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.

 

Hug-A-Bug, This Saturday!

Spring is almost here (thank goodness!) and soon Houstonians will be working in their gardens like busy little bees. You can fill your garden with some wonderful plants from our annual spring plant sale, which will be held on April 10th. Before then, however, you can take the opportunity on Valentine’s Day weekend to learn about the world of beneficial insects at Hug-a-Bug! Put those pesticides down because your garden will love you, if you love bugs!

Stop And Smell The Flowers
Creative Commons License photo credit: I Shutter

Pests can be a pain in your garden, but Mother Nature has a plan. This is where beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, come into play. Pesticides can harm creatures of all walks of life, not only targeting the pests, but beneficials such as butterflies and bees, not to mention defenseless animals such as frogs, toads, and lizards. They can also leave residue on your plants. Biological control is the most eco-friendly and effective method. Here are a few beneficial insects you’ll meet at Hug-a-Bug, and you can even purchase for your own garden.

LadybugsAhh ladybugs - beautiful, peaceful, and fierce predators! Most people are under the impression that these cuties of the bug world feed on nectar, but they are actually hungry for blood – aphid blood! Ladybug larvae and adults feed on plants pests, especially aphids. If aphids are in short supply, they will go after other soft-bodied pests such as whiteflies. At Hug-a-Bug, we will be giving away vials of ladybugs for you to release in the butterfly center or even in your garden at home!

Green Lacewing - Chrysoperla carnea
Creative Commons License photo credit: yaybiscuits123
Green Lacewing

Green Lacewings - Not familiar with these guys? Well, pay attention to your front porch light at night and you might notice these dainty little bugs flying around. The adults have a green body with large, lacy looking wings - hence the name! The adults are harmless pollen and nectar feeders while the larvae, like ladybugs, munch on soft-bodied plant pests.

Parasitic Wasps - When most people hear the word wasp they think of red wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. These are of course not favorable to people because of their nasty stings. But the vast majority of wasps go completely unnoticed by people. They are tiny and parasitic on other arthropods. Each species has a specific host, whether it is a type of caterpillar, aphid, mealy bug, scale, or whitefly. These tiny wasps have no stinger and buzz about protecting our plants from pests.

Afican Praying Mantis
Creative Commons License photo credit: SMB(spidermanbryce)

Praying Mantis - You know this is one of my favorite bugs! Highly intelligent, expressive and thoughtful, they are just fascinating! Most people know the praying mantis because of its distinct appearance. They may not be quite as beneficial as some of the more specialized predators, but they are a friend to your garden none-the-less. If you don’t like larger bugs such as caterpillars or grasshoppers munching on your foliage, these are for you!

Mother Nature is truly incredible! For every plant’s pest, there is a predator or parasite out there to keep them in check. If you let nature run its course in your yard, you will have a very healthy little ecosystem to observe and admire.

If you need any help, all of these bugs can be purchased in large quantities from many places including Rincon Vitova, a pioneer in biological control.

I hope you will come join us at  Hug-a-Bug this Saturday, February 13 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center from 11 to 2 to learn more about these fascinating beneficial insects and see them up close and personal. There will also be fun crafts and games for the kids and a chance to talk to the butterfly center’s very own staff of entomologists and horticulturalists. We hope to see you there!

My Summer at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Laura Adian, an intern in our Cockrell Butterfly Center, is a guest blogger for us today.  Join us as she writes about her summer internship and what tasks she does for the museum, maintaining the butterfly center and the greenhouses.

Howdy!  My name is Laura Adian and I am one of the horticultural summer interns at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  I am a senior Horticulture major, minoring in Business, at Texas A&M University. Although I am interested in all areas of horticultute, my specialization is fruit and vegetable production.  I wanted to give you a quick insight into my daily job here, as well as the day to day happenings in our butterfly center, so here it goes.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, I work in the main conservatory.  One of the most important things I do on these days is what we call “open” the Butterfly Center.  This involves sweeping the leaf debris from all of the pathways and stairs, watering and raking the plant beds, putting out the amino solution and rotten fruit for the butterflies, feeding the iguana, and turning on the waterfall.  Basically we just want to make the place look great for the public. 

After opening, there is always deadheading (pulling the dying blossoms off of a flower) and pruning to be done.  This has to be done every week to encourage more flowering and to keep the plants looking their best.  Fertilizing some of the flowering plants and orchids is another task that must be done on a regular basis in order to ensure maximum healthy growth. 

Passion Flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Just chaos

For the rest of the week, I work in the greenhouses and in the Demonstration garden.  Up in the greenhouses, we raise butterflies and plants. 

Greenhouse #1 is where we do most of the propagating and repotting of the plants.  Greenhouse #2 is filled with 800 plants, mostly Passiflora, that we use as host plants for the butterflies.  This is also where we do recovery of the plants, after the caterpillars munch all the leaves off them. 

Greenhouse #3 contains the insectaries and pupation cages full of butterflies and caterpillars.  Every week, the host plants in the insectaries that are full of eggs are transferred to the pupation area.  Then, we put fresh host plants and nectar sources (from Greenhouse #2) into the insectaries.  In the pupation area, the hungry caterpillars must always be fed, which means transferring them from the already eaten, leafless plants to fresh plants that we bring from Greenhouse #2.  Afterwards, we take the eaten plants to the recovery table in Greenhouse #2.  This is the never-ending cycle of raising all the beautiful butterflies. 

One of the bigger projects we had to do this summer was to re-tie and re-moss all of the orchids in the conservatory.  The orchids are scattered throughout the conservatory on trees and poles and they must be rewrapped every year in order to keep their roots from drying out and to keep them looking nice.  That was quite a task because there are dozens of orchids and every time you think you’re done, another one seems to pop up.

Tattered Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: B~

In the next week or so, we will be putting half a semi-truck load of soil into all of the beds in the conservatory.  We will also be planting 100 red and pink Pentas to ensure fresh nectar sources for the butterflies.  This is obviously a big undertaking but it must be done every summer and I can’t wait to see how good the conservatory looks after we’re done.

We also have to water in the greenhouses every day and fertilize all the plants regularly.  Then, of course, there is the general maintenance of the greenhouses, which seems to be an ongoing project.

Me in the demonstration garden

In the Demonstration garden, we are planting many new nectar sources and host plants for the butterflies to come check out.  Since I’ve been here we’ve planted Pentas, Pink Turk’s Cap, Asters, Milkweed, Lantana, Celosia, Passion vines, Dutchmans’ Pipevine, and many more.  Right now, we are in the process of planting Dwarf Mondo grass in between the cracks of all the stones.  We have already planted 7 flats and will plant 10 more in the weeks to come.  In the next few weeks, we will also add a bench and some other focal areas.  Again, watering and fertilizing must be done on a regular basis.  The Demonstration garden is one of my favorite projects and it looks fantastic.

We also maintain the plant cart in the Grand Hall of the museum.  We price plants from the greenhouse and bring them down to the plant cart to sell.  We sell nectar sources and host plants such as Salvia, Pentas, Lantana, Passion vines, and Durantas.  We have to sweep the plant cart, water the plants, switch out plants, and fill the brochure holder on a daily basis.  For the Fourth of July weekend we even did a red, white, and blue theme.

I have even been fortunate enough to get to go on fieldtrips to some great nurseries this summer.  We have been to Treesearch Farms, Hines Nursery, Nelson Water Gardens, and Cornelius Nurseries.  We are also planning on going to Mercer Arboretum later this summer.  None of this would be possible if not for the great staff at the Butterfly Center and their desire for us to have an awesome experience this summer and to see all that we can in our 10 week stay.

That is basically my summer in a nutshell.  I really couldn’t have asked for a better internship or better people to work with this summer.  I have learned so much about butterfly rearing and all that it takes to run a huge operation like the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  More importantly, I have met some amazing people who are top in their fields, always willing to lend a hand, and really passionate about their work.  My experience this summer would not be nearly the same without them. 

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. 

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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.

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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!

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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.