Anita’s Blog – ID Your Emerging Native Plants
I’ve extolled the glories and fun of using www.iNaturalist.org for several years. The other day, I was yet again thrilled with this awesome citizen scientist resource.
A little back story: A couple of years ago, October 1, 2021, to be exact, I was delighted to find a couple of caterpillars on leaves of two frostweed plants. (Mexican winged crown-beard, Verbesina microptera, as it is identified in iNaturalist.org). I’d found the cats the morning of the first day of the 2021 Texas Pollinator BioBlitz (Oct 1 – Oct 17, 2021). Prior to that incident, I had not found where frostweed was used as a larval host plant, so that intrigued me.
The yellow, white and black striped creatures were covered with a white, silky web I also thought was odd because I wasn’t familiar with caterpillars that spun a web over themselves, but I’m not that well versed on caterpillars by any means.
I photographed both caterpillars in situ and uploaded them individually and together onto iNat with my phone app. Surprisingly, I didn’t get any hints as to what butterfly’s larvae were using the frostweed as a host. Nor later did I find anything in my butterfly or caterpillar books.
Without clues, I opted to classify the observations as butterflies and moths, order Lepidoptera.
Here’s the glory of iNaturalist – home to hundreds of experts – eventually the pertinent expert will come across uploaded observations that need to be identified and will suggest an ID. That’s what happened with these mystery cats on the frostweed leaves. Currently, it’s only one ID, and not yet research grade; the one expert believes the caterpillars belong to a moth in the subfamily Pyraustinae, a member of Crambid Snout Moths (Family Crambidae).
It’s a start. And it’s plausible. I’ve attracted a few of those colorful moths to my black light moth sheet set up in years past (examples below). I’ve not been successful in researching if any of those use frostweed or other Verbisina as larval host plants so the mystery still remains.
Inornate Pyrausta moth, Pyrausta inornatalis, uses salvia plants as larval food plants.
Southern Purple Mint moth, Pyrausta laticlavia, reported to use plants in the mint family and Rosemary.
Pyrausta augustalis moth uses lemon balm and possibly other mints.
Whip-marked Snout moth, Microtheoris vibicalis, a Crambidae Family moth, no larval food information available.
Rufous-banded Crambid moth, Mimoschinia rufofascialis, uses Malvaceous plants, like Indian mallow, false mallow, fanpetal (a Sida).
Pyraustinae is a large subfamily of moths that currently includes more than 1,400 species, most of them are tropical but some are found in temperate regions including both North America and Europe, according to Wikipedia. There is a colorful array of Pyraustinae moth photos at this iNaturalist.org link: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/122491-Pyraustinae.
Now back to the frostweed and other plants. Native plants – those upstarts that are often mistaken for weeds at this time of year – are beginning to show themselves, which is great – they’ll be ready to be included in the upcoming annual – global – iNaturalist project: the City Nature Challenge, April 28, 2023 – May 1, 2023.
Let me interject a little unpaid advertisement here: Urban Ecologist John Brush, an expert in using and teaching iNaturalist, is scheduled to lead an "All About iNaturalist Workshop" at McAllen's Quinta Mazatlán, 600 Sunset Drive, Saturday, March 4, 2023, from 2 to 4 p.m. The cost is $5. Sign up here: https://quintamazatlan.ticketleap.com/
Preparing your plants for the CNC BioBlitz is easy – just simply try not to take out your unknown plants with the mower or weeder. After the event, you can tidy up your yards and gardens as you wish.
If you’ve had frostweed it in your garden in the past, new plants are coming up now. Although they won’t be blooming for the spring BioBlitz, they won’t be blooming at all if they’re cut down now.
Here are what a few of our local native plants look like when they are just coming up.
Frostweed, Verbesina microptera – fall blooming – attracts butterflies and many other insects
Pennsylvania Pellitory, Parietaria pensylvanica – host plant for red admiral butterfly
Red-seeded Plantain, Plantago rhodosperma – useful for soil health; eaten by Texas tortoise, quail, doves
Scorpion’s tail, Heliotropium angiospermum – amazing nectar for butterflies and other insects
Crucita, Chromolaena odorata – Fall-blooming mistflower; a must-have for fall nectar
Pigeon Berry, Rivina humilis – grows in shade; leaves have pink/red edge; birds eat the fruit
Skeleton leaf golden eye, Virguiera stenoloba – long-blooming, summer and fall nectar
Basketflower, Centaurea americana – spring blooming, great nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, other insects
Tropical Sage, Salvia coccinea – useful to hummingbirds, bees, butterflies
Zizotes, Asclepias oenotheroides – a milkweed; host food for monarch caterpillars
Passionflower, Passiflora foetida – trefoil-shaped leaves; pollen for bees and host plant for fritillary butterflies
Climbing milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides – blooms and leaves attract insects
A slender passion flower, possibly Passiflora suberosa or P. pallida – host plant for fritillary butterflies
Texas thistle, Cirsium texanum – Wicked looking but amazing for attracting butterflies, bees, and other interesting insects; keep at least one until the blooms are spent; host for Painted Lady butterfly.
This is just a few of the hundreds of native plants in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s best to be vigilant and allow plants to mature for easier identification and check them out to see if they are useful to wildlife via websites like www.iNaturalist.org.