Behind the Scenes: HMNS Greenhouses [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Eighth Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

For most people, the beauty of the Cockrell Butterfly Center is, well – the butterflies. Thousands flit and flutter around each visitor to this butterfly conservatory – and they are stunning. But have you ever wondered about the exotic plants they land on?

The botanists and volunteers at the Butterfly Center spend much of their time nurturing the plants that the butterflies eat and live on – and much care is taken to ensure that their habitat is both healthy and representative of the rainforest environment to which the butterflies are native.

If you’ve visited the Butterfly Center, you know the plants there are healthy, hearty – and adult. So, where do they grow up? I am so glad you asked. In the video below, you can see for yourself – as Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s greenhouses!

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge
The Seventh Day of HMNS – Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don't ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.

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. 

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.