Texas brakes for butterflies: “Monarch Highway” comes to IH35

A year after President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy with plans to create a pollinator corridor along Interstate Highway 35 (IH35), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed an agreement to work with five other states to make the “Monarch Highway” a reality.

Common milkweed

Common milkweed, host plant to the Monarch butterfly, is one of two native milkweeds to be planted along the Monarch Highway in Texas by TxDOT. Photo by Mark Hixson via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

On May 26, Texas joined Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in signing a Memorandum of Understanding initiated by the Federal Highway Administration. The agreement encourages collaboration among the states to establish best practices and promote public awareness of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, and commits the states to plant native milkweeds and nectar plants along IH35, the primary flight path for the migrating insects. A Monarch Highway logo and signage are also in development.

“The I-35 Hill County rest areas are going to be planted with pollinator gardens in the next two months,” said Mark Cross, a spokesman for TxDOT.

TxDot has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

TxDOT has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

Cross added that the agency is contracting with Texas A&M University to develop short videos that will run at all four rest areas along the I-35 corridor–in Hill County at Mile Marker 362A, La Salle County at Mile Marker 59, Medina County at Mile Marker 130, and in Bell County at Mile Marker 281. The agency is also working with the Native Plant Society of TexasTexas Master Gardeners and the Gulf Coast Prairie Association.

Literature and handouts promoting pollinators will be created for distribution at all TxDOT rest areas and travel centers, and the agency will convert “several acres” at each designated rest area into pollinator habitat, said Cross, adding, “This will change the landscape from a highly maintained area to a pollinator area.”

Fifteen species of wildflowers comprise the seed mix that TxDOT is planning, said Cross, including Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, and Common milkweed, Aslcepias syriaca. 

Here’s the plant list: Black-eyed Susan, Bluebonnet, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed,  Crimson Clover, Indian Blanket, Lance-Leafed Coreopsis, Mexican Hat, Missouri Primrose,  Prairie Verbena, Purple Coneflower, Annual Phlox, Pink Evening Primrose,  Plains Coreopsis, and Purple Horsemint.

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflower, an excellent nectar plant, will be part of the seed mix for the Monarch Highway rest stops. Photo by Monika Maeckle

TxDOT also is working with South Texas Natives, a project of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, to promote and make available appropriate native seed mixes for Texas.

From its start in Gainesville, Texas at the Red River to its finish in Laredo on the Rio Grande, IH35 in Texas brags almost 590 miles–more than any other state. The Lone Star State also serves as the “Texas Funnel” for the Monarch butterfly migration, since all migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas as they move north in the spring and south in the fall, to and from their ancestral roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico.

In the spring, the butterflies seek their host plant, milkweed, on which to lay their eggs; in the fall, they fuel up on late season nectar plants to power their flight to Mexico, which can exceed 2,500 miles.

Local Native Plant Society of Texas President Joan Miller applauded the news and said that planting of the sites will be incorporated as a service project at NPSOT’s annual symposium in Glen Rose the week of October 14. “The educational value of the installations are extremely important to understanding the use of native plants in landscaping whether it is on public or private property,” said Miller.

As cast in a press release byTxDOT, the Monarch Highway will attract millions of Mexican and Canadian visitors to IH35 each year–but Texas drivers need not worry about more traffic snarls. “They won’t be traveling by road; these visitors will arrive by air as part of a fascinating and fragile migration that happens twice a year.”

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam