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!

Visit our butterfly beauties at Primavera through April 7 at the Houston Galleria!

Every year, the Houston Galleria hosts Primavera: a springtime celebration of all things blooming. As in the past, the Museum got in on Primavera this year with a butterfly garden installation:

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

Visit our flappers in their fabulous temporary digs through April 7 on the ground floor of Galleria 4, in between Ann Taylor and Gigi’s Asian Bistro.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig (ever-accessorized, below) says we’ve got 20 species hanging out.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013Most are rice paper butterflies and longwings, but there are a few lacewings and other beauts in there, as well.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013The butterflies are being fed, for the time being, via plastic loofahs soaked in sugar water — the same preferred diet doled out by your average hummingbird feeder.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013Want to learn more about butterflies and butterfly gardening? Hit up our semi-annual Plant Sale this April 6 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and learn how to make your own butterfly habitat (greenhouse not included).

The Cockrell Butterfly Center staff hits The Galleria for Primavera 2013

From left, Cockrell staff Lauren Williamson, (THE) Zac Stayton, and Nancy Greig

Sweet classes in Sugar Land: Build your own butterfly garden this Saturday

Is your yard an ugly caterpillar just waiting to blossom into a beautiful butterfly of landscaping grandeur? Well the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land is here to help. Think of us as the fairy godmother to your languishing larva, and our butterfly gardening course as the magic wand that can turn that pitiful pupa of a yard into a glorious flying tapestry.

Adopt A Butterfly 2011

Think that was dramatic? Wait until you see your garden after an afternoon with HMNS Sugar Land’s Outdoor Learning Center Coordinator Aureline Roberts.

This Saturday, Aureline will teach 30 pupils all about gardening for butterflies: How to identify host and nectar plants and what sort of native butterfly species each attracts; how to preserve native insects; and how to incorporate all of this know-how into a new butterfly garden or into your existing landscape.

Each participant will take home a gift to get started. Book your spot today — space is limited to 30 participants and tickets must be purchased in advance. Spaces fill up quickly, so click here to get your garden going!

What: Butterfly Garden Discovery
When: August 4 at 10 a.m.
Where: HMNS Sugar Land, 13016 University Blvd.
How much: $8 for public; $5 for members

Bountiful butterflies plus more on moths: Why you should appreciate both this summer

Houston is brimming is with butterflies this season! Moths, too.

After a dismal showing during last year’s prolonged drought with almost no butterflies at all, this year local butterflies have bounced back with a vengeance! Or maybe “vengeance” isn’t a word usually associated with butterflies. In any case, there are lots of them.

gulf frit1A Gulf Fritillary

I have never seen so many butterflies in my backyard garden – both as babies (caterpillars) and adults. Pipevine swallowtails are particularly abundant right now, and I had dozens of monarchs a few weeks ago. I’ve seen black swallowtails and giant swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, and a few sulphurs as well. I just acquired three small sassafras trees, and they came complete with a couple of my favorite caterpillars: the spicebush swallowtail, which are the inspiration for the giant caterpillar sculpture at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. And I’m not the only one who is seeing an abundance of butterflies; many Houston gardeners have made similar observations.

spicebush cat2A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

In addition to these garden species, I’ve noticed big numbers of some of the forest-inhabiting butterflies such as hackberry and tawny emperors, question marks, and red admirals. These butterflies typically visit sap flows or rotten fruit, and their caterpillars eat hackberry or elm leaves (or nettles, in the case of red admirals), so to see them you need to take a walk in the wood. I take my dogs walking at “Wortham Island,” a former oxbow bend of White Oak Bayou that is now an off-the-beaten-path wooded area in northwest Houston, and have seen clouds of emperors, lots of question marks, and a red admiral or two. Snout butterflies, another species more common in wooded areas, have appeared in my yard for the first time, sipping water off the sidewalk.

emperors feeding
Tawny emperors feeding

And a new butterfly species may be on the horizon! As we reported in the latest Museum News, a zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), until now unknown in Houston, was spotted laying eggs on paw paw plants at a local nursery. Hoping that this sighting might not be a complete accident, I’ve planted a couple of paw paws in my yard, and am keeping my eyes open and fingers crossed. Zebra swallowtails are fairly common in the Big Thicket area, less than 100 miles northeast of us. I’ve always said that if people from Cleveland, Texas to Houston would just plant paw paws, we could probably bring this gorgeous butterfly to our area!

Eurytides marcellusZebra swallowtails may be migrating to Houston

On the down side, I have not seen any orange-barred sulphurs for a couple of years, and the polydamas swallowtails, which seemed to be overtaking the pipevine swallowtails, have also been less visible.I’m guessing that the cold winter of 2010-11 may have knocked back the populations of these tropical species, and they haven’t made it back in large numbers yet.

So why is this year so good for butterflies? I can only guess that the weather conditions have been just right this spring and early summer. We’ve had enough rain and lots of warm, sunny weather in between. Certainly all the interest in planting for butterflies can’t hurt. The only reason there are so many pipevine swallowtails and monarchs in my yard is because I’ve had dozens of their caterpillars eating all the Brazilian pipevine and Mexican milkweed I’ve planted. Providing host plants is vital. Of course, where I’m seeing the butterflies now is at the pentas and Mexican bauhinia that are blooming profusely these days, so nectar plants are important too!

pipevine cats1
A Pipevine caterpillar

On a different note – but still keeping with the lepidopteran theme – there is a wonderful new Peterson Field Guide available on moths of northeastern North America. Unfortunately it is NORTHeastern – but many of the species portrayed in the excellent illustrations do occur in our region. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. Moths may have more subtle coloration than butterflies, but many are quite spectacular mimics of lichen, bird droppings, leaves, or other insects. And although a few are pests of forest trees or in the garden, most are harmless and are important sources of food for bats (as adults) and songbirds (as caterpillars).

I was interested to read in the moth book introduction that there is a citizen science program on moth-watching in Great Britain. So little is known about our moth fauna here in the USA; it would be great if something similar could be launched here. Did you know that there are about 15 to 20 times as many moths as butterflies? In North America, there are about 11,500 moth species to 725 butterfly species. Perhaps with the availability of books like this one, people will start to pay more attention to these poorly known and poorly understood creatures. All it takes is leaving your porchlight on and observing (and trying to identify) the nocturnal creatures that are attracted to it. But be aware that some of the most colorful moths fly during the day.

Another useful thing to do where moths are concerned is to rear the caterpillars you find. Just because they don’t turn into beautiful butterflies does not mean they are not interesting in their own right! Do keep a record of the host plant the caterpillars eat.

Long live the Lepidoptera!