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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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (July) : California verbena – Verbena lasiostachys

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Summer has truly begun by July.  The days and nights are warm and the early buckwheats are in full glory.  But tucked around the garden are some other summer-flowering perennial treats.  One of these – blooming now in the Garden of Health – is the California verbena.  The scientific name for this plant is pronounced ver-BEE-nuh  laz-ee-oh-STAY-kiss.

The stems of Verbena lasiostachys are square in cross section.  California verbena belongs to the Vervain Family (Verbenaceae).  The Verbenaceae is closely related to the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), which also features square stems and aromatic foliage.  In fact, some species formerly included in the Verbena Family have recently been reclassified as Mints. 

The genus Verbena includes a number of species grown as garden plants.  This genus, mostly native to the Americas and Asia, includes annuals and perennials with small flowers that are usually pink, purple or white.   They are often planted to attract butterflies.  But many Verbena species also have a long history of use as medicinal plants.   So one sees them in herb or medicinal gardens as well.

Eight Verbenas are native to California, but only Verbena bracteata, V. scabra and V. lasiostachys grow in Los Angeles County.  While most native verbenas have limited ranges, California verbena can be found in many sites throughout the California Floristic Province (west of the Sierra Nevada Range), from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico.  But it particularly likes the ocean-influenced climates of western California. It can still be seen growing wild in the lowlands and foothills of Western Los Angeles County and on Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands. 

California verbena (also commonly known as Western vervain and Western Verbena) is a sub-shrub or perennial of the Coastal Scrub, Chaparral and Oak Woodlands, rarely appearing above about 7500 ft. (2500 m.) elevation.  It tends to grow among and around the larger plants, usually in sunny or partly-shady spots that may be seasonally moist or fairly dry.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - growth form
While Verbena lasiostachys is classed as a sub-shrub or part-woody perennial, its form varies greatly depending on the circumstances in which it grows.  We’ve seen it growing as a low-growing sprawler, as well as a more upright, open sub-shrub.  We suspect the differences in form are related to the amount of light, soil type and possibly also how far it dies (or is eaten) back each year.   At any rate, its open form means it thrives around and between other plants.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - the branches
 need pruning

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - new
 growth in spring
The foliage of California verbena is typical for the genus: leaves that are coarsely toothed and larger/more developed near the base of the plant, becoming smaller up the stems.   Plants have several to many stems, adding more stems each year.  Plants die back to semi-woody stems in fall.  We usually prune our plants back in late fall.  New foliage appears with the spring rains – usually about the time the Miner’s lettuce is flourishing in February (see above).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - foliage
The variety scabrida, which is native to Santa Catalina Island and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountain foothills, has rough-textured leaves.  The variety lasiostachys, also native to the South Bay (including the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve), has smooth, hairy leaves (see above).   Both varieties do well in local gardens.   And both look different than just about any other native plant (other than the tall Verbena hastata).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowers,
 shady location
But the real reason for growing any verbena is the flowers.  The genus verbena equates with small flowers, usually violet in color, tightly packed on upright flowering spikes.  Verbena lasiostachys has the violet-colored flowers typical of the genus.  The individual flowers are small – perhaps ¼ inch – but the flowering spikes are up to 4 inches (10 cm.) in length.  The flowers have five petals, fused to form two distinct lips (see below).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flower spike
One nice feature of the verbenas is that flowers open sequentially, from the bottom to the top of the spike.  This is a godsend for habitat gardeners; the plants remain in bloom for weeks to months.  And the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators, from the European honey bee to native bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. If for no other reason, California verbena deserves to be planted as a pollinator plant.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowering plant
While not a long-lived perennial, Verbena lasiostachys is easy to grow and will re-seed in many gardens.  It has a reputation for being an aggressive re-seeder; we suspect this is mostly so in regularly watered gardens.  We’ve had only occasional seedlings appear in our water-wise gardens, and those mostly close to the parent plant.   The seedling’s leaves are distinctive and readily noticeable.  Seedlings can be removed in late spring if needed.

California verbena grows in just about any S. California soil, from sandy to poorly-draining clays.  It does best in part-shade (afternoon shade) in most gardens.  It likes flat ground (it’s not one for the sides of a berm).   And it also likes good winter-spring water, even tolerating seasonal flooding.   We give our plants occasional water (every 2-3 weeks) through the flowering season, then taper off irrigation in late summer. 

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Native Plant
 Garden,  Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA
We like this plant for its habitat value and old-fashioned charm.  Since it dies back, plant it among evergreen plants or local sub-shrubs.  It will find its way amongst the other plants each spring.  It works well with most of the local natives, including the grasses and sedges.  We’ve never grown it in a pot, but suspect it would do fine.  We have grown the shrubbier Lilac verbena in containers; it does just fine (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/09/plant-of-month-september-lilac-cedros.html)

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - with Wooly bluecurls,
 Mother Nature's  Garden of Health, Gardena Willows.
And, of course, California verbena is a pretty addition to the herb or medicinal garden.  Verbenas, including Verbena lasiostachys, have been used as a general tonic for many years.  Flowers and foliage are often used as a tea or tincture for fevers and at the onset of colds and sore throats.  This remedy also helps calm and settle queasy stomachs.  The plants make chemicals that likely reduce inflammation, a useful trait for a medicinal plant.

In summary, California verbena is a sweet little native perennial.  It’s not a summer show-stopper; that honor goes to the sunflowers and buckwheats.  But it is a charming pollinator plant, perfect for gardeners who love purple and a medicinal plant to boot.  What’s not to like?

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - pretty perennial

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



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