Thursday, August 18, 2016

California Gourmet: Preserving Summer Berries (Strawberries; Bramble-berries; Currants; Huckleberries; Rosehips and more)


Golden currant (Ribes aureum): one of our tastier native berries

 
A number of native berry fruits come ripe in summer.  Many have singular flavors that truly represent the ‘taste of California’; their flavors work well in many types of recipes.   Included are the native strawberries (Fragaria species), currants and gooseberries (Ribes species), roses (rose hips – Rosa species), blueberries/huckleberries (Vaccinia species), Blackberries/raspberries/thimbleberries (Rubus species), wild grapes (Vitis species) and of course the Blue elderberry. 

We’ve already discussed the picking, preparing and saving of elderberries: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/08/picking-cleaning-and-processing.html.  But the others are coming in quickly, so we decided to share our experiences picking, preparing and storing some of the rest.  Here are some tips for saving the flavors of native berries and berry-like fruits.  We’ll provide recipes using these fruits in future posts.

Picking Blue elderberries
 

Picking the Fruits

First, some general rules. 

·         If possible, pick fruits that have not been sprayed with pesticides.  Many native plant gardeners never use pesticides, so this may not be a problem.  If you have used pesticides on fruits, be sure to follow the instructions on the pesticide package regarding safe use.

·         Pick only ripe, unblemished fruits.  Know what color fruits are when they a ripe (watch the birds; they will show you when a fruit is ripe),

·         If possible, pick in the morning (before 10 a.m.) when flavors are often the most intense.

Currants, gooseberries, bramble berries, blueberries

These fruits are mostly dark colored and slightly soft when ripe. Most detach easily from the branches.  Simply pull them off and drop into a bowl or small picking bucket.   If the bushes have thorns/prickles: wear long, leather rose-pruning gloves (well worth the investment).

Rose hips, strawberries

These are dark red or red-orange and slightly soft then ripe.  You can taste or smell the sweetness.  We cut off individual fruits with a kitchen scissors or light-weight pruner.

 
We cut off entire clusters of elderberries & grapes
 
Elderberries, wild grapes

These are either blue (Elderberries) or dark purple (grapes) and slightly soft when ripe.  We cut off entire clusters of fruits, put in a plastic bag, then complete the processing in the kitchen.

 

Washing native fruits using a colander
 
Preparing and Cleaning the Fruits

A few general rules:

·         Remove any twigs, leaves, etc.

·         Rinse the fruits in cool, running water.  We like to use a big, old-fashioned colander (see above).   Save the rinse water and use it to water plants in the garden (it’s perfectly safe).

·         Let the fruits drain/dry in the colander; or gently pat them dry with a paper towel

Strawberries

Remove stems and leaves from strawberries with a knife or strawberry huller. 

We wash entire clusters of grapes before removing the stems
 
Elderberries, wild grapes

For elderberries, follow the tips in our elderberry posting: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/08/picking-cleaning-and-processing.html.  

Wild grapes are small, soft and harder to remove from the stems. If you place the unwashed fruits in the refrigerator overnight (or even for several days), the fruits will come off easier.  We suspect that the cold triggers a chemical reaction that loosens the bond between stem and fruit.   

We’ve also found it easiest to rinse entire clumps of grapes first, before removing fruits from the stem.  Detach the fruits over a bowl or large pot; that way you’ll collect all the juice and smashed grapes as well as the whole ones.  And you will crush some!  Don’t worry; you’ll likely be making juice from them, anyway.

 

Most native fruits freeze well
 
Freezing Fruits

If you’ve room in your freezer, freezing fruits is a good way to preserve them for later use.  It’s also a good way to deal with fruits that have a prolonged ripening season (like Bramble fruits, which may have individual fruits ripening over a month or more).  Pick ripe fruits each day, then freeze them until you have enough to make jam, jelly or other product.  

Just be sure that fruits are fairly dry, place them in freezer-weight plastic bags or other freezer-safe containers, label with product and date, and freeze.  We like to double bag our fruits – helps preserve the flavor and prevent freezer burn.

When you’re ready to use the fruits, thaw and use.  Some fruits (Elderberries, Ribes species, blueberries and brambleberries) will freeze whole.  Others will be a bit mushy when thawed.  But all will be fine to use in most baked goods, jams, jellies, beverages, desserts, etc.

 

Dried fruits keep well, take little space and
 don't require refrigeration
 
 
Drying Fruits

Elderberries, currants, gooseberries, brambleberries, blueberries/huckleberries, rosehips and wild strawberries can all be preserved by drying them whole.  This is a convenient way to store fruits for future use; the flavors last for up to a year.  The dried fruits can be used for tea, ground dry (with spice grinder or mortar & pestle) for use in baked goods and desserts, or re-constitute them for use in many dishes.  

If grinding dried fruits for use in beverages or baked goods, we suggest (based on experience) that you strain out any large, hard seeds before adding the mixture to your recipe.  Use a mesh kitchen strainer; the small, good stuff will go through, leaving the seeds in the strainer (discard the seeds).

We have given detailed instructions for drying fruits in our Elderberry posting.  We use these drying methods for all the fruits discussed above.   If your strawberries or rosehips are large, you may want to cut them in half before drying.

 

Straining is the last step in making kitchen extracts
 from native fruits & berries
 

Making Kitchen Extracts

A good way to capture the flavors of summer fruits is by creating kitchen extracts.  We discussed kitchen extracts, in more detail, in a past posting: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html. Alcohol extracts can be used just like purchased extracts (vanilla extract, etc.).  Kitchen extracts allow you to create berry-flavored dishes all year long.

Creating kitchen extracts is simplicity itself.  Place cleaned, crushed fruits into a clean glass container with a lid (we use canning jars with plastic lids, but any glass jar with a lid will do).  Cover the fruit with vodka, making sure that all parts of fruit are covered (cheap vodka work just fine).  Cover and place jar in a cool dark place (like a cupboard or pantry).  If your lid is metal, place a double layer of plastic wrap over the opening before you screw on the lid.  Be sure to label the jar with the fruit type and date.

Swirl the fruits every other day.  After one week, strain out the fruits.   If you want a stronger extract, add more prepared fruits and proceed as above.   When you’ve completed the last extraction, strain out the fruits, then filter the extract though a coffee filter (our favorite) or several layers of cheese-cloth.   Bottle the extract in a clean (washed just before bottling with hot water) glass bottle, cap and label with product and date.   Store with your other extracts in a cupboard or pantry.

 

You can make delicious freezer jams or traditional jams
 using California native fruits and berries
 

Making Jams from Fresh or Frozen Fruits

Native currants, gooseberries, brambleberries, blueberries/huckleberries and wild strawberries can all be used to make delicious jams.  Just follow a standard recipe for the type of fruit you’re using.  Be sure to follow the directions carefully, particularly if canning the product.  Good instructions/recipes are available with the canning jars, with most canning pectin products, and on-line.

 

Making juice from 'Roger's Red' grapes
 

Making Juice from Fresh Fruits

All of the berries and berry-like fruits can be used to make juice.  The juice can then be drunk fresh, frozen for later use or used in cooking or making jelly or syrup.  Fortunately, making juice is really easy once the fruits have been cleaned.

Place clean fruits in a heavy saucepan (non-aluminum is best). Crush the fruits with the bottom of a glass or metal measuring cup (don’t worry about crushing them all). Add water to about ½ inch over the level of the fruits.  Heat the fruits on the stove over medium heat until the water begins to simmer.  Turn down the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the fruits have released most of their color and flavor into the water.
 

Jelly bag (jelly/juice strainer) with frame
 

Remove from heat, let cool, then strain out the skins, seeds, etc. using a jelly bag (see above), mesh strainer or several layers of cheese-cloth lining a colander.  Recycle the skins/seeds in the compost pile or as mulch in your garden.  Don’t worry about the seeds sprouting – they don’t survive the heat!

Use or store in the refrigerator (use within 3-5 days).   We prefer glass beverage containers with lids for storage.  You can also freeze the juice in freezer-proof containers for later use.

If using the juice as a beverage, you may want to add a sweetener of choice.  Taste and see – you may like it just as is.

 

Equipment we use for making jelly
 

Making Jelly from Berry Juice

Use your favorite recipe for the appropriate type of berry.  Good recipes for grape, elderberry, rose-hip, bramble-berry and other jellies are available in the pectin box or on-line.  The native fruits make fantastic, unique jellies that are great as gifts.   You may even want to combine several type of juice – or add some favorite spices like cinnamon or ginger to your jelly.  Follow the canning recipes to the letter; you don’t want your canned jelly to spoil.

 

Canned syrups from native fruits last several years
 at room temperature
 
Making Syrup from Berry Juice

Native fruit syrups are a wonderful way to preserve the tastes of summer.  They can be used in so many ways.  And you can even can them, if so desired, so they won’t need refrigeration.   We find we use the flavored syrups all the time!

We discussed making syrups in a previous posting, and refer you there: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/01/california-gourmet-flavored-syrups.html

 
 

Enjoy your preserved native fruits & berries! 
   They'll bring back summer, all year long
 

 

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We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Plant of the Month (August) : Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat - Eriogonum parvifolium


Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) - white flowers, left

 
Native buckwheats are the stars of local gardens in August.  Their pretty, pink-white flowers and orange-brown seed heads attract a host of birds and insects; they are sometimes literally covered with butterflies and other insects.  One local species, blooming now in Mother Nature’s Backyard, is the Seacliff or Dune Buckwheat, Eriogonum parvifolium (pronounced ‘air-ee-OGG-oh-num  par-vee-FOE-lee-um’.

Seacliff Buckwheat is also known commonly as Cliff Buckwheat, Seacliff wild buckwheat, Dune buckwheat, Dune eriogonum, Small-leaved wild buckwheat and Small-leaved buckwheat. It was first proposed as a species in 1809 [1] and  botanists collected it from the Los Angeles County coast in 1881 [2].     Several varieties have been proposed; most now regard all of the coastal forms as a single species.  

The wild Buckwheats – genus Eriogonum – are flowering plants in the family Polygonaceae (the Knotweed or Buckwheat family).  There are over 250 species and sub-species native to California.  Many California Eriogonums are half-woody shrubs (sub-shrubs) or perennials, although some are annuals.   Eriogonum species are native to North America and not to be confused with the Asian cereal/flour buckwheats, which are in a different genus (Fagopyrum).  Our native wild Buckwheats are not the source of buckwheat pancakes – that’s Fagopyrum – but they are a preferred food source for many a hungry insect.

Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) is a good example of the buckwheats native to western Los Angeles County.  In the wilds, it still can be found in coastal areas from Monterey to San Diego County.   It grows most commonly on dunes and bluffs near the ocean, where it provides important habitat under challenging coastal conditions.  But in our area it also extends further inland, to areas covered by coastal shrubland and coastal sage scrub.  For example, there are still areas of native Coastal Buckwheat in undeveloped areas on the CSU Dominguez Hills campus (native coastal shrubland).   So Coastal Buckwheat is right at home in Mother Nature’s Backyard as well as on the Preserve.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium
 on coastal cliffs, Redondo Beach, California
 
Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
typical form away from sandy coastal soils
 
 
Seacliff buckwheat is a sub-shrub (the bases of the branches are woody, while the newer parts are herbaceous) with numerous slender branches.  On sand/sandy soils near the coast, the branches are prostrate (lying on the ground) or decumbent (reclining on the ground, but with up-turned tips).  In less sandy soils – like our clay soil here at the garden - the branches may be fairly upright.   The branches are 1-3 feet (to 1 meter) long and a mature plant may spread to 4-5+ feet wide.  Overall, the plants usually resemble a series of upright stems, rather than the mounded, shrub-like forms of other local buckwheats (see photo, above).

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
wet-season leaves
 
Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Dry season leaves
 
The leaves of Seacliff buckwheat are smaller than those of some native Buckwheats, less than an inch (3 cm) across - usually about 0.5 inches (1.25 cm) in our area.  Leaves tend to be smaller in drier conditions.  The leaves have a distinctive, rounded, buckwheat shape (see above) and are medium green above and lighter green beneath due to cob-webby hairs. 

In spring, the leaves are succulent, relatively flat and hairy.   As the soil dries in summer, the leaves roll under at the edges – a water saving strategy.  Under really dry conditions, the leaves become tightly rolled and finally are dropped entirely. They may also turn red – a stress-related reaction.  These are mechanisms to allow the plant to survive the long dry summers associated with our mediterranean climate.  Seacliff buckwheat is a real survivor!

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Foliage with red leaves

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
flowering plant

The main flowering season for Seacliff buckwheat is summer, although some flowers may be present throughout the year in a garden setting.   In most years, the major bloom occurs from late July through August in our area.  The flowers are just what an insect longs for: many tiny flowers, clustered in easy-to-access bunches and producing high quality nectar and pollen.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Close-up of flowers in tight, ball-like clusters

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Gray Hairstreak butterfly nectars on flowers
 
As seen in the picture above, the flowers are cream-pink in color.   A plant in full bloom is literally covered with blossoms – a sight to behold.  The flowers attract a wide range of insects from native bees and butterflies to pollinator flies, beetles and wasps.  If forced to choose one plant to attract summer insects, it would have to be a buckwheat.  You’ll want to have a seat nearby, where you can sit and watch the many visitors.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) with
Fiery Skipper butterfly

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) with
Pacific Burrowing Wasp
 
Dune buckwheat is host plant to two endangered butterfly species.  Near Monterey, it provides larval food for the Smith's dotted-blue (Euphilotes enoptes smithi).  In Los Angeles County, it is well known for its role in the survival of the federally endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes battoides allyni).  These tiny, short-lived butterflies can sometimes be seen fluttering around Eriogonum parvifolium on coastal dunes and sandy cliffs of the South Bay.  The plants also attract a number of other butterflies, primarily the smaller Skippers, Duskywings, Marine Blues, Hairstreaks and others.

Seacliff buckwheat is an easy-to-grow plant in the garden, providing you don’t water it much (or any) in the summer months.  We’ve grown it successfully in sandy and clay soils.  It needs full sun and probably does best within 8-10 miles of the coast.  Sandy, salty maritime conditions are no problem for this tough buckwheat.

Like several other local buckwheats (Ashyleaf buckwheat – Eriogonum cinerium; California buckwheat – Eriogonum fasciculatum; Giant buckwheat – Eriogonum giganteum) Eriogonum parvifolium is quick to establish.  Plant in late fall/winter, give occasional summer water (every 2-4 weeks) the first summer, and it’s established.  You will need to supplement in winter/spring if rains are scanty thereafter.  But these plants require little summer water once established. 

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
young plant
 
We may water our Seacliff buckwheat once or twice between late May and November in Mother Nature’s Backyard.   We’ve watered once a month in another garden – clay soil, but on a slope.  Be sure to pick a cool, overcast period for summer watering.   These plants are fairly pest-free, but can be killed by root fungi, if soil is moist during warm weather. 

Seacliff buckwheat requires very little maintenance.   We prune ours back by about 1/3 in late fall or winter to simulate natural ‘pruning’ by animals.  We also remove old dead stems, if any, at that time.  That’s about all the management that’s required.   If the plants spread too much, simply cut them back.  Other than that, Seacliff buckwheat is a plant that thrives on a gardener’s neglectful propensities.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve
 
We’ve planted  Eriogonum parvifolium in all the gardens we manage, as well as in restoration projects.  It makes a hardy, shrubby groundcover on sunny slopes. We also plant it along walls and fences, to ‘soften’ their harsh lines.  Seacliff buckwheat works well in mixed, water-wise beds with other native shrubs and grasses. 

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA
 
We like to contrast the foliage of the several local buckwheats and often plant several species in a garden.   They provide essential color and interest in the summer and fall garden. Their billows of soft colors remind us that autumn is coming and complement evergreen shrubs and the yellow sunflowers of fall.  Their soft shapes are perfect for the natural cottage garden.


Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) right
 and Ashyleaf buckwheat (left front)
 
Of course, Eriogonum parvifolium is an important shrub for habitat gardens, attracting both insects and insect- and seed-eating birds.   You can’t have too many buckwheats in a local habitat garden!     The young shoots can be cooked in the spring and eaten as wild greens.  Native Californians boiled the leaves to make a medicinal tea to treat headaches and stomach ailments.  The flowers were steeped in water, and the water then used as an eyewash.   All parts of the plant (including prunings) can be used to make brown and orange natural dyes.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) in fall
Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA
 
In summary, Seacliff buckwheat is a natural addition to coastal California gardens.  It provides so much in a single plant: food, habitat, color and interesting shapes.  They provide floral color in summer and fall, when other local native are dormant.  To us, they help provide the ‘feel’ of coastal California, harking back to times past. We hope you’ll consider this easy plant for your own water-wise garden.  And if you live on the coast of Los Angeles County, you may even provide habitat for the endangered El Segundo Blue.
 





For more on California buckwheat – Eriogonum fasciculatum: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/06/plant-of-month-june-california.html


  

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

  

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  1. Flora of North America - http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=250060455
  2. Consortium of California Herbaria - http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/get_consort.pl?taxon_name=Eriogonum%20parvifolium

 

 

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

 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Umber Skipper Butterfly – Poanes melane

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - perched on Purple sage


July is butterfly month in Southern California, and this is a good year.  We are fortunate in our bounty; over 20 butterfly species routinely visit local home gardens.  For more on attracting these ‘jewels of summer’ see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/butterfly-gardens.html

Common to California gardens are the small orange/gold, brown and black butterflies known collectively as the Skippers.  The Skippers, in the family Hesperiidae, are best viewed as ‘sisters’ to the rest of the butterflies [1].  They generally have short, stocky, hairy bodies, a large head with hooked antennae, relatively small pointed wings and a rapid ‘skipping’ flight pattern.  The green caterpillars, which have a large head, are also distinctive.   There are at least 3500 Skipper species world-wide (about 250 native to North America).   We discussed one group – the Duskywing Butterflies (genus Erynnis) – previously (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/05/duskywing-butterflies-genus-erynnis.html).

 
The sub-family Hesperiinae - the folded-wing skippers – is well-represented in California. This is the largest Skipper sub-family, with over 2000 described species world-wide.   Unlike the Duskywings, this group perches with its wings either folded or with the hind wings flat and the forewings partially closed, giving the appearance of double wings.  Hesperiinae larvae (caterpillars) feed on grasses and sedges, hence the common name ‘Grass Skippers’.   A locally common representative is the Umber Skipper, Poanes melane, which frequents many gardens containing native or non-native grasses and sedges (even lawn and weedy grasses).


Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - on dried Grindelia
 
Umber skippers are relatively small – about 1 ¼ inches (3.2 to 3.5 cm) across.  But they do perch regularly, allowing you to view them even without binoculars. If you’re patient, you can take good photographs of Umber Skippers. Once you recognize them, you’ll realize just how common they are in our area’s gardens.

Umber skippers range from western California (west of the Sierras) into Baja California, and the highlands of Mexico and Central America.  The California type (ssp. melane) is limited to western CA (from Northern CA [Monterey County] south to the Mexican border) and Baja California, Mexico. The range of Poanes melane appears to be expanding northward in California, perhaps due to the availability of grass lawns and possibly due to climate change. [2, 3]     Umber Skippers were apparently unknown in San Diego County until the 1930’s [4].

Poanes melane melane was proposed as a sub-species by none other than William Henry (W. H.) Edwards, in 1869. Edwards was a famous butterfly expert of his time.  He wrote the three-volume Butterflies of North America (1868-1897), called "one of the most important entomological publications of the 19th century." [5]    Edwards was particularly interested in morphologic (physical) differences within a species and the role these play in the development of new species.  Poanes melane certainly demonstrates morphologic variability within its range.

We were surprised by the limited research on the taxonomy and natural history of Poanes melane.  For such an interesting butterfly, relatively little is known about its classification and life ways.   This species presents a ripe field of inquiry for a graduate student interested in Southwestern butterflies.

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - perching male
 

Umber skippers are best known (and named for) their most obvious feature – their overall umber color.  Among local folded-wing skippers, this is the darkest appearing; the rest are either more orange or paler.   The males are said to be smaller and darker than the females, but we can’t claim to tell the difference reliably. 

We do see quite a bit of variability in our own gardens (see below).  This may in part be due to sexual dimorphism; we also suspect that individuals lose some of their bright coloring as they age.  The brightest Umbers are most common early in the season.  The darker ones are more frequent later; these have often lost much of their juvenile ‘hairiness’ as well (see below).   They blend in quite well with drying foliage.

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - dorsal side

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - doral side
 
When viewed more closely, the upper (dorsal) side is primarily umber brown, although sometimes the color appears almost black-brown.  The forewing, which is often easiest to view, has a line of three small lozenge-shaped patches near the edge. These are usually a bright yellow-orange, but may be almost white. They are quite distinctive and easy to spot.  There are also a series of larger, yellow-orange splotches nearer the body.  These form an irregular line or band.  The hind wing has a light, yellow-brown band, which is distinctive in this species.  The narrow wing fringes are a pale tan (see above).

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - ventral side

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - ventral side

The lower (ventral) side is often easy to view when Umber skippers are feeding. The ventral side wings are lighter, with an umber background and paler orange (to white) blotches.  The blotches form a distinctive v-shaped band, which is often described as unique to this species. 

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - close up, ventral
 
The antennae are approximately 1/3 the body length, spreading out and slightly forward; they have the slight hook at the end that is typical for Skippers.  The entire body is quite hairy.  The hairs atop the head are umber; the ‘face’ and area around the eyes is white (see above).  The hairs on the underside of the body are often also gray-white.

For more good pictures of Poanes melane in all stages see:


 

Umber Skippers can be seen anytime from spring (usually March) through fall (October), but they are most common locally in the hot, dry days from June through September.  They have several broods a year [4], one in spring and another in late summer/fall.   


Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) in garden 


Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - nectaring on Yarrow


From our experience, Umbers are common butterflies in the Los Angeles Basin.  In the wild, they live in shaded canyons in the foothills and Oak woodlands. They can also be found in grassy areas in Preserves, parks and gardens, often near water.  We were surprised that Umbers are uncommon in Orange County suburbs [4].  This has not been our experience; we see them regularly in western Los Angeles County, particularly in gardens with native plants.

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - nectaring on Purple sage

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) -
trying to get to nectar in Penstemon flower

Adult Umber skippers feed on floral nectar, primarily from plants in the Sunflower (Asteraceae) and Mint (Lamiaceae) families in our gardens.  We commonly see them on Yarrow, Asters, Gumplants, Goldenrods, native Sages (Salvias), mints and Monardellas.  It’s not unusual to see several Umbers on a single flowering plant – or Umbers nectaring with Fiery (Hylephila phyleus) or other Skippers.  Umbers are quite tenacious in their quest for nectar (see above); we’ve seen them hanging upside-down – even entering tubular flowers like the Penstemons.

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - courtship behavior


When not nectaring, males can be seen perched near grasses, waiting for receptive females.  We have observed female Umbers rapidly circling a perched male, a behavior that’s easier to observe than to photograph. Males will also dart out to inspect potential mates. We’ve tried photographing the Umber’s mating ritual many times – with less than optimal results (above).  The perched individuals appear to be male; the circling individuals appear to be larger and brighter females.   We’ll continue to observe and update with new insights into Umber behavior.

We’ve also seen Umbers chasing off other individuals, mostly Umber and other Skippers, in what we assume to be territorial behavior.   Several to a handful of individuals will also sometimes chase upward in a spiraling pattern. We’re not sure whether this represents courtship or other activity.  Perhaps someone with more knowledge of Skipper behavior can enlighten us?

Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) - in flight
 

Larval food sources are a range of native and non-native grasses and sedges.  Raymond Barbehenn [6] suggests that the only limitation may be the toughness of some grass species.  Caterpillars did not grow on the tougher grass species, such as Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), which they may not be able to digest.  Umber larvae have been observed eating a wide range of common lawn and weedy grasses including tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa), Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), California brome (Bromus carinatus),   and sedges.

Females likely lay individual eggs on the undersides of grass blades.  The caterpillars eat the grass/sedge leaves.  They hide from predators by constructing shelters made of rolled leaves.  The caterpillars are pale green with a dark gray or brown head.  For photos of eggs and caterpillars see:


 

We hope we’ve inspired you to search for – and observe – this interesting Skipper species.  There’s much still to learn about this little butterfly.  Perhaps you’ll discover something new – right in your own backyard!

 
Umber Skipper butterfly (Poanes melane) -
 nectaring on Woodmint
 
____________________

 
1.   Art Shapiro’s Butterfly Site - http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/butterfly/common/Skippers

 

 

 
  1. http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/lepidopt/hesper/umber.htm
  2. Calhoun, John V. (2013). "The Extraordinary Story of an Artistic and Scientific Masterpiece: The Butterflies of North America by William Henry Edwards, 1868-1897" (PDF). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 67 (2): 67–110.


 

 


 
 

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