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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mourning Cloak Butterfly – Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa): Mother Nature's Backyard

For the past two summers, the numbers and species of butterflies in S. California gardens have been abnormally low.  This year, with a wet winter easing the drought, many butterflies have returned.  We were particularly worried about the Mourning Cloak, a butterfly rarely sighted in our area in recent years.  We’re happy to report that the numbers of Nymphalis antiopa – in Preserves as well as gardens – are up again this summer in California.   The scientific name is pronounced nim-FAL-is  an-tee-OH-puh.

Growing up in S. California in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Mourning Cloaks were a very common sight.  We searched for the more ‘exotic’ butterflies in our wanderings; Mourning Cloaks were hardly worth the effort.  Adulthood (and loss of butterfly habitat and numbers) have brought a new appreciation for these unique and beautiful insects.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : perched on
 Purple sage, Redondo Beach, CA
Mourning Cloaks have a huge natural range.  They are common throughout N. America, Europe, north-central Asia and Mexico. They were first defined by Linnaeus in 1758 (yes, this butterfly is common in Scandinavia!) [1]. In Great Britain, these butterflies are called ‘Camberwell Beauties’; they do not over-winter there and must migrate from Scandinavia and the continent [1].  They are known as Mourning Cloaks in most of Europe and N. America [2] and are the Montana state butterfly.

Mourning Cloaks belong to the Brushfoot butterfly family.  The Nymphalidae include several local favorites: the Lorquin’s Admiral, the Common Buckeye, the Red Admiral, the Gulf Fritillary and the West Coast, Painted and American Lady butterflies.  Our gardens would be far less interesting without the Brushfoots.    They are relatively large, brightly colored and fun to watch.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : on Grindelia hisutula
Nymphalis antiopa is a medium-large butterfly, with a wingspan of 2 ¼ to 4 inches (6-10 cm.).  Mourning cloaks are the only large, dark brown butterfly in local gardens; the Metalmarks and Duskywings (also brown) are much smaller.   Males and females look basically the same.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : underside
Mourning Cloak : excellent camouflage

The undersides of both sets of wings are a dark, rough-appearing brown, edged with light tan.  The wing margins are not smooth, but jagged.  All of this provides good camouflage in a variety of situations.  Mourning cloaks can virtually disappear on the dark trunks of trees.  But they are equally able to blend in when perched on local shrubs (see above).   They are particularly difficult to spot in the light and shadow of some of our native plants.   This is a good thing: camouflage is an important way Mourning Cloaks evade predatory insects (dragonflies), birds, lizards and others.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : upperside
In contrast to the lower side, the upper side of this species is very attractive and colorful.  The main wing color is a rich chocolate or mahogany brown.  The margins are banded with light tan-yellow, a nice contrast with the brown.  The pale margins are bordered inside by a darker brown band, dotted with pale, iridescent blue-lavender spots.  The entire effect is lovely and refined.   This butterfly’s common name is said to describe the butterfly’s appearance: a dark mourning cloak, covering a pale dress or petticoat [2].  

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : note body features
But the visual treats don’t stop there.  Look carefully at the close-up above.  Admire the compound eye; no wonder they’re so hard to sneak up on!   Note the stout legs, used to grasp and move around a perch. Photographs allow you to fully appreciate an insect’s intricate beauty. Nymphalis antiopa appears to have only two sets of legs.  But look closely to see the short, hairy front leg.  This ‘brush foot’ gives the Nymphalidae their common name – Brush-foot butterflies.

Notice the stout facial and thorax (mid-section) bristles and the unusual face shape.   Mourning cloak adults have an unusual diet for butterflies: for the most part they eat sap and decaying fruit, although they will visit early-blooming trees (like willows) or summer-fall blooming members of the Sunflower family [4]. Like other butterflies, they extract salts and minerals from mud.  Not surprisingly, Morning Cloaks are not an important pollinator species.

Adult Mourning Cloaks over-winter as adults.  The Mourning Cloak season begins with the emergence of adults from hibernation in the spring.  In the warm winters of S. California, emergence can be as early as January; you can see this butterfly in any month in local preserves and gardens.  But they are most frequently spotted in spring and late summer/fall.   Adults live up to 12 months – one of the longest lifespans of any N. American butterfly [2, 5].

Willows (Salix species) : larval food for
 Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Nymphalis antiopa is native to forests and woodland areas.  But it can be found where ever there are trees that supply its larval food, including local wetlands, riparian woodlands, parks and neighborhoods.  Larval food trees include willows (Salix species), aspens and cottonwoods (Populus species), American elm (Ulmus), hackberry (Celtis spp.), hawthorn, wild rose, mulberry, birches (Betula species) and alders (Alnus species).   The frequent occurrence of these host species explains the widespread appearance of Mourning Cloaks in wild and urban settings.

Morning cloaks mate in the spring, but there may be multiple broods (a second generation) in some areas, including S. California [3, 4].  Males choose a high perch to display to passing females or fly in search of mates.  Males mate with several females, and there is strong competition for choice sites.  For more details on courtship behaviors see references 2, 3. 

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : perched male
The males are highly territorial and will fiercely defend their territory from other males, other butterflies (including the large Swallowtails), hummingbirds and even humans.  We’ve seen them harass Scrub Jays and even had one head-butt our hand.  That’s quite a butterfly – willing to take on a human!

After an aerial mating, females lay a cluster of eggs around a host plant twig.  Clusters contain small eggs that start pale yellow-green and mature to black (see reference 6 for a good picture).   The female dies after laying her last batch of eggs. 

The larvae emerge after about 10 days, and will go through five larval stages (instars) before emerging as fully developed caterpillars.  Each instar but the first  (which is pale, with a dark head) looks fairly similar: a spiny, dark caterpillar with a line of red dots down the back.  The larvae have a distinct appearance: see reference 4 for excellent photos of all stages of development.

The larvae often remain together through much of their development.  Like all caterpillars, they are voracious eaters. They must be, to grow from a tiny egg to nearly 2 inches long (5th instar). They’ve been known to defoliate ornamental trees in other areas, but we haven’t heard of this in S. California.  Let us know if you’ve seen this in S. California.  For more on larval behavior see reference 3, below.

After the 5th molting, the Mourning Cloak caterpillar pupates (metamorphoses into adult form). The caterpillar leaves the host plant to search out a safe place to form a chrysalis, often under an overhang, large branch or other protected site (see ref. 4 for photos).  After a 10-15 day development within the chrysalis, the adult emerges.  In warm areas, adults enter a hibernation-like state (estivation) in the hottest part of summer, allowing them to survive the heat. 

Mourning Cloaks are not long-distance migrants, although they may migrate locally in California, from lower elevation winter sites to higher elevation breeding sites [7].  Adults over-winter in protected sites like tree cavities, under loose bark, among dried leaves or other sheltered places.  They emerge from winter hibernation with the warm weather.

We hope you’ll look for Mourning Cloaks in your own neighborhood. You likely will find them this year.  Look for the larvae as well as adults, if you’re lucky enough to have the host plants.  And send your photos to iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/home).   We’re sure there’s a scientist interested in studying the yearly fluctuations in butterfly numbers.  Your pictures can help provide the data s/he needs to conduct their study.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) : in garden



  1. http://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/species.php?species=antiopa
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nymphalis_antiopa  
  3. http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/bug/mcloak/Fmcloak.html
  4. http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/lepidopt/nymph/mcloak.htm    
  5. http://www.desertusa.com/insects/mourning-cloaks.html
  6. http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/10920101
  7. http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/butterfly/Nymphalis/antiopa  







We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about the Mourning Cloak butterfly or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (July) : California verbena – Verbena lasiostachys

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Summer has truly begun by July.  The days and nights are warm and the early buckwheats are in full glory.  But tucked around the garden are some other summer-flowering perennial treats.  One of these – blooming now in the Garden of Health – is the California verbena.  The scientific name for this plant is pronounced ver-BEE-nuh  laz-ee-oh-STAY-kiss.

The stems of Verbena lasiostachys are square in cross section.  California verbena belongs to the Vervain Family (Verbenaceae).  The Verbenaceae is closely related to the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), which also features square stems and aromatic foliage.  In fact, some species formerly included in the Verbena Family have recently been reclassified as Mints. 

The genus Verbena includes a number of species grown as garden plants.  This genus, mostly native to the Americas and Asia, includes annuals and perennials with small flowers that are usually pink, purple or white.   They are often planted to attract butterflies.  But many Verbena species also have a long history of use as medicinal plants.   So one sees them in herb or medicinal gardens as well.

Eight Verbenas are native to California, but only Verbena bracteata, V. scabra and V. lasiostachys grow in Los Angeles County.  While most native verbenas have limited ranges, California verbena can be found in many sites throughout the California Floristic Province (west of the Sierra Nevada Range), from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico.  But it particularly likes the ocean-influenced climates of western California. It can still be seen growing wild in the lowlands and foothills of Western Los Angeles County and on Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands. 

California verbena (also commonly known as Western vervain and Western Verbena) is a sub-shrub or perennial of the Coastal Scrub, Chaparral and Oak Woodlands, rarely appearing above about 7500 ft. (2500 m.) elevation.  It tends to grow among and around the larger plants, usually in sunny or partly-shady spots that may be seasonally moist or fairly dry.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - growth form
While Verbena lasiostachys is classed as a sub-shrub or part-woody perennial, its form varies greatly depending on the circumstances in which it grows.  We’ve seen it growing as a low-growing sprawler, as well as a more upright, open sub-shrub.  We suspect the differences in form are related to the amount of light, soil type and possibly also how far it dies (or is eaten) back each year.   At any rate, its open form means it thrives around and between other plants.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - the branches
 need pruning

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - new
 growth in spring
The foliage of California verbena is typical for the genus: leaves that are coarsely toothed and larger/more developed near the base of the plant, becoming smaller up the stems.   Plants have several to many stems, adding more stems each year.  Plants die back to semi-woody stems in fall.  We usually prune our plants back in late fall.  New foliage appears with the spring rains – usually about the time the Miner’s lettuce is flourishing in February (see above).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - foliage
The variety scabrida, which is native to Santa Catalina Island and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountain foothills, has rough-textured leaves.  The variety lasiostachys, also native to the South Bay (including the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve), has smooth, hairy leaves (see above).   Both varieties do well in local gardens.   And both look different than just about any other native plant (other than the tall Verbena hastata).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowers,
 shady location
But the real reason for growing any verbena is the flowers.  The genus verbena equates with small flowers, usually violet in color, tightly packed on upright flowering spikes.  Verbena lasiostachys has the violet-colored flowers typical of the genus.  The individual flowers are small – perhaps ¼ inch – but the flowering spikes are up to 4 inches (10 cm.) in length.  The flowers have five petals, fused to form two distinct lips (see below).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flower spike
One nice feature of the verbenas is that flowers open sequentially, from the bottom to the top of the spike.  This is a godsend for habitat gardeners; the plants remain in bloom for weeks to months.  And the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators, from the European honey bee to native bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. If for no other reason, California verbena deserves to be planted as a pollinator plant.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowering plant
While not a long-lived perennial, Verbena lasiostachys is easy to grow and will re-seed in many gardens.  It has a reputation for being an aggressive re-seeder; we suspect this is mostly so in regularly watered gardens.  We’ve had only occasional seedlings appear in our water-wise gardens, and those mostly close to the parent plant.   The seedling’s leaves are distinctive and readily noticeable.  Seedlings can be removed in late spring if needed.

California verbena grows in just about any S. California soil, from sandy to poorly-draining clays.  It does best in part-shade (afternoon shade) in most gardens.  It likes flat ground (it’s not one for the sides of a berm).   And it also likes good winter-spring water, even tolerating seasonal flooding.   We give our plants occasional water (every 2-3 weeks) through the flowering season, then taper off irrigation in late summer. 

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Native Plant
 Garden,  Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA
We like this plant for its habitat value and old-fashioned charm.  Since it dies back, plant it among evergreen plants or local sub-shrubs.  It will find its way amongst the other plants each spring.  It works well with most of the local natives, including the grasses and sedges.  We’ve never grown it in a pot, but suspect it would do fine.  We have grown the shrubbier Lilac verbena in containers; it does just fine (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/09/plant-of-month-september-lilac-cedros.html)

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - with Wooly bluecurls,
 Mother Nature's  Garden of Health, Gardena Willows.
And, of course, California verbena is a pretty addition to the herb or medicinal garden.  Verbenas, including Verbena lasiostachys, have been used as a general tonic for many years.  Flowers and foliage are often used as a tea or tincture for fevers and at the onset of colds and sore throats.  This remedy also helps calm and settle queasy stomachs.  The plants make chemicals that likely reduce inflammation, a useful trait for a medicinal plant.

In summary, California verbena is a sweet little native perennial.  It’s not a summer show-stopper; that honor goes to the sunflowers and buckwheats.  But it is a charming pollinator plant, perfect for gardeners who love purple and a medicinal plant to boot.  What’s not to like?

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - pretty perennial

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Help! The Leaves on My Evergreen Toyon (Ceanothus, Coffeeberry, etc.) are Turning Yellow!

Yellowing leaves on California coffeeberry (Frangula californica)

It’s May, June or early July.  The days are warm and the garden’s transitioning from spring to summer.  Suddenly, you notice yellow leaves on your evergreen shrubs.  If the shrubs have been thriving all spring, the appearance of yellow leaves can be surprising and alarming.

Take a deep breath.  Then carefully examine your shrub.  Are the yellow leaves larger and older?  Lower on the branches (closer to the trunk)?  Are the yellow leaves scattered throughout the foliage (not concentrated on a single branch)?   Are healthy new leaves emerging?  If so, your shrub is likely exhibiting a normal seasonal process – summer leaf drop.
Note that the larger, older leaves are yellowing
 on this 'Ray Hartman' ceanothus
 Evergreen plants lose their leaves, just like deciduous plants.  But they lose them less frequently – and not all-at-once.  Shedding old leaves is but one way that woody plants conserve their resources.  Old leaves are often less productive. They are also more likely to be unhealthy.  In short, senescent leaves become a drain on the plant. They simply require more resources than they make, an unfavorable cost-benefit ratio.

And so, evergreen plants shed their old leaves, but not haphazardly.  They usually recycle mineral nutrients and plant chemicals before they jettison an old leaf.  The declining leaf then produces less green chlorophyll, becomes yellow (or orange) and ultimately separates from the branch at a special site called the abscission layer.  The process is relatively safe and painless for the plant; the abscission layer ‘walls off’ the leaf scar on the branch, preventing disease.   And the senescent leaf simply drops off – its work complete.

Older toyon leaf turning yellow & red.  Note disease.
Evergreen plants drop their old leaves at different times of the year. Some lose them, a little at a time, throughout the year.  But many large California native shrubs, particularly those from the chaparral, lose their leaves in late spring/early summer, before the dry season begins in earnest. This allows them to channel their energy into summer growth and drought avoidance.  So summer leaf drop is perfectly coordinated with our challenging mediterranean climate.

Coffeeberry leaves provide summer leaf color.
So what’s a gardener to do?  If you have a big garden event that requires an immaculate garden (a garden wedding?  a visit from the queen?) then gently remove the leaves just prior to the event.  This will improve the appearance and won’t harm the plant.  Otherwise, sit back and let nature take her course.

Enjoy a bit of ‘summer leaf color’.  Let the leaves fall naturally, creating a native leaf mulch to support your many soil creatures. Savor the yearly changes associated with our natural heritage.  Summer leaf drop is, after all, part of the cycle of seasons in a California native garden.



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Celebrate National Pollinator Week (June 19-25, 2017)

Ten years ago, the U.S. senate designated one week in June as National Pollinator Week. Like Earth Day, National Pollinator week celebrates one of our countries greatest resources – its pollinators.   Living pollinators enable 80% of the earth’s plant species to reproduce.  Included are many of the fruits, nuts, seeds and grains we eat.  Our world would be a very different place without pollinators!

One purpose of National Pollinator Week is to educate all Americans about the diversity and importance of our native pollinators.  Another purpose is to motivate us to take action. So take a little time this week to celebrate the great diversity of our California pollinators.  Here are a few simple actions you can take: 

1.   Visit the National Pollinator Week website: http://www.pollinator.org/pollinatorweek/

2.   Participate in a local Pollinator Week activity

3.   Learn about local native pollinators: a good place to start is: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/07/insect-postings-mother-natures-backyard.html

4.   Plant a pollinator habitat plant: if you live in S. California (or other place with hot, dry summers) you may want to wait to purchase and plant until next fall/winter.  But choose a habitat plant or two (those native to your area are best) and dedicate a part of your garden to pollinator habitat.  Learn more at:


5.   Photograph pollinators, in your garden or in the wilds. Then upload your photos to iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/) to add to our knowledge of native pollinators.   You might even discover a new species in the process!!


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Plant of the Month (June) : Cliff spurge – Euphorbia misera

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): Mother Nature's Garden of Health

There’s not much blooming that we haven’t already featured as a Plant of the Month.  So we’ve chosen a plant that’s as well known for its form as for its flowers.  Our Cliff spurge is looking nice in a large pot in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health. The scientific name is pronounced: you-FOR-bee-uh  MIZ-er-uh.

Cliff spurge, also known as California spurge, is a part-woody sub-shrub native to Southern California and the states of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico.  It is one of those interesting local natives that can be found along the coast as well as in the Sonoran Desert – both in Mexico and in the U.S. 

Primarily a Mexican species, this plant’s northern limit is the Channel Islands of Los Angeles County (both Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands).  It still also grows in isolated pockets along the coastal bluffs of Orange and San Diego Counties.  It inhabits rocky or sandy, south facing slopes in the coastal scrub, coastal bluff scrub and Sonoran desert scrub communities.   Rare and threatened by development and frequent fires in California [1,2], its status is more secure, at least thus far, in Mexico.

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): young plant
Cliff spurge belongs to the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), a large and interesting group growing mostly in temperate and tropical zones.  Some members – like the Cliff spurge – are succulent and many have milky sap that contains latex.  A number also have medicinal properties (many are poisonous as well).   In addition to the genus Euphorbia (many native and non-native species), this family includes California natives like California copperleaf (Acalypha) and Croton.  Also members of the spurge family are the non-native poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), cassava (Manihot esculenta) and castor oil plant (Ricinus communis).

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): branches and bark
Cliff spurge has many characteristics of the Euphorbiaceae.  It grows 2-5 ft. (1-1.5 m.) tall and about as wide.  It has an open, irregularly branching form – somewhat mounded overall.  Its branches are succulent, part-woody and covered with a pale gray-tan bark. The young branches are hairy, but they become smooth with age.  The plant looks rather like an ancient miniature tree; and it has been put to such uses by bonsai artists.
Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): leaves

The leaves of Euphorbia misera have very short petioles (leaf stems) and appear almost haphazardly spaced along the branches.  The leaves are simple, rounded and medium green.  They have a distinctive fold along the midrib (like a taco shell) and often have very narrow stipules (small, leaf-like appendages from the petiole).  The plant leafs out with the winter rains; the leaves are lost in the dry season.  In the wilds (or in a dry garden) the plants can remain leafless for half of the year. Despite this, the plants are surprisingly attractive, due to their remarkable form.

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): spring

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): fall

Many Euphorbias have unusual flowers; Euphorbia misera is no exception.  The flowers comprise a specialized structure, known as the cyathium.  The simple male flowers are contained within the cup of the cyathium (see the pollen-laden anthers in the photo below).  The female flower, with its swollen ovary, is on a stalk above the male flowers.  The ovary becomes a wrinkled, lobed fruit which contains the wrinkled, gray seed.   

Nectar glands in the cup of the cyathium (purple-red in Euphorbia misera) produce nectar, attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.  The major pollinators are likely insects.  We’ll try to keep an eye on this plant when it’s flowering to see if we can add more details.

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): flowers

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): close-up view of flower

Cliff spurge can bloom any time of the year.  It flowers after rain events in its native setting, and will bloom off and on from spring through summer in a garden.  But the flowers are small; most gardeners who choose this species are either Euphorb enthusiasts, are interested in rare natives, or are captivated by its unusual form.  We confess to being all of the above!

Euphorbia misera is slow-growing, making it a natural for a large container.  It can take full sun near the coast; afternoon shade is best further inland.  It likes a well-drained, sandy or rocky soil.  If you have clay, try planting it atop a low berm to improve drainage.  In containers, we just use an organic potting mix (unamended).  Try to get one without much added manure – this plant doesn’t need lots of nutrients.  In the ground it needs no fertilizer; in containers, try a ½ strength dose in late winter.

Cliff spurge is drought tolerant once established, but looks a bit better with occasional summer rain.  This plant gets summer (monsoonal) rain in its native range.  It can take monthly (or even a bit more) summer irrigation in well-drained soils. Our unglazed terra cotta pots dry out quickly, so we water our container-grown pot at least weekly in hot, windy weather. 

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): young plant
Euphorbia misera has a picturesque natural shape. Some gardeners just let it take its natural form.   If you want to shape it, try selective pruning in late fall.  You’ll want to wear gloves and be sure to not get the milky latex on your skin. Many people are allergic to it. Also, never eat any part of this plant – it’s toxic.  

An infusion of the roots of Cliff spurge was traditionally used in the treatment of stomach aches, dysentery and venereal diseases.  One would want to know more about the dosing and preparation of this plant before using it medicinally.  Remember that this plant, along with many other Euphorbs, can be poisonous. 

Cliff spurge looks nice when planted with its natural associates, including coast spicebush (Cneoridium dumosum), California boxthorn (Lycium californicum), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) and ladies’ fingers dudleya (Dudleya edulis).  We particularly love the look of it in a large container.  Cliff spurge looks right at home in a Mediterranean or Central American-style garden.  You could even combine it with Euphorbs from around the world, to create a garden celebrating this incredible Family!

Cliff spurge (Euphorbia misera): leafed out, Mother Nature's Garden of Health,
Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, Gardena CA

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com