Good News for Butterflies: Timely Rains Boost Wildflowers

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Indian paintbrush and Huisache daisies line the Interstate 10 median near Kerrville.

Monika Maeckle for the Rivard Report

Indian paintbrush and Engelmann daisies line the Interstate 10 median near Kerrville.

Those with a hankering for carpets of native blooms and the accompanying “flying flowers” known as butterflies should head to the Hill Country or the Mission Reach for a spectacular wildflower show this weekend.

Mid-April marks the shift from early to mid wildflower season in South and Central Texas, said Andrea DeLong-Amaya, horticulture director at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. While early bloomers like bluebonnets have already peaked and are forming seedpods that will yield next year’s displays, other blossoms from Texas’ 5,000 wildflower species are strutting their stuff.

“Rain is definitely helping,” said DeLong-Amaya of the 2019 season, marked by periodic downpours like Wednesday night’s storm. Coming on strong for Easter weekend: prairie beardtongue (Penstemon cobaea), Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) and pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa). Horsemint, mealy blue sage and dogwoods are also starting to show.

The timely rains and healthy wildflower stock are good news for butterflies, including the monarch, which always holds special interest in San Antonio, the nation’s first monarch butterfly champion city.

Monarchs typically leave their overwintering roosts in the Mexican mountains in March to lay their inaugural round of eggs on milkweeds in South Texas gardens and wildscapes. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, morph through their stages, and form a chrysalis, then butterfly. The process takes about a month and launches the first generation of the seasonal migration that continues north through the fall.

Reports of caterpillars and chrysalises around San Antonio have been constant in recent weeks, signaling a healthy start to the 2019 monarch butterfly season.

“We literally have chrysalises everywhere!” said Gabriela Santiago of Dignowity Hill. Santiago counted 45 monarch butterfly caterpillars on the tropical milkweed in her backyard last week. She also captured this video of a monarch butterfly transforming into a chrysalis under the lip of a garbage can.

San Antonio’s DoSeum hosted dozens of monarch butterfly caterpillars, now chrysalises, in the children’s museum milkweed garden, which was installed in 2015. “It’s incredible that our pollinator garden is now home to these developing beauties,” said Richard Kissel, DoSeum’s vice president of education.

David Berman, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University who’s checked more than 55,000 Texas milkweed plants in locales from Abilene to Mission over the last two years for a research project, confirmed the caterpillar palooza. “It’s crazy the number of eggs and caterpillars I’ve been seeing this spring,” he said.

Courtesy / David Berman

Hungry caterpillars, like these at Quintana Beach Park near Houston, mean many future monarch butterflies in South Texas.

Berman cited hundreds of monarchs in all their stages last week, including 55 fifth instars – a monarch in the final caterpillar stage before it transforms into a chrysalis – at the San Antonio River Authority headquarters pollinator garden.

Monarchs aren’t the only butterflies benefiting from good weather, Berman pointed out. Swallowtails, painted ladies and other colorful flyers take advantage of the seasonal nectar bounty. Available sugars will fuel reproductive escapades once they take flight.

Temperatures and rainfall determine the length of the wildflower season. If a dry heat wave hits, the flowers won’t last as long – so best to get outside as soon as possible.

The Texas Department of Transportation has been planting native wildflowers along Texas highways for more than 80 years. Jac Gubbels joined TxDOT as its first landscape architect in 1932 to maintain and encourage native plants and wildflowers along rights of way. Each year, TxDOT plants 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed, according to its website. 

Lady Bird Johnson, born in East Texas, evangelized for native plants and wildflowers, bringing the blooms’ special charms to the public’s attention during her tenure as first lady during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Her legacy lives on every spring when wildflowers bloom on public lands across the country.

Wild daisies are in full force North of Loop 1604 along US Highway 281.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Wild daisies are in full bloom north of Loop 1604 along U.S. Highway 281.

Safety first if you pull over to take pictures. Don’t disrupt traffic on busy or narrow roads, wear bright clothing (Berman wears an orange safety vest), watch children and pets closely, and avoid dusk and evening photo shoots. Better yet, find an area that is off-road. For more tips, see the Texas Department of Public Safety website.

For those who prefer running or walking through wildflower country, the Fredericksburg Wildflower Run takes place April 27 and offers 5K and 10K routes. And San Antonio’s Mission Reach offers walkers, runners, and cyclists easy access to wildflowers right here in town.

Confluence Park is “full of blooms right now,” said San Antonio River Authority ecosystem restorationist Lee Marlowe. She also recommends Mission San José Portal as best bets.

Etiquette for appreciating wildflowers includes avoiding trampling, excessive picking or otherwise damaging plants. Heavy foot traffic kills plants and destroys their capacity to fuel pollinators like monarchs or produce seeds for birds. It also reduces the display for others to enjoy. “Generally, we encourage plant lovers to be respectful,” said DeLong-Amaya.

For tips on what’s blooming now, check the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Wildflower Central website. The page offers general wildflower information, a Top 20 Bloomers list – even directions for regional drives that tout the showiest wildflower displays.

Got some great wildflower pics? Please share a link and comment with the location below.

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