Wild in Houston: Off the Grid and Into the Green
Words and photos by Andrea Afra
I grew up in the suburbs with no shortage of green space to romp around and wildlife to observe. I was also lucky that my grandparents had a farm in Brenham, where my lonely only-child self was free to roam the creek beds and stalk snakes and dragonflies until the fireflies came out. But after we moved to Montrose ten years ago, I had to find my nature fix in new places. To my surprise, I’m still discovering the hidden and not-so-hidden sanctuaries of flora and fauna, and I’m grateful for the respite they offer so close to home.
I look forward to when my youngest son and l can pack a bag with water and snacks and take off for a few hours to find some green pocket to explore. He’s a city-boy and I want him to appreciate the life that lives alongside us. His interest in being a biologist tells me our adventures are working.
Therefore, I’d like to invite you to not only follow this column as my adventure buddy and I explore our city beyond its concrete shell, but to remember that you can disappear into nature any moment you choose.
“THE EARTH HAS MUSIC FOR THOSE WHO LISTEN.” ― GEORGE SANTAYANA
Even in Houston.
I’d planned on debuting this column with a review of a specific place, but something more pressing needs our attention. I spent much of last summer rescuing monarch caterpillars from getting chewed alive by wasps and relocating them to locations with more abundant milkweed. Interfering with nature is usually taboo in my book, but the monarch has become an urgent exception since the ubiquitous orange, black, and white species most Americans can name on sight has seen a 90% decline in its population over the last two decades, with a slight rebound in this winter’s count.
Tierra Curry, Senior Scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, sent a blunt warning in an August 2014 press release announcing a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “The 90 percent drop in the monarch’s population is a loss so staggering that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.” In late December 2014, the FWS responded that the monarch would immediately undergo a year-long status review to determine if the species qualifies to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. As of this February, the federal government has already approved $3 million for restoration of habitats and grants to incentivize landowners and farmers to join the conservation efforts. This is good news, as monarchs need all of the help they can get.
For such peaceful and nearly weightless creatures, monarchs have a lot of big and powerful enemies. As it is, only 1% of monarchs reach adulthood. The eggs and caterpillars are readily incorporated into the diets of birds and other insects. That remaining 1% has to survive the increase of freak weather in the form of floods, droughts, and record winters, while seeking out a dwindling supply of milkweed. They only lay eggs on milkweed as their caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves, but the adults will eat nectar from a variety of other flowers. While there are over 70 native species of Asclepias in the States, and monarchs are down with about 30 of those, we’re not leaving space for enough native milkweed to grow to support their population’s needs. Deforestation and urbanization along their migratory routes, and aggressive agricultural practices, have effectively demolished their main food source.
The Midwest’s Corn Belt is the main breeding ground for monarchs in the U.S. and the decrease in their populations has coincided with the rapid increase in genetically modified biofuel crops like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, where only Roundup Ready seeds will grow. So where milkweed once grew wild and rampant between cornrows and alongside fields, not even the leftover bits of ground between a modified crop and the roads will support milkweed. And with no light on at the inn, monarchs will have no choice but to relocate to more accommodating locations.
We’re losing them, but it’s not too late and you really can help. According to most of the experts, all hope isn’t lost, but it’s on us, the small gardener, to source the right native milkweed plants that the monarchs in our region need. If you can buy a plant and give it water and sun, then you’re now knighted a gardner. Go forth and seek the proper plants and make them multiply. Houstonians should opt for these varieties when available: Butterfly Weed (A. Tuberosa), Swamp Milkweed (A. Incarnata), and Common Milkweed (A. Syriaca). It’s important to source plants that haven’t been treated with pesticides, which means bypassing the big-box stores for smaller, locally owned nurseries, and plant sales at the Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Arboretum, and area community gardens—all reputable and affordable sources for healthy native milkweed. Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is non-native and produces year round, which some argue may throw off the monarch’s instinct to migrate. Cutting back this variety during the winter months is a simple and temporary solution in a time when milkweed is already in short supply.
Monarchs produce four generations per year. Each only live two to six weeks as adults except for the final generation, born between September and October, which lives between six and eight months. These are the monarchs we still see flitting by on a sunny winter day. Most have traveled thousands of miles to overwinter in massive clusters on oyamel fir trees in Mexico and eucalyptus in Southern California. The last generation will soon emerge from hibernation to mate, and a new first generation will be born. When you next see a monarch, give a moment’s pause to reflect on the tenacity of such a delicate life-form’s struggle to survive. Know that it’s simple and within your power to help, which means you probably should, right?
SUPER-SPECIAL WEB EDITION BEGINS NOW!
Two summers ago, I found a stray monarch caterpillar on the sidewalk and soon learned that it only ate milkweed. While I have a small garden bed, it didn’t have milkweed, so I began calling around to different nurseries to find some, but it was in short supply everywhere. I began to get desperate and made it my mission to find some wild milkweed (or someone else’s milkweed), even if I had to drive around after sundown with a flashlight pointed out the window. So I crept around Montrose with the black and yellow fellow in a Tupperware in the cup holder. After a few red herrings that looked like milkweed from a distance, I found a good-sized bush outside of an apartment complex and stealthily released the refugee onto his new home. I still return to this bush in a pinch when I have no other source of milkweed.
The following week, I found another monarch caterpillar on the ground with no milkweed in site. Dammit. I knew the nurseries were still out of stock, so I Googled ‘milkweed in Houston’ for some other leads and guess what? The Museum of Natural Science was holding their biannual plant sale in the parking garage…that very same day! There was only a couple of hours left before it was over so I scrambled into my car and scored some beautiful containers of milkweed and other pollinator attractive flowers. They worked. Within a few days, monarchs had laid several eggs on the leaves and within a few more days, babies! They grew quickly, first eating their egg sacs then moving on to munch the leaves.
While the white, black, and yellow colors protect them from several predators, they might as well have ‘all you can eat buffet’ written in red wasp-ese. Red/Paper wasps love monarch caterpillars. I’ll leave it at that. I tried covering the plants with netting, but wasps would chew their way through the fabric to get to the caterpillars. I wound up bringing a whole plant inside my house. I put it in an empty aquarium and covered the whole thing with netting and a dowel to make a canopy, and duct taped it closed. Over the next few weeks I watched several caterpillars form chrysalises and magically morph into beautiful monarchs. I never got to see them emerge, but I did see a few actually molt and form their chrysalis through a series of high-flying wiggles as they dangled from the net or a leaf. A monarch chrysalis looks like a small jade okra podlimned with gold and black details. At first, it is somewhat translucent, then over time it becomes darker until you see the colors of the monarch beneath the surface. It’s awesome in the truest sense of the word. After I’d released the last one, it seemed a little quieter around the house, even though they’d never made a peep.
This past summer when the wasps came around, I took a plant inside, and without bothering with the netting this time, I just kept the leaves clean of frass (that’s the name for caterpillar poop) and watered it every few days. Once the cats seemed fat enough to signal they were ready to pupate, I’d take them to a house down the road that has devoted most of one side of their house to a long row of milkweed. The owners are very kind and even gave me a small pot of milkweed to bring home. My son’s art teacher let it slip that he had a lot of milkweed growing behind his home, and has kindly taken at least three dozen cats off my hands in the past. Thank you Mr. Stafford! Once you meet someone who cares about the monarch cause, you can’t help but to think they’re probably good people.
I know that at least one of the caterpillars I’ve assisted has already made its journey to Mexico and back. By now it would be a GGGGGGreat (x6) grandparent, with who knows how many descendents. Today, a cold and rainy day, I saw another monarch that looked newly emerged. We moved it to a drier spot and after the rain, it was gone. And while business has slowed, the few milkweed plants I have cut back are coming in slow, but lush and thick, and will be ready in time for the spring arrivals.
Guess what? You can help too. Whether you only have a few bucks and/or a little time to spend here and there, or you’re down to devote a good portion of your garden to milkweed, it all adds up to make a big difference.
-SPREAD THE WORD: Telling others about the monarch’s crisis will help mobilize others to act in their favor. I’ve met some people that have found monarch caterpillars but didn’t know they only ate milkweed. Knowledge saves tiny lives, my friends.
-SPREAD THE SEED: Purchase or harvest milkweed pods and if you don’t have a garden or can’t keep container plants, you can still sow the seeds somewhere they’ll have a better chance to grow, whether directly in the ground beside the parent plant, or in a sunny location where similar plants are already thriving. Easy enough, right?
-EVERYBODY CUT: If you have milkweed to spare, make a few cuttings and pot them up for friends. A $5 jar of rooting hormone powder lasts forever, and cuttings grow faster than seeds (for me, at least.)
-UNEXPECTED VISITORS: If you happen upon a stray monarch caterpillar, look around and see if it has a nearby food source. If no milkweed is in the vicinity, you can either move it to a safe location if it looks fairly large—it could be looking for a place to climb and pupate—or you can try your luck and bring it with you (they’re fragile, but safe to touch) and make your mission to find it milkweed.
My Milkweed Brings all the Bugs… okay, I’ll stop. But it’s true. And as a nature fan and hobbyist photographer, milkweed serves as a stage to a wide cast of actors in a fascinating macro-epic of life and death. Aphids attract assassin bugs, ladybugs with ladybug eggs, and their babies that don’t resemble a ladybug in the least, and of course other butterflies enjoy the nectar of milkweed flowers as much as monarchs. Helping the monarchs has more returns for the least effort, and I hope you join me in doing what you can to help.