Thursday, December 15, 2016

Frozen! Frostweed Lives Up to Its Name

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Without question, the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge was a huge success this year!  It was host to thousands of butterflies and other nectar feeders as well as hundreds of human visitors.  It was a place of quiet reflection and explosions of color, attracting several new county record butterflies and many more common residents and migrants.  Butterflies fed and mated and laid their eggs for the next generation of their species.  Caterpillars feasted on the leaves of their host plants and pupated in time.  Fresh butterflies emerged and repeated the cycle.  So, too, flowers blossomed in their season and pollinators spread each plant’s genetic material to the next bloom.  Through it all, one of the stars of the garden was the Frostweed, standing tall in the back row.

Frostweed grows in a clump that can reach six feet tall by the first frost.  Large, bushy leaves emerge on growing stalks in early spring, providing a green backdrop to more colorful flowering plants. By late summer, clumps of white flowers spread out atop the Frostweed’s slender stalks.  These drab seeming flowers attract a multitude of butterflies, and those attract photographers and butterfly watchers daily.  Among the many butterfly species to nectar there, you could find Gossamer-wings like Gray Hairstreaks, Eastern Tailed-blues, and the uncommon White M Hairstreak.  The county-record Mallow Scrub-hairstreak was often seen on Frostweed and dramatic Great Purple Hairstreaks, as shown below,  were also frequent visitors.

Monarch butterflies’ peak migration occurred simultaneously with the peak blossoming of the Frostweed in the back of the garden and throughout every day, the air was filled with orange wings, as shown above.  Sharing the blooms were other Brush-footed butterflies, including Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Goatweed Leafwings, Queens, Gulf Fritillaries and many others.  Not only did the Frostweed attract nectar feeders, it also was a larval host for the Bordered Patch butterfly (shown below), which frequently nectared on mistflower elsewhere in the garden.

Summer ended and with the first frost, most butterfly activity died down.  Leaves of the Frostweed dried and curled and other plants in the garden also died back.  Then, overnight on December 9, 2016, the refuge experienced its first hard freeze of the winter season.  Ice formed in puddles and plants that had managed to survive that first light frost finally succumbed.  That is when the Frostweed showed us how it got its name!  As each plant became cold, water and sap inside their stalk expanded and the outer bark split, allowing moisture to leak out.  The liquid froze in the cold temperatures.  The plant responded by pumping more water out of the ground to replace what was lost and that, too, leaked out, causing the ice crystals to grow.  This continued all night and in the morning, each Frostweed plant had a unique ice sculpture at its base.  Thin ribbons of ice curled and spread, only to drop off and melt as the day warmed.  This phenomenon will not repeat itself until next fall when a new batch of Frostweed freezes for the first time.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica) is a member of the Aster family, along with Ragweed, some of the wild Daisies, and Roosevelt Weed (Baccharis neglecta).  Frostweed is also known as White Crownbeard, Iceplant, Iceweed, Indian Tobacco, or Squawweed.  Native Americans are said to have used the dried leaves as a substitute for tobacco and other parts of the plant for medicinal purposes to treat gastrointestinal, urinary, or eye issues. Like its relatives, Frostweed is easy to grow and it tolerates many different soil, water, and lighting conditions.  It grows from central Texas eastward and north into the mid-Atlantic states.  A biennial, it readily reseeds and also may form sizeable colonies through spreading rhizomes. 

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