The butterfly is the Manfreda Giant-Skipper. Skippers are a group of butterflies that fly in a jerky or skipping pattern (hence the name) but are not particularly colorful. There are more than 200 species in Texas. Many skippers are very restricted in their ranges; a number are only found in deep South Texas.
Manfreda Giant-Skippers are even more restricted because their host plant is rare. The eggs must be laid on the leaves of the spice lily (Manfreda maculosa), a plant found only on the edges of and in open spots in brush country habitat. The larvae actually bore into the leaves and roots of the spice lily, but they seldom eat it all the way to the ground. Besides, it wouldn’t make any sense to eat every last bit of your sole host plant!
However, the spice lily is a succulent plant. This means its leaves are juicy and delicious to many hungry South Texas animals. It is a favorite of a TPWD threatened reptile, the Texas Tortoise. Cattle and goats love it too. And my fellow naturalist, Kris Kirkwood, says that deer think the Manfreda plant is deer candy! So it is no wonder that it only grows in the odd spot here and there.
Small populations of Manfreda maculosa are scattered throughout South Texas and northern Mexico. In searching for the butterfly, scientists usually go to known locations of the plant. Unfortunately, since the 1960s, those locations have diminished. Roads, subdivisions and shopping malls have replaced the brushland habitat that the spice lily needs.
This has led to a scarcity of documented records for the butterfly. It was first collected in Nueces County in 1884. Amazingly, it was not officially described and named until 1955. It was collected across South Texas fairly readily until 1965. There is a documented record for Bee County. But in 2003, researcher Nick Grishin reported having searched all the old locations in South Texas and found “no signs of the bugs and very few remaining Manfreda plants.”
This does not mean that the Manfreda Giant-Skipper is extinct or even endangered. These are legal terms that are well defined. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation considers it “imperiled,” but it is not ranked as officially “threatened” or “endangered” under the USA’s Endangered Species Act of 1973. Texas Parks and Wildlife has not listed it either.
The reason for this status is that a species must be thoroughly investigated and documented before listing. Just not seeing them very often (i.e. absence) is insufficient evidence to proceed with a listing. Solid data in the form of surveys and research studies must be acquired. Petitions must be filed. None of this has happened for the butterfly or its host plant.
I believe that the Manfreda Giant-Skipper is out there. I have found the host plant, the spice lily, at three locations on my small farm here in Bee County. The current drought and deer have reduced my wild populations to just two small plants. These two are in an exclosure made of hardware cloth, and I feel sure that they and the others will come back once it rains again.
The good news is that the spice lily is easy to grow from seed. I have raised several dozen plants in pots during the past two years. The spice lily has attractive aloe-like leaves with chocolate brown spots. It makes a nice addition to a rock or cactus garden and requires minimal care. But the best thing about it is that it blooms! And the blooms are gorgeous. Typically, the spice lily sends up a bloom spike in May and June. The bloom spike can reach four feet in height. The flowers open gradually from the bottom up, forming a raceme of whitish-green lily-like flowers. The older flowers eventually turn deep reddish-purple. It really is lovely.
A few weeks after the plant blooms, seed pods form along the flower stalk. They resemble yucca seed pods. The flattened black seeds inside can be planted immediately or saved for a season. I suspect that, in the wild, the seeds sprinkle out on the ground and are eaten by quail and doves.
So I am growing spice lilies. These native plants fit nicely into the scheme of things, providing food for invertebrates and vertebrates alike. Help me to bring the Manfreda Giant-Skipper back to Bee County. Look for spice lilies at native plant sales and let’s grow these special native beauties!