Wildflower Wednesday, November 2014

As the  2014 growing season slows, it’s harder to showcase blooming things for the garden.  Berries?  Sure, lush in their ripeness.  Beautiful foliage?  Yep–in abundance in the trees and on the ground. Interesting seed pods?  All over the garden, the remains of spent blooms.  But blooming things are scarcer and scarcer, even in temperate Austin, Texas.  Today though, I’m joining with Gail at clay and limestone to mark another celebration of wildflowers on this fourth Wednesday of November.

Even after our first light frosts Tropical Sage, Salvia coccinea, blooms.

IMGP2684.new Vibrant scarlet blooms brighten my garden  in these shorter days of autumn into winter.


Salvia species of all sorts flowered reluctantly in my gardens this year.  I’m not sure why, though I know that many salvia require lots of sun and that’s something my gardens see less and less of.  The Tropical Sage is an exception to that full-sun rule. These little herbaceous perennials bloom beautifully, in full sun,


…to mostly shade. IMGP2687.new

These red Tropical Sage begin flowering mid-to-late summer and have bloomed through the fall.   In my gardens, I grow more of the white bloomers  than the red.  The white Tropical Sage blooms late spring through early fall and during a mild winter, throughout. Generally, they’ll bloom in winter, until a hard freeze nips them, which I should add, is the norm.  (My property also is in central Austin, so my garden benefits from a heat-island effect and often doesn’t get as cold as outlying areas.) The red form blooms later for me–late summer into fall and also during winter if conditions allow. Drought hardy, prolific re-seeders, and deer resistant, Tropical Sage are also good nectar sources for pollinators.


Oh and they’re just darn pretty!


Tropical Sage are great to tuck into spots of the garden where there are limited choices, or where you want to fill in space.   I like to group several together in close proximity, like this bunch of almost finished white bloomers,


This gives a larger shrub effect, but without overpowering surrounding plants.

Tropical Sage are moderately fast growers.  I can plant seedlings like these in late fall or even winter,


…and as long as they’re well-mulched, they come back ready for action in late spring.  These are seedlings that I transplanted about a year ago.




Tropical Sage are native perennials to the southern coastal areas of the United States, including Texas and annuals in most other places.  A great perennial native wildflower–plant them now (in their native range)  or next year.  To celebrate wildflowers and native plants in the garden and to see what wildflowers other gardeners grow, take a turn from this busy holiday weekend and travel on over to clay and limestone.

Wildflowers work!



Danaus Perplexus


Sometimes, excitement over a particular project gets the better of me.  You know how it is: a thing happens and you assume about that thing, to realize later that oops, your assumption was, well, a bit off-base.

So it is with my Monarch musings of recent posts.  Specifically, the adventures of snipping some milkweed with attached caterpillars prior to a predicted freeze and settling them into my son’s vacated room for their metamorphosing process.  Turns out, most of the caterpillars are Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, and not Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.

It’s an easy mistake to make as they are both members of the same butterfly sub-family, Danainae.  They look similar, in both larval and adult stage, feed on the same host plant (milkweed) and share similar life-cycle events.  Interestingly, I’ve never had problems telling the two species apart in the adult butterfly stage, though many people do.  The adult Monarch is about a third larger, flies higher and with a different flight pattern, and sports “stripes,”



…rather than “dots.”


But I haven’t had all that much experience in viewing the larval stage.  That’s the thing about insects–they do their insect thing(s) and we humans don’t pay much attention unless those insect things are really obvious–you know, like flying around and landing on flowers.  It’s hard for us to miss that.

In my defense, I assumed that the ‘pillars were Monarchs because I’d seen a Monarch female lay eggs on the milkweed.  Additionally, I haven’t had as many Queens visit my gardens year, though they’re usually very common.  In retrospect, I remember observing a Queen at about the same time the Monarchs were migrating through, but don’t recall any egg-laying behaviors.

Not in my favor is the fact that I usually check and double-check my identifications because I’m not particularly confident in my wildlife critter knowledge.  When I observe a wild creature in my gardens, I usually check local sources first, like Austin Bug Collection, and then double-check the identification with a more comprehensive site like the excellent BugGuide.net, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or Butterflies and Moths of North America.  Often I research further, comparing my photos and observations with varying sites–to avoid obvious mistakes.

In this case, I recognized that the one caterpillar that is a Monarch was different–I just didn’t follow-up on my visual observations.  I noticed he was larger, with slightly different color patterns, and that he only had two tentacle pairs–a pair of antennae near the head and a tentacle pair further down the abdomen.  The “other” cats had three sets: one set of antennae and two sets of tentacles.  You can clearly see the difference in this photo.



I just didn’t pay close enough attention, nor did I intellectually process my observations. This kind of critter identification faux pas is one motivation behind hosting the Wildlife Wednesday garden blogging meme–to better my own citizen scientist abilities.

Well, this Monarch nannying was a big FAIL with that goal.  Bummer.  I’m not a scientist. 

In some ways, I’m glad that what I am nannying are Queens. Granted, Queens aren’t  as cool and sexy and important as the beleaguered Monarchs.  But, whatever hatches has a greater chance of normal survival–Queens can live year-round in South Texas and Austin is at the northern range of that year-round habitat.   If the caterpillars were Monarchs, the chances of a successful very late migration and overwinter survival in Mexico would be slim. Not impossible, but unlikely.  That these are Queens means that at the very least, they’ll hang around, nectar, and live out their life.

All that said, Mr. Nine Lives, aka Monarch larva, is not going to make it.  He’s currently curled up on the windowsill.  No photo here–let’s preserve some dignity. I don’t know why he’s dying.  It might be that I wasn’t careful when I handled him, that I didn’t wash my hands and transferred germs which caused illness, or that his thunk on the wooden floor and/or his dip in the water where the milkweed cuttings reside, did him in. I think the other chrysalides are progressing normally though.  I’ll report again on…whatever happens.

Despite my identification mistake and my limitations as a scientist (which are profound), I value and marvel at the beauty and miracle of the metamorphosis process. I’m grateful to witness this natural phenomenon.

Thanks to Michelle at Rambling Woods for setting me straight and teaching me something new!

This Cat Has Nine Lives

Maybe not nine, but this cat,


…has at least two or three.  This poor guy. He’s munching along, minding his own business, eating because that’s what he does and plop, he somehow ends up on the floor. I found him, dazed and confused, when I came home. No photo of that as I was scrambling to gently, very gently, pick him up and settle him back on the milkweed buffet.



I set about my own projects and responsibilities and later checked again and…EEK!!! He’s fallen into the water where the milkweed stems rest. Again, no photo of him floating, but I quickly dumped the water out, set him on a paper towel and gently, oh so gently, began prodding him and blowing air on him to dry him out. I have no idea if this is what you do to a drowning caterpillar, but it feels right.  At least, it’s something I can do because  I know I can’t perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Gross.

To prevent any more accidental dips in the reservoir, I added a paper towel protective layer to the top of the jar, poked the stems of milkweed through and resettled the last three caterpillars, including Mr. Nine Lives Cat.


He was a little pokey to recover, but recover he did, gobbling up milkweed a short time later.  Here he is (the darker one) sharing stems with the other, who is also close to pupating.

IMGP2778.new I wonder if the darker coloring is a response to his near-drowning experience?  Probably not and I think his color was a little different before he decided to go for a swim, but there’s definitely a color differential between these two. Also, Mr. Nine Lives Cat also only has two, rather than the normal three, sets of antennae.  I don’t know about this guy–marching to a different drummer?.  Is that acceptable in the Lepidoptera larval world?

For the first part of the weekend, I watched him crawl around the top of the window,IMGP2789.new

…finally realizing that indeed, he’s not ready to change his caterpillar wardrobe for those of his winged self.  Honestly, he just seemed befuddled–like he’d lost his milkweed way. Saturday night I scooped him up and placed him back on the milkweed where he set about his eating routine.

Meanwhile Saturday night into Sunday, the other caterpillar began its morph, forming into the ‘J’.


Fortuitously, during a brief Sunday afternoon Monarch check, I  came upon a chrysalis-in-the-making.




IMGP2804.newI stood there, stupidly transfixed, before I collected myself enough to grab the camera for some shots, because the last morph doesn’t last long.  And it didn’t.



Within a minute or so, the action was over.  You can see the difference between a newly formed pupa and one that is older.IMGP2806.new


I’ve no idea what Mr. Nine Lives Cat is doing.  Still hanging around and not yet pupating.



This little caterpillar died. Over the last few days, he stopped eating and succumb…to whatever caterpillars succumb to.  He’s the second of the nine larvae to die.



This chrysalis has some kind of glitch.  Do you see the black spot?


It also appears to have sustained a little tear as well.  I don’t know whether I bumped it or if something else occurred, but it’ll be interesting to observe any anomalies in its butterfly evolution.

This chrysalis (to the left) was the first to pupate and is darkening, which means that the butterfly is in its last developmental stages and it’s a matter of day(s) before emergence.


At least I hope that’s what the darkening means.

Our weather forecast is conducive to butterfly release over the next week or so.  Next stop?  Butterflies!