Plant Sale: This Saturday

Today’s post was written by Soni, horticulturalist for our Butterfly Center. She and the other employees are hard at word preparing for our upcoming Plant Sale on October 2.

I’m sure not very many of you are thinking of rolling up your sleeves and heading into the blazing heat of summer to do a little gardening. What you should do is start thinking ahead to fall, planning your garden for when the weather cools off and you can once again step outside of the air conditioning without having a heat stroke. If your garden needs a perk up after this summer, you should head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale which will be this Saturday, October 2, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Bouquet of Coneflowers
Coneflowers
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Twice a year we have a sale where we carefully select just the right plants for you to put in your garden to attract butterflies and their offspring. How do you go about attracting butterflies and their offspring? Well, first of all, you need lots and lots of nectar plants, the more variety the better. The best nectar plants are those with small tubular flowers arranged in clusters, sometimes with brightly colored petals that serve as a target to alert the butterflies that, “Hey! There’s food over here!” Butterflies survive on a liquid diet because of their specialized mouthparts, collectively called a proboscis. It looks like a coiled straw which they unravel to poke down inside flowers and consume the sugary liquid. Some examples of excellent nectar plants are Coneflower (Echinacea sp.), Black and Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.), Native Gayflower (Liatris sp.), Lantana, Verbena, Porterweed (Stachytarpheta sp.), Salvia, Heliotrope, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) and many, many more.

Did you think I forgot to mention their offspring? Of course not, that is my favorite part of butterfly gardening! Let’s back up for a minute so you can see the big picture. A butterfly’s life is comprised of four stages. In each stage the creature looks totally different. The whole lifecycle is called complete metamorphosis (meta means change, and morph means form). The first stage is the egg, which was laid by its thoughtful mother on a very important plant called a host plant. (Did you know butterflies are really good botanists? The story gets even weirder. They can tell plants apart by tasting them with their feet!) When the egg hatches, a caterpillar (otherwise known as a larva) crawls out and immediately eats the egg shell. Then, the caterpillar looks around and wonders, “What else is there to eat around here?” Well, little friend, you are sitting right on top of it. The host plant is the food, the life support, for the caterpillar. Without host plants we would not have butterflies!

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) monarch-butterfly_2
Monarch Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: mikebaird

Each type of butterfly corresponds to a different type of host plant. For example, the well known Monarch butterfly only lays its eggs on the Milkweed plant (Asclepias sp.). The Monarch caterpillars will not eat Parsley or Dill, but you know who will? The Black Swallowtail, that’s who. Other host plants that attract our native butterflies are: citrus species, rue (Ruta graveolens), and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliate) for the Giant Swallowtail; Dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia fimbriata and A. elegans) for Pipevine and Polydamas Swallowtails; spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) for the Spicebush Swallowtail; sennas (Cassia sp.) and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate) for Sulphurs; and passionvines (Passiflora sp.) for the Gulf Fritillary.

The third stage of metamorphosis is the chrysalis (or pupa), which is what the adult butterfly (the fourth and final stage) emerges out of.

When you combine nectar and host plants in your landscape you will not only increase your chances of seeing butterflies, but you can also have the experience of witnessing the amazing process of metamorphosis first hand. If you don’t want to see plants that are chewed up, you can omit the host plants, or place them behind other plants, however, watching a butterfly lay eggs and watching caterpillars grow is pretty cool.

We will have the majority of the plants mentioned above at the plant sale, plus many more (a “complete” list is on the website). The selections we have made are for growing in Houston and the surrounding areas, a lot being native plants. You can also learn about gardening for butterflies at the sale from our knowledgeable staff and volunteers. Hope to see you there!

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:
1. Get there early. Don’t wait and expect to have a lot to choose from an hour before we close.
2. We will have wagons for customers to cart their plants to their cars, but if you have your own, bring it.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.
4. The lines are long, but look at it as a time to make new friends or learn something new.   

The Black Swallowtail

I would like to introduce you to my favorite caterpillar, the Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.

I knew I had not seen a Black Swallowtail butterfly in my garden for a few weeks so, I thought I might not have any caterpillars to take a photo of. 

I was so pleased when I saw a large caterpillar resting on a stem covered in the fresh morning dew – especially when it just happened to be a Black Swallowtail. The caterpillars, when almost mature, are uniformly colored with their soft green skin etched in jet black stripes and speckled with lemon yellow dots.  The caterpillar’s soft creamy foot pads adhered so tightly to the stem swaying in the breeze, it looked as though it would never let go. It was certainly an unexpected pleasure.

The early stages of these larvae look like bird droppings.  This is a method of camouflage that protect them from predators. I ran to get my camera and tried to get a good shot.  Not wanting to disturb the larvae, I sat down in the grass next to the garden bed and took the photo.

The Black Swallowtail butterfly is a graceful flyer swaying from left to right (not in a zigzag, but in a gentle glide swaying from side to side.)  The Black Swallowtail male and female butterflies are dimorphic, meaning that they have a difference in the coloration of their wing patterns.

Blacktail Swallowtail Host Plant

The host plants of the Black Swallowtail are in the parsley family such as carrots, parsley, dill and celery fennel.  I recall one afternoon late in the fall, a museum visitor brought in some Black Swallowtail caterpillars because they had eaten all the parsley in her garden and she was worried that they would not live.

I placed the caterpillars in a plastic shoe box with holes in the lid.  Inside the box I placed a slightly moist paper towel and some fresh organic parsley I purchased at the grocery.  The caterpillars were just fine with this method of alternative feeding.  They all pupated on the lid of the box and remained in good health. Within a few weeks time they were set free atop the 7th floor of the parking garage.  They gently took the breeze on down to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Demonstration garden and began their life cycle once again.

Stop by the Demonstration garden the next time you visit the museum and see if you can spot any caterpillars.