carnivorous Creations kits might not be as productive as advertised? Well, here’s a firm demonstration of the problems with growing carnivores from seed. The seeds from which these seedlings sprouted went into the pot back in April, and they’re only now that large. It’s possible to grow carnivores from seed, but be prepared for a long wait. (I admit that I love telling kids who ask about the Carnivorous Creations kits that if they can get their seeds to germinate, they’ll still have to wait at least three to five years in most cases before they have full-sized plants. The kids are shocked, but you really need to see their parents’ expressions for real comedy.)

Sarracenia seedlings

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 2

Halloween’s over, and even in Texas, that means that winter is due at any time. The first big blue norther that officially announces the arrival of real autumn should hit by Saturday night, and the trees are already changing color thanks to our recent rains. Sadly, that means that the resident Sarracenia should start dying back and changing color themselves before too long. This means that standing outside during a full moon and marveling at the brilliant glow from the leucophyllas is just a dream until next April, but so be it. A good winter dormancy, and they’ll come back even stronger than last year.

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

Sarracenia

As an extra, I regularly rave about the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, as one of the toughest carnivorous or protocarnivorous (depending upon your prespective) plants available to beginners. Here’s a demonstration. In spring, they started blooming, and didn’t let up all summer. By the beginning of August, when just about everything else was dying off or simply baking, little S. debile was blooming and growing. Now, with the sun fading and the outside temperatures dropping below what most tropical carnivores can handle? It’s still blooming. Next year, if everything works well, S. debile will be joined by a whole flotilla of new triggerplants, but this little monster is still one of my favorites just because of its tenaciousness.

Stylidium debile

Putting the Sarracenia to bed – 1

I’m not even going to think about suggesting that the drought may be over. I won’t even suggest that it may be easing. That said, our gullywasher storm on Saturday was followed by mist all Sunday and thick fog on Monday, the humidity is more evocative of New Orleans than Dallas, and we’re getting warnings that October 30 might end with severe thunderstorms. In other words, what we used to call “a typical Halloween season”. Compared to last year’s dust-dry autumn, nobody’s complaining.

Since this exceptional weather, in classic Texas fashion, usually precedes unnaturally cold or stormy weather, the last couple of weekends went into cleaning out and modifying the new greenhouse. That included putting in just short of two tons of rainwater as thermal mass, resealing gaps and potential weak spots in the greenhouse film, and putting down new flooring. Friends scream, not unreasonably, about how much they hate weed cloth in garden beds, but this stuff is wonderful for allowing excess condensation seep into the soil under the greenhouse while preventing popweed clover from taking over the whole place.

With the improved weather, it’s time to say goodnight to the Sarracenia. Although the pitcher plants still attract and capture insects, they won’t be doing so for long, as the insects are either dying off or going dormant for the winter. Because of this, the Sarracenia follow the lead, gradually dying back over the next month until they’re dormant about the time we start getting killing frosts in December. They’ll stay that way all winter, only coming out of dormancy around St. Patrick’s Day when it’s time to bloom. Until then, all I’ll have are pictures, but it was a good season for Sarracenia, and we can only hope for a better one next year.

Sarracenia

Sarracenia leucophylla

Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia

Introducing Sarracenia flava

The joke all throughout Texas goes “Don’t like the weather? Hang around for five minutes.” Our reality isn’t much better. While not getting the rain we were promised (as of this week, we’re now facing the driest spring registered in North Texas since 1971, and we’re heading straight toward Year Three of the worst drought seen in the state since the “drought of record” in 1952-56), Saturday was average for the area and the time of the year. Then Sunday hit, and it’s time to pull out the winter coats and gloves again. By Monday and Tuesday, we faced low temperatures below freezing, which isn’t a big deal further north, but here? I’ve lived here for two-thirds of my life, and I apparently missed our last big late freeze in 1997 by being trapped in Portland, Oregon at the time.

Anyway, the cold coming through so late in the year couldn’t have hit at a worse time. The plans to set up the new greenhouse went into standby, as the winds on Sunday were ferocious enough that attempting to install greenhouse film would have whisked me to Oz or at least to Nehwon. The citrus trees and the new blueberry, recently purchased to replace the “Pink Lemonade” blueberry bush that died during last year’s fall immolation, went under cover, as did all of the hot pepper bonsai just trimmed and wired. I couldn’t do much for the Sarracenia in their wading pools except trust in their ability to handle light frosts, but I pulled in two yellow pitchers, Sarracenia flava>, inside to protect their new blooms.

Sarracenia flava

Early spring isn’t a good time for control freak carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly those engrossed in Sarracenia. As mentioned elsewhere, all of the North American pitcher plants go into dormancy by mid-November, and we got enough cold, including our freak snowfall on Christmas Day, to kill off most of the autumn pitchers by mid-January. That’s not a problem, because come March, they grow more. What to do about the scraggly mess hiding the blooms, though?

Sarracenia flava

At this point, the best thing to do is cut off anything that’s gone brown and evaluate any new growth, as well as remove weeds that sprouted up at the same time. In this photo, you may note that this S. flava still has a kindasorta live trap from last year, even if the top is burned off, and two new tall pitchers starting to sprout. If you’re trimming yours back, leave anything that’s still green attached to the plant, especially this time of the year. The plant needs every last photon it can capture to get a good start on the year, so as tempting as it is to snip those half-traps, leave them on until they actually die off.

Sarracenia flava

While giving these guys their new spring tonsorials, taking the time to go through it carefully has its reward. Hidden among the wreckage wasn’t just a tiny little pitcher that emerged at about the time the plant bloomed, but a handful of violets sprouting in the sphagnum moss. The pitcher was interesting in its own right: because most of the pollinators for Sarracenia are also potential prey, most plants bloom and only start opening up traps after the blooms fade. This little pitcher, though, was probably working hard at catching mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and anything else it could snag, passing on what nitrogen it could from digestion to the main plant while the main pitchers started to emerge. It stays, but unfortunately the violets are going to go…probably into a bog garden arrangement. The flowers don’t last long, but the leaves have their own merits if they don’t burn off in the summer heat.

Sarracenia flava bloom

Speaking of blooms, the only thing more impressive than Sarracenia traps are their blooms, and this one helps explain why the common name is “yellow pitcher”. The traps tend toward chartreuse, but the blooms just blaze. In the years I’ve kept Sarracenia, I’ve noticed these blooms ranging from canary to a very light green. The scent tends to be a bit like cat spray, which can be a bit overpowering in enclosed areas, and I’ve heard of problems with cats assuming that the analogue is the real thing and attacking bog gardens for that reason. These, though, were all completely odor-free, but I’m not sure if that was because of the bloom or the insane lack of humidity in the area at the time. However, look at them under ultraviolet light, or even under a good full moon, and get a good idea of what a pollinating insect sees.

Sarracenia flava bloom

When most people see Sarracenia blooms, the understandable concern is that the plant traps bees, wasps, and other big potential pollinators. As mentioned earlier, the plant produces its first traps after the blooms open, to remove the risk of snagging a freshly pollen-covered wasp and thereby preventing its genes from passing on to new generations. The bloom is a trap all on its own, though, but not a fatal one. The bottom cap or shield seen in this photo protects the flower’s stamens from rain and wind, and the only way in is through slots in the cap. Those caps are covered by the petals, which are about as strong and stiff as cling wrap or chunks of burst balloon, so an insect seeking nectar or pollen can push the petals aside and get in under the cap. Problem is, the petals also conceal the slots once the bug is inside, so it tends to wander around for a while, getting dusted with pollen both from the stamens above it and with loose pollen within the cap. I’ve seen honeybees escape a cap that were absolutely antiqued with fresh pollen, and there’s enough in an individual cap to expedite the pollination of a whole stand of pitcher plants.

Eventually, the fun ends. When the flower finally gets pollinated, the petals drop off, other insects wipe up the excess pollen, and the seed pod in the interior swells, matures, and then dries out. By the end of summer, I gather the mature pods, stratify them in the refrigerator over the winter, and then pot them in fresh sphagnum moss in spring. And the cycle continues.

Upcoming Shows: ConDFW XII

ConDFW

And speaking of upcoming shows, for years, I held off on having any Triffid Ranch shows before the end of March for weather reasons. Anybody who ever spent the second half of winter in North Texas understands the situation. Last year, for instance, the beginning of February was warm, sunny, and cheery, as someone who never lived here would expect would be the default weather condition. Exactly one year before that, the whole area was locked in a week-long ice storm that shut down everything. That ice storm was so big that it nearly canceled the Super Bowl at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The year before that? The heaviest snowfall in Dallas history, where a full foot of snow took out power over half of the city and gave the Czarina the chance to make her first snow sculptures.

With the possibility of the North Texas equivalent of being buried alive in a snowdrift, a February or March show became a risk. Most if not all of the larger temperate carnivorous plants are still locked in winter dormancy, and won’t come out until at least St. Patrick’s Day. Tropical carnivores tend to fuss and drop dead when exposed to a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures, such as encountered when Dallas’s Central Expressway becomes a luge track. Hence, waiting until the likelihood of a last-minute snowstorm recedes in the calendar makes a lot of sense.

When asking “So what changed your mind?”, it’s easy to say that last year’s experiences with ConDFW encouraged another run. I might also mention that ConDFW XII runs this year in a much superior hotel, where the dealer’s space is MUCH more accessible. That’s not the real reason. The real reason has everything to do with ConDFW’s convention chair, Amie Spengler.

See, back in early 1999, at the height of my writing days, I received an invitation to be a guest at AggieCon, the long-running science fiction convention run by and at Texas A&M University. The details of that three-day weekend are long and sordid (let’s just say that being trapped on a panel with Bruce Sterling mooing “It’s on the Viridian List! Have I mentioned the Viridian List?” over and over some 50 times in 60 minutes is something that even Dick Cheney would find offensive), but what stood out was the professionalism of the student volunteer staff. Those kids were fast, they were efficient, and most of all, they were on the ball. Having survived many a convention in those days where programming and even hotel spaces were things to be fussed about another day (my favorite was the convention in Oregon with some four different event schedules for guests and attendees, and none of them synched), you have no idea how much fun it was to watch this in action.

Back then, Amie was just a volunteer. Now, she’s the convention chair. Go buy her a drink at the show, because she and the rest of the ConDFW staff earned one. See you there?

Lullaby and good night, close your big bloodshot eyes…

For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.

If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.

Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

We made it to the end of March. No last-minute snowfall. No end-of-month freezes or frosts…yet. Oh, the trees and weeds are determined to wipe out all animal life with pollen, but that’s not quite the disaster of the big snowfall in mid-March 2010. And what do we get for our reward? Sarracenia blooms!

I once had an English professor who stated that everyone should write as if a new writer were given a total of three exclamation points to use over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t disagree, but I always felt that a better solution was inspired by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman”, with the writer relinquishing a year of life for every exclamation point used. Naturally, if this rather draconian example actually ever saw use, you’d see millions of YouTube and political site commentators dropping dead days after turning 15, but there you go. When it comes to Sarracenia, though, I willingly give up a year to emphasize the joy. In fact, let’s give up another one: THE SARRACENIA ARE IN BLOOM!

Sarracenia bud

The trouble starts with these little flower scapes. They’re usually an excellent guide to air and soil temperatures, and when I tell customers that the Sarracenia generally won’t be for sale until after St. Patrick’s Day, it’s because I’m waiting for these to come up out of their winter dormancy first. Since the various species in the genus Sarracenia usually depend upon the same insects as pollinators as for prey, they generally put out their bloom spikes first, and then start growing pitchers.

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

This isn’t to say that this is an absolute. Since many of the Sarracenia are still recuperating from last year’s drought, many stressed plants will forgo putting out flowers and concentrate instead on growing new pitchers. Incidentally, this photo was from a week ago, and the pitcher spike in the background is now nearly twice the size of its neighbor. If our current benevolent and humid weather continues, this one may have pitchers as much as a meter tall by the end of April.

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

But let’s get back to the blooms. A typical Sarracenia bloom is about the size of a ping-pong ball, with a large cap on the bottom. As with many other flowering plants, Sarracenia attracts pollinators with both color and scent. Sarracenia alata, the yellow pitcher plant, tends to have blooms with a rather cat musk smell, which both seems to attract cats and repel raccoons. Others range in fruity and rosy scents, including several that, as Peter D’Amato noted to considerable merriment, smell almost exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. I don’t laugh at him when he says this, because he was understating the case.

Now, the cap and the petals work together to capture insects, but not in the way you’d expect. The bloom’s anthers are within the cap, so insect pollinators have to force themselves through the petals to get to the flower’s nectar. The petals block the entrances merely by dint of hanging free, so the bug runs into the anthers repeatedly while trying to get out. The cap also captures pollen knocked free from the anthers, so the bug gets a Shake & Bake treatment by the time it finally gets out and goes to another pitcher plant bloom. (Among other things, this may help explain why Sarracenia species produce so many natural hybrids, as visiting insects are simply covered by the time they work their way out.) The plant doesn’t want to capture them permanently for their nitrogen: any carnivorous plant that captures its pollinators before said pollen can get to another plant isn’t going to be in the gene pool for long.

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

Not that this stops other plants in a clump (or, in this case, a nursery) from taking advantage of another’s pollinators. In this case, the little brown spots on the lip of this hybrid Sarracenia‘s pitcher are ants, all getting drunk and falling into the pitcher. Considering the huge colony of ants hiding out in the roots of a cactus on the edge of the growing area, this Sarracenia is going to feed very well this spring.

And now, back to the nursery. Among other things, it’s time to learn how to use this cell phone camera properly.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a little while since the last time we had a good “Thursday is Resource Day” entry, and this one probably won’t be a good one. It, however, should be enough to get everyone through until the next one, as things are starting to pile up around here. Seriously, blame the plants, because our recent run of warm weather woke up everything, and I’m now up to my armpits, almost literally, in “Pink Lemonade” blueberry flowers.

Anyway, to start off, things got very interesting in the Dallas/Fort Worth home and garden show market all of a sudden. Ever since the original company running the Texas Home & Garden Shows shut down and was bought out, both the programming and the general lineup at the shows has been progressively worse and worse. Remember a while back, when I was joking about organizing and starting the “Manchester United Flower Show” for gardeners under the age of 65? Over the last few months, it was seeming more and more reasonable.

And then, completely by luck, I discovered the Great Big Texas Home Show, being held this weekend in Arlington. Any home and garden show that offers a refund for dissatisfied customers already piques my interest, as does the list of exhibitors. Were it any other weekend, I’d brave the horrors of Cowboys Stadium parking to come out for this and check on exhibitor’s space for smaller vendors.

Unfortunately, this is a bad weekend. To attendees of the show, understand that the vague grinding sound you hear in the back of your head is the sound of my molars doing their best impersonation of the New Madrid Fault in sheer jealousy. I’m being a responsible grown-up, though, and continuing to get ready for the second Triffid Ranch show of the year at All-Con in Addison. It’s now late enough in the season that the flytraps are emerging from dormancy, the Sarracenia are starting to bloom, and we’re reasonably assured that we won’t see any more freezing weather until next December in North Texas. Hence, it’s time to party. Come on out and watch me regale the younger attendees with tales of what science fiction fandom was like in the days before the Internet, and maybe check out the plants, too.

And now for a bit of fun. I’m constantly asked “Why raise carnivorous plants?”, and the long story involves growing up in Michigan with its extensive mosquito and horsefly herds. You’ve heard the old tale of how Arctic mosquitoes can drain a person of as much as a pint of blood per hour? Spend some time around Alpena or Manistee, and you’ll realize that this isn’t idle speculation. My paternal grandmother lived up in the woods of Northern Michigan, and I remember her buying Deep Woods Off by the case. Hence, when I was first exposed to Monty Python at the age of 11, I had particular appreciation for the saga of the mighty mosquito hunter:

Well, thanks to our unusually warm and mild winter, our early spring, and several bountiful and extensive rainstorms, the mosquitoes are out about three weeks earlier than usual. I’d even be worried about their being more fruitful than usual, if every last one in the vicinity wasn’t heading straight for my sundews and butterworts. I still note that carnivorous plants will never replace standard pest controls for dealing with insects, but carnivores have one morale advantage over sprays, mosquito dunks, and flyswatters. Namely, you can look over a hale and hearty Cape sundew, leaves covered with trapped mosquitoes and fungus gnats, and make “AAAAAAAAAH! HELP ME! IT’S GOT MY LEGS!” screaming noises as the leaves embrace the bugs for the first and last time. And oh how the situation from my childhood is reversed.

Thursday is Resource Day: Holidays Edition

We’re coming up on the winter solistice in three weeks, so certain aspects of the Triffid Ranch are shutting down for the season. The temperate carnivores, such as Venus flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants, are going into their winter dormancy, so they’re outside soaking up the occasional late autumn rains. The triggerplants are throwing off the last of their blooms and quieting down for a while, but I’m certain not for long. The tropical carnivores are already abed in winter accomodations, and this weekend belongs to setting up winter shelter for the Buddha’s Hand citron tree, the grapefruit tree, the orchids, and the terrestrial bladderworts. Since this autumn has been nearly as dry as the summer, I’m fully expecting a repeat of the horrible Christmas Eve of 1989, where Dallas set its all-time record low temperature, so this should explain the frenzy of preparation.

Once that’s done, though, we’ll celebrate the end of the year for the same reason as everyone else we know: 2011 was rough. “Rough” as in “a kidney stone the size of a basketball rough”. 2011 needs to be treated exactly the same way as this kidney stone: namely, mounted in resin so it can’t hurt anyone ever again. Before welcoming the newborn baby 2012, I hope nobody minds if I kick out 2011’s cane, set fire to his beard, and kick him down a couple of flights of stairs. After that, turn the other way, because then I plan to get mean.

Now, before we slide into quiet celebration of the solistice, complete with cheery Yuletide stories from a cousin of mine, it’s time to reinstate a tradition from when this blog was still over at LiveJournal years back. The official Small Business Saturday event may have been nothing but an attempt to get smaller businesses to accept American Express cards (and their correspondingly high processing rates, which helps explain why most small businesses don’t take American Express cards) over the holidays, but the basic idea is sound. I’m just a firm believer in making it more than a one-day event.

To start, for those coming in late, please let me introduce you to St. Johns Booksellers up in Portland, the official source for Triffid Ranch reference books. I’m proud to say that I’ve known owner Nena Rawdah for fifteen years as of this month, and not once has she told me “I should have killed you when I had the chance.” Well, there was that one time, but who knew she was allergic to cherimoya? Anyway, should you be in the Portland area, go visit her directly, or buy lots of books from her online store if you aren’t. Either way, there’s a very good reason why links to reviewed and referenced books go to her store at every possible opportunity.

Not quite related to horticulture, but still willing to assist, are the fellow booksellers Mark and Cindy Ziesing. Their specialty is in the fantastic, and that means they’re a great source for art books and references rarely seen elsewhere. If nothing else, their regular print catalog is worth buying all on its own, if only because of the honest, concise, and often savagely funny reviews of incoming books. Don’t believe me? My ears are burning, and not just because Mark poured lighter fluid into one to see if he could see the light on the other side.

Traveling back to the Pacific Northwest for a bit, Seattle residents and visitors definitely need to schedule some time at Emerald City Gardens. No flying monkeys, no annoying dogs, and a guarantee that the available Christmas plants are unlike anything else you’ll see. In particular, ask about the succulent pots. Trust me.

In more charitable veins, regulars should know that I try my best to contribute to Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, and you’re all invited to chip in as well. This can consist of wines featuring your favorite chiropteran, coffee, or just adopting a bat at the sanctuary. (I’m trying to organize another fundraiser for both Bat World and the bats of Cleburne, Texas with the help of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs, and details will follow.)

Finally, it may seem odd that I’m promoting what may appear to be competing carnivorous plant nurseries, but there’s a madness to my method. Not only am I proud — PROUD, I tells ya — to call the folks at Sarracenia Northwest and Black Jungle Terrarium Supply friends, but I wouldn’t be in this business if it weren’t for their support, friendship, and gentle beatings about the head and ears when I got out of hand. If you’re in the Portland area, I’d like to point out that Sarracenia Northwest is hosting open houses throughout the month of December, and that’s in addition to the annual SN Carnivorous Plant of the Month Club offerings. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Black Jungle also carries a huge selection of ant ferns and arrow poison frogs, as well as bioluminescent mushroom kits. (If carnivores don’t suit you, then try a “Sharry Baby” Oncidium orchid. I bought one for the Czarina a few years back as a Valentine’s Day present, and she looks forward to the blooms every spring. Most people interpret the scent as chocolate, but the both of us swear that it smells exactly like fresh Dublin Dr. Pepper.)

Anyway, more entries to follow, so keep an eye open. Now back to work.

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.

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.