About Zac

Zac joined the museum in January after returning to Houston from a stint studying plants in Hawaii. He is the full-time horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and is in charge of daily maintenance and design for the rainforest exhibit. Zac specializes in tropical plants, particularly epiphytes, and his duties in the rainforest range from feeding all of the plants and animals to hand pollinating some of the tropical fruits, such as vanilla and cacao.

Look, ma, no roots! Learn to grow your own orchids, bromeliads & other “air plants”

It’s that time of year again: the long cold of winter is lifting, and we can see spring around the corner. Here at HMNS we ring in spring with a BLOOM — with our horticulture adult education classes. Kicking off the season on Mar. 8, we’re offering a class on growing orchids and other epiphytes!

“Other epiphytes?” you may ask, wondering, “I just thought orchids were flowers.” While they are flowering plants, there’s so much more that makes them really incredible. You see orchids, and epiphytes in general, distinguish themselves from other plants in that they do not need to grow in soil. They actually prefer not to. They have amazingly adapted so that their roots can suck moisture directly out of the air. By attaching to a tree, high off the ground, they can also avoid getting gobbled up by most herbivores.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic, meaning that they do not steal any nutrients from the plant they grow on, creating their energy through photosynthesis (although some species like the strangler fig can eventually overtake their host). Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the South is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

If you have ever strolled through the Cockrell Butterfly Center you have surely seen our stunning epiphytes clinging on nearly every nook and cranny of the larger trees and struts in the center.

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class “How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other ‘Air Plants'” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sat., Mar. 8 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class in which attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid or bromeliad to start (or add to) their collection.

The Blue Morpho Blend, Part II: The coffee grind of hulling, roasting & cupping

In Part I, we talked about the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Little Coffee Tree That Could, and how we grow, harvest, and dry coffee beans. But even after all this work, the beans are still not ready to consume. So let’s talk about how we get the dried (parchment) coffee to a state that can be enjoyed by the masses!

Hulling
Once the beans have been prepared and dried, the parchment — a thin, brittle skin that completely covers the bean — must be broken and the green bean removed. This is typically done by a special machine that shakes the beans, and the vibrations knock the parchment off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to any of these machines, so we went through this process by hand — and the entire Butterfly Center staff and volunteers have the calluses on their fingers to prove it (of course, hindsight is 20/20 and we could have probably used a rock polisher and saved ourselves some labor, but I’m sure even Juan Valdez went through some trial and error before he perfected his process!).

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Roasting
Now being the traditionalist sort who orders a “large coffee” if I ever find myself in a Starbucks, seeing some of the advancements and new technology when it comes to roasting and brewing was a real eye opener.

Enter local roaster Matt Toomey of Boomtown Coffee in the Heights. Lucky for us, Boomtown had a roaster small enough to accommodate our single harvest, and Matt was happy to explain the process to us — the uninitiated roasters.

First, we weighed out the beans to be roasted and preheated the electric sample roaster. The temperature needs to be around 480 degrees Fahrenheit so that the beans can be heated to between 380 and 480 degrees, depending on the desired roast (as soon as you add in the beans, the temperature drops significantly). So, 380 degrees yields a light or cinnamon roast, while 480 degrees gives you a dark Spanish roast. The roaster we used can only hold about 1 pound at a time, however, the basic idea behind all roasters is the same: turn the beans continuously to ensure uniform roasting of the beans. The central drum spins the beans as they roast to achieve this uniformity.

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FUN FACT: Experienced roasters know when the beans are ready — not by smell, but by sound. The coffee bean, much like popcorn, will pop or crack up to two times as it roasts. For our Blue Morpho Blend, we did a full roast, or specifically a “full city roast” — which means you pull the beans out at the beginning of the “second crack.”

After all this work, we finally have a bean that is ready to grind and brew. But wait what if it’s not any good? If we made any mistakes during the growing, fermentation or drying process it can give the beans a foul odor and taste; this is where “cupping” comes into play.

Cupping  
Cupping is a method of taste testing coffee to determine the quality of the bean. You take a small cup, and observe the different aspects of the brew, like aroma, body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. We did this using a Chemex brewing system, shown below, which is the opposite of a French Press. Where a French press leaves a lot of sediment in the coffee, the Chemex uses a very fine filter that creates a “cleaner” coffee.

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Success! The Blue Morpho Blend passed the cupping with flying (or should I say fluttering) colors! We found it has an earthy, almost nutty aroma, with a flavor that has a hint of amaretto, and an amazing aftertaste!

Now a lucky few will get the chance taste it and tell us what they think at our Butterflies and Beans event on Jan. 18th. We’ll let you know what they say!

The Blue Morpho Blend, Part I: Growing coffee in the Butterfly Center

When we think of coffee, we normally assume that the best quality coffee comes from Java, Colombia, Ethiopia, or Kona. But maybe it’s time to add Houston to the list!

This year at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Cockrell Butterfly Center, we were fortunate to have a large enough crop on our coffee tree (Coffea arabica) to harvest, process and roast — which means we’ve got brews for you! This journey has given me a brand new respect for my daily cup of Joe.

Come along with me, and I’ll let you in on how to be one of the select few who gets to sample this exclusive Houston grown “Blue Morpho Blend” at Butterflies and Brew: HMNS’s first harvest.

Botany
Coffee comes from the plant Coffea arabica, a member of the family Rubiaceae which is native to Ethiopia, but now grown throughout the tropics. The plants make small trees, growing 10-15 ft. in height, with glossy, evergreen leaves. The small, white flowers smell like gardenia (a member of the same plant family). The flowers are typically self-pollinating and take between six and eight months to ripen into a red fruit called a “cherry,” each of which contains one to three coffee beans.

A typical coffee plant will take between three and six years from germinating until it begins to produce fruit. As it happens, our tree in the Butterfly Center is about four years old.

FUN FACT: Our tree was a surprise. It appeared as a seedling from a stray bean that fell off an older coffee plant that was taken out several years ago.

History
Although many legends surround coffee’s origin (all of them very interesting), the first official account of people using coffee for its stimulant properties can be traced back to the 15th century in the monasteries of Yemen. By the 16th century, coffee had made its way all over the Middle East, Turkey, Persia, and North Africa. From there it spread to Europe, Indonesia, and finally North and South America — and the rest, as they say, is history.

FUN FACT: Americans spend nearly 4 billion dollars per year importing coffee. A majority of Americans (63 percent or 150 million people) drink coffee every day, yet Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has the proper climate to grow coffee successfully. So it’s no wonder that most people walk right by our beautiful coffee tree in the Butterfly Center without recognizing it as the source of their daily drip!

Harvesting
In order to save time and money, agriculturists have developed machines to do the harvesting of many fruit crops. However, most of the world’s coffee is and will most likely remain a hand harvested crop, for a number of reasons.

First, most coffee grows best at high elevations, usually on the side of a hill or mountain. In extreme cases, harvesters have to secure themselves with ropes just to pick the cherries; such sites are impossible for heavy machinery to access.

Secondly, much of the world’s coffee is grown in developing countries where labor is cheap, so investing in expensive machinery is typically not cost-effective.

Finally, and most importantly, the best quality coffee is made from only the ripest of cherries, as immature cherries impart a bitter and acidic flavor. Ripe cherries can be tucked in among several immature cherries, so it takes a picker with a skilled eye combing through the trees every 8 to10 days to get only the mature red fruits.

While there are machines developed in Brazil that will strip-harvest the fruit off the branches, this process wastes about half of the crop because it is not ripe. Furthermore, the flat land where they are growing on the machine-harvested coffee was once rainforest that has been cleared for farming. This is definitely not sustainable, and should not be encouraged.

FUN FACT: We took three harvests off of our tree this year yielding just under two pounds of roasted coffee.

Processing
There are two methods for processing coffee beans after they have been harvested: dry and wet.

The dry method is the oldest and most common way of processing coffee. In this method, you take the entire coffee cherry, clean it, and let it dry in the sun for about four weeks with the pulp and flesh of the fruit still on the beans. While this method is simple, it is not recommended for rainy or humid environments.

We therefore used the wet method, which consists of pulping, fermenting and drying. While more labor intensive, this way we were able to make sure no mildew or fungus formed on the beans.

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Pulping
Once the coffee has been harvested, the red flesh and pulp of the cherry needs to be removed from the seeds or “beans.” Since the beans have a slimy covering, any pressure applied to the cherry will cause the beans to shoot out, making this one of the easier aspects of coffee harvesting. We simply grasp the cherries firmly, squeeze and voila! — the mucilage-covered beans pop out.

Fermenting
Next, the mucilage coating must be removed from the beans. We let the beans ferment in water for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water and rinsing the beans several times in that period. Any unripe or damaged beans will float to the top of the water during this process and can easily be tossed out. When fermentation is complete, the beans have lost their slimy texture and feel rough to the touch.

Drying
Now that the coffee has been harvested, de-pulped, and washed, it’s ready to undergo the drying process. At this point, the beans still contain a lot of water. Their moisture content needs to come down to about 10 to 12 percent moisture before they can be roasted.

Depending on the climate, this drying process can take as long as four weeks. Drying is usually done on large tables in full sun or in specially-built greenhouses, where the beans are raked or stirred often to make sure they all dry at the same rate.

At the end of this process you will have what is called “parchment” or pergamino coffee. Although coffee beans are sometimes sold and shipped en pergamino (“in parchment”), they still have to be hulled to remove the parchment coating before they can be roasted.

Stay tuned for Part II (the tastiest part!): Hulling, roasting, and enjoying!

And don’t forget to buy tickets to Butterflies and Beans: HMNS’ First Harvest, where you can try our very own Blue Morpho Blend Coffee on January 18!

Stage-five clingers: Learn to grow epiphytes with Zac Saturday, March 24

As the horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center conservatory, I get asked a plethora of gardening questions. The most frequently asked question (other than “How’s Lois?”) has got to be “How do you get your orchids to grow on trees?”

Orchid Show at HMNS!

I explain to visitors that most orchids are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the trunk and branches of larger trees. To do this, they have developed ingenious ways to obtain water and nutrients without the need of soil. Not to be confused with parasites, epiphytes take nothing from the tree they attach themselves to. Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the south is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

There seems to be a common misconception that growing orchids is reserved for only the most experienced gardeners, but from my experience, this is not always the case. In fact, orchids seem to thrive on neglect; the most common cause of orchid death is over-watering.

epiphyte orchid

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other “Air Plants”  from 9 to 11 a.m. this Saturday the 24th in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class where attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid to start (or add to) their collection!