Happy Pollinator Week! Unpaid Workers of Our Food Web Deserve Respect and Resources

Monday kicks off Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of those that make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible.

Bee on sunflower

Bees are the master pollinators and keep our food affordable. Photo courtesy FWS/Cristina De La Garza

Yes, that’s correct:   birds, butterflies, beetles, bats, and moths make our food happen.  Were it not for the free ecosystem services provided by these creatures, food would cost much more and many would go hungry.

Just like our underpaid food service industry workers whose minimum wages don’t aptly reflect their contribution to society, pollinators get little respect.  That’s changing.  But in the meantime, since we pay them nothing for their valuable services, can we at least make a greater effort to understand, appreciate and support pollinators?

pw15logoFINALbThat’s the goal of Pollinator Week, organized by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of pollinators and their ecosystems. The week-long event seeks to call attention to these valued members of our food web through activities, outreach and education.

Pollinators have been making news lately.  Just last month, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document that lays out a plan to reverse the disturbing trend of pollinator decline.  It results from the work of a Pollinator Task Force established by the President last June.

The strategy document reflects grave concern and a serious attempt to address these depressing  facts:  Bee populations plummeted 40% last year.  The magnificent Monarch butterfly migration is at risk, since the butterflies’ numbers have dropped 90% in recent years from their high in the 90s.  The butterfly is being considered for listing as  “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  Bats populations have also taken a deep dive, and they’re fighting a strange malady called white-nose syndrome.   All pollinators face massive habitat destruction, climate change, pesticide abuse and  agricultural and developement practices that don’t support their existence.

Obama

Thanks, Obama! For making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Of the 100+ official Pollinator Week events listed on the Pollinator Partnership website, Texas lists seven–with no official events in San Antonio or Austin.   I’m embarrassed.  Next year, people, we will have our own events.  (NOTE:  Stay tuned for details on our Malt, Hops and Moths event at the Alamo Brewery, July 23, which will celebrate National Moth Week!)

Unofficially, though, several local organizations are staging events that happen to celebrate pollinators during Pollinator Week.  Here they are.

Butterfly Count at San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Hardberger Park

Get your citizen scientist on with Patty Leslie Pastzor, San Antonio’s local denizen of native plants.  Pastzor has organized a butterfly census as part of the official North American Butterfly Association count, Monday, June 15, and Thursday, June 18.

Cowpen Daisy is a butterfly magnet and easy to grow

Help count butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association and learn about native plants at the same time with Patty Leslie Pastzor this week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The outings include hikes centered around identifying and collecting data on San Antonio area butterflies. The June 15 event takes place at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  On Thursday morning volunteers will gather at Phil Hardberger Park. A $3 fee applies to register your data. Wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. For more info or to RSVP, contact Pastzor at 210.837.0577 or email agarita@me.com.

Pollinator Talk at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

As part of their Nature Nights series, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center will host a pollinator overview Thursday, June 18, 6 – 9 PM.  The event is FREE. Bat Conservation International, Travis Audubon Society and the Austin Butterfly Forum will pitch in to explain the importance of pollinators in our food chain.

bats

Did you know that bats pollinate agaves, which makes Tequila possible? Photo via Bat Conservation International

Wildflowers and Whiskey Sours at Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

Judit Green, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and plant expert, will offer a tour and conversation during a plant walk through the wildflower bounty at the 60-acre Herff Farm in Boerne, Thursday, June 18. “Adult beverages” provided, as well as drinks for the kids.   6:30 -8:30 PM,  $10.  830.249.4616 for more info.

Further afield, the following are official “Pollinator Week” events.

Pollinator Week at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo has an entire week of pollinator festivities planned.   Tuesday-birds, Wednesday-butterflies and bats, Thursday-dragonflies, and Friday-pollinator habitat.   Plant giveaways and story time are also part of the programming.   Events start at various times and are FREE with your $5 vehicle entry fee. See the Santa Ana NWR Facebook page for details.

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce.  Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce. Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Pollinator Workshop at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Ft. Davis, Texas

Pollinator expert Cynthia McAllister of Sul Ross State University will lead a pollinator workshop June 20.  It starts indoors with a presentation/overview of the importance of pollinators, then moves outside for a tour of the pollinator garden with close-up binoculars to get a bee’s eye view of the pollination process.  10 AM – noon, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center Visitor Center.  FREE.

For more Pollinator Week events and to learn what you can do to help foster their livelihoods, check out the Pollinator Partnership website.
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Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

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

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website Texasinvasives.org, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?

austinjohnsoneeggrass

Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

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Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

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.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  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, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

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 deluge 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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Coming soon: LIVE from the Mariposario, Dispatches from my Butterfly House

Almost four years ago our family began its own amazing multi-generation migration:  we moved from the homestead where we raised our two sons in a protected enclave of San Antonio to a downsized contemporary compound in unruly downtown.

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Alamo Heights home had a beautiful half-acre lot with a magnificent butterfly garden that took years to nurture.  It was sad to see the new owners rip out its specimen native plants and return it to its former state as a St. Augustine lawn.  Part of the trade-off of making the traumatic move was that someday I would have a new wildlife garden and my own space to rear caterpillars and native plants, as well as a home more suited to our empty nest lifestyle.  I’m glad to say that day is here.

On top of that, we needed a place for my 93-year-old father and 82-year-old mother.  After researching the exorbitant costs of assisted living, John and Hilde Maeckle agreed to leave their tract home on the north side of San Antonio and join us at the family compound we now call Arsenal.

frontyardrendering

Rendering: Front yard vision, drawn sometime in 2013. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

We sold our house in 78209 and bought an empty lot in 78204, just a block from the San Antonio River across from HEB world headquarters at the historic San Antonio Arsenal, a limestone compound that housed munitions for wars from the Confederacy through World War II.  Then we began the arduous process of building a house–actually, two of them–from the ground up.

Our son, Nicolas Rivard, had just graduated from the University of Texas architecture school.  Since we needed someone to design our future two-home complex, we figured, naively:  how could we NOT use our own son as the architect?  It’s amusing, gratifying and sometimes aggravating to see how the reality has departed from the vision Nicolas and our family imagined.

Front yard garden

Reality:  Our front yard downtown garden, April 2015. Watch this space! Photo by Monika Maeckle

The design-build process began in late 2011.  The tight, alley-lined lot in downtown San Antonio created special challenges of staging and parking.   A newbie architect and unusual design and materials made for slow progress.  The public living area of our home is crafted from compressed earth block–that is, bricks made from soil.  The extraordinary building material created its own obstacles, but ultimately was worth it.  The place has the vibe of an ancient mission.

And then good fortune threw us a wild card.  Nicolas was accepted to graduate school at Harvard, then to an amazing fellowship in Rwanda.  For two-and-a-half years, these exceptional learning opportunities took him far from home and the project we had started.   It forced us to make many decisions via Skype and email rather than in-person and on site.  We made many mistakes.

Rendering:  backyard butterfly garden.  Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Rendering: backyard butterfly garden. By Nicolas Rivard

But that was all part of the adventure, as were the twists of life and unanticipated turns in our careers. During this time, my husband and I both left our jobs and started a communications consulting firm, The Arsenal Group. We launched a local news website, The Rivard Report. None of these career moves were planned when we launched the complex construction of our new home.

I kept sane by continuing to pursue my outdoor passions and working on this website, the Texas Butterfly Ranch. More change erupted as I rejoined, then left, the full-time workforce, only to return to consulting again. Meanwhile, our other son, Alexander, returned from a two-year job in Boston where he learned how to cook, and Nicolas also came home to roost–just as the home he had imagined in blueprint was nearing completion.

Backyard garden with screened porch

Reality: screened porch, rain garden, butterfly habitat coming soon. WATCH THIS SPACE.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First came the Casita for my parents. My father’s health continues to decline, and my mom, Oma, as we call her, holds down the fort.  She has been a trooper to endure this years-long building process while also caring full-time for Opa.

Next, we crafted our house–two structures divided by a lovely atrium and connected with a two-story screened-in porch. My parents made their move in March of 2013. We finally made the Arsenal home in November of 2014 even though it is still a partial construction site.  The final phase includes a car port and my much-anticipated Mariposario, or butterfly house.   (For those unaware, mariposa means butterfly in Spanish.)

Backyard garden

Backyard wildscape and butterfly garden has just been planted. That’s pecan shell mulch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years my husband has indulged my affinity for insects in the kitchen and living room. When we lived in Alamo Heights I would bring potted milkweeds in for prime placement near windows. When the caterpillars were about to go chrysalis, they would be elevated to the coffee table for prime viewing so we wouldn’t miss the moment, often toasting the occasion with a sip of wine.

More recently, while living in multiple rental apartments with little outdoor space, we’ve had caterpillars marching across the rug, Monarchs hatching on curtains, and even a Black Swallowtail forming its chrysalis on the electrical chord of my flatiron–25 feet from its host plant. A lesser man would have shut this down, but my husband, Bob Rivard, has been extremely patient. Thanks, honey!

Monarch chrysalis  on napkin

Not any more: Monarch chrysalis on napkin. Now my caterpillars will have their own place to go chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My Mariposario and new wildlife garden has made the long, circuitous, multi-generation trip worthwhile.   As we finish up the landscaping with help from Charles Bartlett and Albert del Rio of Green Haven Industries, I am FINALLY getting my own place to do my butterflying.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting photos and dispatches from the garden and my spanking new Mariposario–a fancy potting shed made literally from river rocks and hog panel.  Architects are not keen on showing a project when it’s not-quite-finished because often the photos don’t do their work justice.  I can’t resist offering a quick peek, though, as I know that fellow gardeners much appreciate how projects grow and evolve.   So here you go.

Mariposario April 2015

Mariposario: This is where the caterpillars will live. Can’t wait to install some milkweed and passion vine along the gabion wall of this final butterfly garden at our downtown home. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s almost done, and it’s quite special.  Our son chose gabion panels as the building material, a riff off the style fencing we used for our new home.  Made of metal, Texas river rocks, and hog panel, it creates privacy and security in an area of San Antonio riddled with vandalism and revelers.

This special place made of earth, rocks and metal will serve as a place for my tools, for my caterpillars, my family and for me. It joins our Llano River ranch and all wild spaces in between as the collective location of the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

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Pollinator Power on the River Walk: Garden Plot Transforms to Creature Haven

In my day job at CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country, I look out my window onto the glorious San Antonio River Walk.

CPS ENergy pollinator posse

CPS Energy Pollinator Posse, L- R: Stephanie Ockenfels, Sam Taylor, Vincent McDonald, Pamela Maris, Gwenn Young, Monika Maeckle Photo by Gary Chavez

When I joined the company last year, a homogenous, overgrown patch of iron plant, occupied the small, triangular garden that separates my office from the San Antonio River. My view includes locals mingling with tourists and badge-wearing conventioneers shuffling along the sidewalk en route to hotels or meetings under the shade of grand Bald Cypress trees. Until recently, not many insects or pollinators joined the party.

Pollinators CPS Energy

Pollinators and other creatures have gravitated to the small plot at CPS Energy. Photo by Vincent McDonald

When I accepted the position as director of integrated communications, I joked with friends that my not-so-secret agenda would be “pollinator corridors under power lines.”  I wasn’t kidding.   We’re working on that.

In the meantime, however, I wondered:   would it be possible to transform this small corner of the River Walk into a more interesting view for me and my colleagues while offering a more inviting habitat for local critters, especially pollinators?

CPS Energy pollinator garden

BEFORE: View from my office at CPS Energy. Iron plant on the River Walk. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The area sees mostly shade, which is why landscapers planted Aspidistra elatior.  Commonly known as iron plant, or cast iron plant, this well-adapted evergreen has a reputation for its resistance to neglect.   It thrives in shade and requires little water.

Flowers need sun and pollinators need flowers.  Dappled light finds its way to this plot in the mornings and cascades from the west in the afternoon. That’s enough for certain plants to flower.  If we chose our plants carefully, we might be able to lure butterflies or hummingbirds.   Hmmm.

CPS Energy pollinator garden

AFTER: Check out the new view!   Wildlife loves it, and so do we. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In January, volunteers from our corporate communications team joined me in a small “Pollinator Power” experiment.  A half-dozen willing workers gathered late one cool winter afternoon to tackle the transformation of the 120-square foot plot into a pollinator habitat.

We used my favorite low-tech method of clearing undesirable plants:   hand pulling (thank you, CPS Energy landscape crew!) followed by solarization, an environmentally friendly method for ridding soil of pests, pathogens and undesirable plants executed by my corp comm colleagues.

Polly the Pollinator Garden cat

Sorry, kitty. No milk, but would you settle for some milkweed? “Polly” the cat visits the CPS Energy pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On January 3, we laid six-10 layers of newspaper atop the soil after the CPS Energy landscape crew hand-pulled the iron plant.   We then watered the newspaper, applied four-six inches of compost and mulch, spreading it evenly.

Then, we waited.   Solar power does the rest.  By blocking light with the newspaper and mulch mix and using the sun’s energy to kill pathogens and weed seed, we prevent the growth and spread of undesirables.

About eight weeks later, we plugged in specific shade tolerant plants by simply carving a small hole into the mulch and newspaper with a shovel.  Plant choices were dictated by their appeal to pollinators as either host plants (where they lay their eggs) or nectar plants (which they use for fuel), and an ability to thrive in dappled sun.

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These are the plants we chose and why.

Turk’s Cap Malvaviscus arboreu

Hummingbirds love this shade tolerant member of the mallow family, which blooms red.

Milkweed Asclepias curassavica, Asclepias incarnata

Host plant to Monarch and Queen butterflies. These prolific bloomers work as nectar magnets for all butterflies.

Gregg’s Purple Mist flower Conoclinium greggii

 Male Queens crave this plant’s purple bloom, which provides them special nutrients that make them attractive to the lady butterflies.

Yellow Texas Columbine Aquilegia hinckleyana

Another hummingbird favorite, the delicate leaves of this shade tolerant plant cradle interesting yellow blooms.

Texas gold lantana Lantana urticoides

Excellent all-around nectar plant.  Hearty, drought tolerant, reliable bloomer in orange or yellow.

Cowpen Daisy  Verbesina encelioides

A personal favorite.   This member of the sunflower family blooms nonstop, works overtime as a nectar source and as a host to the Bordered Patch butterfly.

Jimsonweed Datura wrighti

Host plant to the Sphinx moth, the robust grower loves the heat, shows large white flowers in the evening, and has a fantastic fragrance.  The leaves smell like chocolate–but don’t eat them.  They cause hallucinations.

 

After planting, we watered each plant thoroughly and tossed a handful of slow-release fertilizer into the soil around the plant base.

In May, as the weather warmed, we developed a volunteer watering schedule, dubbed our “Pollinator Posse.” Several corporate communications staff agreed to water with a hose three times a week.

Pollinator ducks

A pair of Mallard ducks took up residence in the pollinator garden at CPS Energy. Photo by Lori Johnson

Several staff members commented that the 10-minute watering break in the dappled shade of the pollinator garden was “the most relaxing part of the day.”

In June, we sent off for our official Xerces Society sign, designating our plot as pollinator habitat, and now here we are in August, the most brutal month of the year, and the pollinator garden is thriving.

So far, we’ve witnessed visits from Queen and Sulphur butterflies, watched a black-chinned hummingbird sip from a Turk’s cap bloom, and enjoyed a pair of mallard ducks who built a temporary shelter in the garden.   A downtown kitty-cat visits from across the street at La Villita, the old Mexican market.  She lies in the shade and watches the pollinators busy themselves on the blooms.  Imagine what kind of wildlife is visiting when we’re not looking.

We’ve also had extended visits by a juvenile Golden-crowned Heron, who has decided the insects who’ve taken up residence in the garden make for tasty

Golden crowned heron

Young Golden-crowned Heron cherry picks the best bugs for a mid-morning snack from pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

morning snacks.  This bird was quite comfortable at our plot, lingering long enough for us to snap multiple photos.

I would offer that for those of us with a window view–and for passersby and nearby urban wildlife–our pollinator power experiment has been a success.

We haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies.  Yet.   But we’re keeping our fingers crossed as the fall migration gets underway later this month.   Hopefully they’ll recharge at CPS Energy before making their way to Mexico.   You’ll read about it right here when they do.

UPDATE: In a previous version, iron plant was misidentified as hostas. Hostas and iron plant are in the same family but different genera. Thanks to reader Anna Osborn for pointing out the faulty I.D.

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Plant Flowers, Sign the Petition and Celebrate National Pollinator Week June 16 – 22

National Pollinator Week will be here June 16-22.  We’ve written before about the need to assist pollinators–the bees, butterflies, beetles, bats and birds that make 75% of our food crops possible.

Queen on mistflower in urban polliantor garden

Who says you can’t have a pollinator garden in the city? Queen on Purple Mistflower. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to the USDA, one out of every three to four mouthfuls of food we eat and beverages we drink is made possible by pollinators.  If it wasn’t for the 200,000 species of insects and other creatures that help angiosperms (flowering plants) reproduce, much of the world would go hungry.

These mobile organisms move from plant to plant, making reproduction possible, delivering pollen from the male parts of flowers (the anther) to the female parts (the stigma).   The result?  The fruits, nuts and vegetables that sustain us.

Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and genetically modified crops have caused a serious decline in pollinators, resulting in lesser productivity in the food chain.  In severe cases, hand pollination has  been required for food crops to be productive–apple trees in China, for example, increasing food costs as much as 130%.

Hand pollination in China

In China, the lack of insects requires hand pollination of apple trees by people. Photo via www.infiniteunknow.net

Surely you’ve heard of the bee crisis.   A strange malady called colony collapse disorder has decimated the bee population, causing a huge loss of native bees.  Generally,  beekeepers lose 10-15% of their colonies to disease and various stresses each year. But since the advent of colony collapse disorder, losses have averaged 30%.  And bees, with their fuzzy bodies and specialized “pollen basket” body parts, are the most efficient pollinators.   Their decline negatively impacts plant production.  While the cause of CCD is not completely understood, the usual suspects of habitat loss, pesticide use (a special class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in particular), drought, disease and climate change have been implicated–just as in the downturn of the Monarch butterfly migration.

But maybe things are looking up for increasing pollinator habitat, at least when it comes to the 17 million acres of highways and right-of ways under the direction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Integrated vegetation management

Integrated vegetation management (IVM), beautiful to look at, great for pollinators, and saves money on mowing. Photo via University of Northern Iowa.

On May 30, Representatives Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Jeff Denham (R-CA), Co-Chairs of the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, introduced the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act, known as the Highways BEE Act.

The BEE Bill, an amendment to the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization, encourages states to mow and spray fewer chemicals and plant more native plants on the 17 million acres of highway rights-of-way. It incurs no additional costs to states. The practices it promotes can save about 25 percent annually in roadside maintenance costs.

Passage of the bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to use its authority to encourage willing state transportation departments and rights-of-way managers to embrace practices that support pollinators, ground nesting birds, monarch butterflies and other creatures.  It also calls for the Department of Transportation to conduct or facilitate research and demonstration projects on the economic and environmental benefits and best practices for integrated vegetation management (IVM), reduced mowing and native plantings for pollinator habitat.

pollinatorplantguides

Pollinator Plant Guides are available by region at the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to pollinator advocacy, the legislation is nearly identical to a bill introduced in 2011 which was widely supported by 28 national organizations and business, 175 regional organizations, 46 researchers and more than 1,500 individuals. “Regrettably, those good efforts [in 2011] fell short. We don’t want to fall short in helping pollinators this time!”

Indeed not. So go ahead and sign the petition right now.

What else can you do?  Plant flowers, preferably natives.   Pollinators need nectar sources to fuel up and keep all that sexual reproduction active between the male and female flower parts, resulting in food and beverages for us.   They also need host plants on which to lay their eggs.  The Pollinator Partnership has several pollinator plant guides that can direct you regarding what’s most appropriate in your region.  You can also contact your local agricultural extension office or Master Gardener Program.

Cowpen daisy deadhead

Don’t forget to deadhead. It will make for more blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One more thing:  don’t forget to deadhead.    The old “green thumb” exercise means removing spent flowers before they go to seed so that the plant will continue to produce blooms.  This encourages a steady supply of flowers for visiting pollinators to slurp nectar, gather pollen, and transfer it to the next plant, all why furthering the life cycle.

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Resilience Required: Climate Change Turns up the Heat in the Butterfly Garden

Brace yourselves, butterfly gardeners: climate change is turning up the heat in the butterfly garden.

Not only do higher temperatures rule, but resilience and adaptability will be required for successful pollinator gardens in the coming years.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

An open mind and willingness to adapt will be keys to sustaining your butterfly garden in the wake of climate change.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Surely you’ve noticed: Wacky weather, erratic extremes, traditional first and last frost dates that are routinely inaccurate.   As James Barilla wrote in the New York Times last week, “This past winter was a tough one in our backyard…. One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

The crazy vacillations in daily temperatures make the usual gardening choices and chores more challenging. When it’s freezing one day, brazen sun and high temps the next, what’s a butterfly gardener to do? And if you’re feeling confused, imagine how birds, bees and butterflies are coping—not to mention the plants that sustain them.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours.  March 2 and 3, 2014.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours. March 2 and 3, 2014.

I suggest we all keep an open mind. Adaptability is key. For example, let’s not be doctrinaire about native plants.   Of course natives are preferred, but with changing range expansions and longer growing seasons, what does native really mean?

According to the National Arboretum, a native plant is one that was present at the time Europeans arrived in North America–that is, around  Columbus’s arrival in 1492.  I prefer the definition of the The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Mr. Smarty Plants, who defines natives like this:

“It is actually pretty simple…to define a native plant as … a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.”

That makes sense.   But I also agree with Mr. Barilla’s pragmatic approach to the garden.  “It doesn’t makes sense to think in terms of native and nonnative when the local weather vacillates so abruptly.   A resilient garden is a diverse garden.”

Amen.

Monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica  Photo by Monika Maeckle

My views on Tropical milkweed, Monarch butterflies favorite host plant, native to Mexico, are well-known. Some scientists will claim that the easy-to-grow orange bloomer encourages disease and its adoption will wipe out native milkweeds. I disagree. Besides, that train has left the station since Tropical Milkweed is the only Asclepias species widely available commercially.

No one says we have to choose between Tropical and native milkweeds.   Do both. While you’re struggling to get those natives established, Tropical milkweed can hold down the fort since it consistently delivers. Not only is it a reliable host plant for Monarch butterflies, but all butterflies flock to its bright blossoms for nectar.   And many scientists believe that it’s the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

With my stretch of the world considered part of planting Zone 9A as of January 2012  (the same zone as coastal cities Corpus Christi and Houston) we’re not that far from “tropical,” anyway. This year, however, much of my Asclepias curassavica froze beyond recovery in the harsh winter and didn’t come back. Good thing it’s easy to propagate from seed and I have a private stash. I have replanted.

Chino Checkerspot

The endangered Chino Checkerspot moved to higher altitudes and changed its host plant of its own volition. Courtesy photo

Perhaps we should look to the butterflies themselves for inspiration.   One endangered species, the Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino, found in Mexico and southern California, shifted to higher altitudes and switched its host plant to an entirely different species of its own volition.  Scientists were expecting the species to become extinct, but somehow it quickly adapted, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s seventh international symposium in April.

Meanwhile, we learned recently that professional and amateur butterfly breeders have also had luck feeding Monarch butterfly caterpillars pumpkin, butternut squash, even cucumbers in their fifth and final instar.  This news came at a good time this spring when a brutal winter and late spring made milkweeds unavailable, just as Monarchs began their migration.  While I received at least one email from a scientist chastising me for celebrating this news, taking it as a challenge to native milkweeds, my feeling is we should celebrate the fact that Monarchs appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

Monarch caterpillars on pumping and squash

Monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat pumpkin, squash, even cucumbers in the fifth instar or final stage. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Unpredictable weather will likely be the new normal for some time. As the third National Climate Assessment report suggests, Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will occur with increasing frequency. Oh, and the wildfires will continue.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. The plants, insects and gardeners that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

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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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