Horticulturalist Zac Stayton bids a fond farewell to HMNS

Editor’s Note: After four and a half years, Zac Stayton, Horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is leaving HMNS for a new job as a Project Manager for the grower Color Spot. I sat down with him this week to discuss his time at HMNS, his favorite projects and what he’ll be up to next.

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Vincent Covatto: So Zac, we’re very excited for you about your new prospects, but sad that you’ll be leaving. Could you tell us a little about what your job has entailed here at HMNS?

Zac Stayton: Basically, the beautification and upkeep of the Butterfly Center itself, from making sure all the plants are blooming, which ends up feeding the butterflies, to maintaining the tropical fruits, pollinating the chocolate trees and the coffee. Pretty much everything that goes into the conservatory itself, from irrigation and upkeep of the waterfall to electrical and everything in between.

VC: So we’ve essentially been running you ragged for the last five years.

ZS: [laughing] You could almost make it a job for a team of four.

VC: Or one Zac.

ZS: [laughing] Yeah, yeah.

VC: What are some of your favorite things that you’ve worked on in your time here?

ZS: Of course Lois and some of the tropical flowers that you wouldn’t normally get to encounter here in the Houston climate. There are some crazy orchids that we’ve got in there. We’ve got one in particular that’s endangered, and almost went extinct when the Japanese invaded a small island off the coast of Taiwan, so it’s very, very rare. Just getting to see some those plants bloom, I mean I’m one of the few people that ever gets to grow these plants, is really a great experience.

Also being able to grow coffee and chocolate, pineapples and vanilla — which you wouldn’t get to do outside of the glassed-in enclosure there in the conservatory.

VC: I remember this past winter we had had a coffee tasting in the conservatory. Was that sort of your own pet project?

ZS: Yeah, that coffee tree was actually kind of a fluke, we call it a volunteer. We took an old [tree] out when I first started and it dropped one single seed and it ended up growing into this tree that we didn’t even mean to plant there. And so, I guess it was maybe last September, October, I looked at it and it was just covered in berries, and it was like, well we’d better do something with all this coffee, rather than just letting it all go to waste.

So I went through and kind of studied how to do it and there’s not a lot of — like a lot of things in the Butterfly Center… you can’t just google these plants and see what to do. So I had to do a lot of calling around.

Here in Houston there’s plenty of coffee shops that will roast the beans for you, but we had undried beans. And it was like, ok how do we get these to the point where we can roast them. So we really had to break it down step by step and do some trial and error, with the whole process — from cracking the beans and drying them and roasting them and then finally grinding them and finally drinking them. It was pretty eye opening to see what actually goes into your daily cup of coffee.

VC: [laughing] Or four…

ZS: [laughing] Yeah depending on the day. Two for me at least. Minimum.

VC: Well I bet that was your favorite cup — the best coffee you’d ever had.

ZS: Definitely. Definitely, yeah, I mean I think everybody in the Butterfly Center got blisters on their fingers just having to — there’s what’s called parchment coffee and you basically have to take this thin layer of parchment off of each of the several thousand beans that we had. And they have machines for that for that kind of stuff in the tropics, but I couldn’t find one, at least in the area. I think the closest one was in Hawaii or Coast Rica, so we had to do it all by hand. And so you definitely get a new appreciation for coffee.

VC: Do you have a favorite plant, either inside the conservatory itself or something you’re really interested in?

ZS: I have a favorite plant family. I like bromeliads. So everything related to — the closest relative would be pineapples, but they also include Spanish moss [so there’s a big range]. I actually grew these in Hawaii before I came here so that’s kind of been my expertise, if you will, I’ve channeled myself into those a little bit more than some of the other plant species.

VC: So what is your new job?

ZS: [I’ll be working for] Color Spot the largest grower in the U.S. right now, and they have several locations — I thinking six or seven in Texas — but the branch that I’ll be at is in Huntsville. And I’ll be the production manager, making sure the timing goes through. Most the plants there are bedding plants, they’re seasonal.

For example, when Christmas time rolls around it’s going to be my job to make sure that all the poinsettias and mums and things like that are all ready, that they’re nice and red and at a specific time are on the shelves ready for people to buy.

VC: So you’ll be making sure that everything is timed right.

ZS: Exactly.

VC: So you determine when things are planted, when they’re harvested?

ZS: Exactly. There are a couple teams of growers, so I’ll be the Production Manager, from the time the plant gets put in the soil, until the time it gets on a truck headed to the main customers — I make sure it’s all on schedule.

If you’ve ever bought a plant from Walmart or Home Depot, or Lowes or Kroger, any of those big box stores, especially here in Texas, it’s come from Color Spot. Also smaller nurseries around town will buy their plants.

VC: So would you say this job is a continuation of the sort of work you’ve done for the museum or is it more of a fresh start?

ZS: It’s kind of a fresh start. It’s changing gears from tropicals to basically what grows well around here. A big part of it though will be — working here I learned a lot of the butterfly attractants for our area, although I work with tropicals on a daily basis there are a lot of calls asking “well what can I plant in my backyard?” So learned a lot about our native butterflies here and what plants attract them, and what plants you can put in your garden. And that’s a big part of what I’m going to be growing at Color Spot — butterfly attractants, nectar plants — so there is an overlap there.

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VC:  And you have the different pollinators to take into account with that as well?

ZS: Yes, exactly. Everything about pollination and pollinators I learned here firsthand. When I first started I didn’t know much about butterflies — I knew the monarch, the one that everybody knows, and other than that I didn’t know that there were 15 other species of butterflies that are native here, to Houston. That is something I’ve definitely gained from my time here.

VC: Is there anything that you’re really excited about growing or working on at Color Spot?

ZS: There are a lot of new bulbs, tulips and things like that, that we get to do trials with. Before they even hit the market we get to take some of these bulbs that these growers bring from the Netherlands and get to try them out, test them out, in our greenhouses. We get to be on the front line before anyone else [in the area] knows about them — that’s something I’m really excited about.

VC: I’ve been reading through some archival press from when Lois was blooming, and I saw a couple of places where you’d been quoted. I think that’s how some of our Houston audience got to know you — through that experience. Can we count on you to come back down the next time she’s in bloom?

ZS: Oh yeah definitely. I’ll be here of course, I wouldn’t miss it.

VC: Do you think you’ll become pen pals with her?

ZS: [laughing] Oh no, I don’t think so. No more anthropomorphizing Lois, although that was funny and clever when that happened.

The people though, that’s what made Lois what she was. Lois was just a flower, and people would probably gasp hearing me say that, but it was the whole community rallying around Lois that was the coolest part of the whole thing.

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80,000 plus people coming out, plus the people —you know, we had people in Australia saying “get out of the way! We can’t see Lois on the webcam!” So just the fact that it was everybody at the same time, seeing the same thing and it just blew up on social media. And that’s what I though was so cool, everybody so in synch, waiting, just to see what would happen with Lois.

As a horticulturist it was really cool to see just everyone getting around it and thinking it was as cool as I did. Normally, you know I’ll be like “ooo look at this cool plant!” and people couldn’t care less, but to see everyone else sharing that passion — that was the best part about it.

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VC: Is there anything else you’d like to say or share with our readers on the blog?

ZS: It’s been a fantastic four and a half years here, and honestly all of the events that we did, it wouldn’t have been possible without people getting as geeky about plants as me.

From the miracle fruit tasting, and the chocolate and the coffee — to see everybody getting around it, that was the best.

Lois, kind of spurred everybody on to find this new kind of passion in horticulture. There were a lot of parents that came up to me and said “I asked my kid what they want to do and now they all want to be a horticulturist.” And that’s the best thing that could come from it, I think, is a whole new generation of people that find plants as interesting as I do.

 

Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

Meet the live animals that’ll be starring in this week’s Friday Feeding Frenzy

Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes!

Every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be hosting the Friday Feeding Frenzy, where we will be feeding live animals for your viewing pleasure at 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m.. The cost is included with admission to the Butterfly Center.

toadally memeWe have several arthropods and even some reptiles and amphibians that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up for this Friday (note: it changes weekly).

GREEN TREE PYTHON 
Morelia viridis

Our green tree pythons, Boo and Hiss, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch. When potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tail as an anchor to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

 

GIANT ASIAN MANTIS
Hierodula membranacea

Feeding Frenzy 4This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey.

Due to their amazing camouflage, praying mantises can resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, but it keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence.

An insect that wanders too close is quickly snagged by raptorial front legs (read: legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive.

Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their heads, allowing the insect to see all around them. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision.

Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents.

 

GIANT CENTIPEDE
Scolopendra heros

Feeding Frenzy 8Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs — 1 pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment.

This centipede, also known as the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue prey. Once caught, the prey is bitten repeatedly by two fangs, which inject venom to immobilize and kill. Then the meal is devoured!

Giant centipedes of this and other similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me and you’ll get more than you bargained for!”

A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas.

 

WOLF SPIDER
Hogna carolinensis

Feeding Frenzy 6This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States. Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas.

The name “wolf spider” refers to their hunting behavior. They don’t build a web designed to ensnare prey, but actively seek out their prey. Sometimes they wait to ambush their prey and at other times they chase it for a short distance.

Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquify the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach.

Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

 

GOLIATH BIRDEATER TARANTULA
Theraphosa blondi

Feeding Frenzy 7This is the big momma of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a Quarter Pounder) and have a leg span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate!). The name “birdeater” is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could.

They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents.

If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs that are kicked off of the abdomen into air. If these hairs come into contact with the skin, you get really itchy. And you don’t even want to know what happens if it gets in your eyes!

Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible.

 

GULF COAST TOAD
Incilius valliceps

Feeding Frenzy 3You see those toads everywhere around here — unfortunately, often they are smushed by cars in the street.

Well, these guys aren’t getting run over. They get a five-star aquarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet provide by the Butterfly Center! Toads are opportunistic predators and will eat any small animal they can fit into their mouths, so they should be fun to watch.

 

AFRICAN BULLFROG
Pyxicephalus adspersus

Feeding Frenzy 5Last but not least, meet Tofu! Tofu is staying with us while his owner, a friend of the Butterfly Center, is in Australia. We promised to take good care of him and feed him well, for all of you to see.

African bullfrogs are huge and the males can reach 10 inches. Like other frogs and toads, they are voracious predators and will eat anything they can fit in their mouths, including small rodents and birds.

African bullfrogs can spontaneously change genders in a single-sex environment — how’s that for a neat trick? Remember how, in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were all female, so they weren’t supposed to be able to breed? And remember what happened after frog DNA was added to the dinosaur DNA? Just like African bullfrogs, the Jurassic Park dinosaurs were able to switch their genders and breed, because as they say, “Life will find a way.” Silly humans!

We’re all pretty enamored with Tofu around here, so we can’t wait for you to meet him.

Well, there you have it folks, the Friday Feeding Frenzy line-up! Not only will you get up close and personal with these live animals, but you will also learn some cool facts and be able to ask questions.

While you’re in the Butterfly Center, don’t forget to check out 25 more amazing insects and other arthropods on display, and more than 1,000 free-flying butterflies. See you Friday!

Spread your wings: Adopt a Butterfly at HMNS on May 10

The beauty of butterflies is undeniable. Whether you’re gazing at the brilliant hues of a Blue Morpho, taking in the incredible delicacy of Rice Paper butterflies as they flit about, or staring at an Owl Butterfly as its wings stare right back at you, these incredible creatures captivate the viewer.

6094403314_648e6790d4_b (1)And who looking upon them hasn’t wanted to have their very own butterfly garden? Luckily for you, what’s ours is yours. Everything at HMNS is here for you to make your own, and now, we don’t just want you to own the Cockrell Butterfly Center, but you can actually own a butterfly when you adopt one on May 10!

Just in time for Mother’s Day, you can adopt and release a butterfly right here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center! From 9-11 a.m. on May 10 for only $15 ($10 for members), you’ll be given a butterfly to release in the Butterfly Center and a personalized adoption certificate to take home. The perfect way to celebrate Mother’s Day, you can become a proud “parent” in your own right to one of nature’s most delicate and beautiful creatures.