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Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Sage ( Salvia leucophylla ) Butterflies are among the most attractive visitors to any garden.   ...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Habitat Gardening: Dreams and Realistic Expectations

Habitat gardens provide for butterflies and other creatures

Habitat gardening is becoming popular in the United States and elsewhere.  There’s something satisfying about planting a garden that attracts a wide range of birds and other creatures.  Many gardeners dream of a garden filled with butterflies and birds.  But how realistic is that dream?  And how long will it take for a new garden to meet those expectations?

One thing gardening teaches us is patience.  The best garden features – shade trees, large flowering shrubs, nesting birds – take time.  But you’ll probably see some changes right away, when you begin to garden for habitat.  For example, a water source and fast-growing flowering plants begin attracting insects and birds the first year. 

Native plant gardens change dramatically in the first decade. Here’s what you’ll likely experience, when you convert your S. California garden from conventional garden plants to California native habitat species:

The first year: plants are low and small
Year 1

  • Birds and insects will start coming to a water source almost right away.  Water is scarce, and creatures are skilled at finding it.  Install several water sources to supply this critical resource.
  • Any native that flowers will start attracting some pollinators.  There may not be very many pollinators the first year, but annual wildflowers, perennials and flowering shrubs will see some activity the first year.
  • Any plant that produces seeds will attract some seed-eating birds (like gold finches and white-crowned sparrows) particularly in late summer and fall.  The more annual wildflowers, the more seed eaters you’ll see the first year.

Years 2 and 3: sub-shrubs are larger; annuals still play key role.
Year 2 & 3

  • Flowering perennials, shrubs and sub-shrubs become larger, producing more blooms.  These attract noticeably more insect pollinators and hummingbirds.  We suggest planting annual wildflowers, in open spaces around shrubs, to create still more spring-summer pollinator food. If desired, begin to photograph and document the insect and bird species visiting your garden.
  • As shrubs and trees grow, more use of them as perches and cover by birds and small creatures (lizards).  So you’ll see more of the common birds.
  • More summer-fall, seed-eating migratory birds will pass through, as food sources increase.  They will likely come as small flocks, and won’t stay long.
  • Omnivorous and insect-eating birds occasionally visit; same with dragonflies

Years 4 and 5: even larger shrubs are maturing.
Year 4 & 5

  • As perennials and shrubs mature, noticeably greater numbers and more species of insect pollinators.  May start seeing some rarer native bees, flower flies.  Photograph and document these – you may be surprised!
  • Insects, including butterflies and other pollinators, begin reproducing in the garden, if larval food sources are available.
  • More pollinator moth species (if dusk- and night-bloom plants present)
  • Dragonflies and damselflies start to reproduce in earnest in dragonfly ponds.  You’ll see more adults even without a pond, due to increased insects.
  • Increased numbers of insect-eating insects (Robberflies; predatory wasps).
  • Insect-eating birds increase noticeably.  Watch for Phoebes, Kingbirds, Swifts, Swallows, Flycatchers, Mockingbirds, Bushtits.
  • Established plants provide wild greens and leaves for tea or medicinal use (depending on what species you’ve planted).
  • If you have hummingbird plants, regular visits from Anna’s & Allen’s hummingbirds. 
  • Hummingbirds may begin to nest in larger, dense shrubs & small trees
  • If trees are large and dense, some common birds begin to nest: Northern Mockingbird, House sparrows, House finch.
  • Regular visits from seed-eating finches, other migratory seed-eating birds. White-crowned sparrows and Lesser goldfinch may become regulars.
  • As leaf mulch and seeds build up, visits from ground feeding birds: California towhee, White-crowned sparrow, Doves.
  • Occasional visits from hawks, seeking prey
  • Increased numbers of lizards due to increased insects, cover (unless there are cats, which preclude lizards)
  • As fruiting shrubs and trees begin to produce, begin to see fruit-eating birds: Northern Mockingbirds, Orioles, song birds in winter

Years 6 through 10: As garden matures, more creatures nest in the garden.

Year 6-10

  • Greater diversity of insect pollinators as flowering plants mature.  Most gardens at this stage supply food for literally thousands of individual pollinators. Consider adding plants that attract specialist pollinators: mallows, Annual sunflower, Malacothrix species, Oenothera species.   
  • Greater number of bird species, including those that specialize in insects or fruits.  You may even see flocks of Cedar waxwings, Bushtits, songbirds in fall or winter.
  • Plenty of edible fruits for your family as well (if you’ve planted currants & gooseberries, elderberries, strawberries, wild rose).
  • More birds nest in large shrubs, woody vines and trees; greater diversity of nesting birds, including Bushtits, Northern mockingbirds, Orioles and others (depending on the trees).
  • Consider adding seating in areas with good views of birds, butterflies.  You can do some serious nature observation from this point forward.
  • Regular visits from dragonflies and swallows, phoebes, flycatchers.  The increased numbers of insects are a magnet.
  • Regular nesting of hummingbirds.  Visits from migratory Rufus hummingbird are possible (they are the really feisty, copper-bronze colored guys).
  • More insects, including butterflies and native bees, complete life cycle in the garden (depending on availability of larval food and nest sites).  Consider providing nest sites for ground- and wood-nesting bee species.

Mature garden is a functioning ecosystem.
Year 11 and beyond

  • The garden should be a functioning ecosystem, both above- and below-ground.
  • Many species of pollinators visit and complete their lives in the garden.  Add seasonal flowering plants – or those that attract specialist pollinators – as needed.   Don’t forget the shady areas of the garden.  Some of the shade-loving perennials are great habitat plants.
  • Replace dead plants with new ones that flower and produce fruits or seeds. Choose species you like, including some unusual ones.  Expect some turnover in garden plants – that’s natural.  Fill in open spaces with annual wildflowers until new plants get bigger.
  • There should be birds in the garden most of the time. Birds can be observed conducting all of their usual activities.  The water sources are great places to bird-watch, utilized by both the ‘regulars’ and exotic migrants.
  • Natural leaf mulch/duff supports wide range of creatures, from insects to salamanders, lizards and others.  Take an opportunity to observe this interesting community occasionally.  The duff teams with life!
  • Congratulations!   You continue to create wonderful habitat for creatures who need it.  As green space shrinks – and climate changes stresses wild areas – garden habitat becomes ever more important.  Keep up the good work!

Want to learn more about habitat gardening?   See:

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

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (August) : Dunn’s lobelia – Lobelia dunnii

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - Mother Nature's Backyard 

By August, the only perennials blooming in Mother Nature’s Backyard (other than the buckwheats) are those in moist, shady places.  One pretty little perennial, blooming for the first time this year, is the Dunn’s lobelia.   The scientific name is pronounced low-BEE-lee-uh  DUN-ee-eye  sir-RAY-tuh.

Dunn’s lobelia (sometimes also called Blue lobelia and Rothrock’s lobelia) is a California member of the Campanulaceae, the Bellflower family.  This family has 80+ genera and about 2400 species worldwide, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere [1].  Included are garden favorites like the Campanulas and the Lobelias.  As suggested by the common name, the flowers of the Campanulaceae are bell-shaped and often blue or violet colored.

The genus Lobelia is well-known to gardeners. Ornamental cultivars spread their old-fashioned charm under trees and along shady pathways. They take a little extra water, and so are useful for naturally moist areas.  While some are annuals (or treated that way), perennial species have the added advantage of coming back, year after year, in a welcome splash of green and blue.  No wonder gardeners like the Lobelias.

Only two Lobelia species are California natives.  Both Lobelia cardinalis and Lobelia dunnii are native to the mountains of Central (Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties) and Southern California. They also grow along the Monterrey County coast.  Where ever they are found, they favor shady, moist areas: canyons, seeps, rocky stream banks, the edges of waterfalls – you get the picture. 

There is current debate about the proper taxonomic status of Lobelia dunnii.  Some have proposed reverting to an older taxon, Palmerella debilis, first proposed by the eminent 19th century taxonomist Asa Gray [2]. The California Lobelias do have a distinctive appearance, and may well deserve a genus of their own.  But since most native plant and garden folks know Dunn’s lobelia as Lobelia dunii, we’ll stick with that name for now.

Lobelia dunnii var. serrata, the variety we’ve got in the garden, can still be found in the canyons of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Ranges, as well as on Santa Catalina Island and in northern Baja California, Mexico.  It was first collected in the 1800’s and grows in moist places in Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral below about 4500 ft. (1400 m.).    If you hike the moist canyons below San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) and Ontario Peaks in the San Gabriels, you may have seen it along the streams.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - in Spring
Like most local perennials, Dunn’s lobelia dies back to the ground in fall, to emerge again with the winter-spring rains. If you continue to water it, the plant will remain green into early fall – then let it dry out and rest.   Most S. California perennials really do need a period of rest in the fall.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrate): young leaves
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may miss the emerging stems (see above).  The emerging leaves look quite different from the leaves of the mature, summer plant.  If a plant is happy, it will send up more sprouts each year, and spreading to a 2-3 ft. patch.   Plants also re-seed in local gardens.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrate) - foliage
Dunn’s lobelia is an herbaceous perennial, growing at most 12-18 inches (30-45 cm.) tall.   It is sometimes erect, but as likely to be somewhat sprawling (decumbent) of habit.  The leaves are a fresh spring green, elongated and becoming slightly smaller up the stems. The foliage is quite open; not shrubby, but rather a delicate, lacy groundcover, somewhat mint-like in appearance.   

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - flowering stem
The flowers are cottage garden pretty – small and pale lavender or blue. The flowers may be up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) long.  They are clustered at the tops of the stalks. As flowers open over time, the total bloom season may be a month or more.

The petals are fused into a long tube, with 5 lips.  The lower three lips are elongated and extend down.  The upper two lobes are curled tightly back – a unique appearance (see below).  The flowers are loved by long-tongued butterflies; this plant is often planted specifically to attract them.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - close-up of flowers
Dunn’s lobelia will grow in most local soils (except salty or alkali), though it prefers a rich loam.  It does fine in our local clays.  We’ve been most successful growing this plant on the north side of a tall wall.  It would also do well in dappled sun under trees.  We’d only try it in fall sun at the edges of a pond.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - delicate perennial
This is a species that likes moist soils - it can even take winter flooding.  Regular water through the bloom season is probably best.  We give ours (in clay) a deep soaking every 3 weeks in summer, then taper off in early September.    That’s really about it.

Lobelia dunnii is a perennial to tuck into shady, moist places.  It does well with native grasses, sedges, juncus, Solanum, Nicotiana and others that like a little extra water.  We’d love to try it in a moist pot on a shady porch. It’s not a garden diva.  But it’s charming as a violet is – simple, sweet and unassuming.  And then there are the butterflies!

In summary, Dunn’s lobelia is a wonderful little perennial.  If you have a moist shady spot – or can create one – this might be a butterfly plant to try.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/lobelia-dunnii

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


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campanulaceae
  2. https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=845391#null

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

Pollinator Habitat: Does One Small Garden Matter?

Mother Nature's Backyard provides pollinator and bird habitat.

Summer is our peak insect season in Southern California.  And 2017 is a fantastic year for garden insects!  The winter rains have helped a number of species – from butterflies to tiny flower flies – bounce back.  We hope you’re taking the time to enjoy them.
Habitat gardening is gaining popularity throughout the world.  As green space disappears, more gardeners are choosing plants for their habitat value. In doing so, we take it on faith that if we plant the right plants, the insects and other creatures will come.  But how much difference can one small garden really make?  
That’s just the kind of question that biologists like to ask – and try to answer.  To that end, the UC Berkeley Bee Lab (http://www.helpabee.org/) is monitoring bees in gardens throughout the state.  In S. California, they currently have sites in Camarillo, La Canada/Flintridge, Palm Springs and Riverside. We look forward to seeing the results of their monitoring efforts in these gardens.

Several species of native Buckwheats attract summer insects.
Unfortunately, the Berkeley Bee Lab has no sites yet in western Los Angeles County.  That’s a shame – there are many interesting pollinators in our local gardens.  Are the insects different from those of other areas?  Are there (as yet) undiscovered pollinator species in western L.A. County?  What locally native plants are important for the specialist pollinators?  What pollinator species can a small, typical suburban garden support?   All of these are questions begging for answers.

Jesus Cepeda, Cal Poly Pomona, examines trap.

And that’s why Mother Nature’s Backyard is currently participating in a study designed to  answer some of those questions – at least for the bees.  Jesus Cepeda, a Master’s Degree Candidate at Cal Poly Pomona, is conducting a study of bee pollinators in six native plant gardens in Los Angeles County.  Most are home gardens; but one is Mother Nature’s Backyard.

Cepeda is a bee biologist.  He wants to know whether native plant gardens attract the same types of native bees as are found in natural areas. He’s also interested in questions of seasonality, floral density and floral species relationships.  And so, about every six weeks, he visits each garden to see what’s flying.
Collection in Mother Nature's Backyard
Cepeda uses several collection methods.  He utilizes pan traps (small plastic bowls filled with soapy water) to collect the smaller species.  These are yellow, blue, white and red; he leaves them in place for 24 to 48 hours.  He also uses a net to capture some of the larger species.    He takes them back to the lab, preserves them and determines what species they are.   His results will ultimately be analyzed and published.

We eagerly await the results of Cepeda’s study (we’ll update you when we know more).  Until then, we continue to observe and photograph the insects in our gardens.  Some photos are not so great, but others are detailed enough to classify to the genus or even species level.  We’ve also managed to document some interesting pollinator behavior in our gardens.   All of this just makes us more curious about the creatures with whom we share our gardens.

Cepeda surveys a sunny, July garden
So, does one small garden matter?  The jury is still out, but the hints are promising.  Bigger is better, certainly, but even small gardens are likely to provide important habitat. We suspect that interesting answers – specific to our area - will emerge in the next few years.  The data will help us spread the news about the importance of habitat gardening.  Someday, entire local neighborhoods may provide crucial pollinator habitat.  That’s an exciting thought!

In the meantime, you can help the effort by photographing your garden insects and uploading them to iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/home).  It’s fun and easy – you may even learn the names of the insects.  And you’ll be doing something no one else can: documenting the insects in your garden for science and for posterity.

Want to learn more about habitat gardening?  See:

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

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