Friday, July 25, 2014

"I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free."
-Charles Dickens

Blog readers Margot and Marion, both of Laguna Beach, California, have been keeping me abreast of their Monarch butterfly experiences in their own gardens:

Margot: "Well, it's official--the Davis house has Monarch butterflies. They--yes, more than one it seems--are on the patio from early morning until sunset, generally one but I have now seen two fluttering (flirting?) together. And just now our gardener Vivienne brought two more "real" milkweeds--one more for the patio and one for the front, plus another purple plant she says they love to eat. I have to be honest and say their fluttering disconcerts and distracts me a bit when I'm on the patio, but on the other hand, it's the first time I've had an intense interest in anything going on in the nature around our house for a long time. So that's a gift."

Marion now has two new milkweed plants and is anticipating the return of Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Her original plant was reduced to stems after the caterpillars ravaged the leaves. No worries mate: they'll releaf! I also want to thank Marion once again for purchasing and contributing two milkweed plants for the defunct butterfly garden up at Alta Laguna Park.

Reports from other sources say that there are a few Monarch butterflies flitting about the park, especially in between the tennis courts. Marion also reports that Anthony, the new Parks Gardener for Alta is taking an interest in the butterfly garden and will devoting some time to working on it. Thank you Anthony!

Here's a nice little article on a Northwest Florida's garden club creating a butterfly garden on neglected museum property:

We Make a Garden

The Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly

Mid July is when we start to see more and more Cloudless Sulphur butterflies in the So Cal region.

More of a subtropical or tropical species, it doesn't present itself in greater numbers at this latitude until the weather sufficiently heats up for it to move up from warmer climes. The host plant for this butterfly and several other species of sulphurs are those belonging to the cassia, or senna family. If not planted locally, one won't see many - if any at all - sulphur butterflies except maybe a few passing through looking for host plants.

Cassia and senna are synonymous when referring this group: both are taxonomic references that taxonomists (I believe) like to bandy about in order to justify their grants and livelihoods. Don't get me wrong; their role is vital in creating cosmos out of chaos, but the seemingly constant changing of genus species in the taxonomic world does smack of job security to me at times.

I've seen "sulphur" also spelled "sulfur" bandied about. I tend to bounce between the two. If I'm feeling rather Continental, I use sulphur; if I'm feeling a bit randy, sulfur is used.

 Cloudless Sulphur, Phoebis sennae

A medium sized butterfly, it is striking to behold! When at rest or feeding on flowers, the wings are normally folded above its abdomen, but in flight, the beauty of a Cloudless Sulphur's sulfur yellow wings are a delight to behold. If any of you have seen the mineral sulfur in its elemental state and have had the opportunity to study one of these creatures up close, one would have to concur that the colors are remarkable.

They are fairly easy to approach when visiting a cassia plant if one takes their time to advance slowly. In flight, sulphers are fast and flighty, zigzagging through the air in a seemingly excited state. For those visiting Alta Laguna Park, I planted two Cassia species. The one located at the entrance to the tennis courts is a stellar attractor of sulfurs during the summer. Hopefully, it's still there and thriving!

UPDATE: received a timely email from Marion stating that it's still there.

The caterpillars are of interest, as they are dimorphic in coloration. Cassia flowers are generally yellow, the leaves being green. Those caterpillars feeding on leaves are green. Caterpillars feeding on flowers are yellow. This allows them a greater chance of survival against predation.

 Green phase

 Yellow phase

The chrysalides, or chrysalises, are variable in color too, ranging from a straw brown through a reddish brown, to green.

Cloudless Sulphur chrysalis. This one is exceptionally colored.

From my observations, Cloudless Sulpher cats tend to pupate on their host plant. I've never found a chrysalis anywhere else but on a cassia. However, other butterfly species will move off their host plant, even if hosting on trees.

The cassia family is represented by individuals  from midsized shrubs to full grown trees. For shrubs, Cassia bicapsularis is very popular in the nursery trade here in So Cal. This is the one that was planted at the Alta tennis courts entrance.

Cassia leptophylla is a beautiful tree that provides nice shade and beautiful flowers in the summer. As Parks Gardener, I planted two C. leptophylla; one by the park entrance and one close to the butterfly garden. They were too small before retiring to notice any benefit to sulfurs, but by now they should also be attracting them.

For those of you who are familiar with the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach, California, their grounds feature several C. leptophylla, both inside and outside the grounds. During July and August, one can sit under the shade of them at the food court left of when you enter the grounds. Usually, there are at least several Cloudless Sulphurs flitting about the tree canopies. Some years when these butterflies are plentiful, one may see dozens in the cassia trees as people eat at the tables located below them.

C. leptophylla is increasingly becoming more of a street tree. The city of San Diego has planted quite a few on their streets and in their parks.

Cassias are relatively pest free and easy to grow. Be careful not to plant the species Cassia alata in Southern California, as it is considered an invasive species here. C. bicapsularis and C. leptophylla are not classified as invasive species in So Cal.

Friday, July 18, 2014

“The butterflies have flown away, like my ignorance and youth.”
-Eileen Granfors

I wish to resume flogging the dead horse. Maybe I was a S&M dominatrix in a previous life... who knows. Here is a citizen all volunteer park renovation project in National City, California where they took neglected city property and turned it into a mini oasis of life.

Aired April 22, 2013

The City of Laguna Beach wouldn't allow the volunteer maintenance and upkeep of an already existing butterfly garden within Alta Laguna Park that was not so grand in scope as National City's or the Gibbs Butterfly Park in Huntington Beach, California.

Due to its location along a coastal ridge on top of a hill that bisects two distinct biomes: coastal and intercoastal, a relatively immense amount of various butterfly species visited the site. Off the top of my head, I can remember seeing at least 19 different species, and there were more I couldn't identify. Being on a hill gives Alta Laguna Park the added bonus of "hill-topping": articles here and here.  Shortsightedness on the City of Laguna Beach management's part, as the infrastructure is already in place!

This edition of dead horse flogging is complete.

More flagellation later, maybe...

Friday, July 11, 2014

"The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly."

-Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun

Marion Jacobs of Laguna Beach, California, informed me that the nine cats on her milkweed plant at home have finished it off in record time. She bought a replacement, transferring the remaining larvae onto the full one. She also donated two milkweed plants for the defunct Alta Laguna Park Butterfly Garden that Anthony, the current city gardener, planted for her. Thank you Marion for the kind and thoughtful gift for the Monarchs. I'm sure those plants will be depleted by voracious Monarch caterpillars before the season's over! I also wish to thank Anthony, or "A.C." for his interest in the butterfly garden. Hopefully, he'll be able to resurrect at least some of it, if the City allows him to. 

Here's a nice little vid from Annie's Annuals and Perennials on container gardening for those of you who may be interested. Great planting info for just that one pot you want to put on the patio too.

 The container garden is home to several interesting and hard to find plants that were purchased from her online nursery. All plants arrived healthy, well packed, no worse for wear, and fresh for planting. Annie's physical nursery is located in Richmond, California, close to Oakland in the Bay Area. As I assess their usefulness throughout the season in a butterfly garden (at least this one), I'll be commenting on their relative worth.

Let Them Eat Pumpkin!
Pretty soon, and if you are lucky, you may find yourself running out of milkweed. Have Monarch caterpillars decimated your milkweed plants and you can't find anymore? What's a parent to do? Feed them pumpkin! This very informative PDF explains the whys and wherefores of getting your cats to a chrysalis stage after running out of milkweed and none is to be found anywhere. As mentioned in the article, other cucurbits such as squashes, cucumbers, and melons could also be substituted.

WARNING! This is not meant to be a replacement for milkweed! It only helps get those cats in their last instar to the chrysalis stage. Those at lower instars are most likely to die if not fed milkweed. It's kind of like feeding a 17 year old kid only Twinkies to get them by until they turn 18, after which you can legally kick them out of the house: it's not long enough to outright kill them, but will keep them alive long enough until they can be emancipated.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"In nature a repulsive caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly.  But with humans it is the other way around:  a lovely butterfly turns into a repulsive caterpillar."
-Anton Chekhov

There's a fair amount to cover in today's blog entry: 

The container butterfly garden is now being visited by various butterfly species visitors: lots of Monarchs, several Cabbage Whites, and a few Sulphurs, or Sulfurs; the spelling dependent upon which side of the tracks you come from. Can't wait to start seeing swallowtail species stopping by.

Margot Norris, who I wrote about in last week's entry, informed me that her milkweed plant is just about stripped clean and the six cats on it are getting very fat. Good work Margot!

James Vaughn of Laguna Beach emailed me recently about his predicament with Monarch caterpillars on his milkweed plants at home and how they've stripped his plants bare also. Wanting to know if it's O.K. to move them to newer plants and how to go about it, he did an online search, learning that one way to perform this is to remove the leaf from the old plant with the caterpillar on it, then placing the leaf and cat on the new plant.

This is a very safe way to transfer them, but a word of caution: make sure the caterpillar has firmly and completely transferred itself onto the new plant. If not, the leaf and cat may fall off and be lost below or even hurt itself. Personally, I gently pick up cats by gently squeezing them 'tween the thumb and the forefinger and carefully lifting. I've done it so many times now that it becomes second nature. Works well except for the tiniest of the tiny ones.

Below are some photos James sent of his caterpillars. Gotta love those Oleander Aphids too: add a contrasty color splash. Happy transferring James!

© James Vaughn

© James Vaughn

© James Vaughn
Monarch cat on a milkweed seed pod.

Helga Robinson of Laguna Beach, California shared this wonderful little video produced by videographer Paul Hengstebeck, also of Laguna Beach. It follows the exploits of a Monarch caterpillar transplanted from Paul's garden outside to inside Paul's home, where our chubby friend (the caterpillar, not Paul) metamorphosizes into a chrysalis.

According to Paul, this clip is a rough draft so to speak. At the moment, he is in the process of creating a more finished video. I'll post it also when ready.

© Google
 Good photo of Monarch caterpillars in its five various stages of instars.

Are Monarch Butterflies Making a Comeback? is an article from a Monarch butterfly aficionado out of Bloomington, Minnesota. Sounds like 2014 will mark a turnaround point in the drastic eastern Monarch population decline. Hopefully, this uptick will last many more seasons.

As for our western race, the southwestern drought we've been experiencing has surely put a dent in butterfly populations in general. It is most certain that wild stands of milkweed plants have felt its effect. One mitigating factor though here on the west coast directly influencing Monarch population numbers has been the increasing awareness of the Monarch life cycle and its complete dependence on milkweed plants.

Here's a little primer for those who aren't aware of the Monarch butterfly life cycle and its total dependence on milkweeds: Plight of the Monarch. Some people are unaware for instance that there are two distinct races of Monarch butterflies in North America.

Not only do milkweed plants afford food for Monarch caterpillars, their blooms produce copious amounts of nectar for all butterflies, bees, and other nectar-loving insects. Those adding milkweeds to their gardens and those reintroducing native milkweeds to their original ranges certainly help support and bolster western Monarch populations.

The container garden can certainly attest to that. Up until this year, hardly ever was a butterfly spotted around the house. Now, with butterfly-specific plants which includes healthy doses of various milkweeds, the yard is constantly being visited by various butterfly species, especially Monarchs.