I think we can all agree that butterflies are awesome. They are familiar and beautiful, but there are also some little guys out there that hardly ever get a second glance. I’m talking about hairstreaks, smaller nymphalids, skippers and the like. From far away, these butterflies may not seem like much, but up close they are just as pretty as a giant swallowtail.
Let’s start off with one of my all time favorites: the hairstreaks. These members of the Lycaenid, or “gossamer winged,” family get their name from the thin, hair-like lines that cross the under surfaces of their wings. Many of the hairstreaks have slender “tails” on their hindwings, which resemble antennae on the wrong part of the body! While resting they will rub their hindwings together, causing their “tails” to wiggle. Coupled with colored eyespots, this makes their back-end look just like a false head. This illusion comes in handy with predators, attracting them to the wrong end of the body, allowing the butterfly a quick escape in the opposite direction.
The hairstreaks are fast butterflies with erratic flight patterns. They can also be hard to view because of their size — from ½ inch to only about 1 ¾ inch in wingspan — so it can be hard to identify different ones in the field. If you do come across a hairstreak, however, try to get a good look — they’re worth it! Some species of hairstreaks have only one brood per year in the spring, while others have several from spring through fall.
You generally can’t attract hairstreaks to your garden with host plants. They eat a wide variety of larval foods, depending on the species — some are dried up leaves, mistletoe (try planting that one!), hackberry, oaks, cedar, pine and a variety of legumes. The best way to attract hairstreaks to your garden is by planting the nectar plants that they like. Some good ones are almond verbena, lantana, asters, frog fruit — anything with really small, tubular shaped flowers arranged in clusters.
Nymphalids, or “brush-footed” butterflies, are also some of my favorites. This family of butterflies takes its name from their highly reduced front legs, which are covered in tiny hairs and resemble brushes. At first glance, it appears these butterflies have only four legs. This family is very diverse in size and shape, without many recognizable characteristics in common. As adults, however, many do not visit flowers for nectar, but rather feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion. These guys know how to survive a drought!
You may see some of these butterflies flying about on warm winter days. Some species overwinter as larvae and/or adults; however, they won’t breed until host plants become available in the spring.
Some of my favorite “brushfoot” butterflies in Houston are the Texan Crescent, the Question Mark and the American Painted Lady.
The Texan Crescent (Anthanassa texana) is tiny — up to 1 ¾ inches in wingspan. They are around for much of the year, spring through fall. Their host plants include members of the Acanthus family: flame acanthus, ruellia, dicliptera, shrimp plant. When you get caterpillars, you will have lots, so expect your “fruit cocktail” shrimp plant to be stripped!
Question marks (Polygonia interrogationis) are gorgeous! If Stevie Nicks were a butterfly, she would be this one, with its dark purple, velvety, gypsy-like wings. I have seen question marks in the country covering the sides of dirt roads, absorbing minerals. Their larvae feed on the leaves of elm and hackberry trees, and sometimes nettles. These butterflies are out during most of the year, hibernating during the winter and estivating (becoming dormant) during the summer. One sat for days on my outdoor ceiling fan this summer. They are on the larger side, size-wise — up to 3 inches across.
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterflies are about 2 inches wide and are abundant in spring and fall. Their favorite host plants are in the Aster family. I learned that the larvae of this butterfly feed on the curry plant — which we will have at the fall sale!
Skippers are cute little creatures that have been classified as an “intermediate” between butterflies and moths. However, most lepidopterists agree that they are more closely related to butterflies. Skippers have stout, hairy bodies with large heads. Their antennae are spaced far apart, more on the sides of their head, with a curled hook at the end instead of the usual clubbed antennae seen in “typical” butterflies. Their wingspan usually measures less than one inch, except for the long-tailed skippers, which may be over 2 inches across.
Depending on the species, in the larval stage, skippers eat mostly oaks, mallows, legumes and grasses. You may have some of these in your lawn or garden right now!
Skippers often drink nectar from low growing flowers. I have seen them many times on trailing lantana by the Museum greenhouses. They also like to imbibe nutrients and salts from shallow mud puddles.
Their flight is fast, whirling and erratic, so the best way to observe them is while they are perched on a flower sipping nectar.
The HMNS Semi-Annual Plant Sale
When: Saturday, October 6th from 9 a.m. to noon
Where: On the 7th level of the museum parking garage
How Much: FREE
We’ll have all the necessities: milkweed, pipe-vine, passion-vine, porterweeds, lantana, pentas, and more. We will also have a lot of the favorite plants of those “lesser known” butterflies that I’m sure you will now be looking for this fall!
If you plan on coming to the sale, please come early to get the best selection. To make life easier on yourself, please bring your own wagon.
See you Saturday!