Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!

FruitMiracle

Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!

FruitCacao

This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!

FruitCoffee

Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.

FruitPapaya

Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.

FruitPina

It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.

FruitBananas

These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?

FruitMonstera

Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.

FruitSapodilla

The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.

FruitStinky

The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.

 

Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.

FruitButterfly

Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!

Did Dinosaurs Invent Flowers? (with a big assist from flies and beetles)

There was a Veggie-saur revolution at the start of the Cretaceous Period — did it cause flowers to appear?

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Brief History of Land Plants and Critters Who Ate Them

In today’s world, on dry land, flowering plants — aka angiosperms — are the Number 1   Ruling Class of vegetation. In the tropical rain forests, where plant species are the most diverse, just about all the trees are flowering plants. And so are most of the shrubs and vines and low-growing herbs, plus all the grasses too. The non-flowering plants with seeds, the gymnosperms, do include some famous species. The needle-leaved conifer trees, like pines and cedars and noble redwoods of California, win fame as
the tallest gymnosperms. And best-looking too. In addition, gymnosperms can boast of cycads, with their super-stiff palm-style leaves, and the ginkos, whose graceful leaves ornament many a college street. (But don’t step on the fruit — its stink is so bad that many a town has banished the female trees, leaving only the odor-free males to line the sidewalks). 

But compared to the angiosperms, the gymnos are secondary players who do very well only in odd habitats, like dry, sandy soil or frigidly cold northern forests. 

Don’t think it’s always been that way. If you time-traveled back to the Jurassic, you’d see no angiosperms at all. Nada. Nyet. Neither trees nor shrubs nor grass. Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus looked out on a dull green landscape without any brightly colored flowers. Jurassic woodlands had magnificent groves of conifers mingled with some stately tall cycads and a surprising array of ginkos. But no plants with flowers. We get the very first
fossil hints of flowering plants early in the Cretaceous: some pollen grains, some leaves, even some flower parts, most very small. Then, as we go later and later in the Cretaceous sediments, we see the angiosperms proliferating in variety and expanding in numbers. By the late Late Cretaceous, the great herbivorous dinos like Ankylosaurus and Triceratops cavorted among a kaleidoscope of brilliant spring flowers.

What released the evolutionary potential of the angios?

Bugs must take a lot of the credit. Most gymnosperms reproduce pinestyle — they rely on the wind to spread pollen from tree to tree. Early angiosperms could spread their pollen by hitchhiking on bug backs and bug snouts. Flowers are devices to seduce insects with the promise of yummy free meals. The aroma of flowers brings in flying critters who enjoy the repast and then fly away, carrying a load of pollen to fertilize the next 2 plant. So, bug pollinators are especially important to plants which have their populations in patches, spread far and wide. 

Speaking of patchiness, when angiosperms first appeared they were NOT tall, stately trees. Nope. The Ur-Angiosperms were aggressive opportunists, scraggly little botanical carpet-baggers. If there were a movie of the first angiosperm he’d be played by Danny DiVito. These devious plants waited until disaster struck and they moved into disturbed
neighborhoods, places where the native gymnosperm vegetation had been washed away by storms or blasted by wind, or buried in layers of mud. The invading angios had just the right adaptive equipment to exploit blighted habitats. Their seeds spread easily and sprouted fast. The young sprouts grew like weeds — well, in fact, they were weeds, weedy bushes and other plants of low stature. So the angios could fill holes blasted into the
botanical architecture completely and quickly.

For the Early Cretaceous angios, it was an unsettled life. In each disturbed patch, eventually, the slower-growing gymnosperm plants might re-invade and work their way back into the land taken over by the flowering plants. But that was ok. New disaster areas always opened up somewhere else and the angios would do their thing again. Of course, every time, the bug connection was a big help in letting the angios reproduce and share genes all over the new patches of habitat. But wait……….there’s another animal-plant connection that was working to help the early flowering plants. Not tweensy bug-oids but gargantuan plant-eaters.

If you are reading these lines and are a game ranger from one of the great African parks you’d be yelling “You forgot over-grazing! Over-browsing! Elephants, rhinos, Cape Buffalo!

Hippos!!!!!! 

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How to overgraze an Early Cretaceous Woodland and Open Patches for Angiosperms.

You see, for clearing out vegetation, big herbivores can be far worse than floods and storms. A herd of multiton pachyderms can function as grazers, eating all the grass and other low-growing greenery, and as browsers, picking out the fruit and branches and leaves of shrubs and saplings. And then, when they’re done, really big, elephant-sized plant-eaters knock down the trees and eat the plant parts on tree tops. Before they were badly poached, white rhinos and black rhinos did a job on many local African habitats, assisted by huge herds of Cape Buffalo. When elephant populations exploded in Amboseli Park, the lush forest was transformed into a dry forest which was transformed into a blighted woodland with denuded soil.

In the American West, unscrupulous absentee owners sometimes cram far too many cows into an area where luxuriant bushes line the creeks and edges of ponds. Soon all the underbrush is gone and so is the grass.

A plague of beefy herbivores, herefords or buffalo, opens the way for unwanted weeds — in my native Texas, mesquite, cedar, and prickly pear. With over-grazing and over-browsing in mind, we should check out the veggie-saurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. And when we do, we see an extraordinary re-structuring of giant vegetarians.

The Jurassic might be called the “Giraffa-zoic” because, on average, the big plant-eaters were tall to very tall to unbelievably tall. Long-necked brontosaurians like Brachiosaurus could reach up twenty five feet or more into the tree tops. Their distant cousins, the Diplodocus clan, not only had long necks but also had immensely strong and heavy rumps and thighs so they could rear up and choose among the most tasty branches and leaves in the tree tops. These long-necks reached the body weight of a half dozen
bull elephants — 50 tons or more.

In the same Jurassic habitats, stegosaurs fed in and around the long-necked herds. Though they had necks of only modest length, the stegos could rear up, so their browsing could sample plants at fifteen feet above the ground. 

All these high-browsers could search low-growing plants as well. That way the feeding pressure on the plant community was spread over an extraordinarily wide vertical range, from zero to forty feet. Specialized ground feeders were rare and not very big in Jurassic times. Some armorplated dinos, the ankylosaurians, carried their heads low all the time but rarely exceeded a ton in weight. Camptosaurs, primitive relatives of duck-bill dinos, were roughly pony-size in body build. The campto necks were permanently down-flexed for concentrated feeding close to the ground surface.

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Early Cretaceous Iguanodont Sampling the New Angiosperm Salad Bar.

This array of high-feeding vegetarian tactics had evolved early in the Period and lasted right through to the very end of the Jurassic Period, about 140 million years ago. Then it happened — Vegetarian Revolution. As the Cretaceous began, stegosaurs died out most places. In their place came new waves of armored ankylosaurians, all feeding low, close to the ground. These new armored veggie-saurs rapidly achieved body sizes in the elephant range. Long-necked brontosaurians persisted but lost some diversity. The camptosaur-kin evolved into the famous “Thumb Spike Clan”, the iguanodonts. These chaps had first fingers modified into sharp, stout stabbing weapons (probably for fighting among themselves as much as repelling would-be predators). The iguanodonts had necks curved down so the head was quite low.

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The Shift from Many High Feeders in the Jurassic to Many Low Feeders in the Cretaceous.

To summarize: In the Jurassic, plants were subjected to herbivore attacks spread from zero feet above the ground to twenty, thirty or forty feet. Once the Cretaceous began, the feeding became concentrated in lower and lower levels.

For low vegetation, it got worse as the Cretaceous world matured. More and more massive herbivores entered the low-feeding zones. Horned dinosaurs and duckbills had low head posture and must have done most of their feeding within a yard or two above the soil.

See the connection to angiosperm origins? The intensified pressure inflicted by vegetarianism upon gymosperms produced many more spots devastated by over-grazing and over-browsing. Therefore, the veggiesaurrevolution probably opened the opportunities for early flowering plants to expand and take over many more acres of landscape. With the collaboration of pollinating bugs.

If you are a fan of flowers — and who isn’t? –you must doff your hat to those Cretaceous maxi-herbivores, the low-level dinosaurian behemoths. These veggie-saurs disturbed wide swathes of woodland and forest, splendid opportunities for the first waves of flowering-plant evolution. 

 

Why no tropical milkweed at the Cockrell Butterfly Center plant sale this year?

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Aslepias curassavica

We are sorry to disappoint monarch enthusiasts, but the Cockrell Butterfly Center has decided not to sell tropical milkweed (aka Mexican milkweed, Asclepias curassavica) any more. Instead, we will have a limited quantity of native milkweeds for sale. Recently, biologists studying monarchs have discovered that tropical milkweed may be a factor in the spread of a parasitic infection that attacks monarchs. The infection is called Oe (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) and is transmitted by spores that fall from an infected female’s body onto the hostplant when she lays her eggs. The hatchling caterpillars eat the spores along with the leaves, and become infected themselves. After a generation or two or three, the infection level becomes so high that the butterfly dies (sometimes in the caterpillar stage, sometimes in the pupal stage, and sometimes as the adult).

This could happen with any milkweed – the problem with the tropical species is that it does not senesce (die back) in Houston’s mild winters but is perennial, growing throughout the year. In contrast, native species die back to the ground in the winter, and when they regrow in the spring they are spore free – so the infection cycle is broken.

Also, researchers have found that some monarchs in the southern part of the USA don’t bother to migrate if they have milkweed available. These year-round residents have been found to have very high levels of Oe infection, because they are mostly using the tropical milkweed species generation after generation. While this probably doesn’t greatly impact the migration as a whole, we don’t want to contribute to the local spread of the disease.

If you do already have tropical milkweed, one solution is to cut it back severely a couple of times a year. Even better is to remove the tropical variety and switch to native milkweed species. Unfortunately, so far these are not widely available in the nursery trade and are not as easy to grow as the tropical variety!

Aslepias viridis

Aslepias viridis

We are all learning and struggling to do our best for the butterflies. This year we will have a limited quantity of two native species at our spring plant sale: Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) and Antelope Horns Milkweed (Asclepias asperula).

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Our next plant sale will be Saturday, March 28, 2015 from 9 a.m. to noon, or until we sell out. It will be located in its usual spot on the 7th level of the Museum parking garage. We hope you will try growing native milkweeds, and please let us know how it goes for you!

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.