Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  ”We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  ”All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed as White House Adds First Pollinator Garden

Congratulations, pollinator advocates!   Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama added a “first-ever pollinator garden,” including two types of milkweed and dozens of flowering nectar plants, to the White House Kitchen Garden.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama Blog

On April 2, during its spring installation, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to the 1500-square-foot garden.  The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.

Swamp milkweed

Coming soon to the first ever pollinator garden at the White House: Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her remarks to the 25 school children assisting in the planting, Mrs. Obama explained  she was adding flowering inedible plants to the vegetable garden because she wants to “help bees and butterflies.”  Until now, herbs and vegetables have occupied all 34 of the garden’s beds since it was first planted in 2009. 

“A pollinator garden helps to encourage the production of bees and Monarch butterflies.  They pollinate the plants, they help the plants grow,” said the First Lady.  ”They’re dying because of disease–we don’t even know why some beehives are just totally disappearing.”

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, will be growing soon at the White House Pollinator Garden. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The loss of the insects “could be a problem for the planet because if you don’t have insects and great pollinators to pollinate the plants, it could affect our food source, it could affect our ability to continue to grow things,” Mrs. Obama explained.

“So this garden is going to help to contribute to improving that problem,” she said.  “Pretty cool, huh?”

VERY cool.

The addition of milkweed to this symbolic presidential garden must be viewed as a small victory for pollinator advocacy.

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.

On February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, met in Toluca, Mexico to discuss weighty matters of state–border security, economic issues, energy issues, and  immigration.  By the end of the day, they had also agreed to work together to try and save the Monarch butterfly migration, which binds all three countries through the magnificent insects’ North American migration.

Now here we are only seven weeks later–enough time for a Monarch butterfly egg to move through its five instars, form a chrysalis and hatch into a butterfly–and milkweed has been added to the White House garden.   

Coincidence?   We think not.

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House
We did it!  First Lady Michelle Obama added milkweed to the White House kitchen garden, creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week.

What happened in between is a testament to what is possible when individuals and citizen scientists take action.   As written here previously, the NAFTA gathering galvanized awareness of pollinator decline.  

Two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance  and wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter.

Facebook pages were created, petitions launched (including one by the Texas Butterfly Ranch–thanks to all 508 of you who signed!) and organizations as diverse as the NRDC, the Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project –even Monsanto expressed commitments to help.

Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem and this small garden cultivates attention at the highest level.  This is progress, pollinator peeps.   Let’s keep pushing.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Seedballs this Saturday

This Saturday at 11:11 AM, the sun will move directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and we’ll experience the official start of winter–the December solstice. The sun will set on Saturday at 5:40 PM, clocking only 10 hours and 15 minutes (and 35 seconds if you’re counting) of daylight.  This starts the march toward spring and marks the longest  night and shortest day of the year.

Earth

Get ready for a long night this SAturday, December 21.  It’s the winter solstice.  Photo via NASA

In 2012, millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists bought into the false notion that the world would end on the day of the winter solstice.  A false reading of the Mayan calendar accounted for the madness.   And here we are again, noting the first day of winter and the march toward spring.

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

At my house we choose to 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.

What are seedballs?

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.

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

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

sand.  I’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.

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

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.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011′s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

Our first Milkweed Guide posted back in the fall of 2010 and has continued to be one of our most-read blogposts.   With spring here and butterfly gardeners chomping at the bit to create host and nectar habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies, it’s a good time to talk milkweed choices and availability.

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Much has changed since that 2010 post.  A three-year, drought-induced emphasis on native, drought-hearty plants has created a greater demand for native milkweeds. That said, supply continues to be lacking.

Monarch Watch recently launched its Milkweed Market on its homepage, a virtual marketplace of native milkweed seed.    When you click on the vendors, though, most species are not available.

Monarch Watch, The Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization, and the Native Plant Society have all engaged in milkweed restoration initiatives.    This is good news, but it will take time to develop the market commercially.

Those of us who have attempted cultivation of native milkweeds from seed in our home gardens have often met frustration and failure.   The very traits that make native plants so hardy also often make them extremely particular about their soil, drainage, moisture and available light.  As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed Co. in Junction, Texas told me:  ”These milkweeds have a mind of their own.”

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plugs for native milkweeds are practically impossible to find in nurseries and because of their extremely long tap roots, transplanting them successfully often fails.   Texas longterm drought has sparked a broader interest in native plants, so the availability of milkweeds and other “from here” pollinator plants will continue to grow.

For now, though, planting from seed is the most viable option.  If you can collect your own seed in the wild, go for it.  Native milkweed seed is expensive–as it should be.  When you realize what it takes to produce the seed, you won’t begrudge its price tag.  Read that saga here.

Since the time to take cuttings and collect seed will soon be upon us, we offer guidance below, based on personal experience.  Other appropriate milkweeds are suggested in this article by the Native Plant Society.  Keep an eye out for your local botanical garden or native seed society’s pop-up plant sales to score some proven homegrown natives.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

The most common native milkweed in these parts has fuzzy leaves and an odd greenish-white bloom and can stand two-feet tall.  During dry spring seasons, the hearty perennial is sometimes the ONLY plant blooming.  Last year in Central Texas when we had an exceptionally wet winter, the Antelope Horns were not as pervasive as you would think.   Too much moisture and too much competition from less hardy plants kept these guys laying low. 

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011,    photo by Monika Maeckle

Antelope horns is especially appropriate for wildscapes, ranches, and large plantings.  It can best be propagated by seed, which is available commercially from native seed suppliers.  

Be mindful that stratification is recommended for successful germination.   According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Antelope horns can also be propagated from root cuttings taken in the spring.  If you have it growing in nearby fields, ranches or wildscapes, you might give this a try.  If you choose to plant seeds you’ve gathered yourself, collect those in June.  

Typically 30 – 45 days of stratification will be required before installing in moist soil.  See our post on how to get Antelope Horns milkweed to germinate, courtesy of Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas.

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

This common native milkweed in our area is sometimes called Green Antelope Horn Milkweed or Green Mlikweed and is the most common milkweed in the state of Texas.   The Edwards Plateau is the western reach of its range, which starts in East Texas.

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

I have a single one of these plants growing under a porch at the ranch.   The solitary bloomer never receives supplementary water and barely enjoys rain, given its location tucked under a breezeway.

Yet every year it pushes out a batch of blooms and seedpods, peeking from under the  deck, reaching for the sun.   Those of us who raise Monarch caterpillars like the fact that Green milkweed has larger leaves than other available milkweed, which makes feeding voracious caterpillars a bit easier.

Green milkweed can range from one-three feet in height and is best propagated by seed which is commercially available.  Like Antelope Horns, it sports showy whiteish-green globes of flowers that attract Monarchs as a host, and huge bees and other butterflies for its nectar.

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

Another excellent native milkweed for our area is Swamp Milkweed, a lovely pink bloomer that sports lush pink flowers in August and blooms through September.

Swamp milkweed grows along rivers and streams and is an excellent choice for riverbanks in the Hill Country or perhaps in an area where you have air conditioning condensate draining.  Spiders LOVE this plant.  I have witnessed “death in the afternoon” more often than I care to remember: Monarch butterflies snagged by orb weaver spiders as they perch on Swamp Milkweed leaves, in search of an easy feast.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve had this milkweed growing along the banks and on the Chigger Islands of our Llano River ranch, but recent, prolonged drought has taken a severe toll, lowering our water table so much that much Swamp milkweed has died.

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bushy orange bloomer is often confused for Tropical Milkweed (see below) and is frequently mislabeled at nurseries.  One of the best ways to tell if a milkweed in question is tuberosa is to break off a leaf and see if  milky latex pours out.  If it doesn’t, then it’s Butterfly Weed.

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, is a great nectar plant for Monarchs and other butterflies. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Detractors of Butterfly Weed point out that it doesn’t contain the toxic cardenolides that protect Monarchs from predators, thus should be avoided.   The toxins, contained in the latex of  most milkweed species, give the Monarch its bright warning colors and bad taste that deters predators.

The 18-inch-tall perennial serves as a fantastic nectar plant.  Its abundant orange blooms attract all kinds of butterflies.   If you’re trying to stick with natives, choose this one to grace your butterfly garden.

Butterfly weed can sometimes be found locally at nurseries. The plant is propagated easily from seeds and cuttings and blooms through the Fall, when nectar sources are wanting.

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed is not native, but it is widely available at garden centers in one-gallon pots and it also germinates easily from seed and cuttings. As much as I support native plants, this is my favorite Monarch host plant.  It’s easy to grow, not a water hog, propagates easily from seeds and cuttings, blooms prolifically and draws Monarchs like a magnet.  Commercial butterfly breeders and even organizations like Monarch Watch rely on Tropical milkweed to raise butterflies in captivity.

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies.  Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The plant can be controversial for native plant purists and some scientists.   Theories abound on the appropriateness–or not–of Tropical milkweed in Central and South Texas.

The plant originated in Central America and has gradually moved north.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, points out that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

In my completely unscientific kitchen experiments, I’ve noticed that Monarch caterpillars PREFER Tropical milkweed. When offered a choice of Tropical milkweed, Swamp Milkweed or Antelope horns, Monarch caterpillars inevitably choose Tropical milkweed.

Studies show that the toxins in Tropical Milkweed inoculate Monarch moms and their young. While it can be challenging to find Tropical milkweed in the Fall when Monarchs are moving through Texas, it’s easy to cut back your spring plants to encourage new growth for migrating visitors.   My butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens in Manatee, Florida, says you can cut any six-inch stalk of Tropical milkweed in a potting soil and vermiculite mix, and have new plants in no time.    You can also order seeds or harvest them yourself from fellow gardeners.

NOTE:  If you choose to plant Tropical milkweed, best practice suggests slashing it to the ground in late fall or early winter.   It will push out new shoots as the weather warms. This  will discourage overwintering of organisms possibly harmful to Monarchs.

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine, lovely addition to the garden!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While Milkweed vine is in the Asclepias family, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Monarchs and Queens use this vine as a host plant. It grows in the wild in the Texas Hill Country.

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

I include it today because it is an absolutely delightful plant with its heart-shaped leaves, perfect green symmetrical flowers, and a lovely, intriguing pearl-like dot in the middle. Someone needs to make earrings out of these flowers.

In the Fall, Milkweed vine produces huge seed pods, about three times the size of Tropical milkweed.  The plant climbs and curls for six – 12 feet and is sometimes called Green milkweed vine, Net vein milkvine, and Netted milkvine.

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Persnickety Texas Milkweeds “May not Lend Themselves to Mass Seed Production”

Native American Seed Company is on a mission to restore the earth, one native seed at a time.

The 300-acre spread about 115 miles west of San Antonio on the banks of the Llano River just northeast of Junction, Texas, boasts 75 acres of native plants in production

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

Antelope horns milkweed pods last June at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas.                Photo courtesy Native American Seed

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

The company’s nondescript cedar post gate opens onto a caliche drive that winds through classic Hill Country mesquite, agarita and sotol, then spills into planted rows of huisache daisy, standing cypress, gayfeather, American blanketflower and other native wildflowers and grasses.   Water pumped from the nearby Llano River maintains the verdant fields, and allows the company to grow, harvest, process, package and ship more than 170 species of native seed and 30 seed mixes nationwide.

Antelope Horns milkweed

Antelope Horns milkweed last June, after well-timed and regular rains in early 2012. Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Among the seed stock, two native Texas milkweeds, Asclepias asperula, commonly known as Antelope horns, and Asclepias viridis, often called Green milkweed, have challenged the 25-year-old seed company’s experts.  The Monarch butterfly host plants are essential to the Monarch butterfly migration, which funnels south through the Texas Hill Country each fall.  Native milkweeds are famously difficult to propagate, even for professionals. “Species in Texas may not lend themselves to mass seed production,” said George Cates, chief “seed wrangler” at Native American Seed.

Native Texas milkweeds require stratification–cold and moisture to soften up their outer shells.   They need 45 days of moist conditions, specific soil conditions, and alternate wet and dry periods.   Worst thing you can do: overwater them.  (Check out Native American Seed’s Milkweed Stratification process at this post.)

Gardeners and butterfly fans committed in theory to propagating and planting native milkweeds (and I consider myself among them) have been vexed in practice by their persnickety ways.   That’s what often drives us to plant Tropical Milkweed, the nonnative Asclepias curassavica that is easy-to-grow, widely available and the favorite of Monarch butterflies for hosting and other butterflies for nectar. While the practice bothers some scientists and native plant purists, our rationale is that Monarch caterpillars need to eat.   In short, it’s better to provide SOME host plant for migrating Monarchs than NONE as they pass through Texas.

George Cates

George Cates stands in a field of future Antelope Horns in April. Nothing sprouting yet. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native American Seed and the Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting invertebrates and their habitats, hope to change all that.

In 2010, the Xerces Society approached the 18-person staff of the Native American Seed Company about establishing a partnership to restore native milkweeds to the American landscape.  Xerces had recieved a $117,000 conservation innovation grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.   “We call it the ‘milkweed CIG,’” said Brianna Borders, project manager for the undertaking, since renamed Project Milkweed.  A requirement of the grant was that the recipients match the sum by raising an equal amount.

Project Milkweed identified several U.S. regions for milkweed seed production–California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. “Texas was a clear choice, arguably the most important state to the Monarch migration,” said Borders.  The $334,000 was pretty much divied up equally between the areas, she said.

xerceslogo

Native American Seed was an ideal candidate for the project, said Borders, because of the company’s long involvement in native seed production and its opportune location on the Monarch flyway.  Founder Bill Nieman, a high school dropout who turned a trash hauling business into a successful landscaping and design firm and then into Native American Seed, has a long history as a conservationist. The company’s mission aligned perfectly with the task.

The company’s 100-page catalogue practically serves as a free native plant guide. The vivid and abundant photography, renderings of how seeds look when they sprout, and descriptive verbiage describing each plant’s soil type, sunlight needs, and other traits

Irrigating at Native American Seed

Native American Seed will use its full irrigation alltoment from the Llano River to produce native seeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

offer a broad overview of the life cycle of many plants native to the U.S.   Especially entertaining is Nieman’s annual introductory letter in which he tackles topical environmental issues–from invasive plants and water waste to wind power lines.

Results for the Mlikweed Project have been mixed so far.  The program launched just as Texas entered the ongoing historic drought.  In April 2011, the milkweeds didn’t flower or produce seed (which is expected, given they are perennials).  Borders said the first seed harvest last year (2012) was “pretty modest.”The 2,400 linear feet of native milkweeds  produced 1.5 pounds of seed, which, at an average of 65,000 seeds per pound, amounts to almost 100,000 seeds.  Of those 100,000 seeds, 95% have been restratified and replanted.

“We didn’t set a target for how much seed has been produced because there are so many unknowns,” said Borders.

Meanwhile, others have tackled the daunting task of producing milkweed plugs.  Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, launched a “Bring Back the Monarchs” milkweed restoration campaign back in 2010.  Last fall, the program got a second life here in Texas when it partnered with the Native Plant Society to recruit volunteers to gather native seed, then mail them to Kansas for cultivation there.

bring-back-the-monarchs

The milkweed restoration campaign previously used a Texas grower. Pat McNeal, of McNeal Growers in Manchaca, Texas, assumed those duties in 2012,  but said recently that Monarch Watch “had better success in Kansas where they have four real seasons.”

McNeal suggested that the best way to propagate Texas native milkweeds would be to cultivate the tubers for two years, then plant those in the fall.   “These milkweeds don’t adapt their schedules for us,” he said, adding that Texas native milkweeds don’t do well in containers.  The plants can have a two-meter long tap root making them difficult to transplant.  ”It’s like trying to grow a potato in a pot,” said McNeal.

Dr. Chip Taylor, who oversees the program, continued cultivation this year with a Kansas grower.  He said he anticipates that 25,000 native milkweed plugs will have been produced this spring.  All have been sold on preorder. Monarch Watch will soon set up  a “Milkweed Market” for retailers on its website so people can connect with growers in their area.

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

Cates points out root stock from 2012′s Antelope Horns milkweed crop, which has yet to sprout this year because of a lack of rain.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Native American Seed, the battle for Texas native milkweed seed plods on.  Cates assumes primary responsibility for their production.   He joined the company in 2003 as a student intern in ecological sciences at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  After graduating he came on fulltime in 2007.

On a windy Friday afternoon in April, Cates pointed to the dry landscape.  ”The grass hasn’t been green since 2010,” he said. With the Llano River flowing at an historic low, Cates mentioned the seed company will once again use its entire irrigation allotment, strategically watering wildflowers and native grasses, supplementing with a recently installed rainwater collection system.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Cates says voting for Tropical milkweed is a vote against native milkweeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A dry winter coupled with early, hot tempertures, watering restrictions on the Llano, and an unpredictable climate suggest months of hard work and frustration ahead for Cates.  But the difficulties haven’t dampened his zeal for restoring native plants with seeds.  ”A plant in the ground will produce 100x more seed than tubers,”  he said.  ”That’s where we’re at–we’re trying to grow a substantial amount of this seed material.”

Cates has little patience for Tropical milkweed, the easy answer for gardeners in the long haul of native plant restoration. “We’re all about having it right now,” said Cates.  “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’  It takes time.”

“Every time you vote for Tropical milkweed with your dollar, you vote against this,” he said, pointing to tidy, dry rows of future Antelope horns, which had yet to sprout this year.

Cates kneeled down and dug his fingers into the soil to find root stock from the 2012 milkweed crop. “Half of what we do fails, but that doesn’t make us stop.”

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Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s Not a Simple Question

Dara Satterfield SM

Dara Satterfield, PhD Candidate at the University of Georgia, is studying Monarch butterflies and OE. Courtesy photo

Graduate student Dara Satterfield came to town in late January for the second time in 12 months to take the pulse of the Monarch butterfly population at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch.  There, dozens of Tropical milkweed plants play year round host to Monarch butterflies.   Satterfield works closely with local volunteers like Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program, to monitor milkweed patches far and wide for egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly action that might shed light on the state of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed. But is it appropriate to plant it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Satterfield, like other scientists, believes the increased availability of  Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed, coupled with our warmer winters, may have an unhealthy impact on Monarch butterflies and their migration.   The science is undetermined on that question.

A native of  Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield attends the University of Georgia where she is a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife.  Monarchs are her species focus.  Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE. The unpronouceable protozoan disease infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, often resulting in butterfly crippling or death.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield checks Monarch butterflies at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for OE.           Photo by Monika Maeckle

As winters get warmer, Asclepias curassavica, the only milkweed species commercially available, is less likely to die back in winter. Some scientists hypothesize that A. curassavica entices Monarchs to forego migration and winter in the U.S. This could create an unhealthy hotbed of lingering OE spores for caterpillars and butterflies that remain in the local area.   Since the spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect and breed with populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

The situation exacerbates an already serious decline in the Monarch migration.  Drought, genetically modified crops, late summer wildfires, and generally inhospitable conditions pose multiple threats to Monarchs and their migration.   It’s likely that 2012 will be the worst year, numbers wise, in Monarch butterfly migration history since records have been kept.

“Monarchs are famous for this migration so when we see what appears to be a break in their migratory pattern, we want to know why and what the implications are,” said Satterfield.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

But butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in the general population and becoming a threat only under stressed circumstances. Organizations like the International Butterfly Breeders Association promote best practices for limiting OE in captive environments through education of its membership and seminars on managing and limiting its presence.  And yet others believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

For butterfly hobbyists and gardeners, the “curassavica question” presents a quandary:  should we be planting Tropical milkweed or not?

“This is a very sensitive subject in the Monarch world,”  said Satterfield.   “We just don’t have the data right now.” It will take three or four more years to complete Satterfield’s research.   She advises that natives are always better–which is true, IF you can find them and meet their persnickety growing needs.   Organizations like Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society‘s have launched milkweed restoration campaigns, but wide availability of native stock is still a dream.

If you DO plant curassavica, many scientists suggest cutting it to the ground in winter–unless yours is a research site like the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Scientists encouraged the City of San Antonio and San Antonio River Authority to leave our milkweed patch alone as an experiment.   Interestingly, the San Antonio patch brags a lower incidence of OE (15%) than in other monitoring sites observed (47%) by the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.   The 47% figure is SIX TIMES the rate of OE in Monarchs that migrate to Mexico.

Satterfield suggested that a deluge of milkweed beetles at the Patch this winter decimated not only the foliage, but OE spores.  The hungry orange-and-black bugs pruned much of the diseased growth, creating a better balance for the butterflies. Apparently Mother Nature has her own way of managing the OE problem.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Mother Nature on the case: Milkweed beetles defoliated the Milkweed Patch last spring, cleaning out OE spores in the process. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“This may have removed any OE spores on the milkweed plants, which probably helped to keep the prevalence of OE low this year,” said Satterfield. She added that since our Milkweed Patch is further inland and enjoys cooler temperatures than coastal situations in Houston and Florida, the Monarch population was lower and perhaps more hearty.

In the meantime, gardeners are left to make their own calls.   Is it better to have a questionable milkweed source in your yard to provide Monarchs with nectar and host plant, or not?  

Let’s see: Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, widely available, prolific bloomer, favorite host plant for Monarchs and a great nectar source for all butterflies.   I know where I come down on that.   You’ll see Tropical milkweed in my yard.   But I’ll be sure to keep it out of wildscapes and ranch situations, and slash it to the ground in the winter.  

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Catalina Trail, Dr. Chip Taylor, Black Witch Moths, Tomato Hornworms and IMAX Movie make Top Posts of 2012

What were the most-read stories at the Texas Butterfly Ranch this year?  Beyond the homepage and the “about us” tab, these were the most widely read posts over the past 12 months.  Take a look and happy holidays to you.

#1  Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites, Lives a Quiet Life in Austin

Our most-read blogpost written in 2012 is the story of Catalina Trail, a lovely, quiet woman who ‘s role in Monarch butterfly natural history was relatively uncelebrated until

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

recently.    We consider it a privilege to have made her acquaintance and found a friend in Catalina this year.    She lives just 75 miles up the road in Austin, Texas.

#2   The Intriguing Black Witch Moth, Large, Batlike and Harmless

This enormous dark, batlike moth loves to rest under eaves and around doorways, a habit that results in quite a “startle factor” when flushed, as explained by our friend and

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

entomologist Mike Quinn.  The drought seems to have helped the moth’s population grow and extended its migration, making it more common than usual this year.

#4 Desperately Seeking Milkweed:  Monarch Butterflies Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

This post created a bit of a stir, as it called out a local nursery for selling chemical laced milkweed to a friend who was feeding hundreds of Monarch caterpillars.   Read on

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

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

for tips on determining if milkweed bought from local nurseries is riddled with systemic pesticides that spell death for Monarch caterpillars.

#4  Tomato Hornworms, Loathed by Gardeners, Morph into the Magnificent Sphinx Moth

Gardeners often can’t tolerate the tomato hornworm, which appears in early summer and decimates those heirloom and cherry hybrids so painstakingly tended.   But the chubby

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tomato Hornworm on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

green “worm” is actually a caterpillar that morphs into a gorgeous pink-and-black moth that hovers and dances much like a hummingbird.

#5  Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor

It was a butterfly evangelist’s fantasy come true, to tag Monarch butterflies with one of the foremost experts on Monarchs on the planet, Dr. Chip “Orly” Taylor, founder of

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that has been a fixture of my autumn each year.   Read about my kidnapping Dr. Taylor from a conference in Kerrville for a quick trip to our Llano River ranch to take the pulse of the 2012 migration in  October.

#6   FAQ:  Is it OK to Move a Monarch Chrysalis?

This post gets a lot of action when folks find a lonely Monarch or other butterfly chrysalis in an inopportune spot.    We frequently are asked if it’s ok, and if so, how to relocate the

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Sure it’s ok to move chrysalises to a safer spot. Photo by Monika Maeckle

chrysalis to a safer, perhaps more welcoming place.  Here’s tips on how to do it.

#7 IMAX Film Might be as Good As it Gets for Monarch Butterflies 

The fabulous IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, opened in September, just as we were anticipating the Monarch migration.    All the hubbub surrounding the film’s debut made it seem that the 3D footage assembled by SK Films might be as good as it could possibly

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan –Photo courtesy SK Films

get for Monarchs this year–and that is likely the case.   Monarchs may have had their worst year yet, numbers-wise.  Texas Butterfly Ranch later reviewed the film in this post.

Other favorite posts that were written in years past:

Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter out of Valdimir Nabokov

I continue to be perplexed why this post consistently ranks as one of the most read in Texas Butterfly Ranch history.  Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

Milkweed Guide:  Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies

This plant guide for Texas milkweeds has been a perpetual most-viewed post since it was published in November of 2010.   Time for us to update it, which we hope to do soon.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

Antelope Horns Milkweed is a great choice for Texas gardens and wildlscapes.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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First Frost Often Means the End for Late Season Caterpillars, and a Next Chapter for the Intriguing Frostweed Wildflower

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.

Frostweed

Frostweed spills its guts on first frost creating a beautiful ice sculpture. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower 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?

Frostweed

Frostweed is a magnet for Monarch and other butterflies in the fall, a reliable late season nectar source.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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.

Frostweed ice sculpture

Frostweed ice ribbons are always a nice surprise. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

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.

Frostweed Seed

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

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.

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