Staff Picks: Best of the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) is most well known for its free-flying butterflies inhabiting a three-story indoor rainforest. But there are many other cool things to see and experience at the CBC! We checked with staff members and asked them about their favorite sections of the center, and this is what they said:

Lauren – Lauren is the butterfly entomologist and she takes care of the 800 to 1,000 imported butterflies we receive every week. Her staff picks are the chrysalis emergence chambers. The emergence chambers showcase thousands of live chrysalids of every size, shape and color imaginable! Many have gold spots or flecks. The word “chrysalis” comes from the Greek word for gold, “chrysós.” If you watch carefully you can even observe butterflies emerging, leaving an empty chrysalis shell behind, which they cling to while their wings stretch and dry.

lauren with chrysalids

Lauren stands next to the chrysalis chambers where you can watch butterflies as they emerge.

Erin – Erin is a board certified entomologist and is the insect zoo manager. She cares for all the non-butterfly bugs in the CBC. Her staff pick is the eastern lubber grasshopper sculpture found at the entrance of the entomology hall. The larger-than-life sculpture shows the anatomical details of the grasshopper’s body parts on one side, like the head, thorax, abdomen, wings and antennae. On the other side it shows a cross-section, displaying the insect’s internal organ systems. It’s a great visual introduction of what makes an insect, an insect. 


Erin with the Eastern Lubber grasshopper sculpture you can enjoy in the CBC entomology hall.

Nancy – Nancy is the director of the CBC. Her staff-pick is spicebush caterpillar sculpture found in the entrance of the butterfly center. The giant caterpillar welcomes each visitor into the butterfly center and is a great opportunity for photos! It may seem cartoon-ish, but the sculpture is actually a very realistic representation of the caterpillar that can be found right here in Houston! The large eye-spots on the back of the caterpillar function to trick or scare away predators by making it appear like a bigger animal. 

nancy on caterpillar

Nancy with the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that greets guests as they enter the CBC.

Soni – Soni is the horticulturist that grows and cares for all of the plants in the CBC rainforest. Her staff pick is the Pride of Trinidad tree in the rainforest. The Pride of Trinidad (Warszewiczia coccinea) is native to Central and South America and the West Indies and is the national tree of Trinidad. The best part of this tree are its showy, flowering branches. Each flower cluster is accented with a red bract and is loaded with nectar. Inside the CBC rainforest, the Pride of Trinidad is in bloom year round and is constantly feeding a variety of butterflies! 


Soni shows off a cluster of flowers on the Pride of Trinidad that feeds many of the butterflies in the CBC rainforest.

Ryan – Ryan is the CBC Bugs-On-Wheels outreach presenter. He travels to schools, day-cares, camps, and clubs to present a variety of bug-related topics (check them out here: Bugs-On-Wheels). His staff pick is the vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus). This scary looking arachnid is actually quite harmless and easy to handle. They get their name from their defense mechanism. If threatened, glands near the rear of the abdomen can spray acetic acid which has a vinegar-y smell and may dissuade predators from making the vinegaroon their lunch!

ryan with vinnie

Ryan holds a vinegaroon showing their relatively docile nature.

Farrar – Farrar is the curatorial entomologist. He identifies and documents the thousands of species in the CBC’s entomology collection. His staff-pick is the beetle specimen display in the entomology hall. Beetle species make up almost 25 percent of all known animal species. They are found in almost all major natural habitats and are adapted to practically every kind of diet. The British biologist and atheist J.B.S. Haldane once said, when asked whether studying biology had taught him anything about the Creator: “I’m really not sure, except that He must be inordinately fond of beetles.” This quote lines the top of the beetle display in the CBC. 


Farrar stands next to the beetle specimen display you can visit in the CBC entomology hall.

Celeste – Celeste is the butterfly rearing coordinator. She breeds and raises butterflies for the CBC. Her staff pick is Charro, the CBC’s resident iguana! Charro is a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). Despite this name, he is actually bright orange! Green Iguanas can be a variety of colors depending on what region they come from. Charro can be found relaxing in his enclosure in the rainforest or sunning himself outside the butterfly center by the demo garden. After hours, Charro gets to wander the entire rainforest freely. Don’t worry about the butterflies; Charro is strictly vegetarian. 


Celeste sits with Charro the iguana who resides inside the CBC rainforest.

Next time you visit the CBC make sure to check out all these staff picks, and take time to pick YOUR favorite part of the CBC!

What’s Blooming Now in the Butterfly Center?

Lois’ flower has died back, but the Cockrell Butterfly Center still has many amazing flowers blooming right now!

Although not all as rare as the corpse flower, the rainforest in the butterfly center is made up of hundreds of hard-to-find tropical plant species, most of which (but not all) come from Central and South America. We have many different varieties of orchids and bromeliads that bloom at different times of the year, so there is always something new to see at the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

What’s Blooming Now?

Bromeliad – Billbergia nutans
Bromeliads are a very diverse family of plants. We currently have nine different genera, and many different species, of bromeliads growing in the butterfly center. Most of them are epiphytes but we do have a few terrestrial genera including, everyone’s favorite, Ananus comosum, aka pineapple.

Bromeliad - Billbergia nutans [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Billbergia nutans

The Orchid family is the second largest family of flowering plants, consisting of around 25,000 species. Different orchids bloom at different time through out the year, so no matter what season you are sure to see at least a couple species of orchids in bloom at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Also, keep an eye out for our vanilla orchid, not in bloom right now, but still a fascinating vine.

Cattleya [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Cymbidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Oncidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Phalaenopsis [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

The butterfly center has many different species of ginger, most of which stay in bloom all year round. However, the Torch Ginger, Etlingera elatior, only occasionally flowers, and right now it is putting up three flower spikes, the tallest is over SIX FEET tall.

Torch Ginger Flower [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Etlingera elatior

Other Amazing Flowers

Medinilla is an epiphyte, meaning it attaches itself to trees or branches in the wild. From afar the flowers look like clusters of tiny pink grapes.

Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

Although not a flower, Nepenthes or Pitcher Plants are definitely a sight to behold. We currently have four species of pitcher plants, each with a slightly different color, size, and shape.

Nepenthes are carnivorous plants that eat mostly small insects such as ants and flies. For more information about pitcher plants refer to my previous blog: Beautiful, but Dangerous: the Fascinating Pitcher Plant.

Nepenthes [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

Warszewiczia coccinea
And we can’t forget about the butterflies favorite tree, Warszewiczia coccinea or Pride of Trinidad. This tree remains in bloom almost all year at the butterfly center, but it is putting on a fresh set of flowers right now, meaning the color is at its most vibrant. This tree is the butterflies’ favorite because each inflorescence actually contains hundreds of small yellow flower, each containing nectar for them.

Warszewiczia coccinea [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Warszewiczia coccinea

And the list goes on! These are just a few of the amazing plants we have blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now. So come on down to HMNS and get a taste of a South American rainforest here in your own back yard.

Interested in learning more about plants? Read more of Zac’s posts and make sure to check out our live webcam feed tomorrow as Zac replants Lois, the famous corpse flower.

Flame on!

People come to the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see butterflies, but are often equally entranced by the lush plants that provide the setting.  The plant life has multiple functions.  One, since most of the butterflies we display in the center are from tropical rainforests, we try to duplicate their native environment and conditions to make them feel at home (and hopefully to maximize their short lifespans). 

Warszewiczia coccinea

Warszewiczia coccinea growing
in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Second, some of the flowering plants provide food (nectar) for the butterflies.  And third, we try to find plants that are interesting and attractive to our human visitors.  We keep all these things in mind when selecting a plant for the exhibit. 

One plant in particular that fills all our criteria is the Rainforest Flame Tree, or Warszewiczia coccinea, as it is known botanically. 

This member of the coffee family is native to Central and South America and the West Indies.  It is the national tree of Trinidad (another common name for this tree is “Pride of Trinidad.”) It usually grows to around 25 feet tall, but can reach greater heights in different growing conditions.  In Costa Rica, this tree is considered a canopy tree and can reach 50 feet. 

The leaves of the tree are somewhat corrugated and are located oppositely on the stem.  But the best thing about it are the showy flowering branches.  They are located on the end of a branch and are placed at the nodes. 

Each flower cluster is accented by a red bract, sort of like a poinsettia flower would have.  In fact, another one of the common names for this plant is poinsettia tree.  The flower cluster, which is orange, is very appealing to butterflies because it is loaded with nectar.  In any given moment, several species of butterflies can be seen visiting the flowers. 

Although Warszewiczia warrants more use in tropical gardens, it is rarely seen outside botanical gardens.  One reason for this is that it is difficult to propagate.  Usually, plants in the coffee family can be propagated by seeds or by cuttings. Warszewiczia, on the other hand, shows little success with either method.  After several years of trying in the greenhouses of the Butterfly Center, just one cutting has ever proven successful.  

Due to its rarity, Warszewiczia is highly sought after by plant collectors.  If a collector was lucky enough to acquire one of these plants he would want to live in a warm environment such as Houston.  Any environment colder than Houston would require a greenhouse to overwinter the plant.