Sunday, May 17, 2015

Duskywing Butterflies – the genus Erynnis

Funereal Duskywing butterfly (Erynnis funeralis ) in Mother Nature's Backyard

Despite the drought, it’s shaping up as a good year for butterflies in local gardens.  This may be due in part to difficult conditions in the wilds; many larval food plants (and water) are unavailable.  We’ve spoken before about the importance of native plant gardens when times get tough:

In Mother Nature’s Backyard, we’ve already seen a first wave of the smaller butterflies known collectively as ‘Skippers’ (family Hesperiidae).  The Skippers are somewhat different in appearance and separated from other common butterflies in terms of their evolution.  While many local Skippers are yellow-orange and black (or white and black), one group is notable for its dark color and medium size.  These are the Duskywing butterflies, grouped in the genus Erynnis.  If you’ve seen a very dark 1 ½ inch (4 cm) butterfly flitting through your garden it’s likely a Duskywing.

The Duskywings are classified as spread-wing Skippers, a group that’s typically dark brown in color. Its members hold both sets of wings open when perching, while other Skippers perch with wings closed.  The genus Erynnis contains a number of species, 17 of which are native to N. America.   Duskywing species are quite similar in appearance, making them very difficult to tell apart, even from a good photograph.   The most accurate way to determine the species is by examining differences in their sexual organs under the microscope.

Six Duskywing species are known to inhabit Los Angeles County (see below); most are found only in the wilds, where their larval food plants are common.   Of the six, the Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) is by far the most likely to visit local gardens; another possible candidate is the Mournful Duskywing (Erynnis tristis) and possibly the Afranius Duskywing (Erynnis afranius).

Distinguishing characteristics
Adult food
Larval food
Afranius Duskywing  Erynnis afranius
Hindwing fringe pale tips
Upper side medium brown
Upper wing white spotted
Males perch in swales, gullies; wild lands
Flower nectar
Legumes including: deervetch (Acmispon glaber/Lotus scoparius), Lupine (Lupinus spp), Milkvetch (Astragalus spp), Spanish Clover (Lotus purshianus), Thermopsis
Sleepy Duskywing
Erynnis brizo
Upper forewing black-brown; blue-brown spots. Hindwing brown with lighter brown spots
Oak-pine, forest edges
Flower nectar: blueberry, dandelion,  violets, strawberries
Native Quercus including: Quercus dumosa ;  other Quercus spp.
Funereal Duskywing Erynnis funeralis
Forewing narrow, pointed
Upper side dark brown-gray
White fringe, hind wing
Local gardens
Flower nectar: California buckwheat; Black sage; Stachys spp.
Legumes including: Acmispon glaber/Lotus scoparius, Medicago species, Olneya tesota. alfalfa and vetch (Vicia)
'Californian' Pacuvius Duskywing, Erynnis pacuvius callidus
Milky white spots, upper wing of males
Hooked antennae
Flower nectar
Ceanothus species
Western Oak Duskywing, Erynnis propertius 
Larger size
Brown hindwing fringe
Hilltopping; puddling
Wild lands (foothills)
Flower nectar
Native Quercus including: Quercus agrifolia
Mournful Duskywing Erynnis tristis
White fringe, hindwing
Mostly wild lands
Flower nectar: mints, Salvia spp., lavenders, Verbena, garden flowers
Quercus including: Quercus agrifolia, Q. lobata,  Q. douglasii, non-native oaks

The species range for local Duskywings is largely limited by their larval food plants.   Three of the six require native oaks (Quercus species) for breeding, including the Mournful Duskywing.  If you live in an area with oaks, Mournfuls may visit your garden.   The Pacuvious Duskywing requires Ceanothus species – in greater abundance than found in most gardens.  The Afranius and Funereal Duskywings utilize a number of native and non-native legume species, making them the best candidates as garden visitors.

Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) in flight

Funereal Duskywings are difficult to photograph.  They are rapid, erratic flyers, moving from flower to flower surprisingly quickly.  We’ve had our best luck capturing them nectaring on Black Sage (Salvia mellifera).  Be patient and use a telephoto lens; they sometimes rest with wings outstretched (cool days) or closed (in hot sun). 

The Funereal Duskywing is a small-medium butterfly 1 ½ to 1 ¾ inches (3.4 - 4.5 cm) wide.   It ranges from Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas south to Argentina and Chile, although it sometimes strays further north.   Several characteristics differentiate it from other local Duskywings: 1) its forewing is narrow and pointed, while its hindwing is triangular; 2) the hindwings have a distinctive white fringe, visible on both the upper and lower sides of the wing (clearly visible whether the wings are open or closed – even in flight).  Only one other local Duskywing – the Mournful – has white wing fringes.
Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) - front (upper) side

While the overall color of Erynnis funeralis is dark brown, the coloration is more complex and varied than you might expect.  As seen above, the front side of the forewing is marked with subtle blotches of gray and lighter brown. The patterns on the forewing extend almost to the edge of the wing and there is a larger, pale splotch (in ours a ring) near the top.  The hindwing has a overall coppery cast, in addition to the distinctive white fringe.
Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) - back side

While the adults utilize a range of flowers, they seem particularly fond of Black sage (Salvia mellifera) in our gardens; we’ve also seen them nectaring on the Woodmints (Stachys species) and other plants in the Mint family.  Adults are known to ‘puddle’ (sip moisture and minerals from mud or moist sand), although we’ve not observed this (our garden is likely too dry).

Funereal Duskywings have three broods a year, during warm weather from March to December.  In our area they typically fly from February or early March to early May (first generation),  mid-May to late June or July (second generation) and late summer to October or November (third generation).  We often see an uptick in numbers in March and again in June/July.   

The single, yellow eggs are deposited on the leaves of the host plant.  Host plants are a range of legumes (family Fabaceae) including Deervetch (Acmispon glaber/Lotus scoparius), Medicago species (alfalfa; Bur-clovers), Olneya tesota (Desert ironwood) and vetch (Vicia species)  Larvae are pale, translucent green with faint lines and a dark gray head.  Caterpillars eat the leaves and form simple shelters of rolled leaves.   It takes about 35 days to progress from egg to adult.

For more pictures and information on Funereal Duskywings see:


If you live near oak trees, you may also see the Mournful Duskywing (Erynnis tristis).   This is our second ‘white fringed’ species; it can be distinguished from Erynnis funeralis by a row of long white spots near the margin of the underside of the hindwing.  This species flies at the same time as the Funereal Duskywing, with three broods a year.  It nectars on a wide range of native and non-native plants including Verbenas, Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon species), California Buckeye (Aesculus californica), native buckwheats (Eriogonum species), Milkweeds and other garden flowers, especially the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii).  Larval foods include Coast liveoak (Quercus agrifolia) and other native and non-native oaks. 

For more on the Mournful Duskywing see:


The Afranius Duskywing (Erynnis afranius) is slightly smaller than Erynnis funeralis and has pale-tipped wing fringes, rather than white.  Like the Funeral Duskywing, its larvae require legumes, including Deervetch (Acmispon glaber/Lotus scoparius), Lupines (Lupinus species), Spanish Clover (Lotus purshianus), the Goldbanners (Thermopsis species) and Milkvetch (Astragalus species).   We have not found records of this species in gardens, however its range, habitat and food requirements suggest it may do so.

For more on Afranius Duskywing see:

For pictures and information on the 'Californian' Pacuvius Duskywing (Erynnis pacuvius callidus) see:

For pictures and information on the Western Oak Duskywing (Erynnis propertius) see:



We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about Duskywing butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Plant of the Month (May) : Western columbine – Aquilegia formosa

Western Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa) in Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Four years into a continuing drought in Southern California.   We’ve supplemented the meager spring rainfall, hoping our plants make it through the summer.  But even in early May, many of the greenest plants are those growing in shade.  Among the prettiest shade plants in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health is the Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa.

Western columbine is a member of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup or Crowfoot family), which has a worldwide distribution of around 1800 species.  Among the better-known members are Ranunculus (genus Ranunculus), Anemone (genus Anemone), Larkspur (genus Delphinium), Meadow rue (genus Thalictrum) and Clematis (genus Clematis).  Many species are planted in gardens and some are used in traditional medicine.  Some Ranunculaceae produce chemicals that are toxic to humans and animals, so it’s best to learn their properties before including them in your garden.

Western columbine can be found from Alaska and Montana to Baja California, Mexico. It grows throughout much of the California Floristic Province (west of the Sierra Nevada Range), with the exception of the Great Central Valley, South Coast, and Channel Islands.   It inhabits moist places in many plant communities including stream banks, seeps, chaparral, oak woodland, mixed evergreen forest and coniferous forest to 8000 foot elevation.    In Southern California, it can be found in the San Gabriel and Liebre Mountains. 

An herbaceous perennial, Aquilegia formosa is 2-3 feet tall and about as wide.    Drought deciduous, it normally dies back in summer; given water, it can remain green until fall.  The foliage is pale blue-green, becoming red-tinged if dry.  The leaves look somewhat like an over-sized Maidenhair fern, with deeply lobed leaflets in groups of three (see below).  The foliage grows mostly as a mound of green at the base.  The plant is similar in appearance to the related Fendler’s meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri), also growing in our Garden of Health.  Despite the delicate appearance, Aquilegia formosa is a fairly hardy plant. 

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): foliage

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): flowering stalks

Western columbine flowers in late spring or summer.  In local lowland gardens, it may bloom as early as April; in areas with cool spring weather, it can flower as late as August.   As seen above, the flowers grow at the ends of erect, many-branched flowering stalks; the overall appearance being open and lacy.  Blooming plants are so unique that they attract rapt attention, at least in our garden.  Columbine flowers seem destined to be admired and photographed!

The flowers of Aquilegia formosa, while smaller than those of Columbine cultivars, possess all the charm of their larger brethren.  The flowers are described as ‘nodding’; they droop and sway on their branches, unlike the more stiffly erect flowers of other species.   Our plant in the Garden of Health has flowers somewhat in-between (see below).   The surprise appearance of an erect, yellow-flowered plant this year (inset, below) strengthens our suspicion that our plant may be a hybrid, rather than the straight species.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) flower; inset shows yellow-flowered volunteer
 that resembles Aquilegia pubescens

Western columbine is known for its brilliantly colored flowers.  If you like red and yellow, this is surely a plant you’ll like!  Columbines have a highly modified floral structure designed to attract specific pollinators.   The five yellow, petal-like structures are actually sepals (structures that are often green and inconspicuous in other flowers).   The yellow and red petals form tube-like structures with a broad, yellow opening (the ‘blade’) and a narrow red-orange tube (the ‘spur’).

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): close-up of flower petals
The spurs in Aquilegia formosa are relatively short and straight compared to other Columbines.  Its flowers are pollinated by long-tongued pollinators, primarily hummingbirds (and occasionally large butterflies).   The nectar is stored in the tips of the spurs, where only a long-tongued pollinator can reach it; and the pendant flowers are easiest for hummingbirds to access. The nectar is extra sweet – another hummingbird adaptation found in this species.  
Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): close-up of flower (labeled)
As shown above, the sexual organs (stamens and pistils) extend well beyond the blades, ensuring that hummingbirds will brush against them, transporting pollen from flower to flower.  If several species are present, pollen may be transferred between them, creating the hybrids for which Columbines are well-known.   To learn more about the special adaptations of Columbines and their pollinators we recommend:

Western columbine does best with some shade.  In local gardens, we recommend planting it under trees (dappled shade) or in bright shade on the north side of buildings or walls.  While preferring a well-drained soil, it does fine in clay-loams and tolerates a wide pH range (4.0-8.0). Plants do need moist soils, at least until flowering ceases; they can even tolerate winter flooding.  Consider planting Columbines with other water-loving plants so they receive the moisture they need.
Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): mature seed capsules

While short-lived (3-4 years), Western columbine reseeds well in many gardens.  Each flower can produce many small, dark seeds.  As seen in the photo above, the dry seed capsules open from the top and wind plays a role in distributing seeds.  To prevent re-seeding (and prolong flowering) deadhead flowers regularly.  Watch seed capsules closely if you wish to collect the seed; seeds can ripen quickly in warm weather.  Some gardeners cut off the semi-dry fruiting stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag, allowing the seeds to harvest themselves.

If starting plants from fresh seed, simply scatter seeds in the garden or start them, barely covered, in pots in spring or fall.  Older seeds – or those from colder climates – may germinate better with a short cold-moist pretreatment.  Soak seeds overnight, then place in a damp coffee filter (folded to contain the seeds) and store in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator for 3-5 days before planting.  Seeds will take 3-4 weeks to germinate.

Columbines make a lovely addition to shady areas of the garden. They add woodland charm to shady places under trees and do well with our moisture-requiring native ferns.  Place them where you can enjoy visits from the local hummingbirds – near a bench or porch.  In nature, Western columbine sometimes forms large colonies in open areas.  Mass plantings in the garden can be equally spectacular!  Columbines can even be grown in large containers.  And the flowers make a spectacular addition to floral arrangements.

Native peoples use Aquilegia formosa where ever it grows.  All part of the plant (with the possible exception of the flowers) are at least mildly toxic.  So we don’t recommend eating it, though some native peoples did so in the past.  But the medicinal uses of this plant are legion.  That’s why we grow it in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health. 

Mashed fresh roots are traditionally rubbed on aching, arthritic joints and applied to  bee stings and skin sores to relieve pain; a poultice of fresh leaves is used similarly.  Several tribes report using a mild decoction of the leaves for sore throats, colds and coughs.  A decoction of roots and leaves was taken for dizziness and stomach upset; and a decoction of roots is a traditional Shoshoni medicine for stomachaches, diarrhea and to induce vomiting. 

As with all medicines – particularly those taken internally – caution is advised.  There is often a thin margin of error with medicines: the right dose can heal, but the wrong dose can kill (or make you very sick).  

The seeds of Aquilegia formosa are very fragrant.  They were traditionally ground or chewed to release the scent, then used as a perfume (or to cure head lice!).  You can grind the seeds and include them in potpourri or use sachets of ground seeds perfume clothing.   The flowers are said to be good luck charms in some Native American cultures.  We can’t vouch for their efficacy as charms – but they certainly are special flowers!


For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sustainable Gardening: Managing Annual Wildflowers

Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentis) - Mother Nature's Backyard

Annual wildflowers are among the most popular California native plants.  An important part of our natural heritage, they add unique colors and interest to the spring/summer garden.  We covered the basics of annual wildflower gardening in a previous posting:   Here we consider the sustainability side of growing annual wildflowers.

You may be puzzled about the idea of ‘managing’ wildflowers.  They are, after all, ‘wildflowers’; can’t they can simply manage themselves?  And indeed they can – in the wild.  But local gardens differ in important ways from wild lands.  In the case of annual wildflowers, several gardening choices play a key role in wildflower sustainability.

Removing spent annual wildflowers after seeds are gone

Late spring visitors are often surprised to see golden wildflower stalks among the blooming shrubs in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  One rarely sees drying flower stalks in public gardens; they are often removed as quickly as possible, to preserve the beauty of the garden.  The practice of ‘immediate removal’ of spent flowers does improve the appearance of a garden – but at a cost.  Understanding both the costs and benefits can help you make the right decisions for your own garden.

Our annual wildflowers are remarkably efficient organisms.  They germinate, flower and set seeds in only a few months, allowing them to succeed in our mediterranean climate.  Local annuals survive the long dry season as seeds; so their continued survival is entirely dependent on the formation of healthy, viable seeds.  Without seeds, the wildflowers will disappear from the garden.

The last stage of seed development is the ‘desiccation’ stage, during which seeds lose up to 95% of their water.  This extreme drying allows the embryo to enter a state of suspended animation; there it remains, unharmed by hot, dry weather, through the summer and fall.   When the winter rains begin, the seed and embryo quickly re-hydrate, allowing the embryo to begin growing and thence to germinate.

Seed pods - Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentis)

It’s often impossible to tell whether seeds have matured to the desiccation state before they enter it.  If collected too early, seeds may not yet be ready; even if allowed to dry, they may not be viable.   The safest strategy is to allow seeds to dry naturally on the plants. They can then be collected (important for seeds that are heavily eaten by birds) or allowed to naturalize in the garden.   

And that’s why visitors to our garden see drying flower stalks this time of year. They are very noticeable (see above).  But what’s nearly invisible is the process of seed desiccation - taking place in every pod, capsule and flower head.   A true miracle of life, though sometimes not a tidy one!

Annual wildflower stems used as mulch

In Mother Nature’s Backyard we emphasize life-friendly gardening.  We do several things to support the continued survival of annual wildflowers in the garden.

  1. We allow seeds to desiccate on the plants.
  2. We collect some seeds for storage, sharing or propagation. We collect more of the seeds that can be over-eaten by birds (Elegant clarkia [Clarkia unguiculata], Tidytips [Layia platyglossa] and the Goldfields [Lasthena species] come to mind).  The remaining seeds are allowed to self-sow (naturalize) in bare areas of the garden.
  3. When dead plants are finally removed, they are used as mulch, further spreading the remaining seeds and providing summer mulch.  Because ours is a public garden, we try to make our mulch as inconspicuous as possible.
  4. Some areas of the garden are left covered with only a thin organic or inorganic (gravel) mulch.  The mulch helps protect seeds from over-predation by  birds.   And the thin mulch allows them to successfully germinate.

These time-honored practices have been followed by Native Californians and sustainable gardeners for thousands of years.  They mimic the ways of Mother Nature, providing food for animals and humans, while helping sustain the plant species.   They are life-friendly and sustainable.

So when our tidy-up instincts tempt us to remove plants, we remind ourselves of the benefits of waiting, just a bit, for seeds to complete their cycles. We look forward to next year’s wildflowers with hope and expectation.  We hope you’ll consider doing the same in at least a few areas of your own garden.


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: