Marin IJ Articles
Enjoying your garden morning and night
Each day starts for me with a ritual, early morning stroll through my gardens. Rain or shine I’m out there to check on my plants and observe the activity. The sunny borders, oak trees, and adjoining open meadows invite all manner of visitors. I take great pleasure in this inspection, and to see the day beginning, and humming with life.
Bumblebees are already busily working the lavender flowers, while a pair of goldfinches, fledgling in tow, find sustenance amongst the flowers, and then take advantage of the puddle of water that forms in the concave surface of a boulder. Turkey Vultures float on the thermals, Scrub Jays scream through the trees, and Anna’s Hummingbird buzzes in to find nectar in the fuschias, abutilon and impatiens mingling in the shade close to our house.
A family group of black-tailed deer; doe, yearlings and spotted fawns, make their way along the ravine at the edge of our property to find a shady resting site for the day. Thankfully, for my newly planted section of border, they are still finding plenty of forage in the wetlands below.
In my ornamental border, which is a mixture of California native and introduced habitat plants, the Painted Lady butterflies become increasingly abundant as the day warms, finding comfortable flower perches as they nectar at the Verbena bonariensis. These ladies are fresh and beautiful, the whole paint box of colors vivid in their intricately patterned wings, and obviously newly emerged! They are the descendants of the mass migration we witnessed in early April; those battered pioneers arrived in the Bay Area, and found the resources necessary to establish their species as residents for the summer.
The Painted Lady (Vanessa carduii) is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all the butterflies. They are found throughout the world, probably because they are able to utilize a number of different plant families as their larval host plants. They belong to a larger class of butterflies known as the “Brushfoot family.” Many of our best-known butterflies, such as the Mourning Cloak, Buckeye, and California Sister also belong to this family. These butterflies have a pair of greatly reduced front legs that have evolved to serve as sensory organs. Using the tiny “claw” at the tip of these legs, the female is able to take a “chemical reading” of a plant in order to determine if it is a suitable host for her offspring.
The larvae of the Painted Ladies are dark and bristly; lightly speckled with yellow dots in early stages; in later stages, a yellow line appears at each side of their bodies. The smaller larvae form a shelter to feed in by drawing the leaves together with a silken thread. The leaves are skeltonized, and then the larvae move on; they eat everything but the flowers. Seed formation continues, and next year’s crop of thistles is ensured.
I saw the caterpillars of the Painted Ladies everywhere throughout the month of May!
Stands of Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), in the fields and by the roadsides, hosted huge numbers of the bristly black caterpillars; and I found them also on the milk thistles (Silybum marianum) and on the native cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentalis), which grows in my border. In areas where the thistles were overwhelmed, the larvae could be seen feeding on English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) as well.
I was very surprised to find larvae on seedlings of Echium fastotum, which were prolific on ground disturbed in preparation for a new path through our property. They would not use the older growth of established Echiums, but happily took to the humble cudweed (Gnaphalium luteo-album). The cudweeds appeared amongst my plantings, so I let them grow in drifts throughout the ornamental borders. The tiny bronzed flowers, set atop silvery, pale green foliage create a beautiful interplay with the warm rusty tones of New Zealand windgrass (Stipa arundinaceae), coral Diascia, and the cool blue and purple tones of lavender, society garlic, and verbena.
Verbena bonariensis, native to South America, but naturalized in California, hosts large numbers of the beneficial ladybird beetles and their ferocious larvae. While it is still at its peak growth, I’ll be searching for subsequent generations of the Painted Ladies on this plant, as well as on other members of the sunflower family, such as yarrow and asters.
As the day draws to a close, I am again in the garden, now tending and watering the potted plants. What a commotion I’m creating! The Pacific tree (or Chorus) frogs leap from their hiding places as the water touches them, but then soon settle in to new, and now moister situations. They seem every bit as happy with this land as I am!