We’re finally getting our first frost in San Antonio, about three weeks after the typical November 21 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center.
Freezing temps usually mean the end of the season for butterflies. Just this week we’ve had several emails and posts from butterfly wranglers wondering what to do about caterpillars discovered outside–better to let them brave the elements, or bring them inside?
Brought 22 monarch caterpillars in from the cold. Some are already starting to make chrysalises. Some are still eating, and a few have “J’d” but after a day haven’t progressed. Anyone have any hints or advice? Hoping for the best and preparing.
–Tom Kinsey, San Antonio, via Facebook
I can argue the answer to that question either way, and have taken both routes. A late stage Queen caterpillar was discovered on a milkweed plant in our courtyard this week. She remained outside.
Considerations included my busy holiday schedule, a lack of host plant, and the probability that when she formed and later emerged from the chrysalis, the butterfly would face cold temperatures (making it difficult if not impossible to fly), little nectar, and few prospects for a mate. What kind of life is that?
And yet, our friend Marileen Manos Jones of upstate New York took a different tact in late October. She convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a lone lady Monarch to San Antonio in early November to release the late blooming lep at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. No “right” answer exists to the late season caterpillar quandary. It’s a judgment call.
The first frost of the season poses a separate natural majesty not unrelated to butterflies: the transformation of the excellent nectar plant, Frostweed, into a beautiful ice sculpture. I love this plant. Such an overlooked gem. Can’t figure out why this easy-to-grow perennial is not sold in commercial nurseries.
In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies. The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems. The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun. The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.
Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks. This last year took a toll on the flowers, as the water table had receded significantly from the 2011 drought. Many Frostweeds died as stiff stalks in August.
But in general, this plant is gorgeous, drought toleranat, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it.
As a member of the aster family, Frostweed can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed.
Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour, according to Dr. James Carter’s website. Dr. Carter coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf. Dr. Carter also points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.” Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations. The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.
For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ Biophysica of Crystallofolia website. It humbles the most talented artist.