Fungus among us: Wildroot Organic praises the magic of mycorrhizal fungi

David Steinbrunner remembers the exact moment he decided to go organic. The Texas A&M University football quarterback and horticulture major and a fellow student were tasked with tending the campus pecan orchard in 1979. Their assignment: spray the trees for pecan weevils.

Teresa's salvia

Teresa’s Salvia: Wildroot Organic founder David Steinbrunner named a special pink salvia he developed after his wife and cofounder Teresa. Photo by David Steinbrunner

Steinbrunner and his partner gathered their large scale sprayer, filled it with zolone, a pesticide no longer sold in the United States, and made their way to the orchard. They dutifully spritzed the limbs and leaves of the pecan trees. Afterward, they removed their protective gear and washed off.

Soon they began to hear strange thuds. Steinbrunner thought maybe some pecans were dropping. Slowly, steadily, birds, insects and other former living creatures dropped from the trees to the ground. “Every crow, every bird, every lizard….Every living thing in that orchard was killed,” the 60-old horticulturist told a crowd of about 50 Bexar County Master Gardeners at the recent monthly meeting in San Antonio.

The Silent Spring moment moved Steinbrunner to swear off dousing chemicals on the earth and embrace organic approaches to landscaping and gardening. Since 1982, he and his wife Teresa have operated Steinbrunner Landscaping. After working closely with mycorrhizal fungi in his landscaping business and seeing dramatic success, Steinbrunner worked with Dr. Michael Amaranthus, a pioneer in mycorrhizal fungi research to develop a premium, proprietary concentrate of the fungi. In 2014, the couple launched Wildroot Organic, Inc. a local producer and supplier of the natural treatment, as well as an organic fertilizer. The agriculture and gardening community’s warm reception of their organic concentrates has led them to become especially particular about which landscaping jobs they accept. The fungi business takes up all their time.

Mycorrhizal fungi has gained attention lately as part of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. The word comes from the Greek  mykos, “fungus,” and rhiza, “root” and represents the symbiotic relationship between a specific kind of fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant. More than 90% of plants on earth use or need mycorrhizal fungus to thrive. Mycorrhizae exist naturally in healthy soils, but drought, development, overgrazing, compacting, pollutants, and other detriments can kill the living organisms. Wildroot aims to replenish what would normally occur in a healthy situation–kind of like using probiotics for indigestion.

Teresa and David Steinbrunner of Boerne’s Wildroot Organics at a recent trade show. Courtesy photo

The product consists of a grayish, powdered dust that includes millions of live microbes, spores and bacteria. Mix a small scoop with water and put the solution in contact with a plant’s roots. Then wait for the “friendly fungi” solution to go to work on behalf of the plant.

The mycorrhizae will establish an underground spore colony that works unseen and  overtime transporting nutrients and moisture to the roots, says Steinbrunner. In exchange, the plant sends carbohydrates to the mycorrhizae, fueling its growth and expansion. Steinbrunner says that mycorrhizae have been known to extend their colonies more than a mile from their host plant.

Other ways for gardeners to use the mix is to dip potted plants in the solution, or dig a hole to provide access to the root system, says Steinbrenner. Wild root also provides spray mixes and capsules. What’s most important is to make sure the roots have contact with the mycorrhizae. Then watch your plants thrive despite less water, less fertilizer and without chemicals as the fungi builds colonies around the roots, increases soil health and humidity, and even grows straw-like vessels to help move the food and moisture to and from the plant.

“Mycorrhizae spores need a root to survive within about 10 days of germination,” says David Vaughan, a certified arborist with Etter Tree Service in San Antonio who often uses the treatment in tree restorations.  “So best way to get them started is putting the spores with the root.”

If you’ve ever seen thin, white spiderweb like  matter on a plant’s roots or in the compost pile–those are mycorrhizae. I confess to having trashed such matter in ignorance. Never again.

Steinbrunner says we just have to take a cue from Nature. “Just look at a huge oak tree growing by itself in a field. These huge plants. No water, no fertilizer.” The trick is the mycorrhizal fungi, he says.

Steinbrunner shares success stories of turning fallow fields into lush prairies and converting a failing pecan orchard into a premier organic nut producer. He also shares photos of two potted plants, side by side, one treated with mycorrhizal fungus, the other not. The mycorrhizae treated plant has a more robust root system, lusher blooms and greater stem mass.

It’s not a silver bullet that will cure every landscaping ailment, he says. “But it’s a big bullet.”

Have you ever gardened with mycorrhizal fungus? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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RIP: The all too short life of a gnarly pecan tree

I can’t recall another Saturday morning that began with sawdust in my coffee. That was the salute and send-off for one of our favorite pecans trees, a 42-year-old that fell to the gales of Tuesday night’s storm.

The squirrels will miss the gnarly pecan’s handy rest stop. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gnarly example of Carya illinoinensis had taken some hits in its short life. For most of four decades, it thrived mostly unattended in an empty lot a block from the river in downtown San Antonio. It endured wind, freezes, drenching and drought.

In recent years a four-year construction project likely contributed to its demise, opening a wound where bark rot took hold. The strange looking fungus attacked the lean, straight tree, producing large dark brown mushroom bracts that jutted sideways from its bark like so many convenient shelves. When gardening I would often lay my pruning shears on the handy natural shelf. Squirrels found the fungi ledges an ideal sitting spot, a well-placed bench to rest or enjoy a pecan from the tree’s regular alternate year crops.

Where are my pruning shears? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Many evenings our family sat on the front porch and enjoyed the squirrels chasing each other across the yard. In the spring, they pounced from limb to limb in a courtship chase as mockingbirds tweeted their aggressive evening calls and titmice jockeyed for spots on the bird feeder. Not only did the squirrels use the gnarly pecan as a midpoint rest stop, its location in the middle of the yard made for a common place to jump.

The entrance to our home accommodated this tree with a u-shaped detour around its young, broad trunk. Family and visitors respected it by walking around it. We all enjoyed its shade and oily autumn fruits, marveled at its mushroom shelves and appreciated its yellow tassels in the spring. The annoying yellow catkins, the male flowers of the pecan, litter the sidewalk but their messy appearance assures future fruits.

Gnarly pecan tart is a holiday tradition at our house. Creme fraiche optional. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Each fall, we gather dozens of pounds of nuts from the gnarly pecan and its siblings in our yard and along the river. Pecan tarts and a special snack mix follow shortly thereafter.

Last Tuesday’s storm put an end to the gnarly pecan. Around 7 PM after the winds died down, I looked out the front window and noticed the tree had tree tipped at a 45-degree angle across the yard. It had uprooted, tipped east and was thankfully  caught by its sister tree, a gesture

View of Tuesday night’s storm damage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

that likely prevented the crash of a nearby power pole in its path. The gnarly tree’s rotted roots were exposed to the sidewalk, making the destruction of the last few years obvious.  Fungus had been composting the dead matter from its inside out, undermining its health and ultimately causing its death.

Bark rot, root rot and high winds were the downfall of the gnarly pecan. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It took several days to locate a certified arborist to tackle the aftermath. Tree people were busy in the wake of the storm. But Saturday morning, Darling and Miguel of Tree Musketeers arrived with their chainsaws, ropes and extension saws to harvest the wood  and restore order to the yard.

We watched as the tree climbers expertly tied ropes and pullies around the healthy limbs of the sister tree to catch falling branches of the fatally injured pecan. No gutters were damaged, no power lines downed. Over three hours, the tree team dissected the gnarly pecan. Limb by limb, they extricated it from its sister’s arms, brought it gently to the ground, then sliced its 18-inch trunk into hefty logs for firewood. A few select chunks will become treasured sitting stumps on the porch.

Rest in peace, gnarly pecan. We appreciate your service.

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Pollinator favorite: Cowpen Daisy plays host to Bordered Patch butterfly

Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, goes on the Texas Butterfly Ranch Favorite Species List (FSL). This plant is a rock star.

It starts blooming in March and continues through November. Keep deadheading, and Cowpen Daisy puts out prolific blooms, abundant seeds, and attracts wildlife aplenty. Drought tolerant and comfortable in various soils, Cowpen Daisy, sometimes called golden crown beard or butter daisy, gets its name from its capacity to easily sprout in disturbed areas–like the cowpen.

Early blooming Cowpen Daisy works overtime as host plant to the lovely Bordered Patch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You can cut it back short or let it grow tall and gangly to create a flowering hedge. As an annual, the plant grows tall in the sun–up to five or so feet. In partial shade it will stay shorter and bloom less. At the ranch, the plant often pops up under pecan trees where it gets morning sun; it also thrives along the dirt road in the blazing Texas summer.

Cowpen Daisy is a great all-around pollinator plant, attracting a variety of bees and butterflies. It also plays host plant to the Bordered Patch butterfly, Chlosyne lacinia, a highly variable member of the Nymphalidae family. The black, white and orange butterflies

Bees LOVE Cowpen Daisy. And it has a long, low-maintenance blooming season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

lay groups of yellow eggs on the underside of the daisy leaves and other members of the aster family. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are gregarious and stick together, decimating small groups of leaves at a time. They morph through their stages quickly from agile orange-and-black spikey (but harmless) caterpillars to interesting tan-and-black mottled chrysalis.

Gregarious Bordered Patch butterflies might strip a stalk of Cowpen Daisy, but no worries–the plant will recover. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This Bordered Patch chrysalis formed on a nearby Swamp milkweed plant in a downtown San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the fall, resist the temptation to slash Cowpen Daisy to the ground as its appearance becomes unkempt. Prolific seeds will fall to the ground or become fodder for birds. In the spring, you’ll have dozens of young plants.  They’re easy to pull out, pot up to give away as young seedlings, or leave to compete with each other to provide more gardening fun.

Once you plant Cowpen Daisy, you may never have to do so again.

Save those seeds! YOu’ll have plenty of Cowpen Daisy in the spring if you let them drop. And the birds will be happy, too. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies frequent Cowpen Daisy in the fall as a nectar source. This picture was taken in October during peak migration week in the Texas Hill Country. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

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Frostweed earns its name with intriguing ice sculptures upon first frost

The first frost of the season hit our Llano River ranch last weekend, a month later than the average November 15 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center. On December 18, temperatures dropped a dramatic 60 degrees–from 78 to 18 in just a few hours.

Frost Flowers: The Frost Awakens from Roy Spencer on Vimeo.

Butterflies were absent Sunday morning, but we witnessed a different natural majesty. One of our favorite late season nectar plants, Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, graced us with the annual ritual of splitting her stems and producing amazing, delicate ice sculptures.

The airy, fragile constructions pour out of the plants’ stems like Nature’s artisanal meringues. I couldn’t help but think San Antonio’s thriving cocktail culture would appreciate the natural treasures as adornments on fancy adult beverages.

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.

Buckeyes share a Frostweed nectar stop with a Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks. This last year was spectacular with our well-timed rains. In September and October, the Frostweed forest was home to myriad butterfly species, bees, beetles and wasps. This plant is gorgeous, drought tolerant, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it. I don’t understand why it’s not more available in local nurseries.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bumblebees are also Frostweed fans. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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. See the amazing video by Roy Spencer, above, to witness the process.

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Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour. Bob Harmes of the University of Texas coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf.

Frostweed is a magnet and important nectar source for migrating Monarchs in the fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another student of Frostweed and crystafollia, Dr. James Carter, a professor emeritus in the department of geography and geology at Illinois State University, 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.

Frostweed Seed

Frostweed produces generous seed and nectar. And it’s easy to grow.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to an article in the September-October 2013 issue of Scientific American, written by Carter,  formal study of the process is limited.

For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ of the University of Texas at Austin Plant Resources Center Biophysica of Crystallofolia website.

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Trinity students continue battle with Johnson grass–Goldenrod winning

Biology students from Trinity University returned to the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week to continue battle with invasive species–specifically, Johnson grass. Four students arrived last Friday to take stock of an ongoing experiment that began last April on the banks of the Llano River and will continue through next year. The goal: figure out which methods are most effective in killing Johnson grass.

Johnson grass experiment

Levanya Hospeti and Molly Lenihan assist Dr. Kelly Lyons  in collecting data for a Trinity University biology experiment. Foreground: Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“We successfully reduced Johnson grass abundance using both grubbing and herbicide,” said biology professor Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and invasive plant expert who organized the experiment for her students. While it’s too soon to say whether grubbing (physically removing the Johnson grass) or herbicide (aquatic-safe glyphosate) is more effective, preliminary data suggest that where Johnson grass was reduced, biodiversity increased.

“We also found that in these rainy seasons, Goldenrod competes well with Johnson grass, albeit to the exclusion of most other species,” said Dr. Lyons.

That’s good news for migrating Monarch butterflies who use the late season bloomer as a nectar stop as they move through the Texas Funnel each fall on their way to Mexico.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, competes will with Johnson grass and shields Swamp milkweed from harsh sun and flooding. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The project began last April as part of Trinity University’s ongoing research funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation. Last spring, a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity. Students established four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and applied  different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhackjng, and herbicides, in various combinations.

On this visit, Levanya Hospeti, Molly Lenihan, Austin Philippe and Olivia Roybal joined Dr. Lyons to collect data and plant plugs of native Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, a boisterous grower that Dr. Lyons believes can compete heftily with the rambunctious Johnson grass. Students planted 20 Eastern gamamgrass plugs and will continue monitoring the site over the course of the next year.

EEG

Olivia Roybel watches as Austin Phillipe drills a hole to plant Eastern gamagrass plugs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Invasives cites Johnson grass as one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world. It arrived from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop–even though when stressed, it can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock. The super aggressive grass spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frosted on the Llano in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white late season nectar sources, respectively, serve as important fuel and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures. But ever since a road project disrupted our stream bank and hauled in uninvited Johnson grass, we’ve been fighting the battle to win back our native nectar plants.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Lyons thinks that the Goldenrod and Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, are up to the task.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

So the battle continues.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass. It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper. It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, host plant to Monarch butterflies. Tall mounds of Eastern gamagrass already occur naturally all along the Llano, providing shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost. It’s equally important to manage and combat the advances of invasive species that infect our wildscapes. Johnson grass is just one interloper. Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

Monarch on duranta

Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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How to plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden

How do you plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden?

With the increased awareness of pollinator decline, gardeners are asking that question alot lately.

Pollinators–bees, in particular–make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible, delivering billions of dollars of free ecosystem services to humanity each year.  Without them, the foods we know and love would become less available and more expensive. As climate change, pesticide abuse, genetically modified crops and urban sprawl conspire to limit pollinator habitat world-wide, governments are worried about food security in the face of their demise.

Insect pollinators make all these edibles--and much more--possible. Photo by Monika Meeckle

Insect pollinators make all these edibles–and many others–possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That thinking drove the announcement of President Barack Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy last year.  The 58-page document sets goals to reduce honey bee losses, increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population, and restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Large prairie restorations are already underway as funding and attention have focused on the IH-35 corridor, which serves as a major migration route for birds, insects and Monarchs.  Every yard can also make a difference.

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamourous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamorous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In fact, an October 2015 study, An Evaluation of Butterfly Gardens for Restoring Habitat for the Monarch Butterfly, by Brian T. Cutting and Douglas W. Tallamy published in Environmental Entomology, a publication of the Entomological Society of America, demonstrated that Monarch butterflies are much more likely to lay their eggs in gardens than in natural sites–2.0  –  6.2 times more eggs per plant per observation.   That suggests planting butterfly and pollinator gardens can make a significant contribution to restoring habitat for these special creatures that keep our food web intact.

How to do it?   Here’s a few tips:

Ask:  How will I use my garden?

Do you want a deck or patio as part of your pollinator garden? A fire pit? Rain garden? Do you prefer a path for observing pollinators in the their various stages as well as the fruits, flowers and herbs you might be growing? Or maybe you just want a pretty yarden with bees buzzing, hummingbirds lighting and butterflies lilting on your flowers?

pollinator garden

I like a path in my pollinator garden so I can check for caterpillars and eggs, pick some okra, or snip some herbs for dinner. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How you will use your garden will determine how to plan the space. Personally, I like to come home from work and walk through my garden in the late afternoon and early evening, inspecting my milkweeds and other host plants for eggs and caterpillars, checking on the okra or tomatoes and perhaps snipping some herbs for dinner.  That’s why I’ve incorporated gravel and mulch paths that weave throughout the garden to allow access and close inspection, as well as close-up photography that you will often see in these webpages.

Pipevine Swallowtails

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars on Dutchman’s Pipe. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

I understand that not everyone fancies that. Some folks want the focal point of their garden to be a barbecue zone or vegetable patch, or perhaps a hammock/reading area, a deck, a pond or rain garden. You decide. It’s your garden.  Plants can be identified to serve any situation—wet, dry, sunny, shady. So choose.

And while you’re at it: choose native and well adapted plants. 

I’m not a purist about native plants, but I do try to use them whenever possible.  Why?

Because natives are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics.  Makes sense, since the natives were born and raised here, thus the insects that interact with them are naturally predisposed to perform the valuable ecosystem services needed to be self-sustaining.  According to Pollinators of Native Plants, a fantastic book by Heather N. Holm, studies find that when eight or more species of native plants occupy a

lady bug aphids

Lady bug on the job tackling aphids on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

landscape, the population and variety of native bees increase.  Diverse native landscapes also support beneficial insects like lady bugs, who seemingly appear out of nowhere to combat the yellow aphids that gravitate to the milkweeds we all plant for Monarchs and other butterflies.

Choose nectar and host plants to draw your favorite butterflies.

Butterflies and moths feed mostly on nectar plants, their flowers providing a sugary fluid that fuels their flight and reproduction.  As caterpillars, they consume the leaves of particular plants known as host plants.   Bees, meanwhile, feed on a flower’s pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs).  If you plant a variety of nectar and host plants, you should attract butterflies and bees to your yard.  Most people focus on the flowers, failing to research and include host plants, but honestly host plants are the key to a successful  butterfly garden.

For example, we all know that Monarch butterflies eat milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family.   But did you know that Eastern Swallowtails, one of the most common and beautiful butterflies in our part of the world, eat plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae?  That means if you plant parsley, fennel, dill or rue, you will soon have Eastern Swallowtails in your yard.  They are magnificent caterpillars and dramatic, large flyers in the adult stage.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtails eat plants in the carrot family–parsley, fennel, dill and rue.  Here, a Swallowtail noshing on fennel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtails, like many butterflies, are less particular about their nectar sources.  Here, Swallowtail nectaring on Tropical milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you need help identifying appropriate native host and nectar plants that will attract the butterflies and other pollinators in your area, consult your local native plant society or Master Gardeners Chapter.  Typically they offer lists of “butterfly garden” plants appropriate for your locale.

Right plant in the right place.

Ideally, you want a sunny location.  Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds like flowers and flowers need sun–preferably six – eight hours per day. Determining the sun’s arc—that is, how the sun and shade play on your pollinator garden will determine where you place  particular plants. Sunflowers, mistflowers, sages and asters must have sun to bloom;  planting them under a tree or eave will only disappoint you–and the bees and butterflies, too.

Shade options include Columbine, Turk’s Cap, and certain Goldenrods as excellent pollinator plants. These and others thrive on the edge of a tree’s shade or in roofline’s shadow.  Again, consult your local native plant society and Master Gardener chapters to see what’s right for your situation.

Hummingbird on Turk's cap

Hummingbirds love Turk’s Cap, which grows in shade. Photo via npsot.org

Meanwhile, ask yourself: what kind of soil do I have? Blackland prairie or rock-filled caliche? Loam, sand, silty?  The soil is the foundation of the garden and some plants will only grow in particular circumstances with the requisite moisture and nutrients.  You can do a simple soil test or simply observe a similar natural landscape and copy Mother Nature.

Avoid pesticides.

Butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, hummingbirds and moths are sensitive creatures that readily absorb pesticides, which are poisons.  When caterpillars, or butterflies-to-be as I like to call them, eat the leaves of plants sprayed with systemic pesticides, they perish.    Systemic pesticides can linger in a plant for months.

In the photo below, a trusted nursery assured our friend Sharon Sander that they had not sprayed the milkweeds she sought with any pesticides. Sander bought several one-gallon milkweeds to feed her hungry Monarch caterpillars.   The nursery employee was correct–they had NOT sprayed the plant.  But the grower did.  The systemic pesticide used remained in the milkweed leaves for months, killing all the caterpillars.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sander

Seek out growers and nurseries that do not use systemic pesticides.   And if you must use pesticides yourself, read and follow the directions carefully.  Choose a still day, not when it’s windy, and avoid spraying if rain is in the forecast, since the poisons might wash off and run into streams or drains.   Also, spray or apply surgically, ONLY to the plant that has issues, not some mass broadswipe.

For more on how to safely use pesticides in a pollinator garden, check out this helpful flyer from the Pollinator Partnership.

Create a puddling zone and wind break.

Butterflies need damp, wet areas to rehydrate and soak up minerals from the soil. A small swale or even a rain garden can satisfy this need and create a microhabitat within your garden that brings a new pollinator audience to your yard.

We installed a rain garden last year, planting its perimeter with various sedges, native grasses and Texas Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, a lovely semi-evergreen groundcover that thrives in extreme wet and dry conditions.  A member of the verbena family,

Crescentspot

Phaeon crescentspot on frogfruit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frogfruit’s tiny white flowers serve as an excellent nectar source for various butterflies and as host plant to the Common Buckeye, Phaeon Crescentspot, and White Peacock butterflies.

Bushes, trees, and tall shrubbery also are necessary to provide pollinators a place to rest, roost and overnight.  You can make these flowering plants if you like, but it’s not necessary.  Monarchs roost every fall in pecan trees that offer no nectar or hosting, only protection from the wind and the elements.

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch butterflies take a break from the wind by roosting and resting in pecan tress along the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Don’t expect year-round tidiness.

This is one of the toughest lessons for city folk.  Pollinator and native gardens go through messy stages.  And for good reason.

Annuals like Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, “go to seed” and when they do, some people consider them impossibly unattractive. I had a neighbor in Austin who loathed my butterfly garden adjacent to his well-manicured lawn. When I vacated my apartment in the autumn he took

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

it upon himself to mow down my Daisy patch and reinstall St. Augustine.  The same attitude removed a well established pollinator patch from our former family home in Alamo Heights.  When we turned over the keys, the new owners ripped out all the shrubs and natives and returned the lawn to water guzzling grass.

Lavaca garden, November 2012

San Antonio butterfly garden, November 2012.  Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a fact: nature is messy.  Sometimes pollinator gardens are not that pretty.  Seedpods form and dry, become brittle, and hang on the plant, reminding us of better days. Dead vines and stalks may look raggedy and unsightly, yet they provide shelter and protection for all kinds of creatures.  Just remember that the pay-off for such temporary imperfection is a new round of beauty in seasons to come.

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Monarch Champion status NOT “just talk,” will change how San Antonio manages land

Wednesday, December 9 was a banner day for Monarch butterflies and all pollinators in San Antonio, Texas. That’s when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced that the Alamo City has been named the first Monarch Champion in the country by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch butterfly wing bling

San Antoino Mayor Ivy Taylor sported Monarch butterfly wing bling when she announced San Antonio’s Monarch Champion status and her signature on the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge December 9. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Standing before a group of pollinator enthusiasts at City Hall and wearing stylish Monarch butterfly wing earrings, Mayor Taylor shared the proclamation that commits our city to adopting all 24 recommended actions cited by the NWF in their nationwide initiative known as the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement.

That high bar means San Antonio can expect more citizen science projects, a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, more pollinator-friendly landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules, and my personal favorite–a butterfly festival.  Insecta Fiesta, anyone?

We’re talking changes in building codes, recommendations for landscaping by the City’s Sustainability Office and increased grassroots activities like city-sanctioned native plant sales and seed exchanges.

Doug Melnick, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of San Antonio, said the Mayor’s Pledge is not “just talk.” It will bring about real change. “This will positively impact how we manage city-owned land,” he said.

Antelope horns

Antelope horns milkweed for San Antonio’s “inferno strips”?   GREAT IDEA!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I hope to see a citywide conversion of useless streetside inferno strips to Antelope horns milkweed,” said another city staffer who works for our award-winning water utility, SAWS.  The staff person referred to the overheated and challenging-to-landscape swatch of land found between a city sidewalk and the street.   SAWS has done much to raise awareness of native, pollinator-friendly plants through its GardenStyleSA website and WaterSaver coupons that offer rebates to those who replace water-guzzling  turf with native plants.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Melnick.  The City is currently developing three plans under the umbrella of SA Tomorrow: Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Strategic Multi-Modal plans. “We have a great opportunity to further the protection of Monarch butterfly habitats and enhance our biodiversity by incorporating these key strategies into our plans, which will provide a framework for growth through 2040,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads the proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group. In fact, after Mayor Taylor signed the Pledge on Monday, Dec. 7, NWF had to arrange a quick conference call to come up with a new category of support: Monarch Champion. “No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” said Barnett.

To date, 46 cities have signed up for the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

Seven cities including Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis signed the Pledge and agreed to adopt eight or more of the 24 items to join the “leadership circle” of Monarch Mayors. Another 38 cities agreed to do three of the items. Only San Antonio agreed to 24 of 24. See the full list.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through the “Texas funnel”  coming and going to Mexico.  Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

As those of you that read the Texas Butterfly Ranch well know, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically–by 80% from the 21-year average across North America, according to the pollinator advocacy organization the Xerces Society.  Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

All that focus on Monarchs and pollinators has made San Antonio’s long commitment to pollinator advocacy ripe for the Pledge.

Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota.   Local MLMP volunteers have meticulously inventoried natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarchs and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

Tagged Monarch

Many of us tag Monarch butterflies as citizen scientists for Monarch Watch.  This one was raised and tagged in the Lavaca neighborhood  in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status.  Combine that with our unique geographic location, special relationship with Mexico (the winter home to the mariposa monarca), the work of SAWS and San Antonio River Authority (SARA)  on the Museum and Mission Reach restorations with our passionate volunteers and grass roots efforts,   and San Antonio looks ideally suited to live up to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

UTSA students milkweed survey

University of Texas at San Antonio students conduct research for a statewide milkweed survey. Photo courtesy UTSA

For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign up. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as the weekend before its signing that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

In addition to the NWF reccomendations, Mayor Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.  Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. Our pollinator posse will bring shovels, spades, native milkweeds and nectar plants to help make it happen.

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Time to harvest seeds, make (small) seedballs for next year’s wildflowers

We haven’t had a freeze in San Antonio yet, but my plants are looking pretty raggedy, which makes me want to get out and gather seeds.

That’s good news because now’s the time to harvest wildflower seeds and get them in the ground for next year.  Most wildflower seeds from our part of the world appreciate being planted in the fall so they can settle in, have a chance to scarify their outer crust and find their way into the soil to eventually put out roots and chutes to become next year’s round of wildflowers.

You can gather and distribute seeds directly onto the soil.  Or, you can make seedballs, a fun, interesting and unusual way to use up surplus seeds and spread the wildflower wealth around.

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Gardeners including me report mixed success with seedballs.   I’ve had some seedballs result in lovely wildflower patches; others just melted into the earth.  Professional landscapers and  ecological restorationists also have mixed opinions about seedballs.

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center I told us that for large-scale restoration projects, the success rate of seedballs is too low–mostly because assuring the seeds get enough soil contact to germinate once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition.   For those of us who can personally monitor our seedballs, that’s usually not an issue.

Seedball

Seedball properly tossed.  Make sure it has maximum contact with the soil and doesn’t have to compete with grass.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Emily Neiman at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggests that when it comes to seedballs, size does matter.

“From my experience, most people make them too big and it takes forever to break down and sprout,” she shared via email.  “No bigger than size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seedball,” said Neiman.

At my house, we just like to play in the dirt and typically celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.

I’m not that scientific about it. We’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact. Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper. The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
  ****
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

It’s mid November and Monarch butterflies continue to visit my San Antonio pollinator garden.  Lighting on Cowpen daisy, Duranta, Gregg’s Purple mist flower and several kinds of milkweed, the butterflies have extended their visits long past their usual late October stay.

Monarch on duranta

Nov. 12,. 2015: Monarchs still visiting my San Antonio garden, this one on Duranta. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we don’t sometimes have Monarchs visiting this late in the season. We do.  In fact, we’ve had many questions from folks up north about what to do with late hatching Monarchs when the weather turns cold. A previous post addresses that. But I don’t ever recall having this many Monarch butterflies this late, and so consistently.

“Yesterday, I saw hundreds of Monarchs in Austin,” wrote John Barr of Native Cottage Gardens in Austin on November 1 in a post to the DPLEX list, the old school email listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly enthusiasts.  ” I saw more Monarchs in 30 minutes than I’ve seen all year. Bright, fresh, long-winged migrating Monarchs of both sexes.”

Monarchs were even spotted recently as far north as Lake Erie, according to Darlene Burgess of Point Pelee, Leamington, Ontario. “There are still Monarchs being seen in Ontario on Lake Erie’s north shore. This week’s warm temps up to 70° should get them south across the lake,” she wrote November 2 on the DPLEX list.

lateseasonblooms

Late season blooms continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators to my urban San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Natural Gardener in Austin, which stocks several kinds of native milkweeds, said they’ve had a steady stream of Monarchs visiting as well. “They LOVE the Duranta,” said Curt Alston, buyer for the organic nursery. Alston added that he has plenty of caterpillars and chyrsalises on the native milkweeds, and that adult Monarchs are still breezing through the aisles.

What gives?

Climate change.  September 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history.  October ranked the fourth hottest.  Overall, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, says the New York Times.

Warmer temps mean extended growing seasons.  Plants that typically wouldn’t thrive when fall arrives will continue to grow and bloom, creating more nectar for migrating Monarchs, and in some cases, host plant.

Increased temperatures also mean that Monarch butterflies will likely break their diapause–that is, their asexual state of resisting reproductive activities so as to conserve energy for migrating to Mexico.   Once Monarchs reproduce, they don’t migrate.

winter breeding map

Breaking diapause increases the chances of more year-round Monarch butterfly colonies. Map via Monarch Joint Venture

“We’ve got to get used to the late Octobers and Novembers as part of our future,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist tagging program operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Taylor predicts that a larger proportion of these late Monarchs will be unable to maintain their diapause and become reproductive.  “Their hormones work on the basis of temperature.  It’s very delicate and complicated,” he said via phone.  “The warmer it is, the more likely it is the Monarch will not be able to maintain a diapause.”

Hmm.  So where does that leave butterfly gardeners?  Should we encourage egg laying with native or clean Tropical milkweed, or just let all those good eggs go to waste?

curassavica

Tropical milkweed: cut it to the ground in the fall to prevent build-up of OE spores. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Research from scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer out of the University of Georgia indicates that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known as OE in Monarch butterfly circles.  Since OE spores transfer via physical contact between creatures or the plants on which they rest or eat, having year-round milkweed which is visited repeatedly by Monarchs and other butterflies creates a hotbed of these nasty spores and spreads the disease.

Satterfield, et al, suggest hard-to-find native milkweeds should be planted rather than the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, which is widely available and easy to grow.  Best practice dictates close management of Tropical milkweed.   Cut it to the ground late in the season so OE spores don’t build up and infect migrating Monarchs.

Cowpen daisy

Cowpen daisy: Monarch and pollinator favorite and blooms into fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But what about all the other plants that Monarchs frequent?  In my yard, the native Swamp milkweed continues to thrive and various nectar sources have been repeatedly visited by Monarchs and other butterflies since April.  As the Natural Gardener’s Curt Alston said above, Monarchs are loving the lush, purple bloom of Duranta that laces my fence perimeter.  They also repeatedly visit my golden-yellow, late season Cowpen daisies.

Wouldn’t these plants also host the same debilitating OE spores so closely associated with late season Tropical milkweed after so many return visits from Monarchs?   Should we cut those plants down as well, to avoid infecting visiting flyers?

Scientists, what say you?

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