Monthly Archives: October 2012

The skippers love them!

They sprang up by surprise along the edge of the garden. Four different daisies, all in a row. They came up from seeds, but where did the seeds come from? Each one is unique – three have purple flowers and one is white. One purple one (above) has those fun curled-in flower-petal tips.

Like dandelions, daisies are composite flowers. Each of the outer petals belongs to its own individual flower, and the purple and yellow center is also made of multiple flowers.

The brown and yellow skipper may look like a butterfly, but it is not technically a “true” butterfly. Skippers are about as different from butterflies as moths are. They are in the family Hesperiidae, (pronounced hes-per-EEH-ih-dae).

The big black and white skippers are in the subfamily Pyrginae, but this little critter is in the Hesperiinae (can you figure out how to say it?) along with about 50 other California species. These little yellow and brown lovelies are notoriously hard to ID, so I won’t even try. Most skippers in the Hesperiinae eat grasses as larvae.

Although they are smack up against the edge of the garden, the daisies look pretty here. They have been pruned back so that their branches will grow out into the garden, instead of across the gravel path.

I love the daisies at least as much as the skippers do!

There’s a nice big version of the skipper picture over at clear display blog, and you can get an even bigger tiff file by email. Just ask!

As the weather cools and the rains begin, the garden explodes into glorious color. There’s a lot happening here. Let’s take a tour!

In the foreground just left of center, a Leonotus bush pokes up tall stems bearing bursts of orange flowers. It’s a drought-tolerant bush from South Africa that is well-loved by pollinators.

At the far left, a Pyracantha shrub also pushes up tall stems, bent down by huge bunches of bright red berries. Before I took over this garden it was a huge, dense, unhappy, unhealthy, never-blooming, spherical monstrosity, frequently shaped by evil gardeners with their noisy gas-powered trimmers. I violently chopped it right down to stumps (what fun that was!) and it grew back. Now it is a noble creature of beautiful form, whose berries are just getting to the point where the birds will feast. Much better, don’t you think?

Against the wall in back is a large and happy princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) which drops its crazy purple petals all over the walkway. It’s related to geraniums.

In the middle ground behind the Leonotus is a huge, dense bush of Salvia, possibly S. nemorosa. Its abundant purple flower stalks are serious food sources for black carpenter bees, honey bees, various flies, wasps, and of course our local hummingbirds. What a contributor!

To the extreme right, a few bright orange flowers shine from among the dark green leaves of a cape honeysuckle bush (Tecoma capensis). Another African native, this plant used to be a huge, scraggly beast struggling in the deep shade of a magnolia tree that is no longer there. I chopped it right back down to the ground, and now the new growth is being severely pruned as needed so that it is no more than a few feet high. Nonetheless, it is happy and showing lots of buds and flowers, which the hummingbirds are enjoying.

UPDATE: A closer look at this tamed giant.

Although it shows no brilliant color other than green, I must also mention the avocado sapling poking up at right of center, between the  cape honeysuckle and the Leonotus. Just a few months ago it was a small sprout with only a few glossy green leaves. Soon, it will be the tallest plant in the garden. My plan is to let it grow tall, but to prune off the lower branches. That way its remaining lowest branches will eventually shade the currently summer-sun-blasted bank below the fence (off the picture at the left) while its lack of lower growth will allow the sun to still bless the rest of the garden. Maybe in some years it will even start dropping edible fruit.

What a joy it is to watch the seasons change in the deep nature garden!

What a wonderful adaptation! What excellent design! How fun it is to blow the seeds off the head!

Dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, or one of its close relatives. T. officinale was originally imported from Europe, and has now spread widely through North America, where some of the native Taraxacum species are now endangered.

It is a composite flower, meaning that the “flower” is actually a collection of many small true flowers, some of which bear the petals along the outside edge and most of which fill the yellow center. Each of the seeds is produced by one of the true flowers.

Rather than write lots about this well-known, completely edible, very common plant, which some people might think of as a weed, I refer you to the excellent Wikipedia page about dandelions and their many closely related relatives. Enjoy!

No, it’s not a giant mosquito, nor does it eat them! This is a crane fly, probably Tipula paludosa, which is an imported species from Europe. Since it arrived in North America it has spread widely, becoming one of the most common crane flies. However, there is a decent chance this is some other species of crane fly. There are more than 4,200 species described so far, and many of them are devilishly hard to ID.

Crane flies are some of the oldest flying insects. They were the first flies to evolve, some 225 million years ago when the very first dinosaurs were stomping around and the earliest mammals were trying to avoid getting stomped on. It is amazing that an insect as delicate as a cranefly could not only survive for 200 million years, but diversify into a family of more than 4,000 species worldwide.

Crane fly larvae are called leatherjackets because of their thick cuticle. Many kinds live in moist soil or leaf litter. If this one is T. paludosa, it might have grown up in the moist litter underneath the large bushes in the east corner of the garden.

Some kinds of leatherjackets are pests of lawns, gardens, and crops. Most are not. As adults, crane flies rarely eat. They are not favorites of insect collectors because they tend to drop their legs at the slightest hint of trouble. You can’t catch them in nets, you have to use a camera!

Discover Life has a nice page on Tipula paludosa. The Bug Guide has lots of pix of crane flies. There’s a crane fly article at Wikipedia. Nature Spot (England) has some nice pix of T. paludosa. And lastly, a blast from the past: when I was writing Cool Fact Of The Day for The Learning Kingdom way back in 1999, I wrote about crane flies.

It was right out there, hanging in the sky at sunrise like a fantastic fractal tapestry. Another storm cell passing through as an early Pacific low comes ashore. Last night we had an amazing thunderstorm with some of the heaviest rain I’ve seen in years. The weather patterns have definitely shifted, at least for this week.

Ah! It was so beautiful to sip hot coffee and watch the display evolve.

You can see much more of this excellent natural show with nice big pictures over at clear display blog.

She was flitting around in the sedge patch, maybe looking for just the right kind of long, thin, green, grassy leaves to tear into tiny strips and use in her nest. This is a sphecid wasp in the genus Isodontia, possibly I. mexicana, although we are a bit north of their normal range. These are commonly known as grass carrier wasps. There are a half dozen or so species in the US, all of which look very similar. To identify one of these little beauties right down to species, one might have to examine genitalia, body bristles or the exact arrangement of wing veins.

These shapely little wasps seek out small orthopterids (mostly crickets and katydid or grasshopper nymphs) which they paralyze with their sting and stuff into the nest, where their larvae can feed on them safely. Depending on the species, nests can be in vegetation or in burrows in the ground, sometimes in the abandoned burrows of other insects.

You can learn more about Isodontia grass carrier wasps at Discover Life’s page for the genus. There are also some nice pages with pictures at Bug Guide.

Taking good pictures of this lively predator was tough indeed, as she was constantly moving. The last shot was a lucky one, an action pose just at the split second she took off and flew away. Adios, little friend…