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Pitcher Plant Hell

Saturday, December 31, 2011

I looked at my fine plant with new eyes. Not only was it beautiful, it was deadly!

As you might imagine, I had a problem leaving live moths in the pitchers, scrabbling helplessly against the leaf's slickly haired sides. 

Judging that the plants had more than enough to eat, I saved them.

oh thank you giant primate

One I freed was a lovely Virginia Ctenucha, one of the wasp-mimic moths.

Just couldn't let it sink down into the goo.

Also had two gorgeous Ailanthus Webworm moths, Atteva punctella, one of the larger microlepidopterans, with a beautiful veined orange-and-white rolled wing. They flew away the second they were out in the air. Couldn't get a photo.

Earwigs, wasps, bees, flies, honeybees, syrphid flies, hoverflies--anything that comes to flowers will come to a pitcher plant, apparently, only it's the Hotel California for pollinators.

Even paper wasps are not immune to its sweet, honey-scented charms. It has a competitive advantage in that it's quite hardy and in full, sweet-scented bloom when practically everything else has croaked from the first frosts.

 Stick to flowers, guys. These plants are bad news.

Pollinators swarm my Suffolk Pink chrysanthemum just a few feet away. It's the hardiest and latest-blooming of all. It doesn't even get going until Halloween in southern Ohio, and it's a blessing blooming that late. (It's done now; these photos have aged a bit since I took them.) 

"Suffolk," in a few different colors, was probably the first mum ever brought to the New World. The foundation stock for my plants (yes, it spreads modestly and delightfully) came from peerless pastel painter and partner in peripatetic hilarity Cindy House, from her Vermont/New Hampshire gardens. (You may remember her spotting the "body bags" outside a Massachusetts restaurant).

A nice, super hardy, willing plant. Not like those nasty carnivorous ones.

I have the pitcher plants in the greenhouse, on the cold floor next to an outside vent, for the winter. Hoping I'm doing right by them. They're just too precious to me now to let them freeze into the pond ice again. Thanks again, Cheryl! All it took was five years and some sphagnum...

Pitcher Plant Magic

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Don't do it, little flowerfly!
(probably Syrphus ribesii)

It is humbling to have, growing vigorously in my backyard pond (and now on the floor of my greenhouse), a plant that is so terribly rare in the wild, so over-exploited and endangered, that its very existence in the wild is in question. Native to low-nutrient longleaf pine savannas along the Gulf Coast (generally along the Florida panhandle), Sarracenia alba is one of the showiest and most beautiful of the pitcher plants.

S. alba, being so showy, is vulnerable to collection and the despicable exploitation by florists, whereby flowercutters will denude entire stands of all their pitchers to get the long-lasting specialized leaves for arrangements. Inexcusable. Never buy an arrangement with pitchers in it. Worse yet is habitat loss from wetland draining and development. Fire suppression also knocks back populations when they get shaded out by overgrowth. Yes, the white pitcher plant is getting it from all sides in the wild, even though it's easy to propagate in captivity.

I came by this plant from fellow blogger and plant maven Cheryl Harner, author of the wonderful Weedpicker's Journal,  who gave it and a red variant to me years ago. She told me it's best grown in distilled water, and warned that my fishpond would probably have too many nutrients for this entirely carnivorous plant. The way it works is that the plant takes all its nutrients from the bodies of insects it traps and digests, and it can't take nutrition through its roots. The pitchers are lined with slick, stiff, downward pointing hairs, and any insect that topples into the specialized leaf is not getting back out. Period. It falls in with the others being rapidly digested by the sweet-smelling fluids at the bottom of the pitcher. Eeek!

I looked at the plants a little dubiously. With all I have to care for here, did I really want plants I'd have to coddle along in containers of distilled water? And while I thought about  how to best provide for it, into the fishpond it went. And in the fishpond it stayed, through summer and winter, and it didn't do a whole lot, put up some little bitty pitchers here and there, and a bunch of long narrow leaves that never became pitchers. It was a little disappointing, but I only had myself to blame. Still wasn't really into the distilled water thing.

This spring, while cleaning the pond, I looked at that nice little plant and thought, "You've lived through all these winters, the snow and ice, and you've always come back, but you could be so much more." So I took the plant out of its pot and swaddled its paltry roots tightly in dried sphagnum moss because I thought it would like the acidity. I put it in a bigger clay pot and sank it in the pond.

And it did this:

Said thank you thank you thank you, it did, with a flush of the finest two-foot-tall fall pitchers I'd ever seen!

So I'm photographing it on a fine late October afternoon  and I happen to lift a lid to see what's going on in there and YIKES the entire flute is stuffed with hapless insects!

 Quickly I lifted the other lids and yep, they were full, too, absolutely crammed with dozens of insects.

Maybe hundreds. Here's a side view. Something has bitten into the flute and you can see black. That's the bodies of insects. They go all the way up to where the red and white markings start on each flute.

In my next post, I do a typically Zicklike thing about it all.

Good Cows, Good Dog

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


To our  boundless joy, a local farmer has decided to take the hayfield near our mailbox down using the myriad teeth of ten Angus/Hereford cross cattle. I have betrayed my affection for cattle in several places on this blog. Briefly put, I fall in love with each and every one that I get to know. I am ignoring here the fact that I consumed about $30 worth of filet mignon at Christmas dinner, and am subject to almost uncontrollable steak and burger cravings, especially when consorting with vegetarians. 

Humans are rife with contrasts. And, as I prove three times weekly,

you don't have to be perfect to write a blog. I'm OK with loving cows and loving to eat them too. To be blunt about it, that's what Angus/Hereford crosses are for. Knowing that doesn't keep me from bawling like a baby when my favorites are loaded on the clattery trailer, bound to who knows where. I have a whole photo essay about that, but I haven't had time or the heart to write it up. It is a mistake to fall in love with beef cattle, to name them, to touch their wet pebbled noses and feed them apples. A mistake I gladly make over and over.

 When they first arrived, this set of ten cows was skittish and curious at the same time. Our appearance at the bus stop caused a slow stampede as they came to see who was about.

For a couple of giddy and delirious mornings, the cattle ran alongside us as we jogged the road. It was so exciting, being part of a stampede. But soon enough we became old hat and now if they are lying down they won't even get up off their briskets when we walk right up to them. Which, in itself, is nice, because they have become comfortable with this talkative woman and her little white-faced sidekick.

I don't think it's an accident that they tend to be clustered along the fenceline each morning when I run. Cows are subtle like that.

Just turned seven on December 12, Chet Baker is quite a different animal than he was at two. He can be contained, for the most part, not with leash and collar but with quiet words. I will confess that the first time he spotted these cattle in the field he lit out after them, bounding and barking. He thought when he first saw them in the distance that they were deer, and deer need to be escorted to the woods edge with a great show of bravado.

We hollered and shouted quite angrily, but the bit was in his teeth. Luckily, at that moment he stepped in a hole, flipped head over heels and landed with a flump, tail tucked and ears down, headed straight back to us. I am pretty sure he thinks I shot a sticky web from the heel of my hand and threw him, because he was most apologetic when he returned. 

Now, a month later, he loves to look at the cattle, but wouldn't dream of messing with them. He stands quietly while I talk to them and call them by the ridiculous names we've given them.

 This is Phantom (right), named for her half-mask. She has the coolest white around her eye; she looks like a mime cow.

Spotify is a bold and curious lady. She tempts The Bacon to cross the fine electric line that keeps her clan of ten from fraternizing with their tiny lookalike.

Good cows, good dog, animals in harmony. 

The red one is Stephanie. She's my favorite. We communicate with brainwaves.

Keepers of the Giants

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Now that it's thoroughly, awfully, evenly gray here in Ohio, I need to go back to a golden fall day in Cambridge, and some photos I squirreled away for just such a weepy day.

In a place that's been settled for as long as Cambridge has (try 1631) there are some pretty darned impressive trees. Trees that have been there much longer than the houses have, and the houses have been there a long time.  Here's a glorious American elm, still hanging on to vibrant life. Right next door to the beech I'm about to feature, in fact.

Hodge thinks there should be some kind of historic treasure designation for many of Cambridge's arboreal giants. I agree. She took me to the spot on Brattle Street where a homeowner had cut down the perfectly healthy twin of a massive beech still standing in the yard. I couldn't comprehend what would move someone to do that to such a gigantic tree. But then again I am not living under such a gigantic tree. Lack of sunlight in summer? Branches crashing onto the roof? I suppose there was a reason, but I couldn't bring myself to photograph the enormous disc of healthy white wood, flush to the ground, which is all that remains of what was once a glorious beech.

As medicine, we visited a beech that is appreciated, that comes as part and parcel with the house and is equal stature.

Its branches gracefully arch over the lawn, sensibly covered with broad-leaved groundcover since grasses don't much like growing under beeches. In some places the branches scrape the ground and rise up again.

Hodge would be the best Keeper of the Trees I can imagine. I think Cambridge should create an office for her. She could go around designating the Ones Who Must Not Be Cut.

the same mighty monarch, at a distance.

I don't think I was imagining the faces in its nearly pristine bark.  A bit scary, upon closer inspection. We found only one small set of initials carved into it--something worth remarking upon in an urban area, where beeches are virtually all horribly scarred by those seeking a piece of posterity in this act of vandalism.

Whaddya think you're doin' with those apples? 

At this, Hodge and I launched into the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Ray Bolger says, "Come on, Dorothy. We wouldn't want to eat THOSE apples anyway. They're full of little green WORMS"

and the apple trees start winding up, lifting kneelike roots and throwing apples at Ray and Judy as they run down the Yellow Brick Road.

Speaking of Oz, the home that accompanies this magnificent tree fits it perfectly.

Thank you to the homeowners who maintain these islands of beauty and serenity, these sanctuaries for giant trees. You are the Keepers of the Giants.

Jumpin' Bristletails! Slitherin' Stimulopalpus!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Every now and then, I have fresh cause to celebrate the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, surely one of the most dog-eared of a collection of dog-eared field guides.

Moving the garden cart in the garage, I noticed something scurrying, which reminded me of a silverfish, but wasn't quite right. It was a Jumping Bristletail, which has been moved from the silverfish (order Thysanura) to the order Microcoryphia. They're forest-floor denizens, and they have a beautiful coppery sheen and three cool-looking tails. To me, they look like something that might have crawled the Permian sea floor. In fact, they appeared in the Devonian period along with the arachnids, and are among the least-changed of all insects. With simple chewing mouthparts, they feed on algae, mosses and lichens.

I particularly like this passage from Wikipedia:

During courtship, the males spin a thread from their abdomen, attach one end to the substrate, and string packages of sperm (spermatophores) along it. After a series of courtship dances, the female picks up the spermatophores and places them on her ovipositor. The female then lays a batch of around 30 eggs in a suitable crevice. The young resemble the adults, and take up to two years to reach sexual maturity. Unlike most insects, the adults continue to moult after reaching adulthood, and typically mate once at each instar. Archaeognaths may have a total lifespan of up to four years, longer than many larger insects.[2]

What is it about me and odd, long-lived insects? I'm attracted to the primitive, the odd, the venerable. I like knowing that this tiny creature can live up to four years, while much larger and more spectacular insects like the luna moth may croak a week after metamorphosis. (Ah, but the Science Chimp urges that we remember that the luna has had a nice long summer of caterpillar and a winter of pupa under its belt before it takes wing to mate and die).

And now the Science Chimp is warmed up and rubbing her hairy hands in glee. Because late this summer, she finally solved a mystery which has been buggin' her for years. 

See, there are these tiny, tiny insects that flow in packs over the sandstone walls around our patio, over the paving blocks that form our raised garden beds; even over the cemetery headstones at my favorite churchyard.

And nobody I asked knew what they were.

There were difficulties. For one thing, they're very quick, and very difficult to photograph as they race over the stone. Yes, this is a lousy photo, but it's better than the previous 50.

I kept at it, though, and finally got a couple of decent shots of live rockrunners, as I named them (needing to name them something!)
I was elated to discover thin threadlike antennae in this photo, which might help in tracking down an identity. To judge how very tiny this thing is, those are sand grains in the sandstone...

I tried to catch some, hoping to put them in the fridge for awhile and cool them down enough to get some good macro shots. Well, I accidentally killed one in gently clapping my hand over it.

Tiny. Why do I care? Because I have to know what it is, and I don't mind waiting years to find out.

At last, I could see something of its structure.

And though I'd never seen one fly, it had wings! Nice big wings!

 I thumbed through my insect guide. The closest I could get was Springtails, order Collembola. But this thing seemed more insect-like than a springtail. So I hit I can't remember the series of things I typed into the search box before arriving at Stimulopalpus japonicus. But whoop, there it was.

It's in the Order Psocodea (Barklice, Booklice and Parasitic Lice). It's in the suborder Troctomorpha, and the family  Amphientomidae (Tropical Barklice.) And get this: It was accidentally introduced to the Washington, D.C. area from Japan in the late 1950's and has spread as far west as southern IL to northern AL.

"The introduced population is apparently all-female."

Which means that they're all clones, reproducing through parthenogenesis.

What they're doing in those massive packs, so many that they flow like water over the rock; how they've managed to flourish to such an extent that they're now found on rocks in the middle of tumbling streams and gravestones and my garden walls in Ohio, must remain a mystery. 

At least they have a name for me now. Not that they know or care, these parthenogenic female packs of rockrunners.

Bugs. I can only wonder, and wonder some more, the permanent question mark hovering over my head.

Things That Make Me Laugh

Sunday, December 18, 2011


My hometown newspaper, which makes me laugh for all the wrong reasons. I have a file three inches thick of stuff like this.

iPads have spell check, right? Can they do anything about stupid?

An accidental protuberance. I got one of these on my wedding day, but it was on my chin. 

A pepper given to me by my friends Zane and Margaret, via my neighbor Beth.

It's not a big pepper.

but it is an impudent one.

Lest you think that this is an unusual specimen, think again. They're all like this.

They were brought to Zane, an ophthalmologist, by one of his elderly patients. 

Clearly an heirloom variety of the highest order. Saving the seeds. Definitely growing this one next year.

Tadpole Postscript

Thursday, December 15, 2011


On October 7, 2011, as I was pruning my huge gardenia tree with the braided trunk for its annual trip inside, something jumped, and it wasn't a tree cricket. It was one of my tadpoles, all growed up.
Well, sort of. She was still minuscule. But man, she looked like a tree frog now. (basing this guess on the fact that females have pale throats while male throats tend to be darker). Hello, sweetheart!

Charmed beyond all measure to see a successful frog fledgling, I set about making portraits.

She climbed with that special reptilian flow that tree frogs are so good at.

I think this is my favorite shot, those long fingers, that wise face...

I reflected on how a pailful of tadpoles had enriched our lives all summer long, what a miracle, what a gift they'd been.
From watching them hatch to seeing them learn to recognize me and anticipate feeding time, watching them grow limbs and leave their watery world for the air and leaves and sun, they'd opened up a new world to us.

But as things go when one messes with nature, not everything went so swimmingly. For the only frogs that actually metamorphosed were the older tadpoles we'd saved from the driveway. The eggs I'd scooped out of the fishpond had hatched, eaten, swum, grown, and then simply stopped growing. By late November, they still hadn't metamorphosed into frogs. Why? What could be going on?

Perhaps a clue can be found in the fact that about 20 of the older tadpoles also failed to metamorphose. They didn't even sprout legs.  None of the group raised from eggs sprouted legs at all. Oh, they'd had time--the eggs were laid July 10, and gray tree frogs take about two months to mature. 

Delving into the literature, I found that several things can retard development in tadpoles. Removing the thyroid keeps them from becoming frogs. Well, that wasn't it. I hadn't touched their thyroids.  Starvation can cause retardation. With my fish food supplements, that was unlikely to be the problem. Crowding can also cause retarded growth. Hmm. These tadpoles, it seemed to me, had ample elbow room and a greater water volume than in most of our roadside puddles. But they never grew elbows.

Thinking about it (and I did, for weeks!) I concluded that perhaps the answer to the riddle could be revealed by turning it upside down. What speeds development in tadpoles? Shallow water and higher temperatures, that's what. When a tadpole in a natural pool feels the water heating up because the pool is drying, that can cause accelerated development, a race to metamorphose and be able to gulp oxygen before the watery habitat is no more. 

Perhaps my tadpoles never felt that pressure, never felt the need to metamorphose. As the summer wore on and turned to fall, the sun stopped striking their pools; on the north side, they were now in the shadow of the house. The water, which had been very warm in July and August, stayed deep, and more importantly, it cooled. And the tadpoles simply stopped growing. 

I wondered what had happened in the pond to the eggs I'd left (I'd taken half and left half to hatch there). I suspected that they'd become fish food as soon as they hatched, being tiny and wormlike. I never saw a tadpole there. 

And now, what to do with the remaining tads? We'd already had a couple of hard freezes, and their pools had become covered with ice. Amazingly, they were still alive under there, still moving feebly. When the weather warmed back up they were their lively selves again. I decided to put them in the pond where they'd started out in the first place, to see if perhaps they could survive the winter in a dormant state and take up the business of metamorphosis next spring. It was an imperfect solution, but I didn't see any other alternatives. I couldn't throw them in the Amazon tank indoors, because there were all kinds of nasty things in those pools that would probably kill my home-bred tetras. 

Neither could I simply tip the tadpools into the pond. Over the course of the summer, tiny snails had proliferated, and there were doubtless flukes and leeches, too--all of which can mess up fish. No, I'd have to dip-net the tads into clean water and then transfer them with a net. Which I did, on November 20. 

When I emptied the large tadpole pool, the bottom was covered in leeches! Yicccch!

Yep, that's a leech on my thumb, its tiny head searching for a victim. I was very glad I'd followed my instincts not to tip the water into the pond. 

For all I know, that's full of leeches, too...just about bound to be. But I didn't want to introduce anything new.

I netted all the taddies and put them through a couple of rainwater rinses. There were about 50 remaining, about 20 of those older and larger, from the driveway batch, and the rest from the July egg mass in the fish pond.

I poured the water through the net, which is the only way to catch tadpoles. Much less stressful for them than chasing them around.

Wriggling life, about to be given their second snowball's chance. I hope it works. It probably won't, but...

Into the pond they went, swimming tentatively out into the vast spaces. I felt OK about putting them in with the fish now that they were bigger--American toad tadpoles seem to do fine once they reach this size; the fish no longer seem to regard them as prey.

Maybe we'll see you next spring. Hope so.

More lessons learned, more curiosity fueled. You can think you're doing wild things a favor by helping them out, but as often as not you're just messing them up. It seems to me, mulling this over, that tadpoles were meant to grow up in shallow, hot, barren-looking mud puddles, not the Club Med for Frogs I'd so lovingly and lavishly created. They're meant to grow up without fish to prey on them, and that dictates a most ephemeral watery habitat--a puddle. Perhaps I'd doomed them by giving them everything I thought they could need. Maybe something in the food I gave them retarded their growth--I don't know...but I fed the older tadpoles, too, and most of them made it to frogdom. 

I was humbled by some photos I found online of gray tree frog eggs hatching and maturing in a large plastic plant pot saucer full of rainwater. The frog had laid its eggs there and in that almost impossibly sterile environment they'd grown and thrived. Go figure. 

There's so much more that I don't know than I know.

That's what keeps me going.
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