Winging It

Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.
Carlin Deguerin

As far as greenery goes, the backyard of Jim Blackburn and Garland Kerr will never be a candidate for a Better Homes and Gardens feature. Branches are brushed aside on the entry path, past an antique gate to a less-than-carefully landscaped plot of overgrown vegetation. Worse yet, close inspection of the leaves shows ample evidence of infestation. Parts of the plants are chewed up, while that bane of beautiful foliage -- the caterpillar -- is everywhere.

And Blackburn and Kerr couldn't be happier. That's because they don't keep just a garden, they keep a butterfly garden. To butterfly gardeners, caterpillars are a sign that they are doing something right.

Houston architect and part-time butterfly gardener Charles Tapley puts it this way: "Gardeners are like fishermen -- full of promise." With caterpillars comes the promise of butterflies.

While most Houstonians head to nurseries for insecticides to protect their flowers and plants, butterfly gardeners aim to attract "pests" that will lay eggs and produce larvae, which will consume leaves and otherwise make themselves at home.

This crop will blossom into airborne creatures with colors as vivid as any flower, but the purpose goes beyond that. Tapley explains that the gardens help combat the effects of development in the region that wipes out the natural habitats of butterflies. These ardently tended, untamed gardens nestled in the heart of the city serve as the oases that keep people like David Henderson busy.

Standing around in the hot Houston summer sun getting eaten by mosquitoes doesn't usually rank high on the list -- except for butterfly enthusiasts like David Henderson. The biology teacher at Collins High School in Klein ISD has been leading butterfly counts for two years. And mid-summer is the prime counting period, because that's when the sun makes them the most active.

Henderson's love of nature began with bird-watching in his youth. The transition came when P.D. Hulce, past president of the Houston Audubon Society, suggested that he join in a butterfly count. "As a teacher, most of my free time is in the summer when school is out," Henderson says, "but summer is not a great time for birding."

A San Antonio native, Henderson figured the search for butterflies would be a tame tour of flower gardens and other obvious places. Instead, that first count took him into the harsh wilds of the bottomlands along the Trinity River. In the humid, boggy conditions, he discovered the secret world of butterflies feasting on the sap of trees and other nutrients.

"I had always been intrigued by butterflies because of their beauty, but I had no idea how much you could learn about your environment from watching them." Henderson says it's the "thrill of the hunt" that keeps him going.

"The excitement of seeing rare species, and being able to observe them in their natural habitat without disturbing the ecosystem, is very satisfying," Henderson says. The learning curve for beginners is huge, mostly because the other counters are so helpful and the amount of information so plentiful, he explains.

Some of that quick understanding comes in the common names for butterflies, which can be as colorful as the creatures themselves. They are usually based on identifying features, often the wing markings. Lepidopterists might recognize a species as Dynamine dyonis; amateur counters know it as the Blue-Eyed Greenwing.

Counts can include the Polygonia interrogationis -- the Question Mark -- as well as the California Sisters. Punkers might relate to the Great Purple Hairstreak; seniors would accept the Gray Hairstreak. To the uninitiated, the Ship Channel would seem to be fertile ground for the Brazilian Skipper, while the hazy air of refinery row appears to be ripe for the likes of Cloudless Sulphur, Little Metalmark or the Scalloped Sootywing.

Over the years, regional counts, even those involving only a handful of participants, typically have yielded sightings of hundreds of butterflies of 40 or so species. The counts are focused on 15-mile radius areas, and the counters may rely on close-focus binoculars -- even opera glasses -- to spot different species. Henderson says the only requirements are curiosity and keen eyes.

"Butterflies are today's 'canary in the mineshaft' because they are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment," Henderson explains. Changes are reflected in the counts. Massive flooding from Tropical Storm Allison, for instance, can wipe out ground-dwelling populations like the Satyr and Pearly Eyes, which feed and lay their larvae on low-lying greenery and cane in woodland areas. Henderson recalls that even on the day of the flood he and his wife spotted a few species, such as a Checkered White and a Tiger Swallowtail, which feed on flowering trees and higher climbing vines and so were not affected at all by the rising waters.

But there is a paradox. Any patch of green, a weed lot or roadside ditch, can support a species of butterfly. So the counter's challenge is to record where each species is seen and differences from the previous year. Henderson, saying the counting effort is highly organized, bristled at the notion that the mobility of butterflies could cause the same one to be logged multiple times in one count.

Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, and Kerr, a CPA, don't have the problems of tracking butterflies over a 15-mile area. They got the inspiration for the special garden when they began building their home in the Rice University area nine years ago.

"We really wanted a garden, but the space we were building on was so small we couldn't decide how to do it," Kerr says. Their friend Peter Roe suggested that they start thinking of the outside as just another room. "Kind of like inviting nature into your house," Blackburn says.

That type of nature is a cheap tenant. The technical name for the kind of landscaping they cultivate is zero-scaping, but it looks more like antiscaping. A butterfly garden needs no regular visits by professional gardeners, no daily deluges of water or even insecticides. The owners explain that evolution takes over the process, weeding out the weak species from the strong.

Tapley says he just keeps his plants healthy, often with a dose of his homegrown compost, to attract the butterflies. "I read somewhere that insects -- bugs -- are opportunists, and what they are looking for from a plant are free amino acids, but the healthier your plants are, the fewer free amino acids exist." Caterpillars are unaffected.

Tapley said new gardens are usually very successful because butterflies respond well to first-time installations. Males of the species are known for being territorial. They "will patrol their particular area and really get agitated when another male comes around," says Tapley. His explanation was evident when an intruding Swallowtail and resident patrolling Monarch engaged in a dip-and-dive aerial dogfight before the Swallowtail flew away.

Plant varieties are designed to lure butterflies in. During a tour, Tapley points out the Lemoni of the marigold family. Its soft, hairlike leaves are silky and leave a citrusy smell on the fingers of those who handle them.

"This passion vine here is a popular plant to the Gulf Coast Fritillary [butterfly], for egg laying," says Tapley. He motions to a vine whose flowers look more Martian than Texan, with its spindly purple petals and oversized greenish-yellow pistils. Its leaves were eaten away, proof of its popularity with the Fritillary caterpillar.

Of course, the patience required for naturalists isn't necessarily shared by all butterfly enthusiasts. More and more entrepreneurs are cashing in on the commercial aspects of butterfly breeding and farming. These butterflies don't migrate -- they soar in overnight via Fedex or UPS.

"Butterflies: no longer a luxury confined to wealthy European Estates," touts the Web site of Butterfly Whispers Farm of Arkansas. Like scores of other firms, the company promises shipments of live butterflies for mass release at the customer's special occasion. They usually go with less visible butterflies -- the ones in the stomachs of brides and grooms.

Depending on how fancy the containers and other considerations, these specially bred butterflies go for about $10 a head, plus fairly hefty shipping charges.

"Because of the increase in demand for butterfly releases at weddings and special events, we want to caution you that there are several companies on the Internet that have recently jumped into the business, that do not have the proper facilities to produce strong healthy butterflies," warns the Web site of the Magical Beginnings farm. It says competitors try to undercut prices but often cannot fill the order.

Several Texas butterfly farms are among those listed as members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association. A Seabrook company, Education Science, hawks various rearing and breeding kits, along with plants and seeds suitable for feeding the critters.

There's also a brokers' site, a stock market of sorts for trading species and unloading overstocks. To the uninformed, a posting by Butterflies and Blueberries Inc. appeared to be for procuring something more than winged insects: "We have extra painted ladies for shipment to you by Thursday."

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