• Orchid Muse

Orchids at Cockrell Butterfly Center, Houston, TX

Updated: Jul 1, 2018

Houston, Texas is one of the United States' top five largest cities in population--the city is also top ten in square mileage--but it does not host a true botanical garden. Not yet, anyway! Plans are in the works to bring a "world-class botanic garden to the Bayou City by 2020." (If you like to help it along, visit www.hbg.org.) Until then, because we visit family in Houston each year, I have to find other places to get an orchid fix. This year, we toured the Cockrell Butterfly Center, one wing of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We loved it!

Rice Paper butterfly; Prosthechea (Encyclia) cochleata in the background.

The trip was perfect for the whole family. I blissed out on the orchids and butterflies, and my husband and preschooler loved everything entomological--the bugs, spiders, cockroaches, and ants--all the creepy-crawlies you can imagine. First, I'll run through the orchids that were blooming during our trip in late June. Then I'll add some highlights of the amazing butterfly colony that the Cockrell maintains. Last, I'll share a few other silly highlights.

Hey, Blue Morpho, could you pose for me next to that phalaenopsis? Thanks.

In researching what to do for a fun morning in Houston with the family, I guessed that a large glasshouse kept at semi-tropical temperatures would surely include a few orchids. When we arrived, I was impressed with my powers of intuition. Of course the Cockrell Butterfly Center makes orchids a priority: they need epiphytic plants to climb trees and bloom freely, preferably with delicious scents, attracting butterflies at all levels of their impressive three-story indoor canopy. Hats off to the designers and horticulturists that care for the Center--they are excelling on all kinds of lepidopteran and orchidaceous fronts.


You enter the butterfly center at the top, stunned by the number and colors of butterflies flitting about. (Click on the image below to see the video.)


I've visited a handful of butterfly houses in my life. Bar none, the Cockrell had the most living butterflies I've ever seen in one place (surely numbering in the thousands), as well as the widest variety of these stunning flying beauties. Even amidst the weekend buzz of visitors, the sounds of the 50-foot waterfall made every moment tranquil. The scent of orchids and other blooms filled the air. If there's paradise in Houston, this is it.

As you slowly work your way down the stairs, you encounter this giant cymbidium (I'm sorry I don't know the full name--I didn't find tags on most of the orchids). This striped mahogany stunner had dozens of 4-foot inflorescences in full bloom. The Tawny Owl butterfly above did not move from his primo spot for the full two hours I was there!


The collage above is just a sample of some of the gorgeous orchids found at Cockrell Butterfly Center in late June. Clockwise from top left: a tall-cane white dendrobium with a green lip, mini Phalaenopsis modesta (I think), a beauty of an Oncidium ampliatum (turtle shell orchid), a hot pink cymbidium, brassias and oncidiums, and more Phal. modesta. Wow!

I appreciated the way that the center's curators designed butterfly-friendly spaces using the glass house's architecture. Here's a Maxillaria tenuifolia sharing a mossy pipe with a happy little fern. I'm sure the butterflies go wild for Max ten's coconut cream pie scent when it's in bloom! A patient, photogenic Red Postman butterfly completed the scene.

I received an excellent education in butterflies at the Cockrell as well. Make sure to grab one of their large, full-color butterfly guides as you enter so you can learn the names of these beauties too! Above, from left to right, I snapped butterflies named Rice Paper, Spicebush Swallowtail, and the Red Peacock and Blue Clipper. In the second row, an Emerald Swallowtail had just hatched in the incubation station, a humungous Great Mormon strutted its stuff, and the the giant glass wall of butterflies--the only place I could "catch" a Blue Morpho with its wings spread for the camera--captivated me for a long time.

Speaking of the Blue Morpho (above left)--notoriously difficult to photograph with their wings open because they fly so quickly and they rest with their wings closed--I must admit that I was reminded of one of my favorite films at the sight of these blue stunners in flight all around the Cockrell. Angels and Insects (1995, above right is a still from the film) is a gorgeous, sexy, creepy film set in 19th century England. If you love botany, butterflies, and intricate and symbolic period costume and detail, this film is for you. (It is disturbing, however--not violent, but not for the faint of heart, and not for kids.)


I know this is an orchid blog, but can I go on for a little while about the other plants and creatures at the Center? Because they too are worth the price of admission. Below is the largest and most beautiful variegated elephant ear plant I have ever seen. I hope you can get a sense of the scale--this leaf was almost as tall as me! I wanted to wrap myself in it and take a nap. Or make a sweeping dress with a long train out of it. Or have it take me on a verdant emerald magic-carpet ride!


Also in the category of gigantic tropical plants, the birds' nest anthurium, below, was quite a bit taller than me--over 6 feet high for sure (and let's just say its flowering member was standing at attention!).



Next, I was truly stunned at the largest, most sweeping Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) I've ever laid eyes upon. No wonder this plant is so hot in the indoor gardening world! I actually couldn't identify it right away, it was so large. A tropical fairyland behemoth.


This image actually doesn't do justice to this Monstera deliciosa. It goes on for several feet in both directions. It completely colonized the hand rail for about 25 feet!

OK, now time for the bugs. The Brown Hall of Entomology is included in the price of admission, and is not to be missed. It's got treats for people of all ages, but my preschooler was especially captivated by the wall of small terrariums, all positioned at his height, each holding a different species of odd, ugly, or dangerous bug.


The fate of the world rests on Rhinoceros beetles, you know.

There was also a nifty display about B-movies and books that feature freaky crustaceans and all things with exoskeletons. Gotta love it!


I love a science center with a sense of humor!

They had a few animals at the Butterfly Center. In Texas, turtles eat okra too!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is a gem, and I'm sure we'll return for its orchidaceous sights and scents, its lepidopteran delights, and its entomological horrors year after year.

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