Beautiful Spring-time Butterflies!

Spring-time is almost here and the butterflies will soon be fluttering all around town.  I have actually seen a lot already, but we do live in Texas, so that’s not a surprise.  Since I work in an exotic butterfly house, I definitely have my favorite exotic butterflies, but I also have a few favorites that are here in Texas as well.  Many of you may be expecting me to write about the monarch, Danaus plexippus, but I thought I would write about some different, but still very common ones that we find around here in Houston.  If you are interested in monarchs, please check out Nancy’s blog - all about monarch migration.

Morning Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joel Olives

The Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, is a butterfly that frequents Houston quite often.  Its caterpillars feed off of every single part of the passion vine plant, which make them poisonous and nasty-tasting to predators. 

A couple of summers ago, I had tons of these caterpillars on my passion vine plant.  The caterpillars have large spines along their body with an underlying bold purple, orange, and black coloration, serving to warn predators of their danger!  I’m sure many of you have seen this bright orange and black butterfly fluttering around nectar plants such as Lantana, Zinnia, Coneflowers, Butterfly Bush, and many others. 

One of the most distinct characteristics of the Gulf Fritillary is the spectacular silvery, almost mirror looking, spots on the underside of the wings.  The males and females look very similar, but the black stripes on upper side of the female’s wings are thicker and more pronounced.  Although this butterfly is not here in the Butterfly Center very often, take advantage of its beauty outdoors right here in Houston.  

The goldrim butterfly, Battus polydamas, is a member of the swallowtail family (Papilionidae), but it does not have the typical tails that many of these butterflies have.  The name ‘gold rim’ comes from the golden-yellow crescent shaped markings on the upper edges of both the fore and hind wing.  Caterpillars of this species are gregarious (living together) in the early stages but become solitary when older.  The caterpillars are a dark reddish gray color with paired fleshy tubercles along the back of the body.  

I am very fond of these cute caterpillars and was fortunate enough to take this adorable picture in our butterfly garden right outside of the museum.  Adults are mainly associated with disturbed areas of the forest and can be seen visiting gardens throughout the city.  They are nectar feeders and especially like Lantana.  Like many swallowtails, this butterfly flutters constantly while feeding instead of stopping to rest.  This butterfly is fairly common in Florida and South Texas and will at times stray to Kentucky and Missouri. 

Clouded Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

Once spring-time hits, I seem to see this next butterfly all the time!  As a native of heavily populated areas such as parks, yards, gardens, and road edges, the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, can be seen almost anywhere along the gulf coastal states. It is characterized by its pure bright yellow to greenish-yellow wings. The males use strong rapid flight to search for a receptive female. The eggs are laid singly on leaves of Cassia,which the caterpillars happily consume, and hide underneath, to rest. The pupae are oddly shaped, compressed from side to side with a greatly distended “chest and belly”. They use a silken girdle to attach themselves to the leaf during pupation. These butterflies are harmless to plant life and are a welcome visitor to any garden.

One of the largest butterflies that I see around town is the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontesThis fantastic butterfly is native to large portions of North, Central, and South America. It very common in Houston and can be seen gracefully fluttering and sipping the sweet nectar of flowers such as Lantana, Azalea, and Honeysuckle.

Characterized by the striking diagonal yellow band across its forewing, and its long yellow-filled tails, this butterfly is a joy to see in one’s garden! The larvae feed strictly on citrus plants and are commonly called “orange dogs.” As a defense, they cleverly disguise themselves as bird droppings as they sit motionless during the day and feed at night. As with other swallowtails, these caterpillars’ posses a bright reddish orange, y-shaped gland called an osmeterium, which contains a mixture of highly noxious chemicals that smell like rancid butter. This gland helps to protect the caterpillar from small predators such as ants and spiders. The pupal stage remains inconspicuous, resembling a piece of tree bark.

These four butterflies are only a few of the wonderful butterflies that live in Houston.  If you are more interested in butterflies you should check out Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texasby John and Gloria Tveten.  It’s a wonderful book and has amazing pictures.

Love Butterflies?
Bring them to your garden with scrumptious (to butterflies, anyway) host plants – available at our Spring Plant Sale April 4, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Stay tuned for more details!

Magnificent Monarch’s Munch

Are you ready for their arrival to your beloved garden?  Have you planted enough milkweed to feed your brood of caterpillars that will no doubt be munching away all summer long? 

If you haven’t, then you need to get busy.  The Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus will soon be feasting in your beautiful garden.  So, you want to be sure to have lots of milkweed on hand to feed your hungry caterpillars. 

danaus-plexippus-instarsresize.jpg

If you want to know how many leaves it takes to feed three monarch caterpillars from egg to  pupation, then I recommend a healthy plant with no pesticides on it, that is about 24-36″ high and about 16-24″ wide.  If this plant has lots of leaves, it might even feed five to seven caterpillars.  You probably already know that monarch caterpillars can eat a lot of milkweed so, if you want a healthy brood, save your seed pods that the plant produces in the fall.  You can then plant your own little seedlings into your garden in April.

asclepias-curassavicaresize.jpg

The first butterfly plant I ever came home with was the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.   The plant was given to me by the greenhouse manager of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  She said,” Go home and plant this in your garden and before you know it, butterflies will come to your yard.  I said,” Really, are you sure? How will they find it in my yard?”

Well, sure enough the next day – within twenty four hours – a female monarch butterfly found my plant.  She even laid eggs on it.  I was so excited, I just couldn’t believe all I had to do was to put the plant in my garden and they would come to it.  How wonderful to be visited by such a jewel of nature. 

So believe me when I tell you that all you have to do is to introduce the specific plants listed on our butterfly gardening brochure to your garden and you too will have jeweled visitors glistening in the sun. 

They are a delight to the eye and a splendid conversational  topic when you have the neighbors over for a summer barbeque.  Your neighbors will want to know how you attracted them to your yard and you can share your splendid butterfly gardening tips with them.  Gardeners make great friends!

danaus-plexippus-copyresize.jpg

Monarch Watch is an exceptional website – very user friendly, safe for students, often utilized by teachers and because it is so special – it is also listed as a helpful resource on the back of our Cockrell Butterfly Center Butterfly Gardening Brochure.  The Cockrell Butterfly Gardening Brochure, graciously underwritten by The Garden Club of Houston, is always available to our visitors at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. The brochure is also available online

The Collector’s Gift Shop inside the museum’s main hall, near the Cockrell Butterfly Center, has a plant cart outside of its entrance door which always has a supply of the gardening brochures available free to the public. For a small cost, gardening enthusiasts can also purchase The Plants of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a special work put together for visitors, teachers, students, and parents to use as an identification tool within the rainforest environment.  Plants that are identified in this book are noted in the rainforest conservatory with numbered red tags affixed to specific plant specimens for easy identification.

 We are so happy to know you are enjoying our blog.  In future blogs, I hope to write about each of the host and nectar plants in our brochure, so that you too can become an expert.  Questions about butterflies or butterfly gardening?   E-mail us at: bfly_questions@hmns.org.