‘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!

It’s a boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly Center

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog comes to us from Cockrell Butterfly Center Butterfly Rearing Coordinator Celeste Poorte.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center has had the privilege of witnessing a rare natural phenomenon recently. On July 10, a very unusual butterfly emerged from its chrysalis in the Museum’s greenhouses used for breeding and raising butterflies. This butterfly has a bilateral division: one side is female, while the other is male.

This condition is known as gynandromorphy. The term derives from the Greek “gyne” (female) and “andro” (male). This extraordinary butterfly is of the species known as the Great Southern White (Ascia monuste).

The Great Southern White is a cream-colored butterfly in the Pieridae family and occurs in the Southeastern United States and Central and South America. This species is sexually dimorphic, meaning the male is physically distinguishable from the female. In the case of the Great Southern White, the female has darker, greyer wings than her lighter male counterpart.

Our unique specimen’s right wing is ivory with dark scallop designs on the edges. Its left wing is a solid warm grey tone. On the right side of the abdomen you can see an anatomical protrusion not observed on the left side. This is a single clasper, a structure usually found in pairs on male individuals. Claspers are used by males to grip onto the female during mating. Our particular butterfly only has one clasper, on the same side of the body showing the male coloration and wing pattern. These observable features suggest that the entire right side of the butterfly is genetically male, while its left side is female. NEAT!

It’s a Boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly CenterGynandromorphy is the result of a genetic mutation. It is an extremely rare condition and a topic of interest to researchers. As early as the 1700s, scientists have recorded cases of organisms that seem to be half male and half female. Recognized cases of gynandromorphy typically occur in species with sexually determined phenotypes. In the butterfly world, these specimens are prized by collectors. Cases most commonly occur in insects. Examples have also been documented in crustaceans (especially lobsters) and even birds. (Gynandromorphy has not been observed in mammals.)

It’s a Boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly CenterCrustaceans, especially lobsters (Homarus americanus), can also display gynandromorphy. (original photo by A. R. Palmer; taken at the Bonne Bay Marine Station,)

It’s a Boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly Center

How does this bizarre genetic anomaly occur? All sexually reproducing organisms begin as a single cell (a zygote) from the fusion of two gametes, a sperm and an egg. This single cell then undergoes division after division to produce all the cells in the body. In insects, each cell division — from the zygote on  — is determinate, meaning that cell’s fate is set. The earliest divisions will determine left from right, front from back, and top from bottom. Therefore, gynandromorphy is the result of an error during one of the very first cell divisions.

In Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), sex is determined by a WZ/ZZ (female/male) system. We are more familiar with the human sex chromosomes X and Y, where females are XX and males are XY. In butterflies, this situation is reversed, and it is the female who has the heterogametic sex chromosomes. It is important to note that what is important in determining sex is the number of Z’s. Any individual with only one Z will be female (even if it is missing a W), and any individual with two (or more) Z’s will be male.

When cells divide (mitotically), identical copies of DNA are passed on to the resulting daughter cells. Occasionally a non-disjunction event occurs, in which the duplicated chromosomes do not correctly separate from one another, leaving one daughter cell missing chromosomes, while the other has extra copies. Gynandromorphy can happen when a non-disjunction occurs in a Z chromosome of a ZZ individual (male). In this situation, when the duplicated Z chromosomes fail to separate correctly, one daughter cell ends up with a single Z (female) and the other ends up with three Z’s (male). All the progeny of the female cell will be female, and the progeny of the male cell will be male. As a consequence, one side of the individual will have male traits, while the other side will have female traits. This is called a bilateral gynandromorph. If the non-disjunction of the Z chromosomes occurs at a later division, the butterfly will have a smaller section that is one sex while the rest of it is the opposite sex. Additionally the non-disjunction can occur several times during development resulting in a patchwork effect, yielding what is known as a mosaic.

Non–disjunction is not the only way this condition can arise. Other genetic events resulting in the spontaneous anomalous loss of a Z chromosome in a cell within the first few divisions will have similar effects.

It’s a Boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly Center

It’s a Boy! And a girl? Butterfly with rare condition emerges in Cockrell Butterfly Center

So there you have it, gynandromorphy is a bizarre but often strikingly beautiful genetic error. The Cockrell Butterfly Center is lucky to have raised a butterfly with such a rare condition so we can all learn about the peculiarities of the natural world!

Exotic edibles & tongue trickery at Cockrell Butterfly Center: Trip out your taste buds Aug. 28!

The tropical vegetation in the Cockrell Butterfly Center features a number of plants with edible fruits. Some, such as coffee, chocolate, pineapple and papaya, are familiar and readily available in local stores.

But most visitors — unless they hail from equatorial climes — are probably  unfamiliar with caimito, jaboticaba, calabash, Barbados cherry or miracle fruit.

One of our favorites is the jaboticaba, a small tree that bears grape-sized fruits in clusters growing directly out of the smooth-barked trunk — very bizarre looking! The tasty pulp inside the rather thick, purplish-black skins is translucent white and juicy, surrounding one to three seeds. Very popular in its native Brazil, jaboticaba fruit is eaten fresh or used in jellies and drinks.

JaboticabaWe get many questions about the calabash tree, which hails from the dry forests of Central America. Strictly speaking, its grapefruit-sized (or larger), green fruits are not edible, although cows and horses may sometimes break open the thick shell to eat the pulp and seeds inside. In El Salvador, the seeds are ground to make the traditional beverage horchata. More often, people dry and hollow out the shell, sometimes carving the surface, and use it as a cup or dipper.

One of our most prolific fruit bearers is the caimito (also called custard apple or star apple) from the West Indies. This tree’s dark green leaves are a shimmering copper on their undersides—the scientific name Chrysophyllum, which means “golden leaf,” is very appropriate! The fruits are the size of large plums and the color of eggplants; inside they have a dense, lavender flesh that is somewhat sweet. The milky sap is quite sticky, so it’s best to eat these with a spoon. (However, we feed most of them to our butterflies, since none of us like the taste much.)

The Barbados cherry has red, cherry-sized fruits that are a little tarter than cherries. Some people grow a miniature form of this tree here in Houston, but the much smaller fruits of this plant are relished only by birds.

"Miracle Fruit"Finally, “miracle fruit,” the color and size of a cranberry, is borne on a shrub from West Africa. One doesn’t eat the fruit for itself, as it is quite insipid, but rather for the amazing transformation of one’s taste perception that results from eating it. Chewing on this berry makes even the sourest lemon taste sweet; it was apparently used in its place of origin to make sour fruits and bitter roots more palatable.

You can experience this interesting sensation yourself if you come to our special “taste-tripping” event on Aug. 28.

WHAT: Adult Hands-On Class — “Taste Bud Tripping with Miracle Fruit”
WHEN: Wednesday, August 28, 6 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Tickets $50, Members $40

The miracle fruit berry from west Africa tricks your taste buds and makes food taste sweeter. Even the most sour and tart foods, such as lemons, are transformed into sweet morsels. Experience the magic of miracle fruit along the dramatically lit trails of the Cockrell Butterfly Center rainforest. After you eat the exotic berry, sample food and drink selected for the delicious impact the miracle fruit has on its taste. Book your taste buds on a trip of a lifetime at HMNS and see why—out of all of the delicious fruits of the Cockrell Butterfly Center flora—the miracle berry fruit is arguably the sweetest.

For tickets call (713) 639-4629 or click here to purchase them online in advance.

Our first Friday Feeding Frenzy in photos: Join us at the Butterfly Center every Friday this summer!

Last Friday we launched our new summer program aimed at getting patrons involved in some of our behind-the-scenes, day-to-day maintenance of the Cockrell Butterfly Center: the Friday Feeding Frenzy!

Every Friday this summer, the Butterfly Center staff will feed their live animal collection in the view of our patrons, allowing you guys to learn a little bit more about how these creatures keep themselves fit and fierce.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Green tree pythons like the ones that live in the Butterfly Center are equipped with heat sensors that enable them to sense their prey. Like their counterpart in the Americas, the emerald tree boa, the python constricts its prey.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our pythons are fed frozen mice (to kill any harmful germs and bacteria) that are warmed up to resemble live prey. The python above was captured just after he struck.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

A young crowd gathers to examine the millipede and centipedes that live in the Butterfly Center. While millipedes are harmless, the Vietnamese centipede is an aggressive, predatory arthropod that packs a powerful sting.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Although its name would imply that it has 100 legs, this centipede actually has far fewer. Still, it is fast, voracious and will eat anything smaller than itself — including small lizards and mammals.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Above, a praying mantis rather brutally devours a live cricket.

It’s a pretty fabulous buggy buffet. And best of all, it’s totally FREE! All you need is a ticket for entrance to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. For more information, including a full schedule of feeding times, click here.