About Ory

Ory is the Greenhouse Manager/Rearing Coordinator for the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Didn’t know there was a greenhouse at the Museum? She raises 20,000 Heliconius longwing butterflies there, as well as thousands of host and nectar plants for butterfly gardening. Check out her posts for more information on gardening with nature.

Southern Memories & A Spring Plant Sale

I don’t know about you, but I think that this has been the most absolutely gorgeous spring season in Texas that I have experienced in over a decade.  I have come to greatly appreciate the cool morning breeze followed by the warm, sunny afternoons.  The azaleas were voluptuous this past month, and I ‘m sure that everyone who had one in their yard was proud of their healthy specimens bursting forth with such soft subtle hues of pink, white and red.   

fern-on-oak-oak-alley I can remember spring-time at my aunt’s house in New Orleans to be just as spectacular as what we have witnessed here in Houston this past month. I recall the Easter morning when she lovingly presented to me a hand-painted porcelain egg resting upon a bed of fresh alfalfa. Iwas at the tender age of seven.  I thought it was the most beautiful gift and I greatly admired it. 

This favorite aunt of mine showed me how to raise worms inside some old coca-cola crates she kept in an old trunk out behind her garage.  We would use their castings to fertilize the lush green ferns, and the beautiful, elegant, Louisiana Irises that adorned her beautiful cottage garden.  I was taught how to layer the vegetable waste from the kitchen between the pages of the Times Picayune newspaper carefully inside the worm-bin.  When they were ready, we would mix the worm castings into the upper layer of her garden’s soil.
     
oak-trees-oak-alley-plantation She was a loving family member who took the time to introduce me to the beauty of nature and taught me that if we give our time and prepare the soil properly, we will soon reap the benefits of our labors.

She took me to visit Oak Alley Plantation so that I might admire the beautiful oak trees that framed a path to the Mississippi river. She often took me to downtown New Orleans so that I might see the artists painting in Jackson Square and the beautiful patio gardens New Orleans is famous for.

When I visited her home, I was always eager to dump her coffee grinds into the compost heap, knowing that soon we would use this black gold to fertilize her vegetable garden as well.  There is nothing like the soft pleasing smell of a fresh ripe tomato that you have picked off your own vine in the very garden that you prepared and planted. 

Witnessing the beauty of the past few weeks here in Houston has brought back some fond memories.  I hope that someone in your life encourages you and shares with you their knowledge of growing green things.  If you are already a lover of the land, then please consider sharing your knowledge with a youngster and help to foster in them a love of all things green and growing. 

russelia2I would like to take the opportunity to invite you all to attend our marvelous Spring Plant Sale.  It will be held this Saturday, April 4, from 9 a.m. to  1 p.m.  We are very excited this year because we will be holding our sale on the street level of the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s main entrance.  (The plant sale is usually held on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage.)  We hope by holding it on the street level, customers will have easier access to the sale.
     
Eddie Holik, our Head horticulturist, Soni Holladay, horticulturist, Dr. Nancy Greig, Cockrell Butterfly Center director, Erin Millender, entomologist, Laurie Pierrel, entomologist, and yours truly, Ory Roberts, greenhouse manager have been busy shopping and preparing for the sale.  And, most importantly our dedicated greenhouse volunteers who have propagated and raised some of the plants since last November are anxiously awaiting your arrival.  We hope to see you there and can’t wait to meet your family and friends.

Happy Gardening!!

Protection from Predators

Butterflies will lay eggs on host
plants, like this Cassia alata. But,
how do you protect the caterpillars
that emerge from hungry predators
in your garden?

This week, I received a phone call from a museum patron who was concerned about wasps capturing her Gulf fritillary caterpillars from her Passionflower vine in her butterfly habitat and flying off with them. Because her host plant was a vine, it was not possible to protect the caterpillars from predatory attack; she would just have to allow nature to take its natural course.

There are however, a few methods we can suggest to you for protecting your caterpillars from predators. One method is to drape bridal-tulle (fine mesh) over the existing host plant within your garden. This tulle can be supported by a frame such as a tomato cage. Stitch up the sides of the mesh with a hem stitch so that the stitches are touching one another this way, the predators have no entrance. Along the bottom edge of the tulle you can pierce v-shaped wires into the soil. You can make these with an old wire hanger and a wire cutter. You should secure the bottom edge of the tulle by inserting it into the soil to a depth of about 1-2”. Wasps and Yellow Jackets will try to enter the enclosure through the bottom if they know a food source exists.

Another method of protecting caterpillars from predators is to remove the caterpillars from the host plant and place the caterpillar and its food source into a secure container with air holes or a screen or tulle covering for air circulation. You can use and old aquarium, pickle jar, Rubbermaid container etc. as a temporary home. Place a clean paper towel at the base of the container each day. You do not want to leave the frass (waste) in the container because it will cause mold to grow.

In this photo, caterpillars of the Cloudless Sulphur,
Phoebis sennae species feed on their host plant, Cassia
alata. I always find it amazing that the butterflies
find their way up to the top of the parking garage
in search of specific host plants to lay their eggs on.

Today, I removed 12-15, caterpillars along with stems of fresh food and placed them into a container with holes in the top. Each day, I will spray the foliage within the container, put in fresh food and change out the paper towel. When the caterpillars are molting, they will remain stationary for 4-8 hours. Once they shed their skin, they are very fragile. It is best not to disturb them at this time. Some caterpillars crawl off and rest upon the side of the container for this period of time before and after molting. You don’t want to place your container in a sunny window because this will cause the interior temperature to rise to an uncomfortable level. If you have fine mesh on the top though, that is OK. In that case, you should mist more than two times a day with a spray bottle of water.

Finally, whether or not you have housed your caterpillars in the garden or in a container, they will soon pupate. Twelve to twenty-four hours before the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis you will see the wing coloration of the species just under the covering of the chrysalis. When the butterfly does emerge it has to spread its wings to dry. Do not disturb it at this time, it is fragile. Touching it could possibly cause it to be deformed and you wouldn’t want that.

vôa borboletinha!
Creative Commons License photo credit: .mands.

In another twelve to twenty-four hours you can safely release it to your garden where it will immediately find a nectar source to feed upon. If it is cloudy and raining, the butterfly will roost under a stem or a leaf until the temperature reaches 78 degrees or above. Once its body temperature warms up it should take flight.

Upon flight it will seek out its host and nectar sources so be sure to have plenty on hand in your garden for your new friends. I hope this sheds a little light on how you might save some of your beautiful caterpillars from predation in the future. Protecting them with an artificial environment is an easy thing to do.

Before the Hurricane: Securing the HMNS Greenhouses

Red Beauty
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

As many of you know, the greenhouses of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) are located on the rooftop of the parking garage on the seventh floor.  Two days before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, my volunteer Penny and I were busy preparing the greenhouses for the upcoming storm.  Because we are a USDA regulated facility, we must adhere to specific guidelines in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. 

The first task at hand was to safely remove the Heliconius longwing butterflies from the rearing facility and transport them into the CBC lower-level basement where they were temporarily housed in 3’X4’ zippered/framed insectaries.  Penny helped out with the transport of the precious little ones and carefully placed a few nectar sources into the three separate insectaries along with a bowl of artificial nectar source. 

Next, we had to remove the 600 caterpillars which were all at different stages of growth to a pupation cage which we transported to the basement by way of my truck-bed.  To our dismay, the pupation cage would not fit through the newly repaired door frame on the seventh floor so we rolled it down the main hall of the museum by way of the main entrance handicapped ramp.  Once we had the pupation cage in place, we transferred the 600 caterpillars into the cage along with a feast of Passionflower vines for them to feed upon until the storm passed. 

We were so busy doing the transport and removal that our Staff Entomologist, Laurie, and Soni, our Assistant Conservatory Horticulturist, came up to the seventh floor to help out by watering the other plants within the greenhouses. Nancy, our CBC director, and Erin, our Insect Zoo Manager and Entomologist decided that because they lived close to the museum, they would make sure that the little ones housed in the basement would be tended to as soon as they could get into the museum district to do so.

passionfruit flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Meme!

In the greenhouse area, we spent all day removing all the projectile objects from the exterior (wood, concrete blocks etc.).  We secured the plastic tables that usually hold plants to the white fence with newly purchased ratchet straps.  The greenhouse shade screens are set up on a pulley system so we rolled them all down and secured them with the straps. 

Inside the greenhouse, we pushed aside the mist tent where we house our seedlings to make way for the 700-plus plants that were outside that had to come inside until the storm passed.  We also had shelves of thousands of plastic plant flats and thousands of plastic pots which had to be pulled into the greenhouses so that they wouldn’t fly all over from the high winds.  We removed the shade cloth from the exterior so that it would not get ripped up in the wind.  We also had cans full of  Osmocote, a timed released fertilizer, bone and blood meal, perlitevermiculite, soil-mix and orchid medium that we transported into the greenhouse.

Whew… what a day!  We left feeling good about having secured the greenhouses and hoped that when we returned that the greenhouses would still be there.

2008-09-15   15-47-08   IMG_2629
Creative Commons License photo credit: geocam20000

As I write this blog, there are still millions without electricity or water and lots of recovery is taking place in Houston and in my neighborhood, Katy.  The CBC greenhouses, I am happy to say, survived the winds and the rain.  Only one thing happened – two of the steel shade clothes decided to roll themselves backwards and ended up on the opposite side of the greenhouse but remained attached to the roof. 

Erin and Nancy cared for our babies in the dark basement with the aid of flashlights and for this I thank them.  Abraham, our groundskeeper, filled 55 gallon cans with water and Erin and Nancy hand watered the plants in the greenhouses.  There was no electricity in the museum until Wednesday afternoon – hence no elevator – so Abraham had to deliver the water to the seventh floor in the back of his truck.

Since then, we have returned the rearing pairs of longwing butterflies to the insectaries where as of yesterday, there was mating and egg-laying occurring – just as nature intended.   We hope that you are all faring well and wish only the best for you and your precious families.  If you do have a spot in your yard where a tree once stood, you may want to consider filling it with butterfly host plants and nectar plants not only for them, but also for the hummingbirds who will soon be migrating south and will stop in our yards to replenish their energy or to possibly build a nest. If you are able to, we hope you’ll join us for our Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 4 on the seventh floor of the parking garage, from 9 to 1 p.m. We would love to see you. 

Take Care…
Ory
 

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don't ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.