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.

 

Meet Audrey! [Corpse Flower]

Meet Audrey!
Say hi to Audrey!

Your votes are in! Our no-longer-little corpse flower is now named AUDREY! And as @CorpzFlowrLois reports, it’s possible that Audrey’s estimated age and Lois’ growth cycle may result in twin blooms sometime in the next several years! (Insert staff-wide, sterotypical shout of “TWINS?!” followed by synchronized fainting.)

We announced the new name yesterday, on the anniversary of Lois the Corpse Flower’s much-anticipated 2010 bloom. All five of our finalists were on hand to hear the name revealed. The final tally – which takes into account the Facebook/Twitter poll, plus votes  submitted on this post - is as follows:

Audrey: 336
First submitted by Julianne Maddox. As the winner, Julianne will go on a provate tour of the HMNS Greenhouses with our horticulturists!

Delilah: 301
First submitted by Mel Cody.

Clark: 152
First submitted by Carol Davis.

Hermann: 96
First submitted by Ed Truitt. See his photos of Audrey here.

Violet: 39
First submitted by Alicia Leighty

Meet Audrey!
Our finalists wait for the big announcement!
Meet Audrey!
Julianne, our winner, with Zac, our horticulturist and R. Clayton McKee.
You can see some of his photos of Audrey here.
Meet Audrey!
A closeup of Audrey’s leaf. This will open up and spread out over
the next few weeks, allowing Audrey to collect energy from sunlight,
and build up her corm – in anticipation of eventually blooming.

Come see Audrey for yourself!
She will be on display in the Butterfly Center through Labor Day – after which, she’ll return to her regular home in the HMNS greenhouses.

Adopt Audrey!
Unlike Lois, who is already a bloomer, Audrey is a baby corpse flower – and she needs some proiud parents! You can support Audrey’s growth by adopting her – for $20, you’ll help us maintain Audrey’s tropical environment and support the educational science programs of the Houston Museum of Natural Science – and get to attend an exclusive Adoption Party. So that’s pretty cool. Adoption details.

Audrey in the News!
Corpse Flower Lois’ Little Sis Finally Gets A Name | CultureMap
Museum Announces Name For New Corpse Flower
| KTRK-TV
VIDEO: Museum Corpse Flower Gets A Name | KIAH-TV
HMNS Names New Corpse Flower Audrey | KHOU-TV

VIDEO: Our New Corpse Flower. Help Us Name Her!

Our new corpse flower needs a name! We’ve had over 250 posts with suggestions so far – but we’ve also heard from some people who need a little…inspiration.

So, we thought we’d introduce you to our newest little leaf. And here she is!

Can’t see the video? Click here.

You’ve got until next Friday, July 15 to get your suggestions in – make sure you leave them at the comments section of the post linked below. Our committee (including @CorpzFlowrLois herself) will pick our top 5 favorites, which we’ll post on Monday, July 18. Be sure to check back and vote for your favorite!

Post Your Name Ideas Here!

Corpse Flower Lois Update – The Photosynthetic Phase

A lot has happened since we last updated everyone on Corpse Flower Lois, Houston’s beloved Amorphophallus titanum.

Corpse Flower Lois - Repotted!
Repotting Lois

Last time most of you saw her (August 19, 2010) she was being weighed, inspected, re-potted and finally left to go through her dormancy in peace in our greenhouses. We anticipated the dormancy to last about three months before she would put up a new leaf and go into a photosynthetic phase, and in a move very uncharacteristic of our smelly diva, she came out of dormancy right on cue.

In mid November 2010, almost exactly three months after she shed her nearly six foot inflorescence, a new bud began to grow very rapidly from the underground tuber. Just like in the reproductive phase, as the leaf begins to form it is covered by two very large bracts to protect the immature new growth. By the November 16 the bud was already 34” tall and growing over an inch a day. On the 29 of that month the bracts completely fell back to reveal a single 58.5” leaf.

The picture below shows Lois as she looks now, over the past five months the leaf has continued to grow and reached a maximum height of 68”.

Lois Update! [Corpse Flower]
Lois
View more photos here

The purpose of this massive leaf is to harness as much energy as possible from the sun during this photosynthetic period and restore that energy as mass in the underground tuber. (Which decreased in size by about 25% after putting up the famous 2010 inflorescence.)

We expect her photosynthetic phase is nearing its end and we will begin to see the massive leaf decline in the months to come. After the decline we expect another three month dormancy period, followed by another photosynthetic period. This cycle will continue until the tuber regains enough mass to support another stinky inflorescence.

Until then we will try to keep you up to date with all of Lois’ progress, and the progress of our other adolescent Amorphophallus titanum that has yet to be named.