A tiny nepenthes pitcher.

Hand-Feeding a Pitcher Plant

Rule number one of keeping a Nepenthes is that you keep the fertilizer far, far away. Some horticulturists have had success with foliar feeding, but I don’t yet trust myself not to hurt mine — they’re more delicate than they seem, sometimes.

Carnivorous plants are carnivorous because their roots are not well adapted to extracting nutrients from their substrates. That’s why they eat bugs. Digestive enzymes are nature’s way of making sure they get fed, roots or no. Well… Unless they’re one of the types that evolved to digest fallen leaves or be a sleeping bag for bats, but I digress.

My N. ventrata’s pitchers are still fairly tiny (there are a bunch of them now, though), and my apartment is mercifully bug-free aside from the occasional spider or stray stinkbug, so there isn’t much hope when it comes to leaving my plant to its own devices. If it’s  hoping to catch a meal here, it’s going to be very disappointed for a very long time.

That’s okay, though. I’ve got this covered.

Pitcher plants are easier to hand feed compared to Venus fly traps. For fly traps, you have to rehydrate dried insects into a kind of bug-burger, then wiggle it around until the trap activates. Too much water, and the liquid might cause the plant to rot. Not enough, and the plant’s digestive enzymes might not be able to break it down adequately.

Pitcher plants, though? They’re a breeze:

worms

Delish!

Nepenthes pitches contain so much liquid, rehydration isn’t really an issue. They also lure insects rather than trap them, so I don’t have to put on a dead bug puppet show to get them to latch on. Take a pair of tweezers, pick up a pinch of dried bloodworms, and drop them in. You can even crush the worms to powder for particularly small pitchers. It doesn’t take many, so one container will last for ages.

Larger pitchers benefit from dried crickets or mealworms instead, but my guys are much too little for that. Pinhead crickets are often available as a special order from some pet stores, but they usually only come in large increments. I also don’t want to have to fight with fitting live crickets into those tiny pitcher mouths!

Feeding is kind of a misnomer, though — nepenthes are still photosynthetic, and depend on carbohydrates for energy. Bugs are more akin to fertilizer than actual food. As with other types of fertilizer, it’s better to err on the side of not feeding enough versus feeding too much. I don’t feed my pitchers often — once a month, if that. Regardless of what you feed them or how often, it’s important to make sure that the insects are completely submerged in the digestive fluid. If they aren’t, they’ll just end up growing mold instead of breaking down and feeding the plant.

Hopefully, I’ll have some pitchers large enough for crickets soon. Until then, I’ve got loads of bloodworms!

 

 

Caraway Folklore and Magical Uses

I never paid much mind to caraway seeds, really. I mostly knew them as the little vaguely anise-flavored bits in my rye bread, and the occasional ingredient in a love recipe. Lately, though, they’ve gotten my attention.

As it turns out, caraway seeds are one of the best herbs for digestion — particularly for people with functional dyspepsia. Caraway is a carminative, which means that it relieves gas, and the licorice-like compounds in it have a very mild anesthetic effect that’s soothing to a troubled stomach. I have a bag left over from a spell, and I’ve been grinding the seeds to use as an after-meal tea. (I also have samples of a caraway-based digestive remedy called FDgard, but that’s a subject for a different kind of post.)

Long story short, since I’m going to be ingesting a bunch of it anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to brush up on some of the folklore and magical uses of caraway. If you’re going to be brewing it into a tea several times a day, might as well enchant it at the same time, am I right?

Caraway Magical Properties and Folklore

Need to keep your stuff from being messed with? Bust out the caraway.

In Germany, it was sprinkled on coffins to keep evil spirits away from the dead.

By a similar token, it is believed that anything that contains caraway can’t be stolen — putting a pinch of it in a wallet, purse, or car helps deter thieves. Placing a dish of it under a child’s crib was said to keep witches away. Sometimes, the seeds were even mixed into animal feed to keep chickens and sheep from wandering away!

Caraway seeds.

Caraway is often used as a love herb. Chewing some of the seeds before kissing someone is believed to entice them to fall in love with you. (Perhaps not incidentally, caraway was also used since antiquity as an after dinner breath-freshening and gas-fighting herb. It’s probably easier to get someone to fall for you if you’re not enveloped in a dense cloud of halitosis and farting like a Holstein.) Hiding caraway in your lover’s food is also believed to keep them faithful to you.

Bathing in an infusion of caraway removes the spiritual causes of disease.

Using Caraway Seeds

Herb lore usually treats herbs in terms of what they’re able to bring to or repel from you. How many herbs are described as love-drawing, money-drawing, or banishing? After reading about caraway, it seems to be more useful for keeping what you have over bringing in something new. Even in love recipes, its action is geared more toward helping you maintain what you already have — you need to be reasonably close to someone in order to kiss them and get them to fall for you, right?

I think caraway’s greatest strength is as a protective herb, where this preserving quality can really shine. It would also be a useful addition to house blessing spells, or other spells with the aim of maintaining love, providing protection, and keeping evil away at the same time. In love formulas, I usually combine it with other things that have a more direct action.

Caraway seeds are also used to improve memory (which, when you think about it, is another type of preservation). Combined with herbs like peppermint, lavender, and mugwort, they’d make a great addition to a dream pillow or sleep sachet to help with dream recall.

 

If you don’t often use caraway in magic or cooking, I suggest keeping some on hand. Medicinally, it has a whole list of benefits ranging from improved digestion, to better circulation, to pain relief, and relatively few side effects. Magically, it is a very versatile herb for helping you keep all of the things you hold dear.

Please don’t eat the oil.

*DEEP BREATH.*

Okay.

As someone with a chronic health condition, I’ve heard a lot about how all I really need are essential oils. This comes from a place of love (usually, though it sometimes comes from a place of “please buy this from me or my upline is going to be pissed”) and from people who mean well, but that doesn’t make it any less grating. I still smile, say thank you, and accept the advice in the spirit in which it was given — a desire to help me be healthy again. As hard as it is to continually hear that I’m only suffering through medication and medical procedures because I haven’t properly tried oils/yoga/meditation/green juice/coffee enemas, I can’t really get mad over it.

Sometimes, though, this advice crosses the line between “well meaning, but misinformed” to “please stop telling people to do this.”
That line is when people begin telling me I should be eating essential oils.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Sure, some oils are routinely used in food — by commercial food operations, who use industrial food-grade oils to flavor batches of food intended to feed hundreds at a time — but this is not what I’m talking about.

You’ve probably experienced this scenario: You’re on Facebook or Instagram, minding your own business, and you get a message. Not just any message, oh no. It’s a friend you haven’t spoken to since high school, and they want to tell you about their wonderful new business opportunity. One look at their profile tells you all you need to know: their feed is hashtagged out the wazoo, and replete with photos featuring crockpots of soup, fresh-baked pies, and water bottles glistening with condensation… All serving as backdrops for tiny, all-too-familiar amber bottles.

My primary gripe with putting essential oils in food comes from two things:

  1. What’s actually in essential oils.
  2. Deceptive marketing tactics (and those who uncritically repeat them).

There’s too much oil in the oil.

Look at it this way. Oil is… well, oil. This is why is needs to be diluted for use — it doesn’t mix with water, and will sit, undiluted, on your skin/in your esophagus/wherever else it touches and burn the living crap out of you if you aren’t careful. Adding a few drops of oil to a meal without a sufficient volume of liquid fat (or an emulsifying agent), for example, may not end up flavoring the meal. It will, however, set up one poor bastard for one hell of a flavor adventure.

Essential oils are also highly concentrated. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon or tablespoon of rosemary, for example, this is not going to be answered by using rosemary essential oil instead. It takes a tremendous amount of plant matter to yield a comparatively tiny amount of essential oil (which is also why they’re not exactly as sustainable or green as many oil sellers would have you believe, but that’s a subject for another day). Not only that, but, by not using the whole herb when it is called for, you’re missing out on the compounds that don’t get released as oil. Anything water-soluble is lost to the hydrosol during distillation, and doesn’t end up in the finished oil at all.

Oils are more expensive, less safe, and don’t even give you all of the flavor or benefits of the whole herb.

That’s not what “purity” means.

Sometimes you’ll hear multi-level marketing reps defending essential oil consumption by saying something like, “My essential oils say they’re safe to use internally!” or “My essential oils are more pure than the competition, therefore they’re safe!” This is a bit of marketing jargon likely passed down to them from their upline that misses one obvious issue: The reason essential oils aren’t safe to eat is that there’s too much essential oil in them. 

I mean, theoretically the less-pure oils might be safer, because at least then you’re slightly less likely to OD on the equivalent of eight pounds of lavender in one sitting. In this context, “pure” does not equal “safe to consume.”

So is it medicine, or not?

One thing that I find fascinating is the discussion about whether essential oils are medicine or not. Sure, they’re required to say they can’t treat, cure, or prevent any disease, but there is still a lot of historical evidence of herbs and herbal distillates used as medicine before isolating, refining, and synthesizing active compounds became the pharmaceutical standard. So, some people who doubt the safety or efficacy of a pharmaceutical approach will reach for an essential oil bottle over a prescription slip.

And then reach for that bottle again when they want to cook a meal. And again for a relaxing bath. And again for an air freshener.

So are essential oils medicine, or aren’t they? If they are effective at treating anything, they are medicine and should at least be treated with the respect you’d afford a bottle of gummy vitamins. Essential oils don’t work through fairy dust, they contain compounds that act on processes in the body just like medicines do. This is why the same oils that can help dry up a blemish or disinfect a cut are outright neurotoxic to animals — differences in the way these compounds are metabolized yield dramatically different results from species to species.

Essential oils work therapeutically because those compounds are concentrated within them. If “the dose makes the poison,” why use a concentrated form of an herb instead of what a recipe actually calls for? I don’t drink Nyquil because I like the way it tastes, so I’m not going to put concentrated plant compounds in my food or water for flavoring.

Less is more.

Overexposure to essential oils is definitely something you want to avoid. Some oils can have unwanted effects if they’re used on a daily basis, and some are known to cause sensitization with repeated exposure.

While sensitization can happen at any time, the risk is increased with certain oils and improper dilution. Most reactions cause localized skin rashes, but some particularly unfortunate people will go into anaphylactic shock. It’s not at all uncommon for aromatherapists, for example, to become sensitized to even the safest oils purely due to daily exposure. This isn’t meant to scare anyone away from using essential oils, but to underline the importance of treating them like what they are — a highly concentrated form of plant-based volatile compounds.

So, why do some people advocate eating essential oils?

I want to make one thing clear — it isn’t doctors or certified health practitioners that I’m taking issue with, here. These are people who know what they’re doing, and are both aware of and prepared to weigh the risks (adverse reactions, sensitization) against the potential benefits to their patients. They also generally don’t push adding essential oils to food. A health practitioner might recommend enteric-coated capsules of peppermint oil to someone with IBS, to ensure that standardized levels of the therapeutic compounds in the oil are delivered where they are needed (instead of just irritating the crap out of the esophagus because lemon oil is literally never going to mix properly with your bottled water, Taylor). Actual medical usage isn’t the problem. I mean, I’ve got a fat stack of FDgard samples from my gastroenterologist, and they’re basically coated caraway oil and menthol.

The thing is, I use essential oils on a consistent basis. I even make things that I give away, trade, or sell to other people. It’s safe to say that I go through more essential oil than your average person, but, even so, a bottle will last me for a while.

That’s bad news for an essential oil rep. The more ways they can find to sell oil, the better. People don’t make new bottles of homemade spray cleaner every day. They don’t take long, luxurious baths every day. They don’t need to make their own herbal salves or cold-process soaps every day.

You know what they do do every day? Eat and drink.

Suddenly, the bottle of lemon oil that could last all year only lasts for two months. Tell people that only X-brand of essential oil is pure enough to eat, and the oil rep can lock in a customer base that will not only keep returning to them for the “purest” oil, but go through it much faster than they otherwise would (and likely end up joining the rep’s downline in order to save money). All of these things add up to more profit for the MLM.

People are fond of essential oils as a “safer,” “greener” alternative to things they mistrust. Big Pharma, spray cleaners, air fresheners, personal care products, all of these are multi-billion dollar industries, and that breeds mistrust. Businesses don’t just rake in billions without considerable effort and a strong profit drive. If they are profit-driven, how often does the safety of their customers take a back seat to money?

In 2016, the global essential oils market was valued at over $6.6B USD. Of that, doTerra alone pulls in over $1B in sales annually.

Please don’t eat essential oils.

 

New Pitcher Plant Shoots!

I love my little pitcher plant. It’s helpful (especially in summer), weirdly cute, and caring for it has been a really interesting learning experience. All told? 10/10 plantbro.

I’d wanted a Nepenthes ever since one of my exes and I spotted an enormous, stunningly beautiful N. ventricosa at this nursery we used to frequent years ago. (Old Country Gardens, in Delaware. Visiting that place was like going to weird plant zoo, and I loved it. They had a great collection of strange succulents and ornamental plants, as well as the usual fare. But anyway, I digress.) I was immediately drawn to it, but, since we lived in a place with barely any natural light to speak of, it was not to be.

When my S.O. and I saw a pretty little N. ventrata, we jumped on the opportunity. The pitchers didn’t last long after we brought it home, as they’re kind of prone to dropping off — Nepenthes are pretty sensitive to changes in light and humidity, and few homes are able to provide the kind of sun, temperatures, moisture, and tightly-controlled setting that a professional grower can.

Fortunately, N. ventrata is pretty adaptable. It’s a hybrid between N. alata and N. ventricosa (a lowland and highland species, respectively) and its needs are a bit better suited to the typical home environment. Even if the pitchers drop off, they’ll grow back once the plant acclimates as long as its basic needs are met.

This one grows like a weed. I have to cut it back regularly, and it seems like every spring brings me a fresh batch of these guys:

A nepenthes stem with new, green shoots.

New shoots!

Sometimes, Nepenthes produce basal shoots, which seem to grow out of (or very close to) the soil. They’ll also grow new shoots further along the vine. I’m no carnivorous plant expert, but, as far as I can tell, there isn’t an enormous difference between the two. They don’t develop their own root systems like aloe pups or spider plant offsets, but they can detach and eventually root. Left alone, they’re also a great way for a plant to continue on after it’s gotten a little too long. My plant tends to look scragglier as it vines. I also much prefer its lower pitchers to those that it produces on its upper portions, so I like to prune it back to maintain a more compact shape. (I also don’t really have the room to properly cultivate a vine just yet, so compact it is!)

A tiny nepenthes pitcher.

Plus the rosette has the cutest baby pitcher ever.

Fortunately for me, I’ve got a ton of new shoots to work with this year. This plant’ll be full and leafy in no time.

4 Ways to Get Rid of Scale Insects Naturally

Scale has kind of been the bane of my existence. It came in on an aloe plant, and was a total bear to battle. We don’t have any outdoor space here, so all of my plants are somewhat in proximity to one another. As you can probably guess, this makes controlling pests a bit of a challenge.

Lately, I feel like the worst plant parent ever. See, my S.O. and I got this little Norfolk pine as a live Yule tree about two years ago. I love it, like I do all of my plants, and try my best to keep it healthy.

Unfortunately, up until recently, “my best” did not include “knowing what pests it’s susceptible to.” It’s got spikes all over, it has really aromatic sap, it never goes outside… what could possibly want to eat it?

As it turns out, in addition to being spiky and smelling piney, it is also irresistibly delicious to scale insects. I’m not going to lie, I cried a little when I found out. I felt like I failed as a caretaker.

Close up of scale insects.

Notice the dust and cat hair? As scale insects feed, they excrete a very sticky, sugary substance called “honeydew.” This can end up attracting other pests, encouraging mold growth, and, if the plant’s indoors, catching a ton of dust.

What are scale insects?

Scale insects are tormentors sent directly from Satan’s fiery butthole.

… Okay, but for real, they’re awful. They’re insects that latch onto plants and pretty much suck them dry. They’re also flattish, usually brown or beige, and the adults don’t move at all, so they blend in very well with their environment. It’s really easy to mistake them for plant tissue, especially if there aren’t many. Trouble is, their populations can grow pretty fast.

Scale insects on a Norfolk pine twig.

To give you an idea of how small and unobtrusive scale can be, even when there’s a ton of them.

Outdoors, scale insects aren’t usually a huge problem. Sure, they move in, but a healthy plant and a thriving population of predatory insects and birds will keep them from causing serious damage. So, in the wild (or the “wilds” of a garden, at least) they’re much more of an easily ignored nuisance than an actual problem.

For indoor plants, it’s more of an issue. Being otherwise healthy isn’t always enough for a potted plant to keep scale at bay, most homes don’t keep predatory lacewings or ladybugs as pets, and natural Bti pest control only works on bugs that are both in soil and susceptible to Bti bacterial toxins.

So, what do you do when one of your plants turns into a scale bug buffet?

To me, part of being a good steward is doing things that don’t have a negative ripple effect. For this reason, I try my hardest to avoid systemic pesticides, or any pesticides that could potentially harm anything other than the pests I’m trying to target. In a perfect world, I could just relocate unwanted bugs instead of killing them. That’s not this world, though, and I have more of a responsibility toward the plants I’ve taken into my care than I do to the pests attacking them. That’s why, when these critters rear their (nonexistent. Seriously, they are so flat) heads, I:

1. Prune, prune, prune.

A lot of plant tissue that’s been seriously damaged by scale won’t recover. If the bugs have heavily infested a certain branch or leaf, or have dried things out too much, it’s best to just cut it. Pruning away the areas where scale insects have latched on the most will immediately and drastically lower their numbers, making it easier for other measures to work.

Once you’ve identified and removed affected limbs, leaves, and other plant parts, then it’s time to start stage 2.

2. Rub them with alcohol.

Scale insects, like mealybugs, are protected by a waterproof waxy coating. This doesn’t just keep water out, it keeps moisture in. One way to get rid of scale insects is to disrupt this natural coating, which causes them to dehydrate.

Rubbing alcohol is a fast, cheap way to do this. Unfortunately, it can also harm plant tissue, so it has to be applied individually by hand. Fill a jar with alcohol, grab some cotton swabs, and start hunting the bugs down. When you see one, dip the swab in the alcohol, and give it a rub. Most times, the scale insect will come right off. Those that remain will dry out and die.

3. Soap them up.

Soap is another way to tackle the young, mobile stage of scale. It doesn’t take much, either — a few tablespoons in a gallon of water will do the trick.

As with rubbing alcohol, this has to come into contact with the scale to be effective, and will most likely need a couple of reapplications. Too much soap can also harm sensitive plants, so it’s best to start will a relatively low concentration and test it on a small area before going whole-hog.

To start with, I mix:

  • 2.5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil (usually grapeseed) — optional

If that doesn’t seem to harm the plant, I might go up to:

  • 5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil — optional

Once it’s mixed up, add it to a sprayer or spray bottle and thoroughly spray any areas showing signs of scale. This soap solution also has to come into contact with the insects in order to kill them, so be as thorough as you can without harming your plants. The cooking oil helps smother the bugs, but can easily be left out.

Using actual soap is important here — detergents and some surfactants aren’t great for plants, and their potential for harm may outweigh their scale-killing benefits. I like to use Dr. Bronner’s soap for this, because it’s inexpensive and readily available everywhere from the fancy organic market to the Giant down the block. If that doesn’t work for you, try your regular dish liquid, just test it on a small area to make sure your plants won’t be damaged.

As with anything else of this nature, use the lowest effective concentration of soap. If 2.5 tablespoons seems to be working alright for you, 5 tablespoons won’t necessarily be any more effective.

4. Dust them.

Diatomaceous earth is amazing stuff. I dust it under all of my appliances because, while my particular domicile doesn’t have an ongoing bug problem, we invariably get one or two trying to take refuge when pest control shows up to treat the basement or one of the other units. Such is apartment life.

Diatomaceous earth looks like a white powder. On a microscopic level, though, it is actually made up of needle-sharp splinters of the shells of tiny creatures called diatoms. These splinters are so tiny that they’re incapable of piercing skin, so diatomaceous earth is safe around people and pets. (Just don’t inhale it!) However, while they can’t injure us, they wreak absolute havoc on insects. The tiny splinters pierce and abrade their shells, which causes them to dehydrate.

To use diatomaceous earth, either dust plants with an applicator (the dust is very fine and so tends to clump together a bit, using an applicator gives a nice, light, even coating) after watering, or mix into a solution like the soap mixture given above. Shake it vigorously as you work, because the powder will settle pretty quickly.

As a warning, diatomaceous earth is not selective. Think of it like microscopic barbed wire — it’s going to injure anything that tries to cross it, not just the things you want it to get. So, if your plants spend time outdoors, drape them with a sheet while you’re letting the powder take effect. This will protect bees, ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects from injury.

 

Scale insects are an enormous pain. They can hide in tiny spaces and suck your plants dry, and getting rid of them involves vigilance and thoroughness. With these measures, you should be able to control scale on your plants without having to resort to pesticides.

Oh, and… Don’t do what I did. Read up on what pests your plants are susceptible to!

 

Rooting Spider Plant Pups

Let me preface this by saying that I love my cat.

He’s a huge, sweet, orange doofus, albeit a surprisingly bright doofus. He’s learned a number of verbal commands, like “sit,” “up,” and “off” (even if he thinks “off” means “stop what you’re doing and run over to flop your gigantic butt on me”). There is one thing he hasn’t learned, and, at this point, I’m not sure he’s ever going to.

Don’t eat plants.

I don’t have poisonous plants. The only toxic ones I have are those that contain calcium oxalate crystals, and are more accurately described as “really irritating.” I also keep my plants well out of his way.

… Or so I thought, until I walked into the bathroom and spotted one of my lovely spider plant pups laying in the bathtub. Fortunately, they’re neither toxic nor irritating, because this pup was also very chewed.

This spider plant has a ton of offsets, so one isn’t really a great loss. Still, I managed to find it soon enough, and the roots were more or less unscathed, so I figured I’d see if I could save it. Luckily, spider plants are like goldfish plants, ghost plants, and pothos in that they’ll root with a snap of your fingers.

Close-up of spider plant pup root nodes.

These little nubs at the base of the offset will develop into roots.

(more…)

Twice-Blooming Christmas Cacti?

I have a lovely pair of Schlumbergera. They used to live on the windowsill in my bathroom, where they gave me pretty, bright white blooms with hot pink pistils every winter. I looked forward to seeing them every year — individually, the flowers themselves don’t last very long (only about a week per bloom), so it was a little window of beauty in the middle of the cold, gray winter season.

Schlumbergera bridgesii are better known as Christmas cacti, and for good reason — they flower in December. It’s always exciting, watching the little buds pop out of the end of the flat, spiky-edged leaves, growing and lengthening until the flowers finally burst forth. December rolls around, everything else is in the midst of dormancy, but these cacti happily put out flowers anyhow.

Yep.

Every December.

You know, when Christmas happens.

cactusflur

If you notice the leaves don’t really resemble the smooth, round leaves of other Christmas cacti, that’s because holiday cacti nomenclature and labeling makes no sense. This one was labeled as S. bridgesii, which is actually S. buckleyi, and doesn’t look anything like most other S. buckleyi cultivars I’ve seen. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So, someone tell me what’s up with this nerd. 

See, not long ago, I moved both of my plants into a warmer, brighter window, on the top shelf of my new plant shelves. Now, I’m not sure what triggers S. bridgesii to flower, exactly — shortening daylight hours? Cooler weather? I don’t know. There are ways to force it into dormancy and trigger flowering, but I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary before moving it. I didn’t even restrict light or water.

I’m not complaining, of course — this little plant’s putting out more flowers now than it did two months ago. It looks healthy and vibrant. The cactus right next to it doesn’t have a single bud on it, but it’s also not really supposed to.

Is it possible for S. bridgesii to flower late, if it didn’t flower during Christmas? I’d say so. Is it possible for one to flower more than once a year? Apparently! Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what triggered this one to start putting out blooms now, but I’m going to keep an eye on both of them and see if the other decides to put out more buds. Maybe take a few cuttings and try some experiments.