About Soni

Soni is the Greenhouse Manager and Horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Her job consists of maintaining the support greenhouses for the CBC, organizing plant sales, leading outreach programs, assisting with the butterfly rearing program, and spreading enthusiasm for butterfly gardening. She earned a B.S. in Horticulture from Texas A&M University and she got her first experience at the Museum as a summer intern for the CBC.

It Takes a Village ….A Milkweed Village

monarch-2

As the obligate host plants for monarch caterpillars, milkweeds are a staple in any butterfly habitat garden. However, milkweed is not just for monarchs! Many other insects call the genus Asclepias home, giving rise to the concept of a “milkweed village.”

Milkweed plants produce bitter tasting toxins called cardiac glycocides, and insects that eat milkweeds have evolved to use these to their advantage, sequestering the toxins in their bodies to protect themselves from predators. Most, if not all milkweed-eating insects have markings of black and orange or yellow, a type of aposomatic coloration that warns predators of their horrible flavor. If a predator such as a bird, lizard, or spider were to eat one of these insects, it would spit it out. The next such insect would be avoided, as its coloration would remind the predator of its foul flavor.

Most butterfly gardeners have encountered the bright yellow oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, which congregates on the new growth, flowers, and developing seed pods of milkweed plants. Aphids are phloem feeders, meaning that they suck the sap, along with the toxins, out of the plant’s vascular tissue.

Ladybug larva

Ladybug larva

The presence of these aphids on milkweed attracts a number of predatory insects. Ladybug larvae and adults (Hippodamia spp. and others) are important predators of milkweed aphids. Other small beetles such as mealybug destroyers, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, and scale destroyers, Lindorus lopanthae, eat aphids along with other small sap-feeding insects. These beetles are interesting creatures in that their larval stage looks just like their namesake (i.e., mealybugs and scale, respectively).

scale destroyer larva2

Scale destroyer larvae

The maggot-like larvae of syrphid flies also eat aphids, sucking their bodies dry. Syrphid pupae look like little brown or tan teardrops. If you notice these on your milkweed plants, leave them in place to ensure another generation of these beneficial flies.

Syphid fly pupa

Syrphid fly larva

Tiny parasitic wasps such as braconids lay their eggs in aphids’ bodies. The wasp larvae feed on the inside of the aphid until they pupate, then exit as an adult wasp through a tiny hole in the aphid’s exoskeleton. The leftover brown “shell” is called an aphid mummy. These mummies are a good sign that your aphids are being parasitized. Don’t worry, these wasps don’t harm monarch caterpillars.

aphid mummy

Aphid mummies

With all of these great beneficial insects around, I hardly had to spray our milkweed crop at the museum with any insecticidal soap this year. However, if the aphid population on your milkweeds gets to be overwhelming, the best way to knock them back is to spray them off the plants with a sharp stream of water. Try to avoid damaging or knocking off any beneficial insects in the process.

Other “pests” of milkweed plants include the milkweed leaf beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. These chunky, orange and black beetles and their larvae feed on milkweed leaves.

Milkweed Beetle (Wikipedia)

Milkweed Beetle (Wikipedia)

Large milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, are also common in the southern United States. These oblong-shaped, sap-sucking true bugs are orange and black and mostly feed on the developing seeds, flowers and nectar of milkweed plants. They don’t usually cause much damage.

Now we come to the most familiar milkweed inhabitant – the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. As we all know, monarch caterpillars eat voluminous quantities of milkweed leaves, and display the textbook aposomatic coloration of white, black and yellow stripes. Their chrysalids, or pupae, are a gorgeous jade green with gold lines and spots.

monarch

Here in Houston we sometimes encounter another milkweed visitor – the queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus. Queen caterpillars look very similar to the monarch, but they have three pairs of tentacles instead of the monarch’s two. Their chrysalids are also similar, but are a bit smaller and may sometimes be a pale pink rather than green.

Like everything else, monarchs are part of the food chain, and are preyed upon or parasitized by a number of different organisms. One of their most prevalent parasites is a tachinid fly, a gray, hairy species about the size of a house fly. An adult fly female will lay her eggs on a monarch caterpillar and when they hatch, the maggots burrow inside. The maggots live inside the caterpillar, eating its tissues, until they are ready to pupate. At that point they crawl out of the caterpillar and fall to the ground, where they pupate in the soil The maggots often leave the caterpillar after it has pupated, leaving a trail of slime that dries up and looks like white strings hanging from the chrysalis. These strings are tell-tale signs of a tachinid fly infestation.

Tachinid fly larva emerging from monarch caterpillar.

Tachinid fly larva emerging from monarch caterpillar.

Assassin bugs, Zelus sp., are frequent visitors to milkweed plants. This true bug will stab monarch caterpillars with its rostrum or beak, paralyzing the victim and liquefying its insides, making it easier to consume.

Vespid wasps are another important predator of monarchs. The familiar large red wasps, Polistes carolinus, and the smaller yellow and black European paper wasp, Polistes dominulus, both hunt caterpillars as food for their own hungry larvae. Once a wasp finds a host plant with caterpillars, she will come back regularly to check for more, especially in the summer months when wasps are the most active. This can be upsetting to butterfly gardeners. To protect your caterpillars from these all-too-efficient predators, place a screen such as a pop up or mesh laundry hamper between them and the wasps.

Polistes carolina  Photo by Val Bugh

Polistes carolina Photo by Val Bugh

 

Polistes dominulus

Polistes dominulus

Finally, a parasite of notable concern that specifically affects monarchs (and also queens) has emerged on the scene of butterfly gardening. This protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, commonly known as Oe, begins with a dormant spore, usually deposited by an infected female monarch as she lays her eggs on a milkweed. When the caterpillars hatch and begin to eat, they consume the Oe spores along with the leaf. Once inside a caterpillar’s gut, the spores become active and reproduce several times. When the butterfly emerges from its pupa, it is covered in dormant Oe. spores, giving rise to the next generation of infected monarchs. Mildly infected butterflies may show no sign of infection but as Oe levels build up, they eventually cause problems such as weakness, deformity, and even death.

OE Life Cycle (Monarchparasites.org)

OE Life Cycle (Monarchparasites.org)

The annual migration to Mexico each fall helps to weed out infected butterflies, which are usually too weak to make the long trip and die along the way. However, some monarchs don’t migrate and may stay in the Houston area all winter long. In the south, butterfly gardeners primarily grow tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which unlike the native milkweeds does not die back to the root in the fall. Oe spores can remain viable on the leaves of this perennial species for some time, infecting the next generation of caterpillars that eats them. As this situation repeats, it can cause populations of severely infested monarchs. We therefore encourage butterfly gardeners to cut back their tropical milkweed every spring after the first generation of monarchs arrive and eat the milkweed down, and then again in the fall before or during the migration, so that the butterflies will be encouraged to migrate and not overwinter here.

Spiny soldier bug nymph eating a monarch caterpillar. (Photo by Dan McBride)

Spiny soldier bug nymph eating a monarch caterpillar. (Photo by Dan McBride)

With all of these challenges, it’s no wonder that only five to ten percent of monarch eggs make it to adulthood. Keep in mind however, that monarchs are an important part of the food chain and without their survival and natural demise, our native ecosystem would not be as diverse as it is. In any case, human interactions with the environment have caused the most damage to monarch populations – huge amounts of monarch habitat has been lost due to the expansion of agricultural land and use of Roundup Ready crops. Planting butterfly-friendly gardens, especially if they include milkweed, can help mitigate this loss of habitat.

You can do your part by attending our fall plant sale at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Stock up on the nectar plants that monarchs need to fuel their migration as well as host plants for native butterflies.

The sale will be held on Saturday, October 11th from 9:00 a.m. until noon (or until plants are gone), and will take place on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. Remember, the early bird gets the larva, so to speak, and don’t forget your wagon!

‘Tis the season: Fall is finally (sorta) here — and so is our Semi-Annual Plant Sale

Fall is coming! Leaves are changing color, temperatures start creeping down, and gardeners will be able to get back outside without the threat of heatstroke.

Well, in theory. This is Houston, after all.

But despite the fact that it’ll be warm until Thanksgiving, there is something we can look forward to: cooler temps! And you know what else likes cooler temps? Plants! Plants can get a little stressed out in the hot, dry summer months, and some will even go into a dormant state (which means they cease to grow to conserve as much energy as they can). This type of dormancy is usually caused by drought stress.

If you’re like me, you don’t like to spend a lot of money irrigating your landscape, so my solution is to choose plants that do not need regular watering. There are many great butterfly nectar and host plants that are drought-tolerant and we will have several of these at the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale. We choose the hardiest perennials and annuals to help you stock up your landscape before the fall butterfly rush.

Here is my top 10 plant list for this fall:

1.Cassia splendida, Flowery Senna or Yellow Senna

Cassia splendida

1. Flowery Senna or Yellow Senna (Cassia splendida): This perennial shrub is covered in bright yellow clusters of flowers from fall through winter. It is also the host plant for several sulfur butterfly larvae. Cassia can reach heights of 6 to 12 feet tall, likes full sun, and has average water needs.

2. Fringed Twinevine (Funastrum cynanchoidies): This perennial vine is a great butterfly attractor for the fall. The pale pink flowers look similar to milkweed flowers, since they are in the same family, Apocynaceae. In fact, twinevine (unfortunately) attracts the yellow oleander aphid, just like milkweed! Monarchs will not lay eggs on the plant, but the caterpillars will eat the leaves in desperate times when milkweed is not available. Queen caterpillars will also eat this plant. This unusual plant is native to the southwestern United States, including south Texas. It is a twining vine and will need some sort of trellising.

3. Fall Mistflower or Common Floss Flower (Eupatorium odoratum, or Chromolaena odoratum): When the pale blue flowers of this plant appear, they are swarmed by many species of butterflies. The bushy plant grows 3 to 5 feet high and has low water needs. Plant in full sun for maximum blooms. Note that it only blooms for about 3 weeks, starting mid-to-late October, but the butterfly show is worth the wait.

Liatris sp., Blazing Star

Liatris sp.

4. Blazing Star (Liatris sp.): This Texas native perennial is a great nectar plant for summer and early fall. It likes full sun and is drought tolerant. The bloom spikes reach 3 to 4 feet tall. It also attracts hummingbirds!

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

5. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): This tree is also a native to Texas. It usually occurs as an understory tree at the edge of wooded areas, so they like a little bit of shade. They can reach up to 30 feet tall and, once their root system is established, they are drought tolerant. This tree has wonderful fall color and is also deciduous, which means that they drop all of their leaves in winter. So, if your Sassafras looks like sticks, don’t worry, it will come back in the spring. Another great thing about this tree (and the reason why we sell it) is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail. The utter cuteness of the Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar, in my opinion, makes it a great ambassador for butterfly gardening. It is a favorite of many butterfly enthusiasts.

6. Corell’s Obedient Plant (Physostegia corellii):  A Texas native, this perennial likes full to partial shade and needs regular watering. Plant height reaches about 3 feet tall and the pink flower spikes bloom mid to late summer. It is a great nectar plant for butterflies and hummingbirds.

7. Brazilian Pipevine (Aristolochia fimbriata): This trailing groundcover with attractive, slightly variegated, roundish leaves, likes part shade and average watering, but will become drought tolerant when established. The plant is named after its flowers, which resemble small tobacco pipes. These unusual maroon-colored flowers attract flies to pollinate them with their “fragrance” of rotting meat. The flies think this is a good place to lay their eggs, but in reality they are just doing the plant’s bidding! This plant is also the host for the native Pipevine Swallowtail and the more tropical Polydamas Swallowtail. The funky looking caterpillars can devour the foliage all the way to the ground, but luckily the plant is ready for this and will flush out new growth from its fleshy underground storage root. If you want this plant for raising caterpillars you should plant several to have enough food for your babies.

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

8. Frog Fruit (Lippia nodiflora): This native groundcover likes full sun to partial shade and blooms spring through early winter. It is a good nectar plant for small butterflies like hairstreaks and skippers. The leaves are also a host for buckeye larvae. If you have a large open space that needs some groundcover, this is the plant for you! Otherwise, you may want to contain its vigorous growth.

9. Mexican Caesalpinnia (Caesalpinnia mexicana): This woody perennial reaches 7 to 8 feet high, and produces large clusters of yellow flowers from early summer through early winter. A great nectar plant for butterflies, it likes full sun and is drought tolerant.

Red Rocket Russelia


Red Rocket Russelia

10. Red Rocket Russelia (Russelia sarmentosa):  This tender perennial is a great nectar plant for butterflies and hummingbirds. It likes full sun to part shade and is drought tolerant, and bears “fiery” red spikes of flowers that bloom from summer to fall.. For some reason it is not found in garden centers lately, but we have it!

The Semi-Annual Plant Sale will be held Saturday, October 12 from 9:00 a.m. to noon, or until we sell out of plants. Come early, because the plants go fast!

Get your garden going with our Semi-Annual Plant Sale this Saturday!

Do you wish you had a butterfly garden? Would you like to attract more of those beautiful creatures to your pre-existing garden? If so, don’t miss our Spring Plant Sale, Saturday, April 6th from 9 a.m. to noon! It takes place on the seventh level of the HMNS parking garage, where we will have a plethora of butterfly plants to choose from.

Of the dozens available, I chose 10 of my favorites for spring:

1. Zexmenia hispida or Hairy Wedelia. This perennial bush grows up to 2 feet tall. Native to the Texas Hill Country, it likes full sun and is drought-tolerant. The 1-inch wide yellow flowers cover this bush from spring through fall. It is a great nectar plant! Because it dies back in the winter, it needs a good haircut in the spring. We have this plant growing in our Demonstration Garden outside the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Stop by and check it out!

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 62. Gaillardia pulchella or Mexican Blanket. If you like native plants, this is a must have! You will have flowers on this plant from spring to fall. The blooms resemble targets that literally direct the butterflies to the nectar within! These plants typically grow in a mounding clump, with the flowering stalks reaching up to 2 feet tall. They like full sun and have average to low water needs once established. Save the seed heads and re-plant in spring!

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 63. Red Porter Weed (Stachytarpheta sp.). This tropical plant attracts butterflies and hummingbirds with its red spiked blooms. It’s a tender perennial, but it usually comes back from the base of the plant in spring if it is well-mulched in cold weather. It likes full sun and average watering, and grows up to 3 feet tall. We use these plants in the Butterfly Center year-round to keep our butterflies fed and happy!

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 64. Lantana montevidensis or Purple Trailing Lantana. This spreading perennial grows up to 2 or 3 feet wide, and blooms nearly year-round! It likes full sun but can tolerate a little bit of shade, especially in the afternoon, and has average to low water needs. The specimen in our Demonstration Garden has started to outgrow its space after a few years, so cutting it back once a year is recommended.

5. Stokesia laevis or Purple Stokes Aster. The flowers on this plant are striking! Up to 3 inches wide, they are a beautiful purple color with white centers. This herbaceous perennial only grows to about a foot high and is drought-tolerant. It blooms from spring through summer and is also a great plant for bees (we need to feed them too)!

6. Tithonia rotundifolia or Mexican Sunflower. This hard-to-find annual likes full sun and has average water needs. The plant tends to fall over and grow up from the stalk into a medium-sized bush — about 3 by 3 feet. You can save the seeds as the flower heads turn completely brown and dry up. Its one of the best nectar plants for butterflies!

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 67. Asclepias physocarpa or Family Jewels Milkweed. This plant has a funny name but is a seriously good host plant for Monarch and Queen caterpillars. Similar to Asclepias curassavicaI, or Tropical Milkweed, this species grows taller — about 4 feet — and has pinkish-white flowers. It likes some light shade in the afternoon and has average water needs once established. The seed pods that develop give rise to their common name, “Family Jewels.” Grow one to see what I mean!

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 68. Cassia alata or Candlestick Cassia. A fast growing, tender perennial tree, this is a host plant for Sulfur butterflies — those bright yellow ones! This plant grows up to 8 feet in one year, so you will need some space for it unless you cut it back occasionally. It likes full sun and average watering. Blooming late spring through fall, the large yellow flower spikes top off the tree. The well-camouflaged Sulphur caterpillars can be found on the newer growth or the flowers. The caterpillars eating the leaves are usually green striped, but those that eat the flowers tend to be more yellow. It’s always a treat to find them!

9. Foeniculum vulgare or Bronze Fennel. We usually think of fennel’s culinary use, but it is also a butterfly host plant. Have you ever noticed those green, black and white striped caterpillars in your herb garden? They are the larvae of the gorgeous Black Swallowtail butterfly! They like to munch on almost anything in the Apiaceae or Celery family, including fennel, parsley, dill, even carrot leaves. They will also eat another herb, rue, which is related to citrus. Bronze fennel is my favorite host plant for the Black Swallowtail. The plant forms a purplish feathery cloud, which looks striking in the landscape. Bronze fennel can grow to be a 2 to 3-foot mounding shrub and can even last as a perennial. In full sun, it grows more compact and gives off a licorice smell. It has average to low water needs once established. An unusual and versatile plant!

10. Passiflora foetida or Love-In-A-Mist Passion Flower. Passion vines are host plants for our native longwing — the Gulf Fritillary. However, some passion vines are not as favored by the caterpillars as others. The best ones for the Gulf Fritillary larvae are Incense (a hybrid), blue passion flower (Passiflora caerulea), native passion vine (P. incarnata) and P. foetida. Of these, foetida is my favorite. Its fuzzy leaves give off a “skunky” odor — hence the species name “foetida,” meaning “fetid.” The common name, Love-In-A-Mist, comes from the way the lacy sepals (Google it) cover the bright red fruits, like love in a misty shroud. The delicate pink blooms occur in clusters — which is somewhat unusual for passion flowers — and smell a little bit like bubblegum. In my experience, this vine does not grow out of control like some others, but occasionally sprigs will pop up in random places in the garden. Just pull them up when they grow in undesired locations. This plant likes a little bit of shade and average watering.

Get your garden going at our Spring Plant Sale: Saturday, April 6Well, that’s the line-up! I encourage anyone who has a hankering for butterflies to visit our plant sale, even if it’s just for advice. There will be many experts available to help with questions, so feel free to ask. Come early though, as the plants don’t last for long, and bring a wagon!

This semi-annual sale’s not about skivvies, it’s all about Skippers (and Painted Ladies, Nymphalids + more): The Semi-Annual Plant Sale!

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.

Hairstreaks

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.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Hair Streak

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

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!

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Texas Crescent

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.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Question Mark

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

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.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Fiery Skipper

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!