Winter Solstice signals time to make wildflower seed balls–here’s how

Feeling like there’s not enough hours in the day? That’s no surprise, since we’re quickly approaching the Winter Solstice. December 21 marks the shortest day of 2017–only 10 hours and 15 minutes in San Antonio, Texas, to be exact.

The celestial occasion celebrates the moment when, in the northern hemisphere, the earth leans furthest from the sun, resulting in short days and long nights. This makes for a great time to hole up by the fire, gather all those wildflower seeds you’ve collected all year and make seed balls.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Introduced in the 70s, seed balls are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed with water into tidy bombs that are said to have an 80% higher germination rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind or consumed by bugs or birds. A dash of chile pepper gives them an added dose of protection.

I’ve been making seed balls for a decade and had mixed success.This mirrors my years of  broadcasting hundreds of pounds of wildflower seed on the overgrazed acreage of our family ranch. Wildflowers are persnickety like that. They need an ideal combo of light, moisture, and temperature peculiar to their species in order to germinate. Both methods have left me baffled as to what combination of efforts results in success. I keep trying, and am especially motivated this year by a severe feral hog invasion along our river. The prolific wild pigs, which ranchers joke are “born pregnant,” disheveled a quarter-mile of our river road, undoing years of our  riparian restoration in progress. Unwelcome Johnson grass will move in quickly to fill the gaps. I’m tossing seedballs to compete with the invasives.

Feral hogs tore up our river front. Seed balls to the rescue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My most successful seedballs germinated in the Chigger Islands that dot our stretch of Llano River. Laced with Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed gathered from the same karst-riddled watershed, they grew into robust milkweed stands. They push out thin leaves that host arriving Monarch butterflies in the spring and pink flowers filled with nectar in the fall. By November, their plump seed pods invite another harvest. The late season caterpillar pictured below is noshing on a milkweed that started the year prior year as a seed ball.

This late season caterpillar noshes on swamp milkweed made possible by seed balls. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed balls have become popular in recent years and are often tapped as an engaging educational activity for children of all ages at conservation events and pollinator festivals like the one we stage in October. This hands-on exercise takes participants back to childhood escapades of making mud pies. Rolling mounds of wet clay, seeds and soil into tidy round spheres–well, it’s just fun.

My friend Diego Harrison Smith helped make seed balls. Photo by Lisa Marie Barocas

Let there be seedballs

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

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center told us a while back that seed balls used for large-scale restoration projects often have a low success rate. Assuring the seeds make soil contact once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition. Our friends at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggest that when it comes to seed balls, size matters. Most people make them too large to break down and sprout. “No bigger than the size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seed ball,” said the seed purveyors’ Emily Neiman.

LEFT: Properly tossed seed ball. RIGHT: Improperly tossed seed ball. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed ball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seed ball 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 and Native Plant Society encourage a concoction that includes sand. The Seed Ball Project suggests soaking the seeds for 12 – 24 hours prior to adding them to the seed ball mix. That sounds like a good idea, especially for hard cased seeds like bluebonnets and milkweeds.

Got seeds? Use ’em up by making seed balls for next year’s wildflower meadow. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our recipe includes 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 seed ball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seed ball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Seeds for Seedballs

Or: collect your own seeds locally for seed balls.  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 to germinate  and become wildflowers for pollinators.

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

Generally, seed balls 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 like a ranch or roadside. 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, chances for germination decrease. Then, just wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

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

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

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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Frostweed earns its name with intriguing ice sculptures upon first frost

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

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

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

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

In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies. The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems. The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun. The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.

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

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

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bumblebees are also Frostweed fans. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a member of the aster family, Frostweed can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed. See the amazing video by Roy Spencer, above, to witness the process.

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

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

Another student of Frostweed and crystafollia, Dr. James Carter, a professor emeritus in the department of geography and geology at Illinois State University, points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.” Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations. The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.

Frostweed Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let there be seedballs

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

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

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

Seedball

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

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

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

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

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seedball

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

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

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

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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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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.

Photo by Myra  B Allison, via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Frostweed spills its guts on first frost creating a beautiful ice sculpture.   Photo by Myra B Allison, 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.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

In the Butterfly Garden: Time to Harvest Sunflower Seeds, Here’s How to Do it

Those fabulous sunflowers you planted in the spring are likely hanging their heads by now.  The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 different species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside. I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower for my butterfly garden.

Monarch butterfly on Mammoth Sunflower

Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity.  Depending on the species you choose,  one tiny seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant.  Yes, that’s correct.  EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.

For butterflies, this represents a nectar cafeteria.  They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position.  But wait, this flower just keeps on giving.  Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

Sunflower head

Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them to the butterfly garden in March.  By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute.  They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers.  All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism?  Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun.  Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves.  As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critter friends gather them for a handy protein pop.  One tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 4.5 grams of protein.

It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year.   Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives.  The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail.   Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains.  Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound.   Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

1.  Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off,  and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.

2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.

3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,

Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.

4.  Air dry for future use.

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Banner Butterfly Year Caused by “Ecological Release” in Texas, says Monarch Watch Founder Dr. Chip Taylor

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration by Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor.   Now our Lone Star State is getting attention for spawning an “ecological release” that has resulted in a butterfly “season like no other,”  Taylor told the Hornell Evening Tribune in New York.

Banner year for butterflies, thank you, Texas!

Banner year for butterflies. Thank you, Texas!

“This year continues to amaze,” Dr. Taylor wrote to the DPLEX email list, well-read by hundreds of academics, enthusiasts and others who follow the Monarch butterfly migration.   Taylor detailed ample and early sightings of Monarchs, Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Buckeyes and other species to the Midwest.   Watch the video above for examples.

Taylor and others attribute the 2012 banner butterfly year to a perfect storm of circumstances in Texas, including:

  •  An historic drought which killed butterfly and caterpillar predators, notably fire ants, followed by
  • Generous, well-timed rains, a mild winter that caused host and nectar plants to flourish, and caterpillars and butterflies to thrive.

Eventually, host plant and nectar populations will drop back to normal, as will this year’s butterfly explosion.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

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Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival in Fredericksburg to Celebrate Butterflies, Bats and Birds this Weekend

Fredericksburg’s Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival takes place this weekend and brings a welcome respite from San Antonio’s 10-days of Fiesta.  Just a one-hour, wildflower-loaded drive from San Antonio or Austin, the event celebrates the unique winged wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.

The festival provides 72 hours of nature-oriented education and entertainment.   Guided nature walks, butterfly, birding and bat presentations, a raptor display, and a Star Party on Saturday night at a remote ranch that brags a 360-degree skyscape unsullied by light pollution, fill the three-day schedule.

I can’t wait.   Even though I’ll be presenting two talks on Monarch butterflies, I plan to grab a seat at award-winning nature photographer Rolf Nussbaumer‘s nature

Monarch buttefly on hummingbird feeder

I'll be talking about Monarch butterflies at the Wings Over the Hills Festival this weekend.

photography class, Ro Wauer‘s overview of Hill Country butterflies, Diane Oegard’s talk on bats, and James Laswell‘s presentation on dragonflies.  Early Saturday and Sunday mornings, birding, butterflying and dragonfly “chases” take place, guided tours held at Ladybird Johnson Park and other outdoor venues.

On Friday at 6 PM,  Master Falconer John Karger of Last Chance Forever, Birds of Prey will do his raptor show at the Fredericksburg High School Auditorium.   Karger helped me celebrate my birthday a couple of years ago by releasing two Coopers Hawks at our

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

place on the Llano River.   The raptors had tangled with an electrical line and were injured, unable to fly until Karger’s organization nursed them back to health.  I’ll never forget them perching momentarily on my leather-gloved forearm before they took flight.  Now whenever I see Coopers Hawks soaring over our stretch of the river, I assume they are my birthday raptors.

Karger’s work is laudable and his show starring rehabilitated owls, falcons, hawks, vultures and eagles unforgettable.

The Star Party on Saturday night, 9 PM, should be spectacular.  Anyone who has ever visited the McDonald Observatory’s weekend Star Parties in West Texas can attest to the majesty of a completely dark sky twinkling with millions of stars you’ve only seen in photographs.   Shooting stars are practically routine in such circumstances, so if you attend, bring your wish list and make a wish.

Members of the Fredericksburg Astronomy Club will be on hand with telescopes,  orientation talks and explanations of the constellations and satellites.  It should be a great time to see Venus, which is staging its last transit for more than a century before crossing the face of the sun on June 6. According to the stargazing website Stardate,   Venus will be at its most brilliant this weekend, “shining 20 times brighter than the brightest true star in the night sky.”

Organizers have done an excellent job breaking up the programs, field trips and events so visitors can partake at their own pace, picking and choosing all or some of the offerings.  A weekend pass goes for $40 and provides entry into many events;  day passes $15.  Star Party, raptor show, motor coach tours and photo class are separate, and some don’t require a festival pass at all.   For details, see the Wings Over the Hills website.

Bats, Blooms, Butterflies and Moths–Everyone is Early this year

Our wet and mild winter has migratory creatures and seasonal blooms arriving in Central and South Texas early this year.  According to biologists and naturalists, we’re running seven – 10 days ahead of schedule.

Monarch butterflies, which typically start showing up in Texas en masse in late March, have been spotted regularly since early in the month.  Over at Bracken Bat Cave, maternal bats who overwinter in Mexico also arrived ahead of schedule.

Caterpillar on Bluebonnet

Caterpillars and bluebonnets--both early this year

“This year they were 10 days early,” says Fran Hutchins, Bracken Bat Cave coordinator and a Texas Master Naturalist.  Hutchins adds that the insect eating mammals began showing up in waves around February 21.  “There hasn’t been a lot of research on specific dates of their comings and goings,” says Hutchins, explaining that he inadvertently noticed the increase in bat population while completing an overwintering survey at the Cave. Congress Ave. Bridge bats returned early this year.

Congress Ave. Bridge bats were early this year

Bats returned early this year

The pattern holds for wildflowers and birds. “It’s definitely early,” says Andrea Delong-Amaya, director of Horticulture at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. “But in terms of what’s normal, it’s hard to say.  It just hasn’t been as cold.”  Reports of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, our local endangered songbird, arriving a bit early have made the rounds at the San Antonio Audubon Society, according to Martin Reid, an avid birder and environmental consultant.

“It’s a mixed bag: some of our resident birds are showing signs of breeding activity slightly earlier than usual–probably related to rain,”  he explains.  “But it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the wintering birds.”

Is it the warmth or the wet that drives the timing?   Depends on who you ask.

“On average I think the Weather Service is better than us insect experts at predicting the future,” says Dr. Mike Merchant, writing on Texas Agrilife Extension’s delightful Insects in the City blog. “But I still don’t put too much stock in long-term weather forecasts.”   Dr. Merchant chronicles the early arrival of Armyworms to North Texas in a recent post.   The gregarious grass eaters get their name from reproducing in droves and marching across prairies in soldier-like formations.

Armyworm Moth in Lawn

Armyworm Moths have arrived early to North Texas -- photo Texas Agrilife Extension

Matt Reidy points to the weather.  “Pepper weeds, bluebonnets, prickly poppies–those are all early.  Not because of temperatures, but because of rain,”  says Reidy,  Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist.  “When you get the moisture, that’s what determines what you’re gonna get when.”

Many peg climate change for the advance of the season.   Interestingly, February 2012’s average high temperature was about the same as–actually .07 degree less than–the historic average of 66 degrees in San Antonio.   Yet, the average LOW temperature for the month was 4.5 degrees higher than average.

Minimum temperatures are especially impactful to seed germination and plant growth.  Seeds and plants require a certain soil temperature in which to germinate and thrive.  Savvy gardeners know to put a heating pad under setting seeds to expedite sprouting. Higher average minimum temperatures translate into faster growth, and an earlier season.

At the Children’s Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, volunteers planted tomatoes the first week in March–“weeks early,” according to David Rodriguez, Horticulture specialist for the Texas Agrilife Extension.  Those tomatoes will likely be ready the first week in May.   “Everything’s off,” says Rodriguez, referring to Nature’s unpredictable timing.

Earlier this year, the USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones, moving parts of San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi. Some San Antonio zip codes moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.

The redrawn maps (plug in your zip code and find out your zone here)  seem to be telling us something that birds, butterflies and bats have known for awhile: it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

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Wildflower Bonanza-to-be on the San Antonio Mission Reach, Thanks to Above-average Rains

Bluebonnets, coreoposis, red and blue sage–who knew it was February in San Antonio, Texas?   Recent Texas rains have drenched our drought-parched landscape, but Nature seems bent on making it up to us.

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

This pristine scene is not untouched nature in the wild, but the product of years of human intervention.   San Antonio’s Mission Reach, a landmark riparian restoration, is coming alive after millions of dollars and likely as many hours of complex collaboration among planners, engineers, specialist contractors, scientists, and technologists. As crowds flock to the Witte Museum’s must-see Darwin exhibit that opened  yesterday, a tandem visit to the Mission Reach serves as a lesson in  real-time evolution.

A recent walk on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, the nine-mile linear park that extends from the south part of downtown San Antonio all the easy to Mission Espada, revealed bounties of budding wildflowers, awaiting slightly warmer temperatures and doses of daily sunshine to put out full blooms.  After the 2011 historic drought, it’s heartening.   The butterflies will follow shortly, as will the birds who find their caterpillar life stage a favorite treat.   Not far behind are other returning critters–raccoons, opossums, nutria, even foxes and coyotes eventually.

For a quick preview of what’s coming later this spring, see the slideshow above.   For insights on the complex collaboration of planners, scientists, engineers and specialist contractors tapped to set the stage for these blooms, see my story at The Rivard Report.