‘Tis the season: Fall is finally (sorta) here — and so is our Semi-Annual Plant Sale

Fall is coming! Leaves are changing color, temperatures start creeping down, and gardeners will be able to get back outside without the threat of heatstroke.

Well, in theory. This is Houston, after all.

But despite the fact that it’ll be warm until Thanksgiving, there is something we can look forward to: cooler temps! And you know what else likes cooler temps? Plants! Plants can get a little stressed out in the hot, dry summer months, and some will even go into a dormant state (which means they cease to grow to conserve as much energy as they can). This type of dormancy is usually caused by drought stress.

If you’re like me, you don’t like to spend a lot of money irrigating your landscape, so my solution is to choose plants that do not need regular watering. There are many great butterfly nectar and host plants that are drought-tolerant and we will have several of these at the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale. We choose the hardiest perennials and annuals to help you stock up your landscape before the fall butterfly rush.

Here is my top 10 plant list for this fall:

1.Cassia splendida, Flowery Senna or Yellow Senna

Cassia splendida

1. Flowery Senna or Yellow Senna (Cassia splendida): This perennial shrub is covered in bright yellow clusters of flowers from fall through winter. It is also the host plant for several sulfur butterfly larvae. Cassia can reach heights of 6 to 12 feet tall, likes full sun, and has average water needs.

2. Fringed Twinevine (Funastrum cynanchoidies): This perennial vine is a great butterfly attractor for the fall. The pale pink flowers look similar to milkweed flowers, since they are in the same family, Apocynaceae. In fact, twinevine (unfortunately) attracts the yellow oleander aphid, just like milkweed! Monarchs will not lay eggs on the plant, but the caterpillars will eat the leaves in desperate times when milkweed is not available. Queen caterpillars will also eat this plant. This unusual plant is native to the southwestern United States, including south Texas. It is a twining vine and will need some sort of trellising.

3. Fall Mistflower or Common Floss Flower (Eupatorium odoratum, or Chromolaena odoratum): When the pale blue flowers of this plant appear, they are swarmed by many species of butterflies. The bushy plant grows 3 to 5 feet high and has low water needs. Plant in full sun for maximum blooms. Note that it only blooms for about 3 weeks, starting mid-to-late October, but the butterfly show is worth the wait.

Liatris sp., Blazing Star

Liatris sp.

4. Blazing Star (Liatris sp.): This Texas native perennial is a great nectar plant for summer and early fall. It likes full sun and is drought tolerant. The bloom spikes reach 3 to 4 feet tall. It also attracts hummingbirds!

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

5. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): This tree is also a native to Texas. It usually occurs as an understory tree at the edge of wooded areas, so they like a little bit of shade. They can reach up to 30 feet tall and, once their root system is established, they are drought tolerant. This tree has wonderful fall color and is also deciduous, which means that they drop all of their leaves in winter. So, if your Sassafras looks like sticks, don’t worry, it will come back in the spring. Another great thing about this tree (and the reason why we sell it) is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail. The utter cuteness of the Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar, in my opinion, makes it a great ambassador for butterfly gardening. It is a favorite of many butterfly enthusiasts.

6. Corell’s Obedient Plant (Physostegia corellii):  A Texas native, this perennial likes full to partial shade and needs regular watering. Plant height reaches about 3 feet tall and the pink flower spikes bloom mid to late summer. It is a great nectar plant for butterflies and hummingbirds.

7. Brazilian Pipevine (Aristolochia fimbriata): This trailing groundcover with attractive, slightly variegated, roundish leaves, likes part shade and average watering, but will become drought tolerant when established. The plant is named after its flowers, which resemble small tobacco pipes. These unusual maroon-colored flowers attract flies to pollinate them with their “fragrance” of rotting meat. The flies think this is a good place to lay their eggs, but in reality they are just doing the plant’s bidding! This plant is also the host for the native Pipevine Swallowtail and the more tropical Polydamas Swallowtail. The funky looking caterpillars can devour the foliage all the way to the ground, but luckily the plant is ready for this and will flush out new growth from its fleshy underground storage root. If you want this plant for raising caterpillars you should plant several to have enough food for your babies.

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

8. Frog Fruit (Lippia nodiflora): This native groundcover likes full sun to partial shade and blooms spring through early winter. It is a good nectar plant for small butterflies like hairstreaks and skippers. The leaves are also a host for buckeye larvae. If you have a large open space that needs some groundcover, this is the plant for you! Otherwise, you may want to contain its vigorous growth.

9. Mexican Caesalpinnia (Caesalpinnia mexicana): This woody perennial reaches 7 to 8 feet high, and produces large clusters of yellow flowers from early summer through early winter. A great nectar plant for butterflies, it likes full sun and is drought tolerant.

Red Rocket Russelia


Red Rocket Russelia

10. Red Rocket Russelia (Russelia sarmentosa):  This tender perennial is a great nectar plant for butterflies and hummingbirds. It likes full sun to part shade and is drought tolerant, and bears “fiery” red spikes of flowers that bloom from summer to fall.. For some reason it is not found in garden centers lately, but we have it!

The Semi-Annual Plant Sale will be held Saturday, October 12 from 9:00 a.m. to noon, or until we sell out of plants. Come early, because the plants go fast!

Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Oct. 8!

This time of year, gardening can make you feel as hot as Priscilla Queen of the Desert

With water restrictions and heat advisories, who wants to get into that mess? The drought and high temperatures have also caused butterflies to suffer, leaving their numbers well below normal for the season. In addition to the gardens we plant to supplement their diet, butterflies rely on native plants throughout their lifecycle. The lack of rain has caused the wildflowers either to have a very short blooming period, or not bloom at all. That means a decrease in nectar for butterflies. Native host plants as well are suffering in the dry heat, leaving caterpillars short of food as well. Triple digit temperatures cause female butterflies to not lay eggs and in general cause the overall populations to languish.

But, there is good news.

Soon the triple digits should be a thing of the past and we can all get outside and start tending our gardens again instead of watching through the window as they shrivel. The butterflies will be back as well and we need to be ready for them.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Saturday, October 8

If your garden needs perking up, head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 8th, from 9 to 11am, on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We will have a wide variety of host and nectar plants to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to your garden.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
The Cockrell Butterfly Center is the perfect place to see gorgeous,exotic butterflies – but you can help
preserve these fragile wonders by creating a butterfly habitat for local species
in your own backyard.

Check out the list of available plants for more information.

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:

1. Get there early. This year our sale is only from 9 to 11 am.
2. Bring a wagon to cart around your goodies.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.

Protection from Predators

Butterflies will lay eggs on host
plants, like this Cassia alata. But,
how do you protect the caterpillars
that emerge from hungry predators
in your garden?

This week, I received a phone call from a museum patron who was concerned about wasps capturing her Gulf fritillary caterpillars from her Passionflower vine in her butterfly habitat and flying off with them. Because her host plant was a vine, it was not possible to protect the caterpillars from predatory attack; she would just have to allow nature to take its natural course.

There are however, a few methods we can suggest to you for protecting your caterpillars from predators. One method is to drape bridal-tulle (fine mesh) over the existing host plant within your garden. This tulle can be supported by a frame such as a tomato cage. Stitch up the sides of the mesh with a hem stitch so that the stitches are touching one another this way, the predators have no entrance. Along the bottom edge of the tulle you can pierce v-shaped wires into the soil. You can make these with an old wire hanger and a wire cutter. You should secure the bottom edge of the tulle by inserting it into the soil to a depth of about 1-2”. Wasps and Yellow Jackets will try to enter the enclosure through the bottom if they know a food source exists.

Another method of protecting caterpillars from predators is to remove the caterpillars from the host plant and place the caterpillar and its food source into a secure container with air holes or a screen or tulle covering for air circulation. You can use and old aquarium, pickle jar, Rubbermaid container etc. as a temporary home. Place a clean paper towel at the base of the container each day. You do not want to leave the frass (waste) in the container because it will cause mold to grow.

In this photo, caterpillars of the Cloudless Sulphur,
Phoebis sennae species feed on their host plant, Cassia
alata. I always find it amazing that the butterflies
find their way up to the top of the parking garage
in search of specific host plants to lay their eggs on.

Today, I removed 12-15, caterpillars along with stems of fresh food and placed them into a container with holes in the top. Each day, I will spray the foliage within the container, put in fresh food and change out the paper towel. When the caterpillars are molting, they will remain stationary for 4-8 hours. Once they shed their skin, they are very fragile. It is best not to disturb them at this time. Some caterpillars crawl off and rest upon the side of the container for this period of time before and after molting. You don’t want to place your container in a sunny window because this will cause the interior temperature to rise to an uncomfortable level. If you have fine mesh on the top though, that is OK. In that case, you should mist more than two times a day with a spray bottle of water.

Finally, whether or not you have housed your caterpillars in the garden or in a container, they will soon pupate. Twelve to twenty-four hours before the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis you will see the wing coloration of the species just under the covering of the chrysalis. When the butterfly does emerge it has to spread its wings to dry. Do not disturb it at this time, it is fragile. Touching it could possibly cause it to be deformed and you wouldn’t want that.

vôa borboletinha!
Creative Commons License photo credit: .mands.

In another twelve to twenty-four hours you can safely release it to your garden where it will immediately find a nectar source to feed upon. If it is cloudy and raining, the butterfly will roost under a stem or a leaf until the temperature reaches 78 degrees or above. Once its body temperature warms up it should take flight.

Upon flight it will seek out its host and nectar sources so be sure to have plenty on hand in your garden for your new friends. I hope this sheds a little light on how you might save some of your beautiful caterpillars from predation in the future. Protecting them with an artificial environment is an easy thing to do.