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The Butterfly Gardens of Oleander Acres

By Suzanne Labry
Contributing Writer

Salome and Seth Welliver grew up at the Oleander Acres RV Resort in Mission, Texas. Their father, Ed, a former Air Force fighter pilot, bought the place in 1979, becoming only the third owner of the lush 23-acre, 300-plot property, which is one of the oldest RV resorts in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Today the siblings are co-owners of the business, along with their dad, and they both live on-site. “It was a great place to be a child,” recalled Salome. “We were always outside in nature and so many Winter Texans came back every year that they became like a big extended family to us.”

It wasn’t only two-legged Winter Texans who were familiar to the Welliver siblings, however. A good many six-legged Winter Texans of the butterfly variety have always been frequent visitors to Oleander Acres as well. Almost 40 percent of the more than 700 species of butterflies in the United States can be found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and, in fact, that is the only place in the entire country where 150 of those species can be seen. It is no surprise that the National Butterfly Center is also located in Mission, Texas, not far from Oleander Acres, and USA Today has called Mission “the butterfly capitol of the USA.”

Seth has witnessed firsthand the recent decline in numbers of Monarchs passing through the Valley each autumn on their way to their overwintering sites in the Michoacán area of central Mexico. The annual migration of Monarch butterflies that occurs in fall and begins anew each spring has been called one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip; at least five generations are involved in the annual cycle, as female monarchs lay eggs for the next generation during the migration. Along the way, Monarchs need places to rest, refuel and lay eggs, but unfortunately such spots are becoming fewer and farther between.

Seth and his wife Candelaria run Oleander Nursery, located on the grounds of the RV resort, and one day a few years ago, Candelaria took a photo of a butterfly rarely seen in the area, Erato Heliconian (Red Passion Flower Butterfly or Crimson-Patched Longwing), which had been attracted to the nursery. Seeing that rare butterfly and worrying that one day Monarchs might also be rare gave Seth an idea: he decided to do what he could to help them.

Oleander Acres already offered a welcoming place for butterflies. Years ago Ed had installed a large cactus garden, and the property has more than 250 trees and a variety of shrubs and flowering plants that offer hosting and nectaring sites for many species. But Seth decided to up Oleander Acres’ game, so to speak, and Salome and Ed were all for it.

He applied for and received a grant from the Rio Grande Valley Garden Club and the Native Plant Society of Texas to develop a special habitat for Monarchs at Oleander Acres that would also benefit other butterfly species. With help from Winter Texans, Seth and his staff created more than a dozen butterfly gardens across the park and planted more than 200 milkweed plants.

The effort concentrated on planting milkweed because even though Monarchs will nectar on a variety of plants, they will lay their eggs only on milkweed. The loss of naturally occurring milkweed habitat throughout the Monarch’s range has been identified as a major contributor to its decline. It is said that over 95 percent of butterfly natural habitat has been lost due to agricultural, industrial and urban development in recent years.

Six types of milkweed were planted at Oleander Acres: antelope horn (Asclepias asperula), gigantic (Calotropis gigantea), slim (Asclepias linearis), tropical (Asclepias curassavica), tweedia (Oxypetalum caeruleum) and zizotes (Asclepias oenotheroides). Only three of the species — antelope horn, slim and zizotes — are Texas natives; however, all of the varieties are important not only for Monarchs, but for many other butterfly species and pollinators as well.

Antelope horn, also known as spider milkweed and green-flowered milkweed, is native to northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, including Texas. Taking its name from its seedpods that curve upward when mature and look similar to the horns of an antelope, this spreading perennial has a large taproot, which makes it especially drought tolerant. It prefers to grow in well-drained soil in full sun. Antelope aorn is a particular favorite of Monarch and Queen butterflies, for which it is a larval host.

Gigantic milkweed is a large shrub or small tree that is native to India, southern China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Its common names include crown flower, giant calotrope, giant milkweed, gigantic swallow-wort, algodón de seda, calatropis, ashkhar and French cotton. It is a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 10–11 and an annual in colder zones. In South Texas, it can grow to heights of 10 feet or more. It has a long blooming season and is especially good for Monarchs because the caterpillars can pupate on the tree itself, and the tree’s large, thick leaves can sustain many caterpillars. It grows well in dry and difficult soils.

Slim milkweed is found all over Texas. It is a narrow-leaved perennial that grows from 1 to 3-feet tall and blooms from May to November. It not only supports Monarchs, but other butterflies and bees as well.

Tropical milkweed, native to Central America and Mexico, is one of the most common plants featured in butterfly gardens because it is easy to grow and it is a food plant for Monarch, Queen and Soldier caterpillars, as well as a nectar source for a wide variety of butterflies, pollinators and hummingbirds. Its common names include scarlet milkweed, Mexican milkweed, bloodflower and silkweed. At present, there is a controversy about the impact of this plant on Monarch health (see Texas Gardener, March-April 2016).

Tweedia milkweed is a tropical vine that grows 2- to 3-feet high and features true-blue flowers. Native to Uruguay and Southern Brazil, it was named after the Scottish plant explorer James Tweedie (1775–1862), who found the species in South America during the first half of the 19th century. It is also known by the common names blue milkweed, southern star, star of the Argentine, silkpods and star flower. It can be planted as a perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 10–11 or as an annual in other zones. It tolerates a wide range of soils and requires minimal water.

Seth has been particularly impressed with the zizotes milkweed, which is a South Texas native. Zizotes is a Spanish word for skin sores, and the name refers to the fact that the sap from this plant, like all those in the genus Asclepias, is somewhat toxic and can cause skin irritation. In fact, it is the toxic properties of milkweed that help protect Monarchs from predators by making them taste bad. The qualities of the zizotes milkweed have made Seth a big fan of the plant. “It really is the workhorse of the garden as far as butterflies go,” he said. “Once established, it is extremely drought tolerant, and even though it doesn’t have very showy flowers, the butterflies flock to it and so do bees.”

He would like more people to be aware of zizotes and the benefits it can bring to butterflies and other pollinators. Because the commercial market for native milkweed seeds and seedlings is in the developing stages, it can be difficult to find sources for them, and this is especially true for one such as zizotes, which doesn’t bring a lot of visual appeal to the garden. As a result, Seth has installed a test bed where he is growing zizotes for seed production, and he hopes to have 1,000 seeds available in 2017.

The effort to provide a special habitat for butterflies at Oleander Acres has paid off in a spectacular way. So many butterflies have been attracted to the gardens that the National Butterfly Center has made the RV park a designated tour stop during its annual Texas Butterfly Festival. The festival has been held for more than 20 years at the end of October, during the peak season for migratory butterflies. In 2016, festival-goers spotted more Monarchs at Oleander Acres than on any of the other stops on the tour.

Seth and Salome have seen an uptick in numbers not just of Monarchs, but of other species of butterfly as well since the gardens were installed. They plan to apply for additional grants to expand the gardens, put in more walking paths and benches, and increase educational opportunities for school children and other visitors to the park about the importance of developing and maintaining habitat for butterflies and other pollinators. And it isn’t only butterflies that appreciate what the Wellivers are doing at their place. The Texas Recreational Vehicle Association bestowed its 2016 Small Park of the Year award on Oleander Acres.

“We want Monarchs to be around for a long time,” said Seth. “We’re trying to do our part to make sure that happens.”

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