STEM & GEMS, Part II: The science of raising butterflies is Celeste Poorte’s specialty

Celeste PoorteEditor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event on Feb. 8, we interviewed several women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. Last week, we interviewed Air Liquide’s Victoria Rockwell. This week we’re featuring Celeste Poorte, Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: As far back as I remember, I was always interested in the natural world. Once I got to high school, my interest in science really became solidified.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Poorte: 
Spending a lot time outside as a young child exposed me to interesting plant and animal life. In 9th grade I had a wonderful biology teacher that really inspired me to pursue biology.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Poorte: 
In 9th grade we did a project where we observed the micro-organisms found in a collection of pond of water and recorded our results and identified the species. That was my favorite because it was incredible to see how many living creatures there were in a tiny speck of water.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: 
I am the Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This relates to science because I use my knowledge of butterflies and their life cycles in order to raise them.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Poorte: 
The best part of my job is that I don’t have to spend my time at a computer all day. I get to spend a lot of time outside in the greenhouses working directly with the butterflies and caterpillars.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Poorte: 
In my spare time I like to spend time with friends, read books, and take my dog to the dog park.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Poorte: 
Go to college. Aim high. Pick a subject that you are passionate about for your major and stick with it. Get as much extra experience outside the classroom as you can, like internships. Meet and talk to as many people in your field of interest as you can while you are still in school. This will definitely help you find a job once you get your degree.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Poorte:
An event like GEMS is a great way to expose girls to jobs that they might not otherwise even know existed. It’s a great way to get the information out and for them to meet real-life women who actually have STEM careers. When I was in middle school, I attended a GEMS-like event and it was a great experience for me.

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!).

coffee blog II 1

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.

coffee blog II 7coffee blog II 9
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!

‘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!