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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Marine Blue Butterflies (Leptotes marina)

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina)

One of the more enjoyable aspects of gardening is watching the birds and animals that visit/live in your garden.  Butterflies are among the more popular visitors, and most gardens attract a few species.  But a garden filled with nectar-rich flowers and larval host plants can be alive with many species by mid-summer.  To learn more about butterfly gardening see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/butterfly-gardens.html

Among the common butterflies visiting native ‘butterfly plants’ are the small species known as the Blue Butterflies.  There are many species of ‘Blues’ throughout the world.  They all are classed as Gossamer-winged Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae), a large group that includes around 40% of all butterfly species (over 5000 species in the Family). Some of the common types of butterflies in this family are the Blue, Copper, Azure and Hairstreak butterflies.  We introduced another Gossamer-wing, the Gray Hairstreak, last month: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/07/gray-hairstreak-butterfly-strymon.html

The Gossamer-winged butterflies are mostly small.  They have delicate wings that appear to shine with color.  In the case of the Blue Butterflies, the predominant color of the upper-side of the wings is a shimmery blue that varies with the light.  Gossamer-wings live in a wide range of habitats from deserts to tropical rain forests and wetlands.  And some are common visitors to home gardens.

The Blue Butterflies belong the sub-family Polyommatinae (the Blue Butterflies).  This sub-family has traditionally been a sort of catch-all for species of similar appearance.  So it’s difficult to tell how many species it actually contains (molecular taxonomy will one day sort this out).  Southern California genera currently included in the Polyommatinae are: Brephidium (Pygmy Blues), Celastrina (Azures), Euphilotes, Glaucopsyche, Hemiargus, Leptotes, Philotes, and Plebejus. 

The most widely known (and the rarest) of the local Blue Butterflies are the Palos Verdes and El Segundo Blues (Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis and Euphilotes battoides allyni, respectively).  These two species have very limited geographic ranges (in Western Los Angeles County) and larval food sources.  Efforts to bring these two species back from the brink of extinction have been widely publicized.  Their story has become part of the restoration ecology lore.

Mesquite (Prosopis species): larval food for
 Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina)

The Marine Blue (Leptotes marina) is a far more common butterfly in S. California.  Its range extends from California and Arizona east to Texas and south to Central  America. [1]  It’s a fairly common small butterfly in S. California, living in Mesquite and Coastal Sage scrub, city gardens and agricultural areas where alfalfa is grown. In the Sonoran Desert, it’s commonly seen along riparian corridors, which contain mesquites or other plants in the bean family.  Because its larval foods are common, gardeners in S. California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado or Texas may see this butterfly in their home gardens.  Individuals occasionally stray further north, but they apparently don’t over-winter.

The species was named by Tryon Reakirt (1844 – ?) in 1868. Reakirt was a businessman but was really a lepidopterist at heart. [2]   He joined the Entomological Society of Philadelphia at the age of 19 and became an accomplished taxonomist.  Reakirt's Blue butterfly also honors Tryon Reakirt. 

Reakirt was particularly interested in butterflies of the tropics and the American Rockies, publishing nine articles in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia. He apparently was not a field collector and never visited the American Southwest. Ultimately, his business dealings failed (there were hints of corruption), and Reakirt fled to Peru in 1871.  For more on the little that’s known about this talented lepidopterist see reference 2, below.

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina) is small

Like all the Blues, the Marine Blue is a rather small butterfly, with a wingspan ranging from 7/8 to 1 1/8 inches (2.2 - 2.9 cm). [3]  It flies with a rapid, erratic flight pattern, landing to feed or search for mates.   When perched, the wings are usually closed, making it difficult to see (or photograph) the upper wing surface.  The upper surface is an iridescent blue-purple with a hint of brown.  The males have pale brown and white markings on the upper wing surface; females are all blue-purple.  For good photos, see references 3 & 4, below.

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina): underside

The undersurface is often the best distinguishing characteristic between the different Blues.  In the case of the Marine Blue, the underside has distinctive, wavy, tan and white bands that are reminiscent of ocean waves coming in to shore.  I’m not sure why the Marine Blue is called ‘Marine’, but suspect it’s because of the ‘waves’.  The underside also has a line of tan and white circles on the wing margins, and two larger, darker spots on the lower dorsal wing (see above).

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina): nectaring on
Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)

Adults nectar on whatever small flowers are blooming.  In our gardens, we most often see them on the native Buckwheats or plants in the Sunflower family.  They are also commonly seen around their larval food plants – the legumes (members of the Pea Family – Fagaceae).  So you may see them near the peas in your vegetable garden as well.  Common larval foods in S. California include the native Milkvetches (Astragalus species), Amorpha californica and fruticosa, Glycyrrhiza lepidota, native Lathyrus (wild pea) and Lotus species, and the non-native Wisterias, Plumbagos, Acacias, alfalfa and garden peas. In the desert, common host plants are the tree and shrubby legumes, including Mesquites (Prosopis species), Acacia greggii, Dalea purpurea and Lysiloma thornberi.

Amorpha fruticosa: larval food source for
 Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina)
Females lay their eggs on the flower buds of host plants. The eggs and young larvae are small and well camouflaged; you’ll have to really look for them. The larvae eat mainly the flowers and the seedpods.  For good photos of eggs, larval stages [4, 5].  For good advice on raising this butterfly see reference 5, below.


Marine Blues can be seen year-round in S. California and other warm places.  We see them most often in summer and fall in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  They are fun to observe and add to the interest of a garden.  But what role do they play in the garden ecosystem – and why should we be interested in attracting them?

All butterflies and their larvae provide protein for birds, wasps and other insect-eating species.  So Marine Blues certainly function as prey.  But do they also play a role as pollinators, particularly of the small-flowered species they seem to prefer? In fact, the answer has yet to be discovered.

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina): note how hairy this species is.

Butterflies are thought to be minor pollinators for most plants.  Perhaps that’s why relatively little research has been done, except in the case of a few flowering plants.  But a good look at the smaller butterflies, like the Gossamer Wings and Skippers, makes us wonder.  These butterflies have relatively short legs (for butterflies), visit many flowers, and can be seen in large (aggregate) numbers, particularly in areas of the arid Southwest.  These butterflies are also conspicuously hairy, particularly on the underbody and around the face.  All these factors make us wonder if they are more important alternate pollinators than is often thought.

Good studies of pollinator activity are difficult to carry out.  They require time, patience, hard fieldwork and observation.  Probably the best studies document that pollen is actually carried by a pollinator.  Such studies require extreme magnification – at the level of the electron microscope.   As far as we can determine, few studies have focused on the Blues as pollinators.  We hope that some up-and-coming Southwestern lepidopterist will seize the opportunity, enlightening us on the role of the Blue butterflies as pollinators.  That would make a fantastic doctoral dissertation!

The Blue Butterflies also remind us that specialization – whether in nature, agriculture or business – carries with it a substantial risk.  The highly specialized El Segundo and Palos Verdes Blue Butterflies, with their limited larval food sources, are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss.  The more generalist Marine Blues, with their ability to utilize a range of native and non-native legumes, have lots more options.  The Marine Blue serves to remind us that flexibility can be a reasonable survival strategy in times of rapid change – like now.   

Marine Blue Butterfly (Leptotes marina):
Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA

See our other insect postings for more on common insect visitors to S. California gardens: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/07/insect-postings-mother-natures-backyard.html






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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Garden Hours are Changing - See Calendar for Updated Schedule

The hours our garden is open are in a state of change.  Visit our Calendar for updated dates and times the garden will be open.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Plant of the Month (August) : Island alumroot – Heuchera maxima

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima)
Sitting in the shade on a hot summer’s day allows us to really experience our native shade-loving species.  Many are pretty and have unusual foliage, adding to their allure.  One plant that’s been a shade garden staple for many years is the Island alumroot, Heuchera maxima.  The scientific name is most commonly pronounced HER (or HOY)-ker-uh  MAX-im-uh.

The Heucheras are an interesting group of herbaceous perennials in the Saxifrage Family (the Saxifragaceae).  Members of this family generally grow in moist shady places; they are often used similarly in gardens.  Among the California saxifrages are the Boykinias, Heucheras, Jepsonias, Lithophragmas, Micranthas, Suksdorfias, Tellimas and Tolmieas. Of these, the genus with the most species is Heuchera.

The Saxifrages share a number of common features.  Most have rounded or heart-shaped leaves that grow in a mound at the base of the plant (a basal rosette). Most are perennials, dying back to a stout root in winter.  The flowers grow in stalks above the leaves.  Some have medicinal properties, and have been so used.  And most grow in forests or riparian areas, often in shade.

Thirteen species of Heuchera are native to California.  They belong to three groups: those that are primarily coastal, those from far northern California, and those from the mountains (including the Transverse and Laguna Ranges of S. California).  Many Heuchera species have very limited ranges, and several are listed as endangered.   We featured the Seaside alumroot in May: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/05/plant-of-month-may-seaside-alumroot.html

Heuchera maxima is one of the coastal species.  It’s native to the Northern Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara. In the wilds, it grows in moist, shady, north-facing sites, often in canyons or on ocean cliffs.  Island alumroot is a member of the chaparral plant community; it always grows at elevations less than 1500 ft. (500 m.) in nature. Fortunately, it’s available to California gardeners and widely used in gardens in warmer climates (USDA Zones 8-10).

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): foliage
All the Heucheras have pretty, rounded leaves and Heuchera maxima is no exception. Its leaves are slightly succulent, lobed, with scalloped edges.  The leaf color is green, but may be mottled or two-tone.  The entire plant is slightly hairy.   Leaves have long petioles and are tightly clumped in a basal rosette.  With a little water, the entire plant appears neat and tidy much of the year.

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): plant
Heuchera maxima begins to bloom in spring and can bloom off-and-on through summer with a little water. The blooms of Island alumroot are small, bell-shaped flowers on slender, upright flowering stems.  The flowers of this species are white to pale pink and are clustered at the tips of side branches on the stem.  The flowers are less densely packed than those of the Seaside alumroot.
Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): close-up of flowers
Several well-known, named Heuchera hybrids share the foliage characteristics of Heuchera maxima and the brighter flowers of the Arizona native Heuchera sanguinea. Hybrids between H. maxima and H. sanguinea range in color from white/pale pink to bright pink or magenta, and are very showy.  Hybrid cultivars include 'Genevieve' (rose-magenta), 'Opal' (white), 'Santa Ana Cardinal' (large red), 'Susanna' (red), and 'Wendy' (pink), all developed at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA.  We feature ‘Wendy’ in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health.

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): hybrid cultivar 'Wendy'
The Heucheras are loved for their ability to tolerate (even need) a shady location.  In nature, this species grows primarily in moist, shady canyons. In the garden it does best with afternoon shade, under trees or on the north side of walls or buildings.  We’ve grown it in clay soils; it can succeed in all but the poorest-draining soils.  It looks good with a yearly application of a light (1/2 strength) fertilizer, particularly in sandy soils.

In dry climates like S. California, Heuchera maxima needs regular irrigation for the first year, until the plant is established.  Then water two to four times a month for best appearance. Plants are actually quite drought tolerant (much more so than the eastern Heucheras) – but they need a little water to look good. We water our alumroots every two weeks from June to August in our clay-loam soils.  Then we taper off water in September.   To conserve water, we recommend using a 1-inch thick organic mulch around Heucheras.  Keep the area under the plants mulch-free to discourage fungal infections of the stems and leaves.

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): seed capsules

Heucheras don’t need much in the way of maintenance.  Cut off spent flower stalks for tidiness and to promote a longer bloom season.  Remove old, dead leaves in the fall. If you’ve planted several plants, you may be able to collect seeds from the dry capsules and start some new plants.  And divide plants as needed, usually every 4-5 years. When plants become crowded and blooming decreases, then it’s time to divide.  Division is best done in early spring.

So, why plant Heuchera maxima and its cultivars?   First, these are charming, old-fashioned perennials, with a long history of use in gardens.  Most people have no idea they are California native plants; they look that ‘garden-like’.   Their tidy appearance and low maintenance make them a good choice for many gardens – including front yards.  They look equally appropriate in both traditional and contemporary garden designs.

Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): Ranch Santa Ana
 Botanic Garden, Claremont CA

Heucheras are the perfect solution for shady parts of the garden. They provide a natural, woodsy element favored by many gardeners.  They can be used as a ground cover (above) or to border shady pathways or flower beds.  With limited water, they can even be used under native oaks.  

Heuchera’s small size makes them a good choice for narrow planting areas.  Heucheras can even be grown in deep containers (they have a tap root) on a shady patio. They are favorites of hummingbirds.  Plant some near a garden bench; you’ll be rewarded by steady visits from these jewels of the air.   The flower stalks also make a pretty addition to floral arrangements.   
Island alumroot (Heuchera maxima): good hummingbird plants

Finally, Heucheras are known for their medicinal properties.  The leaves and stems – but particularly the roots – produce chemicals that are strongly astringent and possibly anti-microbial.  In traditional medicine, a poultice or extract of the roots was applied to skin wounds and sores to stop the bleeding and reduce swelling.  An extract of the root was used as a gargle for mouth sores and sore throats.   Note: this plant has strong medicinal properties and should not be taken internally.  

In summary, Heuchera maxima is treasured by western gardeners for its attractive foliage, pretty flowers and shade-loving nature.  It’s hard to find an easier-to-grow plant that looks as good as the Island alumroot and its cultivars.  And if you’re creating a Channel Island themed garden, you’ll want to include this species in your collection.  We hope you’ll consider adding this versatile plant to your own garden this winter. 

Heuchera 'Wendy' : Mother Nature's Garden of Health

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/heuchera-maxima

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