Butterfly Garden: Jimsonweed Takes the Heat, Sports Elegant Flowers and Hosts the Endearing Sphinx Moth

With its elegant white trumpet flowers, spiny seed capsules, and fragrant evening blooms, Jimsonweed ranks as one of my favorite butterfly garden plants.

The native datura inoxia partners well with another favorite, Cowpen Daisy.  Plant them together and you’ll have sprays of yellow and white blooms throughout the scorching summer, well into October.  Both plants gracefully defy our brutal heat, need little water or care, resist disease and pests and attract butterflies and moths.

Jimsonweed climbs to three feet and spreads an equal distance.  It creates a handy shady mass that protects less sturdy plants.  Up until this past week, Jimsonweed’s shade shielded verbena from frying and saved my tropical milkweed, too.  The plant is versatile, attractive and easy-to-grow.

Jimsonweed bloom.  Do you see the caterpillar?

Jimsonweed bloom. Do you see the caterpillar?

What else does this member of the potato family have to offer? Its spiny seed pods provide an unusual garnish–or should I say gardenish?  The thorny balls would make delightful earrings, or at least play a starring role in an exotic ikebana flower display.  As summer wears on, the walnut-sized pods turn from green to brown, spreading seed wantonly in the garden, making this durable perennial almost impossible to defeat once established.  The lush, large leaves of Jimsonweed also exude a chocolatey smell when watered or handled.

Spiny seedpod of Jimsonweed

Spiny Jimsonweed seedpod dusted with caterpillar frass

Another bonus: the captivating Sphinx moth, whose large size and brazen daytime flying cause it to be confused with small hummingbirds, hosts on Jimsonweed.  Sphinx moth caterpillars have a reputation with tomato gardeners as the despised tomato or tobacco hornworm, which is beautiful upon close inspection.  Look for it in the photo of the Jimsonweed bloom, above.

Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, milkweed and lantana
August butterfly garden: Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, tropical milkweed, Texas lantana

Underappreciated Jimsonweed does have a down side.  As a member of the nightshade family, it contains tropane alkaloids, the same toxins as belladonna, used in ancient times on poison-tipped arrows.  All parts of  Jimsonweed are poisonous.  Native Americans used the leaves as a painkiller and as an hallucinogen.   

Recent reports have reckless teens using Jimsonweed as a cheap high, but they should beware.  Hospital stays, even death, can result.

Jimsonweed’s namesake may represent one of the first instances of ethnobotanical warfare in American colonial history. Amy Stewart explains in her delightful book, Wicked Plants, that in Jamestown, Virginia, in the late 1600s, “British soldiers arrived to quell one of the first uprisings at the fledgling colony and the settlers remembered the toxic plant and slipped datura leaves into the soldiers’ food.”

They survived, but hallucinated severely for eleven days, giving Virginia colonists a temporary upper hand.   The assisting plant became known as Jamestown weed, and later, Jimsonweed.

Pollinator Porn: Beguiling Beauty of Pollination Lusciously Captured by Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg

The luscious video clip below should help get your week off to a vibrant start.

Speaking at a TedTalk in March, renown filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg offered a “bit of nectar” from his movie, “Wings Of Life.”

Thanks to my friends at the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association for calling it to my attention.

Using high-res, slo-mo, close-up, time-lapse cinematography, Schwartzberg’s footage is downright sensuous, getting up close with bats, butterflies, bees and the flowers they pollinate while providing an intimate view of  “a love story that feeds the planet.”

Says the award-winning cinematographer:

“Beauty and seduction, I believe, is nature’s tool for survival, because we will protect what we fall in love with.”

Take a look at the video and see if you don’t agree.

If you have butterfly questions, leave a comment below, email us at butterflybeat@gmail.com or find and like us on Facebook

Butterfly Bookshelf: The Butterfly’s Daughter Tells Engaging Story of Monarch Migration Through Girls’ Road Trip

A girls’ roadtrip, a mother-daughter relationship interrupted, and a search for family all mirror the great autumn migration of the Monarch butterfly in Mary Alice Monroe’s, The Butterfly’s Daughter, making it a perfect summer read.

The Butterfly's DaughterThis is chick lit for nature lovers.  Best-selling author Monroe weaves universal female themes–the importance of family, forgiveness, and second chances–with a young Mexican-American woman’s coming-of-age. The tale incorporates the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration as well as themes of metamorphosis.

Luz, the main character, lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of a German father and a Mexican mother.   She never knew her father, and her mother, Mariposa, abandoned her at age five, leaving her to be raised by Abuela, her grandmother.

Abuela is the neighborhood “butterfly lady,” who entertains neighbors and children alike with her colorful butterfly garden and the raising and release of Monarch butterflies.  Abuela and the rest of Luz’s family are from Angangueo, Mexico, one of several  ancestral roosting spots for millions of migrating Monarch butterflies.

The Butterfly’s Daughter
By Mary Alice Monroe
382 pages
Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

When Abuela dies unexpectedly one autumn morning, the devastated Luz decides to take leave of her job and her boyfriend and travel with Abuela’s cremated ashes “home” to Angangueo in a beat-up Volkswagen beetle she names El Toro.   The trip had been debated for years, but never taken.

Her voyage of self discovery follows the epic flight path of migrating Monarch butterflies as Luz travels south from Wisconsin through Texas and across the border to the Michoacán mountains.  Along the way, she makes unplanned stops, takes surprise detours, and enjoys sidebar adventures that will tempt the reader to find her own VW bug for an adventurous outing.  The interesting characters Luz meets become her friends, enriching her journey, learning as much from her as she does from them.

The book has connections to both Austin and San Antonio.   Just outside Milwaukee, Luz encounters Billy MCall, a laconic, intriguing scientist modeled after Austin’s “cowboy entomologist” Dr. Bill Calvert.   Billy teaches Luz to tag Monarchs.  Later, she spends several days in San Antonio, tracking down her aunt.  There the plot takes an unexpected, pivotal turn.

While the symbolism of the journey may be too transparent for some, the story is poignant, entertaining and educational.  Each chapter begins with a fact about the Monarch migration, and Monarch butterflies appear throughout the narrative, as does information about them.  The life lessons Luz harvests from her trip are ones we can all appreciate.

Park Openings, Caterpillar Crawls, Butterfly Bookreadings: Busy Weekend For Butterfly Buffs in San Antonio and Austin

This weekend brings a slew of butterfly related events for the novice lepidopterist and butterfly gardeners.

Saturday we’ll be at the Grand Reopening of Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio. Opened a year ago, the 311-acre natural area is a testament to the vision of Mayor Phil Hardberger, who saw the project to fruition despite a serious recession.

This weekend, the $3 million second phase of transforming the former Voelcker Ranch into our newest natural area will be introduced to the public.  A ribbon cutting will be staged at 10 AM, followed by Dinosaur George, then a full program with nature walks, kite-making and flying, children’s basketball competitions, parachute games, Frisbee tosses and more.  The San Antonio Zoo, Texas Master Naturalists, Medina River Natural Area, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society, and Texas Butterfly Ranch will join a crew of 14 total to host educational table displays.  I’ll be on hand with a selection of caterpillars, chrysalises and host plants, so please stop by and say hello.

Butterfly gardens are in the plans for Hardberger Park, but park construction temporarily “sidetracked plans to have them ready,” said Gail Gallegos, Nature Preserve Officer for the Park.  “The Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy is spearheading and promoting the upcoming butterfly gardens.”

Grand Reopening of  Phil Hardberger Park 
Saturday, May 21, 8 AM – 7 PM
13203 Blanco Road,
San Antonio, TX 78230

Meanwhile, at the Twig Bookshop located at the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, author Winifred Barnum Newman will read from her crossover book, Caterpillars Can Fly.  The story tells the tale of the metamorphosis of a 15-year-old girl diagnosed early in life with a cognitive learning disability.

The Twig Bookshop Butterfly Book Reading
Saturday, May 21, 10 AM
Winifred Barnum Newman
Caterpillars Can Fly
200 East Grayson at the Pearl Brewery
San Antonio, TX  78215

Up the road in Austin, the Austin Butterfly Forum  will host a guided caterpillar walk for members only on Sunday morning, May 22, 9 AM at Zilker Park near Barton Springs.   Participants are advised to walk past the pool, to the Barton Springs trailhead.  Here’s a map.

Renown caterpillar expert Dr. David Wagner, Ph.D, author of the definitive field guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, has a reputation as a passionate and engaging speaker.   He will lead this guided tour for  Austin Butterfly Forum members only, showing us how to find, identify, collect and understand the oft-underestimated caterpillar, which is frequently the most entertaining phase of the butterfly life cycle.  (If you don’t believe me, check out the video above.)

Still not a member of the Austin Butterfly Forum?  Maybe now’s a good time to join. Annual membership is $20 per family membership and provides access to exclusive outings like this.

Austin Butterfly Forum
Sunday, May 22 9 AM
Guided Caterpillar Tour at Barton Springs Trail 
Dr. David Wagner, PhD and author of  
Caterpillars of Eastern North America
Loop 36o Trail Access
Barton Creek Greenbelt
Austin, TX  78704

Dr. Wagner then makes himself available in Austin on Monday, May 23,  when he speaks to the Forum in the  Zilker Botanical Garden Center.  The meeting is free to members, $5 for nonmembers. Dr. Wagner spoke previously to the Forum in 2008. “Dr. Wagner’s brilliance and intense knowledge of one of the dominant life forms on the planet is reason enough to attend,” notes Mike Quinn, president of the ABF.

Austin Butterfly Forum
Monday, May 23, 7 PM
Caterpillar Talk  
Dr. David Wagner, PhD and author of  
Caterpillars of Eastern North American
Zilker Garden
2220 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX  78746

And if that’s not enough flutter action to get you out of the house, Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times best selling author of The Butterfly’s Daughter, will speak at Book People in Austin on Sunday at 3 PM.  Monroe’s book weaves a tale of transformation that spans multiple generations of women.  Luz Avila, the main character, sets out on a voyage of self discovery, with the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration laced into the narrative.  The book is set in San Antonio.

Book People Butterfly Book Reading
Sunday, May 22, 3 PM
The Butterfly’s Daughter
Mary Alice Monroe

Amazon reviewers all gave it four or five stars.  Check back here for a review of the book later this month.    

UPDATE 5/20/2011–The location of the Guided Caterpillar Tour for Austin Butterfly Forum members was mistakenly identified in this blogpost.  It has been corrected.    ABF members should goto the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Loop 360 Trail Access. See you there!

Butterfly Evangelist and Author of Mariposa Road to Sign Books at Twig Bookstore in San Antonio

Mark your calendars, San Antonio butterfly friends.  Butterfly evangelist and author Robert Michael Pyle will read from his new book, Mariposa Road, the First Butterfly Big Year at 5 PM Wednesday, November 10 at the Twig Bookstore at the Pearl in San Antonio.


Pyle has written 14 books, including the charming Chasing MonarchsWhere Bigfoot Walks, and Wintergreen, which won the John Burroughs Medal.   He’s a Yale-trained ecologist and Guggenheim fellow, and lives and writes full-time in southwestern Washington state.

Mariposa Road documents a roadtrip he took in a 1982 Honda Civic which he affectionately calls Powdermilk (it has with 345,000 miles on it).  His primary companion was a  trusty cottonwood-limbed butterfly net named Marsha.  Pyle set out to have the “first butterfly big year,” a reference to the birding world whereby birders set out to see as many species as possible in one year.  Pyle is the first to aim for a “big year” in the relatively new hobby of butterflying.  Reviewers have been mum on how many of the 800 species in the U.S. he witnessed, encouraging us to read the book to find out.

One reviewer labeled Mariposa Road “at turns whimsical, witty, informative, and inspirational… an extraordinary journey of discovery that leads the reader ever farther into butterfly country and deeper into the heart of the naturalist.”  Some readers complained of its 500-page length, yet the book is scoring five stars on Amazon.

Can’t wait to read this apparent must-have for the butterfly bookshelf. See you there.

Wednesday, November 10, 5 PM

Robert Michael Pyle, Author of Mariposa Road

The Twig Bookstore, 200 E Grayson, The Pearl

San Antonio, TX  78215