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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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

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.

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

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.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterfly beat.

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.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterfly beat.