Timely Rains, Pent-up Seed Bank, and Little Competition Raise Hopes for a Banner 2012 Wildflower Season

Major rain fell on San Antonio, Austin and in the Hill Country this week, raising levels at streams, aquifers and rivers in Central and South Texas and hopes for a 2012 wildflower bounty this spring.

Austin Bergstrom Airforce base saw a record 5.66 inches.  In San Antono we logged almost three inches–2.94 to be exact.  Out on the Llano River in Kimble County, about an inch-and-a-half doused the landscape.

Will steady rains in Central Texas convert to banner wildflowers in 2012?

Steady rains set stage for a banner wildflower season in 2012

Wildflower and butterfly fans are keeping track.  The historic Texas drought continues, yet steady, periodic rains this winter have the capacity to convert a pent-up seedbank–the soil where seeds drop and await optimal conditions for germination–to a spectacular  wildflower show this spring.

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

The drought’s kill-off of grass, trees and forbs also make for less competition for hearty native bloomers.   Early risers like bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, and Cowpen Daisy already dress the landscape with rosettes and eager seedlings.

Will 2012 offer a bounty of blooms and butterflies?


Bluebonnet: will we see a lot of them this year? Photo: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu

“So far, so good,” said Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and Director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  “Wildflowers need a pulse of rain every four-six weeks.   We’re on track.”

Dr. Simmons counsels cautious optimism. The caveat: invasive species also lurk and will aggressively compete for available soil, nutrients, sun and water.

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s Director of Horticulture, also offers encouraging words. “We’re looking to a pretty good spring….alot of germination out there, lots of good well-spaced rains,” she said. “Where cedar elms were growing before, the seed banks underneath have an opportunity.”

Three-plus inches of rain in San Antonio:January showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

A recent 3-inch rain in San Antonio: winter showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

The drought also stunted many wildflowers and inhibited their seed production last year, David Rodriguez, Bexar County Agent of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service points out.   “Wild populations are going to take a while, but seeded populations started in September-October are looking really really nice,” he said.

The National Weather  Climate Prediction Center is predicting “persistent” drought at least through April 30.  Given the inaccuracy of longterm weather forecasting, we’re keeping a hopeful watch.

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Butterfly Predictions 2012: Historic Low Monarch counts, Wildflower Bounty, Butterflies Year-Round, a Blow For GMOs

Happy New Year!   January 1 provokes anticipation for what’s next.  In our case, we’re contemplating the next 12 months for native plants, caterpillars and butterflies.

Many would cast 2011 as a year best left in the rear-view mirror.  The historic drought seemed to mirror the dragging, downer economy.  We’re thinking 2012 will be different.  Here are four (mostly optimistic) predictions from the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

1.  The Monarch butterfly overwintering population will set a record low in Michoacan.

Initial reports suggest this may be the worst year in history for the number of Monarch butterflies that made it to Mexico.  “We have preliminary reports that suggest the area occupied by the butterflies this season will be less than last year,” Rosendo Caro of the Biosphere Monarch Butterfly Reserve told BBC Mundo.  Last year the butterflies occupied about 10 acres.

Rosendo Caro, of the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michocan

In this Spanish video, Rosendo Caro, of the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michoacan blames the drought for low Monarch roosting numbers.

No surprise, as the creatures had a hellacious year in 2011. Late season deep freezes in Texas resulted in a milkweed shortage just as the butterflies made it to the Lone Star State, thus no eggs were laid.  Then our historic drought during their autumn return depleted nectar plants they normally use for fueling on the return flight to Mexico.

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor characterized drought-stricken Texas as ”1,000 miles of hell” for migrating Monarch butterflies. We’ll await official reports, but betting on dreary news.

2.  Texas will see a blockbuster wildflower season.  

Texas Butterfly Ranch optimistically predicts boatloads of wildflowers this year.   A hefty seed bank offers pent-up supplies, with seeds stored in the soil and in ant tunnels during the drought.  Perfectly timed, slow falling rains in December bode well for Central and South Texas wildscapes.

A wildflower bounty in 2012?  We hope so.

A wildflower bounty in 2012? We hope so. Photo by www.easywildflowers.com

Yes, a dry spring could kill this optimism, but a wildflower bounty seems likely, judging from a recent trip to the Llano River.  Bluebonnet rosettes were popping several inches out of the ground and Cowpen Daisies were busting through the damp soil making their happy stems known. Abundant Goldenrod populated the riverbanks.  Keep your fingers crossed.

3.  With climate change, we’ll see more butterflies year-round.

The historic drought killed our butterfly dreams this summer, but the warm, wet winter that followed has an upside:  butterfly season has extended into December and January.

wChristmas caterpillars on the San Antonio Riverwalk, 12/2011

Christmas caterpillars on the San Antonio River Walk, 12/2011, photo by Robert Rivard

We picked Monarch caterpillars off the San Antonio River Walk milkweed patch as late as  December 18th.  And Gulf Fritillaries, Sulphurs and Painted Ladies were flying well into December.   Perhaps San Antonio will develop a year-round population of Monarchs like Houston and areas of Florida.  Again, keep your fingers crossed.

4.  Insects, including butterflies in all their stages, will outsmart genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  

Again, an optimistic hope from here, but we ARE hearing much about the imperfections of  genetically modified corn, which produces it’s own caterpillar-killing pesticide, bacillus thurengiensis.

Bugs may be resistant to Genetically Modified Corn,” headlined an AP story on December 28.  The article described how the western corn rootworm appears to be developing a resistance to the insecticide-producing Monsanto seed more quickly than expected.

Insects, including caterpillars and butterflies, are some of the most adaptable lifeforms on the planet.  “They produce large, numerous generations in a short amount of time, and adapt quickly,” says Austin entomologist Mike Quinn of Texas MonarchWatch.   Quinn points to the use of the fruit fly in genetic research.   The reason?  The insect adapts quickly and reproduces prolifically, allowing for efficient observation of genetic changes.   GMO weaknesses, and the adaptability and resistance of caterpillars and other insects, mean good news for butterflies-to-be.

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State of the Monarch Butterfly Migration in Two Minutes: Thank you, Mike Quinn of Texas MonarchWatch

Our good friend Mike Quinn, an entomologist in Austin, Texas, who devotedly tracks the Monarch butterfly  migration and other insect activities (especially beetles) succinctly summarized the State of the Union of the Monarch Butterfly Migration this week on KXAN-TV Austin.  The two-minute clip, set partially at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, focused on the impact of the Texas drought and was picked up by the AP, the Weather Channel, and CNN.

“It’s like running a transcontinental marathon and then having a baby at the end,” the Texas  Monarch Watch coordinator and former statewide entomologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife tells the reporter.

Well put!

The article was even translated into Spanish:

Sequía en Texas afecta migración de monarcas.

Mike joined our Monarch Butterfly Texas tag team when we toured the drought-stricken Hill Country last month with the legendary Dr. William Brower, snapping professional quality photographs along the way and sharing with the world via social sharing sites.

As a passionate butterfly enthusiast, I often turn to Mike for a scientific perspective which he always generously provides.  Mike also serves as president of the Austin Butterfly Forum where he helps recruit first-class speakers such as world-renown caterpillar expert Dr. David Wagner who then avail themselves to Austin audiences with understanding, knowledge and really fun field trips.

Thanks for all you do for the butterflies, Mike.

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Texas Drought Impact on Wildflower Seed Production Cuts Both Ways, PLUS Five Tips for Collecting Wildflower Seeds

First frosts lighting on Central Texas this week and reports of Monarchs and other butterflies on the wane kindle dreams of next year’s butterfly gardens and meadows. To get a jump on next year’s butterfly hostplant and nectar haven, start by collecting seeds from the wild now.  November is the perfect time to gather seeds.

Cowpen Daisy patch October 2011

Cowpen Daisy "patch" at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, October 2011

Last year we wrote about collecting seeds from the prolific Cowpen Daisy, one of my favorite wildflowers.  Those seeds, Verbesina encelioidesm, are more scarce this year thanks to the historic Texas drought–just look at the recent picture above taken at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River compared to the one below snapped last fall. Both reflect the same stretch of dirt road.  What a difference a year of historic drought makes.

Cowpen Daisy patch Fall 2010

Cowpen Daisy patch at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, Fall of 2010

When it comes to seed production in the face of drought, not all plants respond the same way. “It’s a strange thing,” says  George Cates, “seed cleaner extraordinaire” at Native American Seed, a company based in Junction, Texas, that focuses exclusively on native American seeds.   “Certain species are very well adapted to drought conditions and actually produce MORE seed during drought,” he says.

Cates suggests that the seeds of more drought adaptive plants often seem less desirable to consumers–the poisonous purple nightshade, ornery white prickly poppy and the invasive King Ranch bluestem.

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX --photo by American Native Seed

Less adaptive plants die back during the drought exposing soil to the seeds of plants that are warm season dominant, creating an opportunity for more adaptive plants’ seeds to exploit the opportunity. (One of the primary reasons wildflower seeds fail to germinate is a lack of contact with soil.) “As the ground stays crispy and cooked, other things can take advantage,” says Cates.

Plants seem to exhibit native intelligence, says Cates.  “Somehow the plants know that now is a good time to make more seeds,” he explains, adding that American Native Seed’s gayfeather crop produced more abundant seeds this year than last–even though less rain fell and the native seed farm was forced by water restrictions to discontinue irrigation early in the summer.

Cates says that seeds produced in a drought likely will demonstrate longer periods of dormancy and may take longer to germinate as they await optimal conditions.

Here’s five tips from Cates on collecting wildflower seeds:

1. Try to assess whether the seed is viable.  A microscope is ideal for this, but if you don’t carry one on your nature hikes, Cates recommends selecting samples from various parts of the plant and squeezing a few seeds between your fingers.  Look for the hard germ core as well as softer, latent matter that surrounds and protects the seed.

2. Cut the stalk of the plant if possible and hang upside down for plant nutrients to bleed into the seeds until fully dry.

3.  Don’t feel you have to clean all the fluff and chaff off the seeds.  “There’s nutrients in that latent material,” says Cates.  Just keep the material dry.

4. Store seeds in paper bag until completely dry.  If you opt for plastic bags and store damp seed material, seeds will rot.   Dry seeds=important.

5. Don’t take every last stalk of seed.  Plan ahead and leave some for next year.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

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