News Categories: Featured

11 Nov
By: Communications 0

Winter Birding

By Matthew Abernathy
Assistant Director of Jones Park

Winter birding in southeast Texas is hard to beat. With mild weather and a bird population unique to Texas, the Gulf Coast region remains popular among birders of all skill levels.

The activity’s versatility is all part of the appeal. In fact, many birders create backyard bird habitats to birdwatch from their windows. Because seed production slows in winter, birds are always on the lookout for extra food. Adding feeders and a variety of food sources, like nectar and seed, can transform a once barren yard into a popular winter birding destination. Many lucky birdwatchers have even spotted rare birds from their window.

When choosing a bird feeder, keep in mind that birds come in all shapes and sizes, so offering different feeders and food options will support a more diverse bird population. If you’re on a budget, the internet is a great resource for tutorials to create do-it-yourself bird feeders.

Venturing out into the wild is often the next step in birdwatching, and there’s no better time than winter. The Gulf Coast region features wintering birds that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Bare winter trees often yield clearer views of birds in their natural habitat, and an abundance of parks and natural areas provide an ideal setting to explore. Like many Texas parks, Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center offers information on recent birding observations and guided bird walks. Anyone interested in birding can benefit from a guided bird walk to learn more about the land, local wildlife, and ecology and to network with those with similar interests.

Park visitors are also encouraged to visit the pollinator garden near the Nature Center to explore native plants and view bird feeders that attract birds and other wildlife in the area.

Want to learn more? Learning the names of the area’s most common birds is a great way to get started. Jones Park offers monthly bird walks on the first Saturday of the month from September through May, beginning at 7:45 a.m. Bird walks are free and open to birders 10 and older. Those who would like to help track winter bird populations are invited to install a bird feeder and report bird visits to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch.

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11 Nov
By: Communications 0

Folklore of Native Plants

 

With their vibrant colors and intricate designs, wildflowers and native plants have inspired countless stories and legends, from tales of an undercover fairy princess to a chieftain’s daughter who fell in love with the sun. These stories not only help us understand our earliest ancestors, but they also provide new perspectives on common native plants. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite stories below.

Texas Dandelion

Native American legend tells of a beautiful chieftain’s daughter who fell in love with the sun. Each day, the woman climbed a hill to watch the sun as he crossed the sky. But despite her love, the sun never noticed her. As time went on, the young woman grew old, and her long hair turned gray and frail. Near death, the woman again returned to the hilltop to watch her beloved one last time. Before she died, the wind carried her hair away and scattered it across the land. Moved by her devotion, the sun covered her body with small yellow flowers. Each day, these flowers track the sun’s progress across the sky until they grow old and their seeds, like the old woman’s hair, drift away on the wind.

 

 

 

Goldenrod

Legend has it that goldenrod was created by an ancient woman trying to make her way through a dark and forbidding forest. As the old woman struggled to walk, she asked each tree for help. One by one, the trees refused. Halfway through the forest, she came across a small stick that offered to help. Relieved, the old woman picked up the stick and continued her trek. She eventually came to the end of the forest and, as she emerged from the trees, she turned into a beautiful fairy princess. Turning to the lowly stick, she said, “For your kindness and help, I will grant you one wish.” The stick thought for a moment and replied, “I would like to be loved by all the children of the world.” The fairy princess sprinkled gold dust on the stick and chanted a few words, transforming it into a beautiful plant that still dazzles to this day.

Unfortunately, most Americans now avoid goldenrod. Because the plant’s bloom time coincides with ragweed season, it often takes the blame for causing allergy symptoms. But goldenrod is actually beneficial for both people and pollinators. With its small, nectar-packed blooms, the plant lights up fields and roadsides in the fall and has anti-inflammatory properties when used as a medicine.

Ragweed

If itchy, watery eyes and a stuffy nose plague you in the fall, chances are you have a ragweed allergy. The plant’s small, inconspicuous flowers produce large amounts of pollen that affect 10-20% of the population. Paradoxically, the plant’s generic name, ambrosia, means “food of the gods.”  Although despised by many, the plant boasts some surprising health benefits. Native Americans collected vast quantities of the seed for food and medicine. The Meskwaki chewed the plant’s roots to drive away “night fears.” The upper stems of the plant exude a red sap when cut that can be used as a stain or a dye. The Cherokee applied the juice to infected toes, and the Comanche, Cheyenne, and Cherokee used ragweed to treat colds, stomach aches, and even pneumonia. The plant thrives in disturbed areas, so most likely it wasn’t as abundant in prehistoric times.

Continuing the Tradition

Ready to learn more? Next time you’re weeding your flowerbed, look up the stories behind those pesky weeds. You may be surprised by how much these plants meant to those who came before us.

 

 

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30 Oct
By: HCP4 Admin 0

FAQs: Monarchs and Milkweed

It’s no secret that butterflies love milkweed. The long-blooming plant features tight flower clusters packed with nectar, and the leaves are filled with a milky substance that caterpillars adore. But more importantly, monarch butterflies cannot live without it. Adult monarchs seek the plant for its nectar and lay their eggs exclusively on the plant during the warmer months.

Now that fall monarch migration is in full swing, we’ve compiled a list of your top questions about monarchs and milkweed. Learn about pollinator plants, the fall monarch migration, how to tag butterflies, and plenty of other information about these winged beauties below.

Q: The most recognizable form of milkweed in Harris County is the tropical or Mexican milkweed, which features yellow or orange flowers. What other types of milkweed are good for pollinator gardens?

A: About 35 milkweed species are native to Texas, and about half a dozen grow in the Houston area. For monarchs, the healthiest varieties of milkweed include green milkweed (Asclepias viridis), zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides), and aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis).

Q: I want to grow Texas native milkweed plants from seed. What is the easiest way to gather the seeds?

A: Milkweed seeds aren’t viable if you harvest them too soon. Wait until the milkweed pod starts to open before stripping the seeds from the pod. If you can’t harvest the seeds right away, place a net over the pod to prevent the seeds from blowing away. To strip the fluff from the seeds, place the seeds in a bag with a few coins and shake. The seeds should settle at the bottom of the bag.

Q: Can I plant different milkweed varieties together?

A. Because most milkweed varieties have different growing conditions, gardeners rarely plant them in the same location. For example, green milkweed, which grows in low spots along rural roadways, prefers heavy, occasionally muddy soil, and the zizotes milkweed requires well-drained soil. Aquatic milkweed, as the name implies, grows in wet bottomland areas along the edges of ponds and creeks. Green and zizotes milkweed prefer full sun, and aquatic milkweed tolerates some shade.

Q: I’ve heard something about a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha and that it infects tropical milkweed. Should I be concerned about this?

A: Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (or OE) is a parasite first discovered more than 20 years ago, but it’s only recently received attention. OE is concentrated in non-migratory monarch populations in the Houston area. The parasite persists in the Houston area because of our mild winters and long-blooming milkweed varieties, such as tropical milkweed (red and orange colored) and native aquatic milkweed. To prevent the parasite from spreading, cut back your tropical milkweed before each spring so that fresh growth will be available for the spring migration. (Most local monarchs raised in the summer and fall are non-migratory.)

Q: Should I remove my tropical milkweed?

A: Growing tropical milkweed is fine, especially in areas with frost. If it doesn’t freeze, be sure to cut back your milkweed before spring.

For more information, check out the resources below:

www.monarchwatch.org

www.monarchgateway.org

www.saveourmonarchs.org

www.monarchbutterflyusa.com.

(Information provided by Mercer Greenhouse Manager Jacob Martin, TMS Grower Brandon Hubbard, and Mercer volunteer Don DuBois)

Milkweed Varieties 

 

How to Grow Milkweed from Seed

 Want to grow your own milkweed? Check out this step-by-step guide for growing milkweed in the Gulf Coast area, including zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides), aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis),  butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and green milkweed (Asclepias viridis).

  • Rinse seeds with water.
  • Fill a resealable bag half full of sand and add just enough water for the sand to hold its shape. The consistency should be like a sandcastle, not too wet or too dry. Make sure to label each bag with the name of the species and the date.
  • Rinse the seeds and evenly spread them into the sand. Before sealing the bag, make sure to remove all air. Store the bag in your refrigerator.
  • Cool the seeds for at least 30 days. Note: Refrigerating seeds is a technique used to simulate the real-world conditions a seed would receive outdoors as winter turns to spring.
  • After at least 30 days, remove the seed bags from the refrigerator and start preparing your planting trays.
  • Fill a seed starting tray with high quality seed-germinating soil like Jolly Gardener soil, which we use at Mercer. (A 72-count cell tray is recommended.)
  • Dump your sand/seed mixture into a strainer and rinse with water until all the sand has been washed off. Only seeds should be left in the strainer.
  • Plant four to five seeds per tray about ¼- to ½-inch deep and lightly cover with soil.
  • Place the cell trays into a warm area or greenhouse. Water the seeds gently and evenly, using a watering wand or mister. Be careful not to displace the seeds with a hard stream of water. The professionals at Mercer use a misting table to water seedlings.
  • Keep the cell trays evenly moist until germination occurs, which should take about four to seven days.
  • After two to three weeks, the seedlings should be about 2 inches tall and ready to transplant.
  • Transplant the seedlings into 4-inch pots filled with high quality potting soil. Plant one cell per 4-inch pot. If there are multiple plants sprouted in one cell, do not try to separate them. The roots are very fragile and will not take well if damaged.

After about one to two months, the seedlings will be ready to plant in the ground.

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20 Sep
By: Communications 0

Fall Monarch Butterfly Migration

Timing is everything when it comes to spotting monarch butterflies. Like birds, butterflies migrate to their northern breeding grounds in the spring and to warmer wintering sites in the fall. Because Texas is an important waystation for butterflies to rest and refuel, you’ll likely catch a few more butterflies than usual fluttering in your garden from September through November. Looking for the best places to see monarchs? We’ve compiled a list of some of Precinct 4’s top butterfly gardens below.

Dennis Johnston Park Butterfly Garden

This sunny space at Dennis Johnston Park proves that you can grow a butterfly garden almost anywhere.

Volunteers created the garden in 2014 in an empty ditch. Although the garden thrived, volunteers worried a flood would drown the plants. Despite their worry, the garden bounced back after suffering floods in 2016 and 2017.

Today, the garden is a certified monarch waystation featuring milkweed, coneflowers, and other native plants. In the fall, the garden comes alive with butterflies migrating to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Visit the garden Saturday, October 12, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to learn more about migrating monarchs from the experts.

The Monarch Project Educational Initiative and Spring Creek Education Society will present a variety of programs with milkweed plantings. Check out the activities below:

  • Learn about the fall monarch butterfly migration.
  • Learn about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
  • Identify different varieties of monarch host plants and milkweed and find monarch eggs and caterpillars.
  • Learn how to safely net and hold butterflies.
  • Learn how to tag monarch butterflies and take abdominal scale samples to test for the OE parasite, a deadly parasite that infects caterpillars when they eat affected milkweed.
  • Discover how to create your own butterfly habitat and certified waystation.
  • Help plant milkweed in the Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden

Matzke Park Butterfly Garden

This popular quarter-acre garden is a monarch waystation with seasonal displays of color from spring until frost. A few pollinator favorites now in bloom include milkweed, roses, ginger, esperanza, carpet mums, duranta, Turk’s cap, plumbago, sage, and cannas.

Flowering shrubs and trees provide structure in the garden and shelter pollinators from the wind and weather. Visit the garden to find chaste trees, lime trees, a peach tree, a flowering Texas olive tree, parsley hawthorn, crape myrtles, bottle brush, and American beautyberry.

Mercer Pollinator Garden

Mercer has always been butterfly friendly, but now it’s a certified monarch waystation. Mercer now includes a native plant pollinator garden funded by a grant from the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Located near the Children’s Garden, this garden features pollinator favorites, including milkweed, black-eyed Susans, and Mexican sunflowers. The garden’s location was chosen as a transition between the Shakespeare Garden and the Children’s Garden, which both contain nectar-producing plants.

Jacob Martin, the Mercer greenhouse manager, said Mercer hopes the garden will help spread awareness about the nation’s dwindling monarch and bee populations.

“We want people to be inspired to plant their own pollinator gardens when they visit,” he said. “They can come here and get ideas about what grows well in our area and the plants that attract the most pollinators. You can always pick out the most popular plants by the number of bees or butterflies you see around them.”

Although most flowering perennials are active during the spring and summer, the garden contains plants attractive to pollinators visiting during all seasons.

“We chose plants that feed the caterpillars as well as the bees and butterflies,” he said. “Butterflies have different needs according to their life cycle.”

Martin said Mercer hopes to add signage to the area, so visitors can learn about the life cycle of the butterfly.

“Our goal is to create an educational space for visitors of all ages to learn about plants and the insects that rely on them,” he said.

Wildscape at Pundt Park

This garden is au naturel! Clusters of wildflowers fill nearly every inch of this wildscape garden. Stay on the path to view bees and butterflies in action. This spot is a favorite of the gulf fritillary butterfly – an orange, black, and white butterfly often mistaken for a monarch.

The garden started about two years ago after TAP staff noticed an abundance of wildflowers and passion flower vine, the host plant of the gulf fritillary butterfly, growing in an empty field. To protect the wildflowers and encourage pollinator awareness, they built a fence around the garden and installed informational signs about the garden. Plans also include adding plant labels inside the garden to help identify common wildflowers.

Nature enthusiasts are invited to join TAP in the spring for Wildflower Wanderings in the garden to see what blooms each week. Visit the garden to view firewheels, mist flowers, showy primrose, and Texas goatweed.

Ready to go butterfly hunting? Read more about monarch butterflies here: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/texas_nature_trackers/monarch/.

 

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20 Sep
By: Communications 0

Answers to your FAQs: What is Precinct 4’s Capital Improvement Projects Division?

If you notice new roads in Precinct 4, they’re likely the work of Precinct 4’s Capital Improvement Projects Division. The team manages dozens of new traffic improvement projects each year, including road expansion projects, traffic signals, intersection improvements, and traffic management systems.

What are the funding sources? 

CIP receives funding from the METRO fund, Harris County Toll Road Authority Mobility Funds, and a 2015 bond issue. METRO funds, which are based on the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, are used for the construction and maintenance of streets, bridges, traffic control signals, sidewalks, trails, and drainage improvements within the METRO service areas. These funds are split equally among the four precincts after a recent Commissioners Court decision cut Precinct 4’s share by 24.4%.

The capital improvements division also seeks grants or partnerships with other agencies to stretch its budget. These organizations include the state Department of Transportation, municipalities, local utility districts, communities, and homeowners associations. Funding for sidewalks, school zone flashing warning signals, and traffic signals near schools is derived from the Child Safety Fund.

Want to learn more? Visit https://apps.hcp4.net/pct4Forms/cip.aspx. 

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