Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stinging Chaya: Butterfly Buffet

 (all photos can be clicked on to enlarge)
Here's a closeup of a Gulf fritillary, one of dozens surrounding these half-feral stinging chaya bushes with fluttering clouds of color. We initially planted the stinging chayas for their prolific growth of nutritious edible (cooked, never raw!) leaves.  We discovered their modest white flowerets lure certain butterflies...constantly!

Don't be fooled by the freeze frame here...I'm proof that an avid nature watcher armed with camera can still take a LOT of pictures of butterflies and still come out with only two that aren't total blurs.  These little nectar hunters do not sit still for a good pose!  Here's the same shot from farther away, showing the floral landing pads that stick up from the bushes, singing their siren song for winged passersby.

If you live in a hot climate, do consider the stinging chaya plant.  It needs to be sited somewhere casual contact won't be common, as the leaves cause contact dermatitis (nearly instantly) to bare skin.  The leaves are harvested with cloth or other gloves for that reason.  Once rinsed and cooked in boiling water, it is rendered edible.  And full of amazing nutrition, which is why we even bothered, but we're so glad we did!  Jack simply clips an entire "branch" from a more mature plant, sticks it in some ground where he's dug a hole and worked the earth a little, adding some compost if he has it, and watered it in for a few days.  Even in the hottest part of the summer, they soldier on and grow pretty fast, going from branch to waist high bush in a couple months.

The bushes have a nice rounded form that do not need trimming to keep a shape, but may be trimmed to keep the growth down.  Harvesting the leaves doesn't hurt the plant, and I think it actually encourages more growth.  Ours die back each winter all the way to the ground, but they come back in the spring from the roots.  The original one we have that is three years old has now surpassed 10 feet tall...that thing is huge!!

I'm 5' 5" tall and these are chaya plants Jack planted from single "branches" about 8 weeks ago in an area that is not particularly fertile...they come up to my shoulder height or more.  It is hard to get a good pic of them.  They're in an area where we've tried several different types of plants to see which are best for a fast growing hedge.  Minus the fact that they wimp out in the wintertime, for the warm season, these work well.  Hard to pass up something you can EAT that grows faster than the national debt!  :)

Sorry for the overexposed pics today...the sun's shining so beautifully and the world's all lit up!  Here's a midday shot of another area in which we planted the more "domesticated" non-stinging chaya plants we got from ECHO.  To date, we have yet to see any flowers on any of them.  They do propagate just as easily as the stinging, more feral, variety...from cuttings.  But as far as butterfly attractors, nope!  These two shown here were planted in April and then immediately feasted on by our wandering mutant Bambi zombies intent on wiping out entire species of edible plants DEER, right to the ground. I put tomato cages around their sad little remains and they did stage a comeback (the plants, not the deer), albeit a bit shyly at first. They're certainly keepers, but won't be on our Butterfly plant list.

There are some other things luring our pollinators these days.  The blue butterfly bush (clerodendrum, not shown) has consistently been repeating flushes of flowers and growth spurts throughout the hot months.  Some of the butterflies and bees love their blooms.  This (above) is a pic of a branch of the jujube tree I can see from my window.  Its flowers are, like the stinging chaya, modest rather than showy.  But they add to the pollinator buffet, though butterflies are less frequent visitors to them than the other insects.

And here is a gratuitous shot of....our first real papaya fruit, EVER!!!!   Jack has planted papayas from seed for several years now, only to get really healthy plants that never put on any fruit, and then die back in the rare freeze or two we have each winter.  We never used purchased seeds...our bad, perhaps.  We took our chances sowing seed from storebought papayas, which may have been one of the factors in the fruit eluding us all this time.  They are SUPPOSED to be easy to grow here.  Well, two of them came up after the freeze this spring from the wimpy-looking remains of the half-frozen plants.  We expected them to die.  Jack watered them a few times, but we are ruthless in our "let nature reign" philosophy of plant survival.  We do nurse tender seedlings through the transplant and rooting stages, but we don't pamper plants as a rule.  But on the south side of our house, these two plants did come back and grow, slowly.  We paired them with a bird feeder so we can watch the cardinals and doves from the office window (better than TV!)    Then we began to notice, what?? could it be???....baby fruits developing.  We kind of held our breaths and adjusted our expectation, waiting to see if they would be A. eaten by something deerlike  B.  die   C.  be attacked by a voracious insect  D.  rot  E.  be struck by lightning  F. be the brunt of some squirrel's nosedive, armadillo's snacking, raccoon's curiosity, or be knocked off by an overly-enthusiastic senior Australian shepherd's  glucosamine-inspired sprints around the yard.

They are fascinating to observe...and this is a bad picture, but the leaves are large and umbrella-like and the flowers branch out from the main "trunk" (which is really more of hollowish thick stem).  The flowers that are fertile change by swelling and closing at the end, and as the fruit grows, the last of the old petals are attached to the fruits end, and turn brown and fall off.  These are arranged in a spiral upward, which is so cool!  If no catastrophe happens in the interim (deer, demented three wheeler, four horsemen of the apocalypse) it ends up being a big stalk supporting individual ripening fruits (that seem too heavy for it to support, but it does) and spiraling from the trunk bottom all the way up to the top of the plant...SO COOL!! (yes, those of you who grow legions of papayas effortlessly will laugh at our amazement, but this has so so so not happened for us until now, and we're jazzed!)

This may be (knock knock knock, throwing salt over shoulder) our first HARVEST of ANY kind of fruit tree of ours, aside from a handful of raspberries one year and a random lemon and lime or two from the citrus before they died in the freezes. 

And this pic??   This pic is of my very happy moments as a pollinator voyeur, daydreaming with camera in hand,  strolling through the overgrown mini-jungle on a PERFECT day stalking butterflies.  It's delightfully toasty outside,  but with a breeze and much lower humidity, cooler nights, everything refreshed!  This is what most of my photo shots turned out like...lots of pics of the backside of the Attention Deficit butterflies.   Too beautiful a day to say a single bad thing, though...color me happy!!!

I apologize for my slow response to the comments of the past few weeks!  I did just now publish them after finding them here at blogspot but NOT in my regular email inbox (???).  Guess I'll have to be more conscious to do a thorough check instead of relying on my email provider.  Or something.  But THANK YOU for your comments, I love them always!

I'm a  little embarrassed that I know so little about the butterflies I see so often, including not knowing their names.  I'm still trying to ID them.  There are four types that frequent the chaya plants...the Gulf fritillary is the main one, but there is a pale cream version (similar to a fritillary, but I dont know what it's called yet), a sulphur colored bright yellow sort, a smaller white one, and a sharply pointed spotted brown one.  Yeah, those descriptions SO  help, right?? ha   I'll keep looking in the butterfly guides online to help identify them.

It's so interesting that different plants attract specific ones.  Makes sense.  But how very disconnected I've been from even these basic realizations, till I stop and really notice.

Do you have any favorite butterflies and reliable butterfly plants you love to watch every year?     I'd love to see your pics...if you can catch one in your lens long enough to click~!

Happy beginning of October!!



Shreela said...

Haha, enjoyed the bit about the papaya. I might try growing some from the produce section after Feb. Someone down the street had a very nice one a few years back - I was totally intrigued by the "tall lacy-leaf philodendren with the huge brussell sprounts" LOL, until I finally figured out it was a papaya. So I know it's possible where I live.

Just Me said...

Hey Shreela, thanks for your comment :) We took our chances by growing the papayas from seeds from storebought fruits, never considering how they might be from hybrids, etc. Some day I will get off my lazy streak and actually order some proven seeds for a variety or two known for good production and flavor. I'm laughing at your description of the philodendron with huge brussell sprouts, HA!!!