Plant Sale: This Saturday

Today’s post was written by Soni, horticulturalist for our Butterfly Center. She and the other employees are hard at word preparing for our upcoming Plant Sale on October 2.

I’m sure not very many of you are thinking of rolling up your sleeves and heading into the blazing heat of summer to do a little gardening. What you should do is start thinking ahead to fall, planning your garden for when the weather cools off and you can once again step outside of the air conditioning without having a heat stroke. If your garden needs a perk up after this summer, you should head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale which will be this Saturday, October 2, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Bouquet of Coneflowers
Coneflowers
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Twice a year we have a sale where we carefully select just the right plants for you to put in your garden to attract butterflies and their offspring. How do you go about attracting butterflies and their offspring? Well, first of all, you need lots and lots of nectar plants, the more variety the better. The best nectar plants are those with small tubular flowers arranged in clusters, sometimes with brightly colored petals that serve as a target to alert the butterflies that, “Hey! There’s food over here!” Butterflies survive on a liquid diet because of their specialized mouthparts, collectively called a proboscis. It looks like a coiled straw which they unravel to poke down inside flowers and consume the sugary liquid. Some examples of excellent nectar plants are Coneflower (Echinacea sp.), Black and Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.), Native Gayflower (Liatris sp.), Lantana, Verbena, Porterweed (Stachytarpheta sp.), Salvia, Heliotrope, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) and many, many more.

Did you think I forgot to mention their offspring? Of course not, that is my favorite part of butterfly gardening! Let’s back up for a minute so you can see the big picture. A butterfly’s life is comprised of four stages. In each stage the creature looks totally different. The whole lifecycle is called complete metamorphosis (meta means change, and morph means form). The first stage is the egg, which was laid by its thoughtful mother on a very important plant called a host plant. (Did you know butterflies are really good botanists? The story gets even weirder. They can tell plants apart by tasting them with their feet!) When the egg hatches, a caterpillar (otherwise known as a larva) crawls out and immediately eats the egg shell. Then, the caterpillar looks around and wonders, “What else is there to eat around here?” Well, little friend, you are sitting right on top of it. The host plant is the food, the life support, for the caterpillar. Without host plants we would not have butterflies!

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) monarch-butterfly_2
Monarch Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: mikebaird

Each type of butterfly corresponds to a different type of host plant. For example, the well known Monarch butterfly only lays its eggs on the Milkweed plant (Asclepias sp.). The Monarch caterpillars will not eat Parsley or Dill, but you know who will? The Black Swallowtail, that’s who. Other host plants that attract our native butterflies are: citrus species, rue (Ruta graveolens), and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliate) for the Giant Swallowtail; Dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia fimbriata and A. elegans) for Pipevine and Polydamas Swallowtails; spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) for the Spicebush Swallowtail; sennas (Cassia sp.) and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate) for Sulphurs; and passionvines (Passiflora sp.) for the Gulf Fritillary.

The third stage of metamorphosis is the chrysalis (or pupa), which is what the adult butterfly (the fourth and final stage) emerges out of.

When you combine nectar and host plants in your landscape you will not only increase your chances of seeing butterflies, but you can also have the experience of witnessing the amazing process of metamorphosis first hand. If you don’t want to see plants that are chewed up, you can omit the host plants, or place them behind other plants, however, watching a butterfly lay eggs and watching caterpillars grow is pretty cool.

We will have the majority of the plants mentioned above at the plant sale, plus many more (a “complete” list is on the website). The selections we have made are for growing in Houston and the surrounding areas, a lot being native plants. You can also learn about gardening for butterflies at the sale from our knowledgeable staff and volunteers. Hope to see you there!

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:
1. Get there early. Don’t wait and expect to have a lot to choose from an hour before we close.
2. We will have wagons for customers to cart their plants to their cars, but if you have your own, bring it.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.
4. The lines are long, but look at it as a time to make new friends or learn something new.   

Tis the Season to be worried about butterflies!

Grey Hairstreak, P7020072crop
Creative Commons License photo credit: Anita363

This year, I think we’ve gotten a record number of phone calls from people who are concerned about butterflies they’ve seen near their homes or have raised in their gardens. It’s no wonder that butterflies are very popular around here and no one wants to see them perish in the not-so-toasty temperatures outside! It may seem silly to some, but I can certainly sympathize. I spend a great deal of my time raising insects and I certainly get attached and would do things to care for them that might make some question my sanity! However, butterflies and other insects have been surviving through the winter for millions of years. Butterflies native to Houston have definitely got the climate figured out by now! So, before you go darting across your lawn after that poor butterfly, there are some things you should know!

As I pointed out in my post, “Where Have all the Bugs Gone?” bugs, including butterflies, are not quite as sensitive as many believe. These small but resourceful beings have quite a few tricks up their sleeves! Over-wintering, hibernation, migration, hunkering down; these are just a few examples. Butterflies in Houston pretty much have it made. Especially when you consider the fact that there are butterflies in the North, like the Morning Cloak, that can survive through a truly frigid winter and emerge in the spring better than ever! Our winter is very mild comparatively, with plenty of warm, sunny days. Here are some common Houston butterflies and how they survive the winter.

Papilio thoas nealces  [The Giant Swallowtail]
Creative Commons License photo credit: fesoj Giant Swallowtail

Swallowtails (giant swallowtail, black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and more) -  These butterflies spend the winter in a suspended state called diapause and they spend it as a chrysalis. They are immobile, take in no food or water, and are extremely resilient. They can certainly hadle the very few freezes we experience here in Houston. I have had swallowtail chrysalids that have not emerged for nearly a year and a very healthy butterfly was the result!

Longwings – The gulf frittilary is our resident longwing. This is another butterfly that can be seen year-round in any of the four life stages. The mobile stages such as the larvae and adult will hunker down to avoid freezing temps. The immobile stages, the egg and pupa, are more resistant to temperature.

Orange-barred Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaibara87 Cloudless Sulphur

Sulphurs - These sunny yellow butterflies can be found all over the world, including above the Arctic Circle – how’s that for cold! Favorites like the cloudless sulphur are found throughout the entire year as adults, even during the winter. When the temperatures drop too low, they hide in crevices in trees or man-made shelters and they fly when it is warm, gathering food to continue to carry them through the winter.

Monarchs - These are the most popular of all! Monarchs are known for their incredible migration from as far north as Canada, down to the mountains of Central Mexico. These butterflies, unlike some others, cannot withstand the freezing temperatures of the North. They do not only go to Mexico, some find their winter homes in California, Peninsular Florida and the Keys, and even here. We have a population that does not migrate from Houston because the temperatures are warm enough. If you see a Monarch outside during this time, don’t worry, they haven’t missed the boat, they are quite happy here!

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

So you see, we do not need to intervene – butterflies know what to do when it gets cold. The temperatures outside right now are not deadly, just uncomfortable. Insects can go a long time without food or water and as soon as the sun re-appears, they will get their fill. If it does freeze, they will seek shelter.

Now, if you have been raising monarchs or other butterflies in your garden and you bring them inside to be warm, there is a chance they will emerge as adults when it is way to chilly for them to be released. They cannot be kept alive inside your home either. In this case, we will happily allow you to release them into our conservatory where they will be quite happy! Some butterflies will indeed perish during these few cold months, but it’s all part of the cycle that has been going since the creation of Earth and we should try not to intervene to much!

Until next time, Happy Butterfly Watching!