Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why Gardens Matter (in Times of Drought)

Many of us are looking inward in 2016, reflecting on our motivations, actions and responsibilities to others.  These are important steps; somehow, we must work together to solve the challenges of our interconnected world.   Harmony, cooperation, thoughtfulness and positive actions are needed in times like this.

Times of change also remind us of our sacred role as land stewards.  Urban dwellers sometimes forget they are part of larger ecosystems.  But our actions – good or bad - effect the lives of many species, in addition to our own.

We’ve recently been reminded of the importance of gardens in times of drought.  The signs of S. California’s worst recorded drought are all around, in brown lawns and sick/dying street trees.  The effects are even more dramatic in the wildlands - and it’s not just the plants that are suffering.
Sand wasp on Red Buckwheat

Even some ‘common’ native butterflies and other insects are just not out there in the wild this year. Drought means no water and no food. And so these creatures flock to our gardens, desperate for a meal and a drink.  Gardens are a sanctuary for many creatures this year.

It’s no surprise that naturalists have noted increased numbers of birds and insects in gardens this summer. These observations are supported by data from recent bird and butterfly counts. Our gardens are truly a haven of last resort in times of drought.

Climate change forces us to rethink our gardens. In addition to choosing plants that can survive, we should consider those that provide something extra.  That ‘something extra’ can be a sweet aroma, food or flavorings for the table, herbal medicines or habitat for native creatures.  Fortunately, many California native plants provide many ‘extras’ (in addition to being drought tolerant).  Gardens that include native plants simply offer more benefits.

Whether just a few pots on a balcony – or a plot of several acres – your garden can be a place of refuge for plants, humans, other animals, insects and others.  You have the luxury of providing a little bit of water – even if the amount is restricted.  And that makes all the difference, in times of drought.   

Creating refuge is not difficult – all it takes a bit of thought and planning.   The preparations can be fun and interesting for the entire family.  Learn about local native birds, butterflies and pollinators.  What do they need in order to live in your garden?  How can you provide it? Visit a local nature center or botanic garden and ask questions.  Consult books at your public library and the many good resources on the internet.  Here are a few to get you started:


Gray Hairstreak on Dune buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
So let this be a year of introspection – but also a year for positive action.  Resolve to make a difference in the community where you live; and don’t just limit your vision to the human species.  Learn more about the ecosystem in which you live.  And don’t be surprised to discover new meaning and direction along the way.

Get out, start thinking, get going; the time for action is now.  A bit of mindfulness can transform each of us into agents of positive change.  And the cumulative effects of positive actions, no matter how small, can truly make a difference in challenging times like this.



For more ideas on sustainable living see:


Summer garden - Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA



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


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Insect Postings - Mother Nature's Backyard Blog

Southern California gardens are home to a number of interesting insects, from butterflies and bees to tiny wasps.  We try to feature these insects on our blog.  Below are the insects we've blogged about as of July, 2016.

Scientific Name
Common Name
Agapostemon (genus)
Metallic Green Bees
Agraulis vanillae
Gulf Fritillary butterfly
Bombus vosnesenskii
Yellow-faced Bumble Bee
Bombylidae (family)
Cotinis mutabilis
Green Figeater Beetle
Erynnis (genus)
Duskywing butterflies
Hylephila phyleus
Fiery Skipper
Coming August, 2016
Papilio rutulus
Western Tiger Swallowtail
Poanes melane
Umber Skipper Butterfly
Coming July, 2016
Sphex (genus)
Thread-waisted wasps



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

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Plant of the Month (July) : Southern mountain monardella – Monardella australis

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

July is our peak butterfly season, so we like to feature a ‘butterfly plant’ for our July Plant of the Month.  One of the plants that’s causing quite a stir is the Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis - pronounced ‘mon-ar-DEL-uh  aw-STRAY-lis’).  It’s been blooming up a storm recently in the Garden of Health.

Like many California natives, Southern mountain monardella has engendered some recent taxonomic debate.  Although proposed as a separate species by Leroy Abrams in 1912, it was often classified as a sub-species of the Mountain mondardella, Monardella odoratissima (ssp. australis).  Monardella odoratissima demonstrates variability throughout its wide range (from British Columbia to California and Arizona), and includes several sub-species.  The Southern mountain monardella was thought to be just the S. California variant of a wide wide-ranging plant.  

In 2009 and 2014-15, AC Sanders & RA Elvin argued for species status for Monardella australis and proposed five sub-species. [1] As of now, Southern mountain monardella is accepted as a separate species.  However, Monardella australis can still be found in the nursery trade as Monardella odoratissima ssp. australis, or sometimes just as Monardella odoratissima.   Confusing – but that’s the nature of science!

Southern mountain mint (also known commonly as Southern monardella, Southern coyote mint and Desert mint), grows in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto Ranges (eastern Transverse Ranges) in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties of S. California.  It rarely grows below about 4500 ft. (1500 m.) in the wild and can be found as high as 10,000 ft. (3000 m.).   It grows on rocky slopes and forest openings in Yellow pine and Red fir forests.   It perhaps seems an unlikely candidate for lower elevation gardens; and yet it appears to do well there.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
Southern mountain monardella is a part-woody perennial or small sub-shrub, with a mature size of 1-2 ft. tall by 1-2+ ft. wide (30-60 cm.). Like many local sub-shrubs, it starts out with a few slender, wand-like stems.  As it gets older – and additional branches fill in the shape – it becomes mounded to somewhat sprawling. If you know the San Diego Willowy monardella (Monardella linoides ssp. viminea or Monardella viminea), the shape is somewhat similar.   Our plant in the Garden of Health is young (2 years) and hasn’t yet reached its full potential; it’s still in the gangly, adolescent stage.
Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) - foliage
The foliage of Monardella australis is a soft, light- or gray-green.  The leaves are lance-shaped to narrowly ovate, and may be slightly folded in a dry garden (see above).  The margins are entire or sometimes toothed.  The foliage is drought-deciduous; but the plant leafs out again given a little water. 

Both foliage and flowers are highly aromatic.  To our tastes, this is one of the nicest mint flavors among the California natives.  Clean and distinctive, it’s a flavor destined for kitchen and potpourri.  A tea from fresh or dried leaves is refreshing – and can help settle an upset stomach. We’ve used its flavor in cookies, cakes and candies – and gotten rave reviews!    To learn how to make a kitchen extract from this and other mints (oh, so simple!) see:

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
 - flowering plant
Monardellas are in the Mint family (Lamiaceae).  As expected, their flowers are grouped in ball-like clusters (inflorescences) around the stems.  But the Monardellas are showier of flower than the common culinary mints.  That’s just one reason they have a place of honor in native and traditional gardens, alike.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) -

Southern mountain monardella has flowers that range from pale pink to pastel lavender and are hairy.  The bracts at the base of the inflorescence are green and leafy; those surrounding individual flowers are pink-green.   The flowers are about ¾ inch (2 cm) long.  The overall impression is of delicate pastels – like an impressionist painting (possibly Monet?).  This is not the showiest of the native Monardellas – that honor likely goes to Monardella villosa – but the flowers are definitely charming.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
 with Gulf Fritillary butterfly
Like many in the Mint family, Monardella australis attracts its share of pollinators, including bees (native and European Honeybee), pollinator flies and especially the butterflies. In fact, this species seems to attract both the small (particularly the Skippers) and larger butterflies.  We’ve seen Gulf Fritillary, Western Tiger Swallowtail, the Whites and the Ladies happily nectaring on our Monardella.   If you need an addition to your butterfly garden, this might be the plant.

Monardella australis can be grown in most garden soils.  Though its natural medium is rocky, it seems perfectly happy with sandy soil, clays & clay loams.  As long as your soil drains reasonably, this plant does fine.   It seems to do better with part shade in Western L.A. County, though you can grow it in sun with irrigation.   Even when established, it looks best with occasional summer water; perhaps every several weeks in clays - weekly in sands.  In nature it gets from 1-4 inches of rain in the summer.  So if it’s raining in the local mountains, consider giving your plants a little water.   Taper off watering in late August or September.

Pruning Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)


To keep Monardella australis compact and mounded, a yearly pruning is recommended.   Prune each branch back by about 1/3, making sure to leave at least 3-4 sprouting centers.  You can prune in summer or wait until late fall.  Either way, we like to wait until the plant is producing new leaves; that way we know we aren’t pruning back into old, non-productive wood.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
seedhead ready for harvest

If you prune (or deadhead) in summer, you may want to try propagating Monardella australis from seed or stem cuttings.  If propagating from seed, let the seedheads dry on the plant, collect, then separate the tiny seeds from the chaffy bracts (the bracts form tan seed capsules).  Try rubbing the bracts over a metal sieve or piece of screen; the seeds and smaller chaff will fall through.  You can then save the seeds for planting in winter.  Fresh seed should sprout with no pre-treatment.  The seedlings are very small – we’ll try to post some pictures this winter.

We haven’t propagated this plant from cuttings, but will give it a try in a few weeks.  We’ll update this posting with our experiences. 

Southern mountain monardella can be used in several ways in the garden.  It’s sometimes used as a groundcover plant under trees.   If you have an herb garden, that’s another option.  You might also plant it in a dryish, permanent position around the edges of a vegetable garden.  It looks pretty as a foreground plant in mixed beds.  And it would be happy in a large container (at least 18 inches diameter and 24 inches deep).  An unglazed terra cotta pot would work well; and you’ll need to water at least weekly in summer.

Umber Skipper (Poanes melane) on Southern mountain
 monardella (Monardella australis)

In summary, Monardella australis is a mint that’s unique to our local mountain ranges; it’s truly a part of what makes S. California so special.  It is an excellent butterfly plant and can be planted for this reason alone.  It has a lovely fragrance, making it a choice plant for the herb and kitchen garden.   We hope you can find a place for this little gem in your garden.   Then sit back and enjoy the butterflies!

Fiery Skipper on Southern mountain monardella
 (Monardella australis)

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



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


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thread-waisted Wasps – the genus Sphex

Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) on native buckwheat

Gardeners are learning to appreciate the diversity of native pollinators, in part due to the activities of National Pollinator Week (the 3rd week in June).  To learn more about pollinators in general, see our June 2013 posting (

Among the warm weather pollinators are the wasps.  While many gardeners associate wasps with nasty stings, many are mild mannered and rarely sting humans.  Most are true garden heroes, functioning not only as pollinators but as predators of unwanted garden creatures. They should be welcomed, not feared, by local gardeners.

The insect Family Sphecidae – the Thread-waisted Wasps – includes digger wasps, mud daubers, sand wasps and sphecid wasps.  These insects have distinctive long, stalked abdomens, giving the body a ‘thread-waisted’ or ‘wasp-waisted’ appearance.   We plan to write several blog posts about this interesting – and locally common – group of insects.

Female Burrowing Wasp (Sphex lucae) 

Most Thread-waisted wasps nest in the ground, usually in areas that have sparse or no vegetation.  Most are solitary nesters. Adults feed on floral nectar, honeydew, and body fluids of their prey. Their larvae feed on the paralyzed bodies of a variety of arthropods including spiders, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Adults provision the nests prior to laying eggs.  

The taxonomy of the Family Sphecidae has been recently revised [1].   It currently contains about 130 genera and over 700 species worldwide.   The Family is divided into Sub-families and Tribes, based on similarities in morphology (appearance) and DNA [1].  The Tribe Sphecini (in the Sub-family Sphecinae) includes two genera (Isodontia; Sphex). The Sphecini are large, strong flyers, active during the warm/hot part of the year.  Several species of Isodontia and Sphex are known to visit S. California gardens, particularly those with native plants. So, you likely have seen them in local gardens.

Two Sphex species are well-documented from S. California. Both Sphex ichneumoneus (Great Golden Digger Wasp; Great Golden Sand Wasp) and Sphex lucae (Burrowing Wasp) are seen routinely in Mother Nature’s Backyard (Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, Gardena, CA).  We’ve had great fun photographing these large insects; they are pretty and interesting to watch.   Here are some interesting facts about these two wasps.

Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)
Sphex ichneumoneus - Great Golden Digger Wasp/Great Golden Sand Wasp

Native to the Western Hemisphere (from southern Canada to Central/South America and the Caribbeans), the Great Golden Digger Wasp is impressive, indeed [2].  Usually between one-half inch and one inch (1.25 to 2.5 cm.) in length (sometimes even larger), they are distinguished by the golden pubescence (hairs) on their black head and thorax, their reddish orange legs, and partly reddish orange bodies.  Half of the back segment of their abdomen is also black; the front segment and legs are a conspicuous reddish-orange.  The scientific name is pronounced ‘SFEX  ick-new-MOW-nee-us’.

Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) on Red buckwheat
Great Goldens are not uncommon in parks, gardens, wild lands and vacant lots; in short, where ever there are flowering plants, grasshoppers/katydids and bare, sandy ground for nest sites.  They can be seen in warm weather, usually from May to September in S. California.  We’ve seen them primarily in June and July in our area – they are particularly busy in the dry, sunny days of early summer.

While large, these wasps are not aggressive unless handled, swatted, or otherwise threatened.  Approach them slowly and respectfully; watch and photograph, but don’t touch.  They are wary creatures, but tend to go about their business if left alone. They are very active; you’ll probably have to photograph them with a telephoto lens.  For more tips on photographing garden insects see:  

Great Goldens are so large and colorful that they are easy to spot. They twitch their wings, making them appear to flash rapidly - a behavior that attracts your attention.  The adults feed on flower nectar and sap.  They utilize a wide variety of flowers.   We see them mostly on plants with many small flowers, particularly the summer-flowering native buckwheats, yarrow and milkweeds. 

Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)
on Red buckwheat
Great Goldens (and other Sphex) are solitary insects: they do not share the responsibilities of provisioning for and raising their young. However, dozens or even hundreds of females have been seen nesting in the same area.  Some favored sites are used year after year [2].  Adult females hunt/collect crickets, grasshoppers and katydids to serve as food for their larvae. Sphex ichneumoneus wasps track their prey, hence the name ‘ichneumoneus’, Greek for tracker.

The nesting behavior of Sphex ichneumoneus is well documented, in large part due to the careful studies of several entomologists.  For a detailed description see reference 3, below.  In late spring or summer, each female constructs from 1 to 10 nests.  The nests are dug in bare sandy soil; in local gardens they are often in pathways or other areas covered by decomposed granite (DG). 

The main tunnel is one-half inch (1.25 cm) in diameter and four to six inches (10-15 cm) deep.  From one to seven brood cells radiate off the end of the main tunnel.  These are where eggs are laid and larval provisions are stored.  The entrance to the nest is covered up (to hide it) each time the female leaves.

Great Goldens hunt for crickets (Gryllidae), grasshoppers (Trimerotropis) and katydids (Tettigoniidae) to serve as food for their young.  The prey are paralyzed with toxins in her sting.  Smaller prey are then picked up and flown to the nest.  Larger prey are dragged along the ground by their antennas, which the Great Golden grasps with her mouth [3].

All parts of the nesting behavior are ritualized; they are repeated again and again with very little variation.  Upon reaching the nest with her prey, the Great Golden first inspects the burrow before dragging the prey inside.  The prey – an average of four per brood cell – remain alive but paralyzed until eaten by the larvae.  One egg is deposited per prey and the eggs hatch several days after being laid. 

Great Goldens have but a single generation per year.  The larvae spend the winter in the underground nests.  They emerge as adults the following spring, and the cycle goes on. 

Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)
on Red buckwheat

For more pictures of the Great Golden Digger Wasp see:


Female Burrowing Wasp (Sphex lucae) on 'Island Pink' yarrow

Sphex lucae - Burrowing Wasp

The Burrowing Wasp, AKA the Orange Katydid Wasp, is another Sphex species we see this time of year. It is sometimes also known as Fernaldina lucae.  The scientific name is pronounced ‘SFEX  LOO-cheh’ (or LEEOO-chuh).  The species was named by Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure (1829-1905), a Swiss mineralogist and entomologist, and a prolific taxonomist [4].  He was particularly interested in the solitary wasps.

Sphex lucae is native to Western N. America from southern British Columbia, Canada, to the U.S. Southwest (AZ, NM, UT, TX, ID, CO, OK), California, Baja California and northern Mexico [5, 6].  As with Sphex ichneumoneus, the Burrowing Wasp is found where flowers, katydids and bare ground are available. 

Burrowing Wasp (Sphex lucae) - female
The Burrowing Wasp exhibits sexual dimorphism; the male and female of the species look different. The male is smaller (3/4 to 1 inch; 2.2-2.5 cm) in length, slender and all black with violet reflections on the wings.   The females are slightly larger (to 30 mm; 1.2 inches) and more robust than the males.  They are also more colorful: black with a red abdomen, and yellowish or violaceous wings [6].   Unfortunately, we have mostly photos of the females at present – we’ll try to remedy that soon.  Note that face, legs and thorax are completely black in this species.

Burrowing Wasp (Sphex lucae) - male
The nesting behavior of Sphex lucae is similar to that of Sphex ichneumoneus.  The prey are primarily Katydids.   Adults nectar on small flowers – native buckwheats and yarrow in our garden, but also acacias, Melilotus and likely other species.

Males are known to spend the night in clusters or ‘sleeping groups’ [6, 7].  The location may change from night to night, but groups tend to remain together, sleeping in sheltered places (in flowers; under leaves; under rock ledges).

Burrowing Wasp (Sphex lucae) - female - on Dune Backwheat

For more pictures of Sphex lucae see:




In summary, the Sphex wasps are interesting and colorful additions to the garden.  They are mild-mannered, and their behavior is fascinating to watch.  So enjoy them in the wild and in your garden – and, please, don’t get out the can of Raid and kill them.  They are garden heroes, important to the garden ecosystem and important parts of our natural heritage.

Like this posting?  See our other insect posts at:





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