Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Weather means more when you have a garden. There's nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans."
-Marcelene Cox

Winter has firmly set in and established itself in the container garden. Jack Frost hasn't left his calling card yet around here, but it's assumed that Jack will show up in the near future, as recent early morning temps have been hovering in the mid thirties. No sightings or evidence of butterfly presence for quite some time now. A few honeybees here and there; that's about it.

The milkweed in the container garden has been pruned back to minimize the spread of Oe spores, ready for next years influx of Monarch butterflies.

Oe is fairly pervasive now in Monarch populations that have become more localized and non migratory, meaning some individuals and even whole colonies are not migrating as they traditionally do. This shift in behavior is pretty much limited to segments of the west coast race of Monarchs and the Southern Florida strain due to local year round sources of  perennial milkweeds such as Tropical, or also known as, Mexican Milkweed.

Our native perennial milkweeds found growing throughout Monarch butterfly territories die back each winter, unlike tropical milkweeds that grow year round. Oe spores are scattered onto milkweed plants that infected adults visit to feed on nectar or deposit eggs. The eggs hatch, upon which they immediately begin feeding on milkweed leaves and in the process consume Oe spores. These spores germinate and multiply inside of the caterpillar.

If the infection is massive, the cat will die and rupture, releasing thousands and thousands of spores into the environment. If the infection is not so bad as to outright kill the caterpillar, it metamorphoses into a sickened and weak adult that carries the Oe spores on its wings and body, inoculating any plants it contacts, therefor repeating this deadly cycle. The longer the non migrating populations sustain themselves, the greater the chance of contracting and spreading the disease among their brethren.

Oe spores are not a big problem to the heartland races of Monarchs, as the more tender tropical species of milkweeds die back at the first sign of frost and snow. The native perennial species naturally die back to the ground, only to burst back up again in spring, interrupting the Oe life cycle.

Don't be afraid to cut perennial milkweed plants way back. They'll bush out even thicker and fuller next season!

Below are a couple of articles highlighting Monarch butterfly related news that may be of interest:

Monarch Joint Venture partners with National Park Service

MJV Welcomes Green Schools Alliance as New Partner

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Just like the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time."-Deborah Chaskin

Just a short little update with what's been going on around here. The mild Santa Ana conditions we've been experiencing following that wonderful bit of rain we received recently has brought back some old friends to the container garden. Several Monarchs are cruising about looking tattered and worn, but not worn out. As for Monarch caterpillars, there haven't been any spotted for two weeks now.

Several Cloudless Sulphurs have been visiting the cassia also. That's about all I've seen recently butterfly-wise.

Cloudless Sulphur, Phoebis sennae

Winter Cassia or Christmas Senna, Cassia bicapsularis

Oh, yes; a Painted Lady butterfly has also made an appearance, happily feeding on the remaining milkweed flowers!

Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"I've watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly!  Indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless! - not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!"

-William Wordsworth

The time is approaching soon that the Mexican Milkweed, also known as Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currasavica) in the Container Butterfly Garden will be cut down to mere 4 to 6 inch stubs.

"You're kidding: why?!" you may ask. Not to reinvent the wheel, Is Tropical Milkweed Killing Monarch Butterflies - Grow or No Grow? pretty well covers the topic. The container garden is home to Mexican Milkweed, plus several other California and North American native species. These native species are deciduous, meaning they go dormant during the winter when the plant parts above ground die back, only leaving the roots to regenerate new top growth in the spring. This drastically reduces OE spores that have been wreaking havoc in certain sectors of Monarch Butterfly populations.

OE hotspots are mostly identified with regions of the U.S. where Mexican Milkweed overwinters, meaning, it doesn't die back or go dormant. Hotspots for OE are the west coast strain of Monarchs, and the Florida race that has come into existence due to the large amount of perennial milkweeds now growing there. What is OE? gives a good description of this parasite and why it is so prevalent on the west coast and Florida. Cutting back Asclepias curassavica helps to severely curtail or eliminate OE spores from overwintering on the leaves of Mexican Milkweed.

The best solution to curtailing OE in our gardens is to only plant native species, but that is not as easily done as said:

  • Native milkweeds are not very glamorous in appearance as is A. currasavica.

  • They "go away" in the winter, many times leaving gaping holes in the landscape until the following spring when they pop up again.

  • Availability in standard nurseries is pretty much nonexistent.

  • Mail order of small plants or seeds of native milkweeds is about the only way to acquire natives which definitely precludes them from being an impulse item.
If one has A. currasavica planted in their gardens, be it in the ground or in containers, it would be advisable to trim them way down soon so as not to propagate next season's OE spores, and also stimulate adult butterflies to traditionally migrate to their ancestral overwintering sites like God originally intended. I will cut mine back around the beginning of December; that will give any adult Monarch stragglers enough time to pack it up and head to their nearest overwintering grounds.

   The Gray Hairstreak butterfly can be a common visitor to So Cal gardens when one has Plumbago planted nearby. These diminutive little flyers, if visiting your locale spot Plumbago, they surely will come to linger. For a seemingly monochrome colored butterfly, Gray Hairstreaks are quite handsome.

Found throughout all of continental United States, their home range covers Central America, all the way down into Venezuela. Because of its ubiquitousness, some have suggested that besides the Monarch, the Gray Hairstreak butterfly should be considered the national butterfly.

 Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus

Larvae feed on an almost endless variety of plants including those in the mallow family, malvas, various legumes and buckwheats. Coloration can vary widely depending what host plant they feed on, many times taking on the coloration of the host's flowers. For host plants in a garden, try Plumbago and Hollyhocks.


Gray Hairstreak chrysalides look more like fuzzy fly pupae than they do butterfly chrysalides. Thankfully, the adults are cuter and more beautiful than flies... although a choice specimen of a Green or Blue Bottle Fly can be quite handsome within its own right.

Gray Hairstreak Chrysalis

I used to find Gray Hairstreaks at Alta Laguna Park rather frequently flitting about the blue Plumbago flowers in front of the tennis courts, especially in the latter part of July through October before the nights got chilly.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

“Some things, when they change, never do return to the way they once were. Butterflies for instance, and women who've been in love with the wrong man too often.”
Alice Hoffman

Things have slowed down considerably around The Container Butterfly Garden. I haven't seen a Monarch or other type of butterfly visit in the past couple of weeks. As such, blog posts are going to be more intermittent and will surely take a hiatus when winter approaches. That said, let's move on:

In the last post, we learned about the Anise Swallowtail and that geeky young boys can make gliders out of them. Besides the Anise Swallowtail, there are several other species that inhabit Southern California coastal areas.

 Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus

The Western Tiger Swallowtail is an occasional garden visitor, especially to those located closer to open greenbelt areas. Bigger than the Anise Swallowtail.

Pale Swallowtail, Papilio eurymedon

Appropriately named Pale Swallowtails are very similar in size and appearance to Western Tiger Swallowtails, with paler yellow color. Hardly seen in gardens, except those that have Western Sycamore trees or are near areas with sycamores; these trees being host plants for their caterpillars.

Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes

The Giant Swallowtail is North America's largest butterfly. When one visits your garden, you'll recognize it immediately! Hosts on citrus trees. Those with citrus trees nearby may get the chance to see one visiting. Was not a So Cal resident until about twenty or so years ago. Traditional range was as far west as Arizona until recently. A very graceful and elegant flyer.

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor

This particular butterfly in my opinion, rivals some of the metallic blues found in more popularly known tropical species. Pipevine Swallowtails are not normally found in Southern California due to the fact that their host plants are pipevines, which are not native nor endemic to our area. Their numbers were greater here at the beginning of the 20th century when more homeowners planted these vines to cover porches for shade, before the advent of home air conditioning.

There are several subspecies of Pipevine Swallowtail, extending all the way across North America. California's range extends from the Oregon border to roughly the San Francisco Bay area, where our own native California Pipevine grows abundantly. I did plant some of these vines in several areas of Alta Laguna Park when I was Parks Gardener there, but I don't know if any of them survived since my retirement. I hope some did!

Not a common yard plant today to attract Pipevine Swallowtails, one will however come across pockets of them where sufficient quantities of their host plants grow. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California has a rather large and viable population because of their extensive planting of pipevines on their grounds. There are also small populations of them recorded in San Diego, Fullerton, and even some have been observed in San Clemente.

Next year, I plan on planting one or two pipevines to see if they will attract any of these beauties that may happen to be in the area.

That's about it on swallowtail butterflies that inhabit our So Cal areas. There have been spotty reports of Black Swallowtails observed, but these are individuals who have strayed or been blown off course from their regular haunts.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Bees sip honey from flowers and hum their thanks when they leave.
The gaudy butterfly is sure that the flowers owe thanks to him."

-Rabindranath Tagore

The Anise Swallowtail, or Papilio zelicaon, is one of my favorite butterflies due to its almost clockwork appearance in mid to late June when I was a boy, heralding the start of summer vacation. Summer vacation was fresh, freeing, and exciting; time to explore! It was a common butterfly that I caught easily in my net, took home, and mounted on a spreading board, later to be placed under glass or configured into little natural gliders (which flew remarkably well when the wings were arranged right) that me and my boyhood friend Wayne would launch from the balconies of the apartments we lived in.


 Anise Swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon

 There are several other swallowtail species residing in Southern California. Two are quite similar in appearance to the Anise, but are readily distinguishable with a modicum of learning and experience.

Before the advent of large populations of people here in California, this pretty little creature was rather scarce. As human populations grew and expanded in the beginning of the 20th century, the Anise Swallowtail benefited.

The original host plant sources of this swallowtail were various species of native lomatium and tauschia, relatives of carrots and parsley. With the large scale disruption of native plant areas due to building, agriculture, and livestock, much of their ancestral range was destroyed. Enter fennel.

The introduction of escaped exotic non native fennel into the environment provided a stable host plant base that Anise Swallowtails readily adapted to -- fennel also a carrot and parsley relative -- replacing the disappearing lomatium and tauschia species.

Fennel found Southern California to be a quite a gracious host and soon escaped people's gardens. Large tracts of fennel soon appeared that Anise Swallowtails were attracted to. There being much more fennel now than there ever was of its ancestral host plants, they also grew in populations along with fennel. What once was a rather scarce butterfly visitor to early 20th century So Cal gardens, by the 1950's, became a common resident.

When looking for Anise Swallowtail caterpillars in fennel stands as kids, we would pick a juicy leaf stem and chew on the end of it for its licorice-like flavor. The flavor is delightful, plus it has mild analgesic properties and is sometimes used as a stomach soother in folk medicines. Anise Swallowtail is a misnomer, as it feeds on the similar licorice tasting fennel rather than anise.

Common, or Wild Fennel; Foeniculum vulgare

Wild Fennel is considered an invasive specie in California, and as such, is discouraged from being planted. Wild fennel is thought to have originated from plantings of finocchio that went to seed, escaped, and over time reverted to its present wild state. It's such a shame that this plant is so unruly, as it supports a variety of beneficial insects amongst its leaves and flowers.

 Anise Swallowtail caterpillar



Chrysalises, or chrysalides, of Anise Swallowtails  can come in various colors ranging from browns to greens, depending on the environment they are in. Colors are used to blend in with their surroundings.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"The least thing upset him on the links.  He missed short putts because of the uproar of butterflies in the adjoining meadows."
-P.G. Wodehouse

Copied from Monarch Watch Blog:

Monarch Population Status: Addendum

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014 at 4:45 pm by Chip Taylor
Filed under Monarch Population Status | No Comments »
As an addendum to our Monarch Population Status report posted on 29 July 2014, I offer the following:
Reports from throughout the breeding range indicate an increase in monarch numbers roughly along the lines projected in May. The migration is already underway having started at 50 N around the 12th of August. The leading edge should be in southern MN at this time and in Ames, IA around the 6th of Sept. Fall roosts have been reported to Journey North in the Dakotas, MN, WI, MI and NY as of 28 August. No roosts had been recorded by the 29th of August last year (see Monarch Roosts Fall 2013 and Monarch Roosts Fall 2014). There will surely be more monarchs to tag over the next two months and the overwintering population in Mexico is certain to be larger. At a minimum, I expect the population to be twice as large as last year or roughly 1.4 hectares but it could be twice that size. We still have to hear about monarchs from many areas and the conditions during the migration will likely determine how many of the migrants reach the overwintering sites. It will help to watch the reports of overnight clusters recorded by Journey North and to watch the weather conditions and note the availability of nectar sources as monarchs migrate through the United States and northern Mexico.

Painted Lady butterflies are a common sight in our gardens during the early spring to early summer, when they migrate north from desert areas in Baja California to where ever they land up in, up there somewhere.

Some of you may have seen and remember migratory, literal waves of these butterflies as they passed through on particularly bountiful years. Abundant and timely rains in the deserts create large host plant populations that consequently are able to support large volumes of Painted Lady caterpillar numbers. In domestic gardens, hollyhocks are a favorite host plant.

Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady) caterpillar butterfly rearing kits are extremely popular butterfly related items, especially in elementary classrooms, that can be purchased online at modest prices. These kits include a container with several live caterpillars, specially formulated Painted Lady caterpillar food, informational materials, and a net cage to house emerging butterflies. For those who have children or grand kids that are interested in nature, or would like to introduce them to one of natures miracles, these kits are complete, easy to put together, and easy to maintain. Just remember to release the butterflies from the net cage after they eclose (fancy-shmancy word for coming out of their chrysalides).

Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui



There are several species and sub species of Painted Ladies in North America. Here is an excellent link with photos describing the various species:

Painted Lady butterflies are the most widespread species of butterflies residing on our planet. They can be found in almost every corner of the globe save Antarctica!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Here's a quick entry regarding Monarch butterfly caterpillars, diseases affecting them, and ways of minimizing threats. It's estimated that only one out of one hundred butterfly caterpillars reach maturity to become winged adults. Losses include diseases, parasitism, and predation.


Friday, August 29, 2014

"Nerves and butterflies are fine - they're a physical sign that you're mentally ready and eager.  You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that's the trick."
-Steve Bull

Several months ago, the garden lost all of its Oleander Aphids: YAY!
Several months ago, the garden lost all of its Monarch caterpillars... SAY WHAT?!


We have a bug spraying company that comes about every other month or so to spray around the base of the house and underneath it, also checking the yard for unwanted creepy crawly critters. Up until then, there were no unwanted critters in the container garden or the yard in general. Before the container garden was created, the yard was a very sterile environment for insects. Cacti, succulents, some rocks, and a carpet of gravel was all it offered.

Enter the containers and almost immediately, the garden became a bug haven of sorts. With the advent of warmer weather in June, the bugs began to appear in earnest along with the Monarch caterpillars.

Enter our bug spray guy:

He routinely checks around and under the house, also checking the yard. Spotting the aphis hoards anchored on to the milkweed plants, he obligingly sprayed for them and surrounding plants with insecticide.


I forgot to mention to him that I didn't want the plants sprayed at all nor the immediate area of the house adjoining the container garden. I was at first elated that the aphids were decimated by voracious predatory ladybugs, wasps, and ambush bugs. IPM works!!!

I then noticed that all of the cats were either dead or dying. Upon closer inspection of the plants, a noticeable white residue was spotted spattered on their surfaces. HORROR!

It was amazing the day and night transformation of the container garden with regards to the insect populations that previously inhabited the site. From a healthy, humming, teeming with insect life (both good and not so good) biome, the Container Butterfly Garden became a beautiful dead zone; sterile and pretty to look at. It effectively became a metaphor for the beautiful but cold Ice Queen.

I was so bummed!

To make a long story not much longer, I waited for the bug spraying guy to make his appearance again, walked him around the container garden, explaining its purpose and intent. He was intensely interested in the concept, and sincere in his enthusiasm for the project. All is well now here. The caterpillars are back -- the aphids too -- plus all of the other little crawling and buzzing bugs have returned. Seeing them again is like wearing a favorite pair of old house slippers: I feel all warm and fuzzy inside again!

How dead and utterly useless the garden was after it was sprayed! Yes, there are the bad bugs mixed in with the good bugs, but if one lets nature balance itself out, a happy medium can be maintained. It took a good month and a half to two months before the cats returned.

I do go in and look for detestable Large Milkweed Bugs in and amongst the milkweed plants during the summer months, knocking them into a jar half filled with water with a bit of dish detergent mixed in. The detergent makes the water "wetter", allowing the bugs to become less hydrophobic and able to drown faster.

Large Milkweed Bugs are not a threat to milkweed plants per say, mainly feeding on the seeds and sap of milkweed seed capsules. Their numbers can explode if not kept in check, and that's what is detestable to me, although they are rather pretty in their own right. I've seen weaker milkweed plants succumb to masses of these creatures infesting them. They bug me [ :-)) ] with their mass presence, so I go after them.

 Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus

If I feel rather rambunctious, I'll even squish some Oleander Aphids between the thumb and forefinger. A messy, but rather rewarding feeling, it really doesn't do much good when aphid numbers are out of control.

So, to wrap it up, this is just a reminder to those that have a bug spray service or an uninformed gardener to please advise them of your intent for the butterfly plants you've placed in your yards.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The green grass and the happy skies
court the fluttering butterflies."
 -Terri Guillemets 

The Little Skippers

I was going to defer posting this article to a later date until Marion Jacobs in Laguna Beach shot me an email wondering  what were all of the little moth sized butterflies visiting the Lantana bushes up at Alta Laguna Park, so it is fitting to present this article now.

There are numerous species of little skipper butterflies that call Southern California home. Normally colored in orange and brownish hues, these diminutive creatures can be easily identified when perched on a flower by the unique "delta-winged fighter jet" wing posture they assume when at rest.

Fiery Skipper, Hylephila phyleus

The Fiery Skipper is one of the more common skipper species along our coastal and intercoastal zones. There were a multitude of skippers, both Fiery and others, bouncing about the Lantana camara bushes planted between the Alta Laguna Park tennis courts in Laguna Beach, California, in search of nectar. Skippers are especially attracted to lantana blooms. Lantana camara makes for a good potted specimen in an adequately sized container; a 16-18 inch pot is sufficient.

Common Branded Skipper, Hesperia comma

This one is also fairly common in So Cal. The Common Branded Skipper makes its home in England and the Continent too. Known as the Silver-spotted Skipper in the U.K.

 Wandering Skipper, Panoquina errans

 Funereal Duskywing, Erynnis funeralis

The duskywings stray from the more popular skippers in their wing positions during rest. They tend to lay their wings flat versus the fighter jet stance of others. The Funereal Duskywing can be found as far down south as Argentina.

Skippers host on various grass species, both native and introduced. Their numbers usually aren't sufficient enough to be considered lawn pests, whereas the duskywings host on various legumes. Locally, the duskywing host plant is our native species of Deerweed, Lotus scoparius var. scoparius.

Remember: if one wishes to attract these cute little butterflies (and many other species too!) to one's gardens, by all means plant Lantana camara. My opinion is that Lantana is one of the top three plants one should introduce to a yard for attracting butterflies of all sorts, being rather indiscriminate in this highly desirable quality.

These four are just a sampling of the various skippers of So Cal. Skippers can be found in North, Central, and South America, the U.K., and even New Zealand, and maybe beyond...