HAIRY BALLS PLANT

Gomphocarpus physocarpus is the botanical name for a plant more commonly known as Balloon plant, Balloon Cotton bush, Bishop’s Balls, Elephant Balls, Family Jewels Tree, Goose Plant, Giant Swan Plant, Hairy Balls, Monkey Balls, and Oscar.

Cee, the Southern Rural Route’s butterfly lady, introduced the plant to me as Hairy Balls. Thus, it will always be Hairy Balls because I’m doing good to remember any name at all. Throw in a name change and I would be in serious trouble. She generously shared a couple of 2-inch plants for experimental growing in my garden.

Gomphocarpus physocarpus was formerly Asclepias physocarpa. I don’t know when it was reclassified. Confusion will abound going forward because there is always someone who didn’t get the memo on reclassification. For instance, the USDA plant database seems aware of the change but their charts still reflect the Asclepias classification.

It is a species of milkweed, a tropical/tender perennial (for Zones 8 through 11) that blooms in the late summer and early fall.

Thumb nail sized white flowers with petals that look like wings over a pale rose center.
Hairy balls in bloom.

The plant resembles the common milkweed but it can grow to 5 or 6 feet, the leaves are a lighter shade of green, and not as wide or long as common milkweed leaves.

It is both a host and nectar plant for the Monarch butterfly.

PESTS

Typical of milkweed plants, aphids can be a problem.

PRUNING

My plant became very unattractive – a single, woody stalk curling out towards the sun. I pulled it out and tossed it after collecting seeds. Research indicates that I could have pruned it in the late spring to make it bushier. Late spring may work for northern climates but in the South, if you wait that long the plant will be four feet tall. Use your own judgment for your climate.

SEED PODS

The seed pods are yellowish-green round balls that grow to about 2-1/2 inches in overall length. They are covered with soft whisker-like hairs spaced 1/4-inch from each other.

Early growth of seed pods. Still not full-size.

 

My thumb is in the photo to help you visualize the actual size of the seed pod.

Collect seeds in the fall. Allow the pod to turn a rosy-tan color for seed maturity. After the seed pod cracks, break it open and strip the seeds from the white “silks.” The seeds should be brown/black and dry looking. Dry completely before storing.

Hairy balls changing to rosy-tan color. Notice the milkweed bugs on the underside of leaf on right-hand, bottom side of photo.
The pod has cracked open to expose brown seeds attached to silks.
Seeds ready for harvest.

PROPAGATION

Hairy Balls is normally grown from seeds wind-sown by the plant (bag the seeds to avoid). In Southern climates it can be fall-sown. In northern climates, start seeds indoors in the early spring several weeks before the last frost. The seed does not need to be cold stratified.

Do not cover the seed when sowing and keep the soil moist and in bright light to aid germination (15 to 30 days). Being a tropical milkweed, it will germinate best in warm temperatures (68-80F).

It is considered an invasive in the tropics, subtropics, semi-arid and hyper-arid climates. It grows freely in Hawaii and Africa.

WARNING

Poisonous if ingested.

 

BUTTERFLY ROAD TRIP

Cee and I took off on a road trip to Gainesville, Florida to see the Butterfly Exhibit at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History. Most of the Museum is free but the Butterfly Exhibit charges $12 for Floridians and Seniors. You don’t realize how small it is until you see it from the outside but, oh, is it magnificent! Walkways take you into a lushly planted tropical rainforest with plants below you, at eye level, and above you. Flying all around are beautiful, large butterflies and moths. A very large moth crashed into the back of my head with enough force that I knew something had hit me. I don’t know the names of these butterflies or where they hail from but I did manage to digitize a few of them.

butterfly of iridescent blue with black edges
Blue Morpho Butterfly

Because of the sun, the crowds and the cramped quarters, I was unable to photograph the plantings. You’ll find a few photos at the Florida Museum Butterfly Rainforest website.

We each bought about 7 plants in the front of the Museum at the Butterflyfest Plant Sale,  a 3-day plant sale. We had postponed our trip to coincide with the plant sale date. I don’t know how often they have these larger plant sales but on Friday and Saturdays they feature 15 plants for sale.

Cee and I were after nectar and host plants for butterflies but they also had a few accent plants. Prices were comparable to a big box store but these plants are, for the most part, seldom offered at big box stores and are hard to find at smaller nurseries.

Cee talked me into buying a weed. I have never in my life paid good money for a weed! She insisted, as she picked it up and handed it to me, that I had to have a False Nettle because it was a host plant for the Red Admiral butterfly. In the excitement of the moment, I took the plant despite the fact that I have never once seen a Red Admiral on my property. Ever. I am truly doubtful I will see one with a lone False Nettle in my garden, either, but at least it grows into a green bush with insignificant flowers and might help discourage other weeds. Kind of like my purple Porterweed that I grow for the big, fat bumble bees.

In addition to the False Nettle, I bought a Brazilian Shrimp Plant, Orange Plume/Mexican Honeysuckle, Lady Margaret Passionflower, Blue Curls, Cigar Plant, and I replaced my Rainbow/Peacock Fern for the third time.

We barely scratched the surface of what the Florida Museum has to offer but it’s only 72 miles away. We’ll go again.

WINTER MONARCH CATERPILLARS

A mild Florida winter and a few milkweed plants extended butterfly reproduction into December and January. I found myself inviting the neighborhood children into the yard to show them my monarch caterpillars. Most of the children are under 10 but I was amazed that one 5-year-old already knew about caterpillars and butterflies. When I was 5, I buried my dead goldfish with his head above the dirt so he could breathe. Obviously, the idea of caterpillars becoming butterflies would have been beyond my comprehension. I’m still a little slow. Most children today come into the world with the ability to thumb type on cell phones. I still poke at the keyboard with one finger. Sigh.

The 5-year-old also managed to set my gag reflex in motion when she wanted to pick up a caterpillar and hold it in her hand. My hysterical mind began to scream, “Are you kidding me? Aack! Aack!” Not wanting to dampen fearless curiosity, I allowed her to gently pick up the caterpillar for a quick crawl on her palm while I stepped back a foot.

A few days later, on January 6, I called the Butterfly Lady, Cee. When she answered her cell phone, I said, “Come get my worms.” She laughed. She was a tad busy as she had just returned from a trip. It was up to me to deliver my 12+ worms to her larger food supply. I had my brother transfer them to a gallon water jug with the top cut out. I covered the jug with enough netting and duct tape to safely imprison them should I encounter a hurricane on my 23-mile trip. I also strapped them in the seat beside me where I could keep a wary eye on them.

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST CATERPILLARS

Cee’s attitude towards winter butterflies is “survival of the fittest” because she takes a break in the winter from all the work of hatching butterflies. It takes a lot of time to bleach eggs, habitats and milkweed to minimize OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Other butterflies, such as swallowtails, don’t require all that bleaching even though she still bleaches the habitats between batches. If you want to know about bleaching eggs, this video explains it.

 

MANUALLY MOVING A CATERPILLAR FOR THE FIRST TIME

On January 24, I once again discovered a lone caterpillar on the same milkweed plant. The milkweed had only 2 cold-burnt leaves remaining. I knew the caterpillar had to be moved to a larger food source. Wanting to overcome my unreasonable aversion to caterpillars, I donned a pair of garden gloves to move the caterpillar to the Hairy Balls Milkweed. My brother had mentioned it was hard to get them off the milkweed as they hang on for dear life and I found this to be true. I walked towards the Hairy Balls Milkweed with outstretched palm just in case I tripped. As I was encouraging junior to grasp the milkweed, my head snapped back when my peripheral vision picked up movement. There was a large caterpillar claiming home-ownership of that milkweed plant. I was beyond surprised – this was late January and this caterpillar had not been on this milkweed at the time I delivered the others to Cee. If it had been, it was too small for the naked eye to see. Once I got junior on the milkweed, I stepped back to assess the situation. Seven caterpillars and one of them had the audacity to be hanging out on the other Hairy Balls Milkweed that had 3 hairy balls on it. I was not happy.  I did not want caterpillars mowing it to the ground before I collected seeds from the 3 hairy balls as this was my first time growing this type of milkweed.

 

FREEZE PROTECTION FOR CATERPILLARS

Our weather headed into a freeze on January 29 that was to last 3 days. I was afraid the caterpillars would die in a sustained freeze so I covered them with two bed sheets. They were uncovered the morning of February 2. They didn’t appear frozen — color was good and they were still attached to the milkweed but they were not moving. On the other hand, the caterpillar I left uncovered because his milkweed was too hard to cover, was moving and feeding. I checked on the sleepy heads an hour later and they were finally moving. Eight caterpillars survived the freeze. Across town on the same day, Cee found several caterpillars on the milkweed she had intended to trim.

 

UNUSUAL PLACES CATERPILLARS WENT INTO J-FORMATION

The J-Formation is the term used to explain when the caterpillar attaches itself by a silk pad to begin the metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis. This usually occurs on a plant stem but Cee has found the caterpillars or the resulting chrysalis in unusual places.

 

monarch caterpillar attached itself in J formation to ridge of clay pot
Caterpillar on the ridge of a clay pot. Photo by Cee.

 

Chrysalis on a pillow sitting on patio furniture. Photo by Cee.
Chrysalis on a pillow sitting on patio furniture. Photo by Cee.

 

Chrysalis on antenna of decorative butterfly
Chrysalis on antenna of decorative butterfly. Photo by Cee.

 

One of her caterpillars went into J-formation on her Staghorn Fern. Cindy and I marveled that the caterpillar had to climb up the bumpy oak tree bark and slither down the chain holding the Staghorn Fern. The only other possibility is the monarch butterfly accidentally laying an egg on the Staghorn Fern instead of milkweed. As we wondered about this, I was standing there, camera in hand, but it did not occur to me to take a picture of the chrysalis or the tree or the chain. I  later asked Cindy to shoot the photos for me. Honestly, I need adult supervision.

 

Chrysalis on Staghorn Fern. Photo by Cee.
Chrysalis on Staghorn Fern. Photo by Cee.

 

 

This is the oak tree with the Staghorn Fern hanging from the chain. Photo by Cee.
This is the oak tree with the Staghorn Fern hanging from the chain. Photo by Cee.
Chrysalis on screen room guide wire.
Chrysalis on screen room guide wire. Photo by Meta.
Chrysalis on top of door frame. Photo by Meta.

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES — PARASITES, PREDATORS & DISEASES

Monarch butterflies have a mortality rate of over 90% due to parasites, predators and diseases. A Monarch butterfly flitting through your garden is a miracle of survival. It victoriously made it through the entire life cycle — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. After all that striving, it will live a mere 2 to 6 weeks as an adult butterfly.

This blackened Monarch caterpillar showed up in a small patch of milkweed I provide as a host plant for monarchs.

 

I consulted my friend, Cee, the Butterfly Lady, to find out what happened and she provided me with several possibilities.

 

PARASITES

Monarchs in tropical areas have the highest rate of infection from Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha, mostly referred to as OE probably because no one can pronounce it. OE is a parasitic single cell organism infecting only milkweed butterflies in the Lepidoptera order. The most well-known of these are Monarchs, Queens and the Luna Moth.

The Tachinid Fly, another parasite, attacks anywhere from 10% to 40% of the Monarch population by laying eggs on the caterpillar. The egg hatches and the fly larva bores into the butterfly caterpillar where it becomes a maggot that feeds on the caterpillar from the inside out. Doesn’t that sound awful?

 

PREDATORS

The list of predators is long. Ants, mites, spiders, Chalcid and Trichogramma wasps, plus larval forms of other insects can attack the Monarch eggs. Birds and rodents can also attack caterpillars. As an adult, the Monarch may not make it to old age because of birds, dragonflies, mantids, parasites, wasps, rodents, and insecticides.

 

DISEASES

The two most common infections that result in “Black Death” are Pseudomonas and NPV. In both cases, the caterpillar shrivels up, turns black, and goo seeps from both ends.

Pseudomonas is a bacterial infection that likes warm, moist environments. It is found all over the world in soil, water and plants. It’s a good idea to allow your plants and soil to dry after watering to discourage development.

NPV, or Nuclear polyhedrosis virus, is most evident in areas with short or mild winters. The longer growing season allows time for NPV to spread. It causes caterpillars to crawl toward the top of the plant and then hang in an inverted V when it dies. Each caterpillar can have a billion virus particles. All that goo seeping from both ends spreads the virus.

A freeze might kill the plants on which virus particles from dying caterpillars exist but it does not kill the virus. Six hours of direct sun will kill the virus but, of course, the sun does not reach shady areas.

It’s hard to tell whether Pseudomonas, NPV or a predator killed a caterpillar because the caterpillar death often looks the same.

This is not a natural progression of a chrysalis. It became spotty, discolored and stayed that way for several days. The change to dark happens more evenly and rapidly in a healthy chrysalis. Photo by Cee.

 

More examples of infected chrysalis. Photo by Cee

THE GOOD NEWS

Despite the discouragement of parasites, predators, and diseases, the female Monarch can produce 200 to 600 eggs in her short lifetime which means the 90% mortality rate still leaves almost 10% of caterpillars becoming butterflies. When you see one of those 10% flitting about in your garden, recognize the miracle you are witnessing.

You can help the caterpillars become butterflies by making room in your yard for native plants. According to Jim McCormac, in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, “Nearly all caterpillar species shun non-native flora.”

The University of Florida offers a list of host and food plants for Florida butterflies. You can’t go wrong with a few varieties of milkweed plants which are host plants for the Monarch, Queen and Soldier/Tropical Queen butterflies.

DIY BUTTERFLY HOUSE

A butterfly house, or lepidopterarium is a facility for the breeding and display of butterflies, usually for educational purposes. Butterfly World, the first butterfly house in the United States, opened in Coconut Creek, Florida, in 1988. Now, butterfly houses are owned and operated by museums, universities, zoos, non-profit corporations, and private individuals as part of their residence. You can build your own butterfly house which my friend, Cee, and her husband did earlier this spring.

First, a little history. It all started with building the wine bottle garden to have a place to plant flowers to attract butterflies. From there, she began poking around on Facebook groups dedicated to raising butterflies. In 2017, she began hatching monarchs and successfully raised 480 monarchs and one swallowtail. In 2018, her goal was butterfly house. After much searching on the internet, she and her husband decided to build their own. She also planted a huge bed of milkweed, a food source and host plant for the monarch butterfly. Now, her back yard looks like this:

 

Wine bottle garden on left, blue bottle tree on right, 2018 butterfly house in background. Photo by Cee.

A GARDEN FOR BUTTERFLIES

Cee’s backyard garden is a peaceful paradise of dappled shade, flowers, and monarchs flying around. My immediate impression was a feeling of well-being that I don’t get in my own garden despite how much time I work in it. Note to self: plant more flowers that butterflies like.

This 16 foot by 6 foot milkweed was planted in the spring of 2018 on the left side of the new butterfly house. Cee has now learned that planting milkweed in large blocks is not a good idea. Once predators, such as the tachnid fly, find it, caterpillars become victims. She has now scattered pots of milkweed around the backyard.

Close-up of milkweed bed.
Close-up of milkweed bed. Photo by Cee.

 

Organza bags used as seed catchers in the milkweed bed. Purchased from Amazon but also available in packages of 6 at Dollar Tree.
Organza bags used as seed catchers in the milkweed bed. Purchased from Amazon but also available in packages of 6 at Dollar Tree.

 

Agapanthus blooming in the shade. White rain barrels in the background.
Agapanthus blooming in the shade. White rain barrels in the background.

 

THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE

This is Cee’s new 8 foot x 8 foot butterfly house built by her husband over 2 months of weekends. Cee helped him install the screen panels and the roof is made of clear corrugated vinyl panels.

 

 

The butterfly house allows Cee to keep more habitats. Last year, she released one Black Swallowtail. This year, she added the Gulf Fritillary to her impressive list of butterfly releases. Next, she hopes to be able to attract the Zebra Heliconian to her garden.

OUTSIDE THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE

A wall decoration from Hobby Lobby fashioned into a door knob.
A wall decoration from Hobby Lobby fashioned into a door knob by Cee’s husband.

 

Giant Milkweed
Giant Milkweed which I just love and had never before seen.

 

Maypop Purple Passion Vine at door of the butterfly house; host plant for gulf fritillary.
Maypop Purple Passion Vine at door of the butterfly house; host plant for gulf fritillary.

 

Close-up of Maypop Purple Passion Vine flower.
Close-up of Maypop Purple Passion Vine flower. Photo by Cee.

 

Butterfly bench from Kirklands.
Butterfly bench from Kirklands.

 

Two solar panels run the lights inside the butterfly house. Solar battery back-up has a radio.
Two solar panels run the lights inside the butterfly house. Solar battery back-up has a radio.

 

Left front corner of butterfly house. Red battery back-up in background.

 

INSIDE THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE

Happy Place sign
To me, this said it all. Photo by Cee.

 

Front left corner

 

$50 Granite counter top purchased from Habitat for Humanity. The hole for the sink now has a garbage can under it for quick clean-up.
$50 Granite counter top purchased from Habitat for Humanity. The hole for the sink now has a garbage can under it for quick clean-up.

 

Butterfly wind chime in back corner.
Butterfly wind chime in back corner.

 

Floor of the butterfly house. The rock and stepping stone is for tax purposes -- our City taxes outbuildings with cement floor.
Floor of the butterfly house. The rock and stepping stone is for tax purposes — our City taxes outbuildings with cement floor.

 

Rooting common milkweed in water. The PVC pipe is a paper towel holder. Photo by Cee.

 

Seed saving in paper bags; drying seeds in mesh bags. Photo by Cee.
Seed saving in paper bags; drying seeds in mesh bags. Photo by Cee.

This next photo shows Cee’s mesh butterfly habitats from Amazon; the small green ones are around $10. Cee has found that viewing is easier with the black habitat. Three habitats are for monarchs, one for swallowtail and one for gulf fritillary.

 

Photo by Cee.

Diseases in butterflies are more prevalent in climates that are warm year-round where the milkweed isn’t knocked back by the cold or a freeze.  An infected monarch can drop OE spores onto milkweed leaves that are then eaten by the larva when it hatches from the egg.  OE or Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha is a parasite that infects butterflies in the monarch species. To avoid OE, a special ratio of bleach and water is used on both the eggs of the caterpillars and the milkweed fed to them.  It also helps to cut back the milkweed and allow it to regenerate. This is what Cee does for her monarchs:

  • Find eggs on leaves.
  • After 24 hours, to ensure the shell has hardened, it is safe to bleach eggs that have not hatched using proper bleach/water ratio and timing.
  • Put in small container or put leaves in floral picks until eggs hatch.
  • Move to habitat with similarly sized caterpillars, keeping bleached and unbleached separated since caterpillars from bleached eggs are less likely to be diseased.
  • Keep in mesh habitat until they pupate and form chrysalis.
  • After chrysalis has hardened (about 1 day), move to chrysalis “nursery.”

 

This is Cee's chrysalis nursery (inside a zippered laundry hamper). Photo by Cee.
This is Cee’s chrysalis nursery (inside a zippered laundry hamper). Photo by Cee.

 

Black swallowtail chrysalis in black butterfly habitat.
Black swallowtail chrysalis in black butterfly habitat. Photo by Cee.

Laminated booklet of 80 species, their caterpillars and host plants. Published by QuickReferencePublishing.com (2014). It stays in the butterfly house.

 

Laminated booklet of 80 species, their caterpillars and host plants. Published by QuickReferencePublishing.com (2014).
Photo by Cee.