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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 (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/06/life-friendly-gardening-planning-for.html).

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: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/07/life-friendly-gardening-photographing.html  

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: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/07/insect-postings-mother-natures-backyard.html





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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sustainable Living: Foraging for Native Plant Foods in Your Own Backyard

Sustainable foraging for native dye plants in the garden

Interest in the edible, medicinal and other uses of native plants has grown dramatically in the past five years. Mother Nature’s Backyard has played a role in this. Our ‘California Gourmet’ and ‘Garden Crafts’ series specifically promote the use of California native plants.

Native plants play an important role in living sustainably.  They furnish habitat, create shade, improve the soil and provide edible and craft materials.   To put it simply, California natives are remarkable additions to the garden ecosystem. But it’s important to remember that these plants are also critical components of natural ecosystems.

The increased interest in edible and medicinal native plants creates several unintended consequences.   Most important is the overuse of natural stands of native plants growing in the wild.   This is not just a problem in California; over-collecting of native plants is a critical issue world-wide, leading to the extinction of entire plant species.

While some California native plants are still common, others are rare – even endangered - in the wild.  Humans have played a key role, primarily by destroying habitat (building houses, roads, etc.).  Global climate change is putting further pressures on wild plants and animal populations. 

To stress wild populations further by wild foraging is unsound.  In fact, there are legal, health/safety, practical and ethical/stewardship reasons to limit wildland foraging.  For a thoughtful article on this see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-novick/forage-in-the-garden-not_b_10211746.html.  

We urge that you consider foraging in your own garden rather than in the wild.  A thoughtfully planned garden can supply many edibles and loads of materials for garden crafts.  In fact, you may have an excess.  Consider swapping ‘produce’ with others to increase the variety of materials available to you.  Get to know which weeds are edible or useful; knowing that a weed is edible can turn a chore into an interesting adventure.

There are many reasons to forage your own garden rather wild foraging.  Here are just a few:

Legal reasons

  1. You own the resource. Collecting on private property or on protected government land can be risky business, particularly without the proper permits.   Trespassing and stealing can lead to fines – even jail time.   Safer to forage in your garden.
  2. Rare species, purchased from reputable sources, are legal to own and plant in your garden. Wildland endangered/ threatened species are often legally protected.  They cannot be taken, removed, destroyed, collected etc. in the wild.  You can harvest (responsibly) the rare species you grow in your garden.  Just be sure to purchase plants from reputable sources only.  Don’t risk the legal consequences of planting a plant that’s been illegally harvested.

Health & safety reasons

1.    You know you are using the correct species. Field foraging can result in mistaking a toxic for a safe species.  Poisonings – even deaths – from eating wild foraged plants occur each year.  Purchase and clearly label garden plants, making sure that proper precautions are taken with hazardous species.   You wouldn’t want to feed your family something that might make them sick!

2.    You know how the resource has been managed. Pesticides, herbicides, pollution, etc. can affect the safety of plants ingested as food/medicines or used in craft projects.  You can manage these exposures in your garden; you have no clue about them when you wild forage.

Practical reasons

  1. Ease of access. It’s so much easier (and sometimes safer) to harvest plant materials in the garden than the wild. 
  2. You can pick edibles, medicinals and craft materials at the ‘peak of freshness’.   The taste, appearance and effectiveness of many materials varies with the season and the weather.   Grow source plants in your garden, where you can easily monitor them and harvest at the optimal time.
  3. You can grow enough of the species you enjoy.  We all use our plants differently.  By planting just the species you use, you can make best use of your garden’s space.  A natural dyes enthusiast will plant different plants from someone with an interest in medicinal plants.    Choose plants for their useful properties in addition to their beauty.
  4. Useful plants provide added value to your garden.  Berry bushes, vines and trees can provide habitat and shade in addition to food.  Dye plants and edibles can be pretty and water-wise.  Useful native plants can stabilize a slope and improve soil nutrients and physical properties.  Useful native plants provide these ‘added services’ in the wild; why not in your garden?
  5. Harvesting home-grown materials gives purpose to your garden.  There’s nothing like the satisfaction of growing your own food and other useful products.  Working in a useful garden provides purpose to all who participate.  Gardening – and garden foraging – are good, wholesome family activities!     And they are often fun as well!

Ethical/stewardship reasons

  1. You don’t over-tax rare natural resources.  Even when we each take just a little, if there are many foragers, scarce wild plants can disappear.  Wild resources are the sacred heritage of us all; they are a gift to pass on to future generations.  Admire plants in the wild; observe them, photograph them and enjoy them.  But forage California natives in your own garden; it’s the responsible – and ethical – thing to do.
  2. You can manage garden plants using sound ecological principles.  Since you control the resources, you can manage them wisely.  You can harvest just enough, at the right time, to sustain the plants. 
  3. No need to waste time & gas getting there.  If you worry about scarce resources and air pollution, garden foraging is the most economical and earth-friendly option.
  4. Passing along an ethic of sustainability to the next generation. The planet is getting more crowded – that’s obvious.  To adapt, we need to adopt and promote sustainable living practices.  Be an inspiration: live sustainably, grow sensible plants (like local natives) and forage in your own backyard.   Your children, grandchildren, students and others need to learn these skills.   Be a teacher of sustainable life skills – that’s important!

Wild greens foraged sustainably from Mother Nature's
 Backyard garden.



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


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Plant of the Month (June) : California everlasting – Pseudognaphalium californicum

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum) in Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Some plants remain where you plant them; others move around in the garden.  The movers are those plants – often annuals or perennials – that re-seed where ever conditions are suitable.  Rather than fighting it, we let the movers pop up (within reason) in different places each year, adding an element of spontaneity to the gardens.  One such plant is the California everlasting, Pseudognaphalium californicum (pronounced soo-doe-nah-FAY-lee-um  cal-ee-FOR-ni-cum).

The Everlastings are an interesting and useful group of plants in the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  Also called Cudweeds, they are common plants of temperate regions. In the western U.S., they are often herbaceous plants with hairy foliage and rather plain flower heads.  The floral bracts remain on the plant after flowering, making these ‘everlasting flowers’ useful in dried flower arrangements.  Several Everlasting species are used in traditional medicine, most commonly for sciatica.

In California, the most common Everlastings are classified in three genera: Logfila (the Cottonrose genus), Gnaphalium (the Cudweed genus) and Pseudognaphalium (Cudweed or Rabbit-tobacco genus).  Gnaphalium palustre (Western marsh cudweed), a common annual of seasonally moist places, is the only California native in the genus Gnaphalium.  

Eleven California Everlastings are currently classed as Pseudognaphalium.  Of these, most are perennials – although many function more like biennials or even annuals. [1] Seven species, along with the non-native Jersey cudweed (Pseudognaphalium luteoalbum), are native to western Los Angeles County.   We featured the Feltleaf everlasting previously (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/09/plant-of-month-september-wrights.html).

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum) - Palos Verdes peninsula
California everlasting (formerly Gnaphalium californicum) is native from Washington/Oregon to Baja California, Mexico. It grows throughout the California Floristic Province, with the exception of the Great Central Valley.  It can still be seen in the Santa Monica Mountains, in the foothills of the San Gabriels, on Catalina Island and in undeveloped areas of the Baldwin Hills and Palos Verdes peninsula.    

California everlasting is also known as Ladies' tobacco, California rabbit tobacco, Green everlasting, California pearly everlasting and California cudweed. It’s a common herbaceous plant of seasonally dry, open places in forests, grasslands and shrub lands (chaparral, coastal sage scrub and mixed evergreen), often on slopes or in disturbed soils.   It is also used in local gardens for its unique appearance, fragrance and other qualities.

California everlasting
Pseudognaphalium californicum
Whether Pseudognaphalium californicum is an annual, biennial or short-lived perennial depends partly on circumstances.  In favorable situations in the wild, it likely is a short-lived perennial.  In most gardens, it will behave as either an annual or biennial.  The plants begin growth with the winter/spring rains, first forming a luxuriant mound of soft, bright-green foliage.

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum)
spring foliage
The plant itself is rather stout and upright, growing 2-4 ft. (0.5 to 1.25 m) tall and up to 2 ft. wide.  The larger leaves, which can be 4-6 inches long (to 15 cm), are clustered in a basal rosette in older plants.  The leaves are linear to lanceolate, with somewhat wavy margins; they may be sparsely hairy. 
California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum): foliage
The most striking foliage characteristic is the glands, which are found on both upper and lower surfaces of the leaves.  You’ll know from the leaves that this is California everlasting; it’s the only locally native everlasting with sticky, aromatic leaves. Chemicals produced by the glands are responsible for the characteristic aroma – like maple syrup with hints of lemon and camphor.   On a warm day, the scent makes you long for pancakes – kids love it!    In fact, the scent is one of many reasons to include this plant in your garden.
California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum):
 flowering plant in Madrona Marsh Nature Center
 native plant garden
With the warming spring weather, plants develop one or more erect, leafy flowering stalks.  These are many-branched at their ends, producing an inflorescence (cluster of flowers) that is wide and flat, mostly at the top of the plant.  The terminal branches have fewer leaves, so the flowering heads appear to float above the foliage.  Plants may begin flowering as early as February in lowland S. California; as late as July further north and at higher elevations.   In Mother Nature’s Backyard, Pseudognaphalium californicum usually blooms from April to June. 

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum):
 flower heads
California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum):
 close-up of flower heads
The flowers themselves are typical of the native Everlastings.  The flowering heads have no showy ray flowers (the ‘petals’ of a typical sunflower head) and the yellow disk flowers are only slightly visible.  The overall shape of the flowering head is like a turban or bulb; rounded and wider at the base, more pointed at the tip (see above).  The flowering heads are covered by thin, scale-like, white involucral bracts (flower leaves), giving them an overall white color.  In this species, the bracts are blunt tipped (see close-up picture, above). 

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum):
 going to seed

Like most Sunflowers, California everlasting is insect pollinated.  The seeds are tiny, with bristles that aid in wind distribution (or occasional hitchhiking in animal fur).  In our experience, new seedlings establish readily in suitable places.  This is a pioneer species (an early colonizer of bare or disturbed sites).  As such, it tends to establish on bare ground, in places with adequate winter moisture and light.  

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum):
The seedlings are easy to distinguish from other plants (above) and young plants are easily removed where necessary.   This is not an aggressive invader in our experience; new plants pretty much replace the old ones each year.

California everlasting is not fussy about soil type, doing well in sandy, rocky or clay soils.  It probably does best in full sun, but also grows in part-shade (it tends to be a bit leggy and has fewer blooms).  Pseudognaphalium californicum tolerates coastal conditions, salty and alkali soils, poor drainage and deer.  It is not eaten by rabbits and does well on slopes or flats.   All it really needs is adequate soil moisture from winter until it begins to flower. 

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum)
 in garden at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden,
 Claremont CA
There are many good reasons to include Pseudognaphalium californicum in your garden.  It functions as a useful filler plant between shrubs and grasses in new and mature gardens.  The white ‘flowers’ usefully tie together disparate colors in a garden bed.   And, of course, the wonderful scent makes it a natural for the scented garden.  A plant next to a sunny garden seat is heavenly on a warm spring day!

Like many of the native Pseudognaphalium species, California everlasting is a larval food source for the American Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis.   If you like the Painted Ladies, you should consider planting some native Everlastings (like Pseudognaphalium californicum).

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum)
Garden of Dreams Discovery Garden,
 CSU Dominguez Hills, Carson CA
Of course another reason to plant California everlasting is to have a ready source of dried flowers for bouquets and crafts.  Simply clip off the flowering stems before most of the flowers open, bundle the stems, then hang them upside-down to dry in a dry place.  The ‘flowers’ will last for a year – until the next season provides a new crop.  They provide useful filler in bouquets and floral arrangements; but they also make an airy arrangement all by themselves.

A final reason to plant Pseudognaphalium californicum is for its medicinal uses.  Tinctures of several Everlasting species, including P. californicum, have been dissolved in water and ingested in the treatment of lower back pain and sciatica. A tea made from dried stems and leaves is a traditional remedy for colds, coughs and stomach ailments.  This treatment may work by strengthening the immune system, so it’s important to use a mild dose (perhaps 5-10 leaves per pint of hot water).  After steeping, the leaves are removed and the refrigerated tea is drunk once a day over 3-4 days. [2]   This tea was also used as an eyewash.

California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum)
Mother Nature's Garden of Health, Gardena Willows
 Wetland Preserve, Gardena CA
A pillow stuffed with dried flowers and foliage is reported to help some sufferers of asthma and chronic cough. This is an unusual delivery mode for a medication, but may be worth a try.   A poultice of the leaves is a traditional treatment for cuts and skin sores; it reportedly numbs the pain and aids in healing.   Finally, Chumash healer Cecelia Garcia has shared explicit instructions on the use of Pseudognaphalium californicum as a weight loss aid.  Read reference 3, below, for more on this application.

In summary, California everlasting is an interesting native plant with many attributes to recommend it.  It can be grown in a variety of soils, even along the coast.  Its aroma is unique among the local natives and it provides needed habitat for American Lady butterflies.  It can also be a source of craft materials and medicinals.  It’s an easy plant to grow - if you can provide bare soil and don’t mind it moving around in your garden.  We love this plant and think you will too.


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



  1. Calflora - http://www.calflora.org/cgi-bin/specieslist.cgi?where-genus=Pseudognaphalium
  2. http://www.livingwild.org/summer-blog-posts/pearly-everlasting/
  3. http://www.abeduspress.com/files/Chumash_treatments_to_aid_weight_loss.pdf





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