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PostPosted: Tue Sep 22, 2009 9:00 am 
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Our first contest was to design a piece of flora for our world, and the entries were all really excellent - it was a tough decision.

With no further ado, our winners are Deirdre Murphy and Elizabeth Barrette!

Winning in the category of writing, Star Cactus
[img] ... Cactus.jpg[/img]

Written by Elizabeth Barrette, illustrated by Deirdre Murphy.

Common Name(s): Star Cactus; nickname Madpot

Description: Star Cactus is a globular succulent. Each stem forms its own sphere, connected to other stems at the base or sides. The stems are unribbed; instead they are textured by many small bumps called tubercles, each of which bears a cluster of thorns. Major thorns range from 1-2 inches long and are surrounded by several smaller, finer thorns. The thorn-bearing tubercles also help the cactus to expand as its globular stems draw and store water during the infrequent desert storms.

Star Cactus has a dual root system. This helps it gather and store water, and resist violent storms. First, a taproot with a bulbous top and narrower spike reaches deep into the sandy soil from the main globe. Where any secondary globe touches the ground, a fine mesh of shallow roots extends just under the surface to capture dew, or even moisture and nutrients left by animals. This network of roots discourages competing plants as it extends several feet in all directions around the globular cluster. Clusters of Star Cactus can cover a sizable area, much like Terran prickly pear.

Flower buds may emerge anywhere on the sides or top of the globes. Each globe puts out 1-3 flowers. Most of the flowers on the plant open at the same time, in two or three waves with each wave of flowers lasting from dawn to dusk of one day. So the bloom period is quite brief. Each flower has five long, narrow petals with pointed tips, streaked in shades of pink, peach, and white. Centers have a ring of white around a bright pink throat. The stamens ring that outer opening, while the short pistil lies deep inside the tube, actually beneath the surface of the globe’s skin. The flowers give off a sweet, delicate, ephemeral fragrance to help attract pollinators.

Habitat: Star Cactus grows in full sun, all around the edges of the Crystal Desert where the time-crystal sands peter out into ordinary sand. Indeed, this succulent requires small amounts of time-crystal dust in order to grow properly, so it does not grow (and could not easily be transplanted) anywhere else. Smaller outlying areas of time-crystal sand may also support populations. But if it was introduced to another area that was hot, dry, nitrogen-rich, and temporally disturbed … it could turn into a serious weed. Little would be able to eat it, and the vegetative propagation would let it spread without needing its primary pollinator.

This desert climate is very hot and dry, but prone to violent weather – including frequent sandstorms and rare torrential rains – due to disturbances from the temporal effects deeper in the desert. A more reliable, if scanty, source of moisture comes from dew.

In order to produce its characteristic set of alkaloids, Star Cactus needs a good supply of nitrogen. Without this, it cannot form those necessary compounds and it tends to die. It usually gets its nitrogen from animal waste left by herbivores as they attempt to get past its defenses to eat its moist pulp.

Pests: Various sucking insects have adapted to feed on succulent plants. They are small enough to slip between the thorns, and they have sharp mouthparts to pierce the tough skin and drink the plant’s juices. In a healthy environment, these create only a minor nuisance, as insectivores keep their numbers down.

The needle-nosed shrew is another desert denizen that specializes in cacti. It has a very long, narrow snout and its upper incisors have developed into sharp little tusks pointing forward. The shrew sticks its snout between the thorns, jabs a hole in the skin, then inserts its long tongue into the hole to lick the pulp. The shrew is particularly destructive during the bloom season as it bores into the base of the flower buds to devour the nectar, stealing the sweet bait that attracts pollinating insects and usually destroying the ovary in the process. Fortunately for the Star Cactus, snakes like its shade; also some mammals such as foxes can learn that the scent of cactus flowers means a banquet of shrews.

The Star Cactus tries to discourage these pests with an ever-changing array of alkaloids and other unpleasant substances in the never-ending chemical warfare between the plant and animal kingdoms.

Propagation: Star Cactus has two forms of propagation, vegetative and sexual. Wherever two globes join, there is a tough node. This node restricts flow between different globes, resisting the spread of pests and diseases, and preventing the plant from losing too much water from a single wound. If a globe is broken away from the parent cluster and dropped elsewhere with the node on or near the ground, root buds in the node will activate and grow a new taproot. More rarely, a half-eaten globe may sprout rootlets from the injured tissue if a latent node (from which a new globe could have emerged) is exposed.

This asexual mode of propagation creates a clone of the parent plant. In order to spread itself, it takes advantage of two local conditions that can damage cacti. The first is violent weather, which can break off small globes; the spherical shape allows them to roll with the wind instead of simply breaking to pieces. The second is grazing by herbivores, such as tortoises or sand-pigs, tough enough to get past the protective thorns. Sand-pigs, like Terran javelinas, run in packs; they are particularly prone to snatching off the globes, running away with them, and fighting over them – making it possible for viable pieces to get dropped far from the parent cluster.

Sexual propagation only takes place after the cactus is touched by the edge of a time-wave emanating from the Crystal Desert. The cacti grow along the boundary where these waves are too weak to kill all the plants, but still strong enough for the speeding effect to trigger life-cycle events – rather like the way tidepool creatures interact with ocean waves. These cacti spend most of their time in a near-dormant state, their internal metabolism running very slowly, as a result of living around the temporal disruption. They are resistant to most of the effects because they aren’t “doing” anything much of the time. When the fading edge of a wave touches them, however, they burst into action.

Immediately after a temporal wave, the Star Cactus uses its stored resources to initiate the growth of one or more new globes, slightly expanding the size of its prior globes as well. It puts out flower buds which open in waves. These flowers attract timeflies to pollinate them. (Timeflies only appear shortly after a temporal wave, because their method of coping with temporal distortion is to live and breed fast – the adults last just a few short days – then lay eggs which are hatched by a subsequent wave.) The tiny timeflies crawl past the stamens down the tubes in search of nectar; then they carry the pollen to the next flower where it rubs off on the pistil. Other insects serve as secondary pollinators, but timeflies are the primary pollinators for Star Cactus.

The ovary of the flower lies under the globe’s skin, so that the seeds form just inside the sphere. The growing seeds create a small swelling that is barely visible under all the thorn-bearing tubercles. A single flower creates 10-20 small black seeds like pinheads. These seeds have very tough shells which allow them to withstand the temporal disruptions, arid desert air, and digestive tracts of herbivores.

Seeds are distributed in one of two ways. First, an extra-strong temporal wave may kill part or all of the parent plant, releasing the dormant seeds onto the ground. Second, a herbivore may eat part of a globe that contains seeds and excrete them far away. In either case, the next temporal wave causes the seeds to sprout; if they’re lucky enough to do so during a rainstorm triggered by the event, they are likely to survive.

Use: Star Cactus has potential which, as yet, has been minimally explored by humans. It only grows in a habitat which is dangerous to humans, so that nobody lives there permanently; therefore, nobody has had close enough contact and sufficient observation to unlock its secrets.

The taproot, although nonpoisonous, is too tough and woody to eat. So is the leathery skin of the globes. The seeds and pulp are a different story.

The hard round seeds contain several dozen different alkaloids, several of which have notable qualities. Star Cactus plants all have pretty much the same set of alkaloids, but the exact proportions vary somewhat from one plant to another, causing different effects to prevail. All of the alkaloids somewhat leach out of the seeds into the surrounding pulp of the globe. The presence of bitter and variably toxic substances aids propagation by allowing herbivores to nibble the globes (and thus spread seeds or partial globes) while discouraging them from devouring the whole plant (which would probably kill it, although a taproot whose globe gets broken off may sprout a new one). Of all the botanical substances, alkaloids are among the most mysterious, and many of them are purported to have mystical properties.

Four primary alkaloids generate the prominent qualities of Star Cactus. They don’t have local names because nobody there knows exactly what they are or what they do. For convenience, contributors may call them Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.
1) The first alkaloid, Alpha, works in concert with a substance produced by the pulp; together these create the plant’s resistance to temporal effects. The pulp’s native composition is only strong enough to keep it alive until it blooms. The seeds then add this extra, stronger substance which combines with the pulp to increase the plant’s resistance; this allows it to continue reproducing sexually and gathering energy and resources. Alpha could bestow some temporary (a few Torn World hours) temporal resistance on humans; it is not dangerously toxic, but it consistently causes severe nausea and moderate disorientation which only fade after 10-20 Torn World hours. The actual vomiting only lasts for about half an hour to an hour; about the time that stops, the resistance kicks in. Herbivores that regularly eat Star Cactus have developed an immunity to the negative effects of this alkaloid; eating it allows them to share some of the plant’s temporal resistance, which helps them survive in their harsh habitat.
2) The second alkaloid, Beta, helps give the plant its “awareness” of temporal waves by responding to them and bonding to special receptors inside the plant, part of activating its sexual reproductive processes. In humans, Alpha grants a temporary (about 10 Torn World hours) ability to see temporal effects such as the Others; it does not cause false hallucinations. It does cause other mild side effects which vary from person to person, most commonly queasiness, blurred vision, and difficulty concentrating; these typically last 1-2 Torn World days. Herbivores that regularly eat Star Cactus have developed a partial immunity to the negative effects of this alkaloid; eating it allows them to share some of the plant’s temporal awareness, which helps them survive in their harsh habitat.
3) The third alkaloid, Gamma, is a potent poison. It causes debilitating pain, muscle cramps, and convulsions. The worst effects usually pass after several Torn World hours, but full recovery can take up to a week. In large enough doses, it is fatal, stopping the heart and lungs. Gamma has no positive effects, although its structure is similar to Alpha. This affects humans and animals in the same ways, although some herbivores are starting to build up partial resistance to it.
4) The fourth alkaloid, Delta, is strongly hallucinogenic. Delta has no temporally positive effects, although its structure is similar to Beta. The main effects last for several Torn World hours, while the side effects can linger for 1-2 Torn World days. Delta causes blurred vision, flashes and waves of light, dreamlike visions, etc. Although these hallucinations are false – not revealing obscure information from the outside world – they can incorporate personal memories or other images much as nightly dreams do. An affected human often, though not always, feels a strong conviction that these hallucinations are real. Humans may become confused or belligerent under the influence of this alkaloid, an effect also seen in animals. Another common side effect in humans, though not so much in animals, is dry mouth and strong thirst.

Virgin, seedless globes are not poisonous; they are merely bitter, slimy, and unpalatable due to the native substance produced by the pulp. Thus they can help sustain a desperate traveler by providing moisture in the dry desert landscape. A desert does not have very abundant plant life, but the Star Cactus is a dominant plant within its habitat, easy to locate and identify. However, virgin globes are difficult to single out accurately, because the stem scars left by flowers are hidden under the thorns, other marks can resemble those scars, and the bulges of seed pods are subtle and also obscured by thorns and tubercles. Also, virgin globes contain only trace quantities of alkaloids because those don’t travel across the nodes very well; so virgin globes do not convey any temporal resistance or sensitivity.

It may be possible for somebody to devise a method of separating the active substances, and therefore reduce the negative side effects; but it is not possible to eliminate the risks altogether because some of the individual alkaloids have both positive and negative effects (rather like peyote, which also happens to be a cactus). It may also be possible to use other substances to diminish the side effects somewhat. So far, nobody has discovered how to do either.

Two of the alkaloids, Alpha and Beta, if they could be gotten more safely than they appear in the raw plant, would thus provide similar – though notably inferior – benefits as snowy-milk does for the Northerners. One possibility is that, if carefully combined with that, they could enhance a Northerner’s temporal perceptions and resistance beyond normal even for that race. Another is that they might allow a Southerner to gain temporary, lesser access to abilities usually reserved for Northerners. But all alkaloids tend to have physical drawbacks; Terran ones often cause addiction or cumulative impairment. So far nobody has taken it that far because contact is rare and nobody eats these plants except in an emergency. If anyone does more than that, they’re likely to discover more drawbacks.

A likely sequence would be the Southerners searching for anything with remotely similar properties to the almost unobtainable snowy-milk, discovering the limited benefits of Star Cactus, discovering more and more severe side effects – and then realizing that it gives Northerners an even bigger advantage with somewhat lesser side effects. (Although it still wouldn’t be good for Northerners long-term, they’d tolerate it better because its effects resemble something they already consume heavily.) Also useful for story purposes is that Southern traders would be familiar with the idea of a plant that causes “hallucinations” which look like temporal effects (because some of them are). So if a Southerner had natural timesight, that person would be suspected of indulging in hallucinogens; and when the Northerners report the same kind of perceptions, some Southerners would probably say the equivalent of, “Okay, bub, what kinda cactus you been eatin’ there?”

Lore: Because there are no humans native to the desert where the Star Cactus lives, this plant has not yet been significantly explored by people. So the factual and fictional lore is somewhat limited compared to plants that grow where people live all the time.

Those who live closest to its habitat know:
• Star Cactus forms clusters of big thorny balls that sprout fragrant, 5-pointed, pink flowers after a severe stormy disturbance.
• Star Cactus can survive where little else can. Its habitat defines the risky borderland between the deadly Crystal Desert and the ordinary, habitable desert; this makes it a valuable living landmark.
• Sand-pigs like Star Cactus, making an isolated cluster a good place to hunt them.
• Snakes, some of them venomous, also like Star Cactus; so approach with caution and preferably a long stick.
• Star Cactus is sometimes barely edible, usually makes people sick, and occasionally kills people. It serves as an emergency water source for people passing through its habitat. Try really hard to find small balls that have never bloomed.

Traders and other travelers not native to the surrounding territory know less, and they are more likely to remember the nickname “Madpot” than the proper name “Star Cactus.” They know:
• Madpot is a cactus with big thorny balls that sometimes have star-shaped pink flowers on them.
• If you’re traveling through desert land and you find Madpot, flee if you can, because that territory is deadly dangerous.
• People who eat Madpot go crazy or die. Or both. Only the desperate try to get water from it.
It is the traders who, being bored on their long journeys, tell stories about Madpot. Most of those stories are garish descriptions of lost travelers eating the pulp and going crazy or dying. A few tell of miraculous survivals.

Winning in the category of artwork, Border Chicory

Written and illustrated by Deirdre Murphy.

Border Chicory, Tornflower, Tornbalm, Traveler’s Warning

Description: Much like common chicory/cornflower, Border Chicory is a perennial with a low cluster of leaves shaped similar to those of a dandelion, with sturdy stems branching upward, and flowers (single or groups of up to three) at both branch-points and the tops. The root is also dandelion-like. Other than flower color, the primary visible difference between Border Chicory and common chicory is that the plant does not grow as tall. This is perhaps due to having evolved in a long, windy corridor between time pockets, or perhaps, more simply, due to its ability to grow at and into the edges of the barren areas between pockets, it didn’t need to stretch above other plants to get sunlight.

Flowers range from the traditional pale lavender, cornflower blue, and white to a variety of other colors, depending on the degree of time-disturbance and environmental/soil contaminants. Additionally, where radiation is high, the flowers often glow in the dark. Like common chicory, flowers open in the early morning, and start to close by mid-afternoon.

Habitat: Border Chicory is compatible with a wide variety of soil types. It grows on both hills and flat areas, though it prefers disturbed ground, rocky ground, or ground where other plants are not growing. It is drought-tolerant, but so long as the soil is well-drained, can grow in areas of high rainfall as well. Grows in full sun and shade, though the root and leaves are least bitter if the plant is protected from direct sunlight.


Propagation: Border Chicory has tiny seeds, similar in size and appearance to lettuce seeds. It is pollinated by small bees and other insects. The seeds can be scattered around the plant, or carried by the birds that eat the seeds to farther locales.

Uses: This plant has a variety of uses, nearly all related to its ability to live in border areas.

Travelers: Border Chicory grows primarily at the edges of still-active time pockets and in areas that used to be border areas. It is one of the first plants to colonize all the way across a border. Travelers and explorers can use the colors of the flowers to gauge whether it’s safe to try to cross a border area. If the flowers are very dark or black, the time-disturbance is severe and travelers must turn back as soon as such flowers are spotted in the distance, or risk death, insanity, or severe time-sickness.

Where red, orange, pink, glow-in-the-dark, or other unnatural-looking colors are present, that is a warning that the soil is contaminated, and other plants in the area should also not be used for medicine or food.

Plants with different colored flowers are very rare; they are thought to happen only in areas of recent or current severe time instability. Like very dark flowers, this indicates the area must be avoided.

Once flowers have closed, it only takes a day for them to turn a dull, dark brown. There is little color variation in the wilted flowers, so they are not useful for indicating time disturbances or contaminants. The leaves and stems may show color changes, often shifting toward dark blue as the flowers get dark from time-effects, and sometimes picking up veining or color shift from contaminants. However, the traveler is warned not to believe that normal coloring in leaves always means it is safe to proceed.

Detection of poison/contaminants and Law Enforcement: Because the flowers of the border chicory are different colors if the plant grows in contaminated soil, plants are sometimes sown around factories to warn of chemical spills, and plants grown in the laboratory can be grown in or watered with a suspect substance to learn more about it. It’s not the fastest lab method, but it has the advantage of being much cheaper than chemical lab tests. The more accurate and precise chemical tests can then be performed when necessary.

Medicinal: It is possible to grow Border Chicory in areas with little or no time disturbance, however, the plants have only the standard medicinal effects of ordinary chicory, which is to say, in moderation, it’s a weak liver-protectant and a tonic which slows digestion. It also has the effect of calming caffeine jitters, which is why some cultures blend roasted chicory root with coffee.

The plants that grow in areas of time disturbance, however, also are used by people who live in that area to treat the ill-effects of wandering into a border area. Others use it to calm the system after an encounter with Others, though it does little, if anything, for anyone actually touched by an Other.

The strength of the medicine is proportional to the darkness of the flowers. Root, leaves, and flowers all have medicinal properties for sicknesses related to time disturbances and Others, though different cultures prefer one or the other. The lore is contradictory as to which parts are best for what.

Pesticide/Poison: The plants with red and pink flowers can be processed to yield an extract that poisons mice, rabbits, and other mammals. Orange flowers also can be used on insects. It must be processed carefully, however, lest the person making the pesticide is affected.

Coloring Agents: The colored flowers can be used in fabric dyes, but with unpredictable results. Since the deepening of color is a time-effect, it rarely transfers well to fabric, though when it does, the color is very durable, even in direct sunlight.

In contrast, potters in certain areas have had good success in making unusual glazes with the more odd-colored flowers. Of course, the most striking results come from the colors that indicate dangerous contamination of the soil, so is a bad idea to use them for pots or dishes, and they require careful handling by the potter.

Medical Warnings: All border chicory, like common chicory, can cause vision and digestive problems if taken too often or to excess. Chicory whose flowers glow in the dark should not be handled or eaten under any circumstances, as they may cause radiation sickness. Chicory whose colors look unnatural, or which verges into red, pink, or orange should never be eaten; the symptoms of ingestion will vary depending on the exact contaminants in the soil.

Lore: The lore regarding border chicory mostly focuses on the black-flowered plants.

People are not nearly as time-stable as the border chicory; it is very rare for anyone to come back with even a few truly black flowers. It is not safe to gather the black flowers except when a border has very recently opened, which is rarely apparent until the black flowers are long-gone.

As a result, black flowers and the black-flowered plants are very expensive. It is more common to find cleverly dyed or otherwise counterfeited black border-chicory flowers.

In the south, some groups claim that the flowers, eaten fresh every day between new moon and full, will cure the mind of someone who was touched by an Other.

More common is the belief that a proper preparation of the black-flowers or the black-flowered plants (though there are very different traditions as to what proper preparation consists of) will grant a long life, or youth, or even immortality.

Others say that eating a black-flowered plant will allow you to walk all the way through a time disturbance, to arrive safely, or at least alive, in the next time pocket.

Some northerly groups in the Empire believe that a tincture of the black flowers grants a second sight of sorts, including the ability to see Others, ghosts, and time-shadows of both the future and the past.

Congratulations to ysabet and wyld-dandelyon! They each win goodies from our prize pool as well as $5 in Credits at Torn World. All entries were accepted into the Torn World wiki, and all entrants will be receiving Torn World karma.

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