Monday, August 1, 2011

Where's the Buzz?

Honey Bee
Photo Courtesy of Alegri 
Central to our food chain for the pollination of flowering trees, plants, vegetables and fruit is the miraculous bee.  Fruiting, which derives from pollination is dependent on the bee population and a process of fertilization that allows the flower to grow the seed or pod that turns into a fruit or vegetable.  With this in mind, bees are responsible for pollinating almost one-third of the world’s food supply. 

I live in the Las Sendas area, which backs up to a desert that was once owned by a family of fruit orchard growers and beekeepers.  The family sold the land to a developer and after we built our house here there was a swarm of bees that took over our pool the first summer.   The bees would drink and take water back to their hives.  Trying not to disturb the delicate balance of nature, I made a deal with the bees that if they didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t eliminate them.  The bees returned daily and spent most of the summer days using the water to make what is similar to a swamp cooler for their hives.  They deposit and fan the water to cool their hives during the long summer’s extreme heat. 

Even though the farmers are long gone, the bees still have the memory of where to get water, thus they return to their original spot, which is now my backyard pool.  Most of my neighbors have saltwater pools so they’ve never had any problems with bees in their pools.  It’s only the non-salt chlorinated pools that the bees revisit.

During the first year we had around eighty honeybees on a daily basis getting water.  In year two, the bees didn’t show up, but the year after they returned.  After years of living here, I realized the bees have a two-year return pattern, which means every other year they come back to our pool for water.  This may be instinctive to their survival, but every summer there has been less and less bees and this summer 2011, there have only been two bees at any given time.  I find this interesting because there were no bees to pollinate my tomato or other vegetable plants in my garden this spring and summer.  Where have they gone?

After some research, I found out that as of January 2011 the US Bumble bee has lost 96% of its population.  This includes the four major US species of bumble bees which are: the rusty-patched eastern Bumble bee, yellow banded Bumble bee of the northeastern region, Midwest and Canada, the Franklin Bumble bee in southern Oregon and northern California and the Western Bumble bee of the western US and British Columbia.

Scientists believe the causes are from herbicides, pesticides and genetically modified foods.  With this severe decrease in bee population, how will the world’s food chain be affected?  Will there be a future food shortage?  Will the price of fresh produce be something that will no longer be affordable?  Keeping these issues in mind, we could all start becoming more aware of our environment and use only safe, non-toxic and environmentally friendly products.  In the mean time, I'll save the bees that fall into the pool and hope they don’t become extinct in my lifetime.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Butterfly Gardening Part III

Courtesy of Butterfly Pictures

In Part II of my last blog on Butterfly Gardening I listed six butterfly families common to the Southwest Desert along with a few attractant plants.  This week’s blog list is in addition to the Butterfly Mist and Fern Acacia Plants.   You can find these in your local plant nurseries.  These plants are lovely to any garden and do especially well here in the hot desert heat.

Baja Fairy Duster, Calliandra californica attracts the Ceraunus Blue, lycaenid for a larval food plant. The caterpillars are usually red like the flowers of the plant and are tended by ants.  This plant also attracts other butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to its nectar.

Bee Bush, Aloysia gratissima attracts small and large butterflies alike to their nectar as well as birds to their seeds.  The most common butterflies that are attracted to this plant are the Gray Hairstreak.

Black Dalea, Dalea frutescens attracts the Southern Dogface butterfly as a larval food plant.

Butterfly Bush, Buddleia davidii is not native to the Southwestern Desert but attracts all types of butterflies including the Brushfoots to its lilac flowers for a nectar source.

Catclaw, Acacia greggii is a native plant that attracts small butterflies during its flowering season. 

Desert Broom, Baccharis sarothroides attracts the brilliant Great Purple Hairstreak and other butterflies to its nectar.

Desert Lavender, Hyptis emoryi attracts all types of butterflies to its nectar.  The plant is drought tolerant and attracts hummingbirds as well as bees.

Desert Senna, Senna covesii is a native plant that attracts the medium size Sleepy Orange and the large plain yellow male and white or yellow Cloudless Sulphur butterflies. 

Dill, Anethum graveolens, is a member of the parsley family and is a particular larval food plant for the Black Swallowtails.   Expect plant damage.

Feather Tree, Lysiloma microphylla or watsoni/thornberi is a small rare native tree
That is a larval food plant to the large Orange Sulphur.

Golden Dyssodia, Dyssodia pentachaeta is a native plant that provides nectar and food for the pale yellow Dainty Sulphur. 

Kidneywood, Eysenhardtia, orthodcarpa provides nectar and larval food for the Marine Blue and an attractant for other butterflies.

Passion Flower, Passiflora foetida is a native vine and the leaves are the primary food for the extraordinary orange red Gulf Fritillary.  Daily butterfly visits in late summer.
Monarch on Lantana
Courtesy of Butterfly Pictures

Pine-leaf Milkweed, Asclepias linaria provides nectar for butterflies of all shapes and sizes.  The Monarch butterfly is prominent of all butterflies and a rarity in the southwest, but occasionally this plant will attract them in the fall weather.

Rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus nauseosus is a native shrub and attracts the small Reaksirt’s Blue butterfly to its nectar.

Red Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia pulcherrima attracts the beautiful larger swallowtails such as the iridescent blue Pipevine Swallowtail.

Side-Oats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula is a native grass that enhances any garden and is a larval food plant for skippers.  

Verbena, Verbena gooddingii is a native desert flower and blooms in spring.  Many different butterflies as well as various Brushfoots visit the flowers for nectar.

Using a variety of the plants listed on this page will ensure daily butterfly visits.  You can also use these plants in pots on decks or balconies if space is limited.

Happy Gardening,

Courtesy of Butterfly Pictures


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Butterfly Gardening Part II

Butterfly Bush
Courtesy of

One way I search for caterpillars on larval food plants is to follow the trails of damaged leaves.  While some leaves look normal, others are missing, half eaten and visibly damaged.    Usually within a minute of inspecting the leaves and branches, I find the caterpillars hiding in the branches near the stalk.  In these unique environs also lies butterfly egg deposits on nearby leaves.  These caterpillars are awaiting hatching and will begin the larval stage, which will last two to four weeks.

I feel like a plant detective while observing their paths during this process.  For the last three days, I was able to capture caterpillars moving into the pupa stage.  This is the last stage before metamorphosis.   The pupa stage can take anywhere from two weeks to several months.   Today when I went out with my camera, the pupas were gone.  I can only assume birds found them earlier this morning.   For now, I’ll start the discovery process over and hope that the next group will make it through to metamorphosis.

Texas Laurel Bush
Bev's Backyard Spring 2011

I mentioned in my last post that the Southwest Desert is home to over 250 species of butterflies, which are divided into six families.  This week I’ll finish the list by naming these butterfly families as follows:

Blues, Hairstreaks and Metalmarks, Lycaenidae, also called gossamer-winged butterflies are small with wingspans of one inch.   Bright and glossy that often resemble metallic tones.

Brushfoots, Nymphalidae are medium to large in size with wingspans from one to four inches.  Colors range within a combination of brown, tan orange and black.

Skippers, Hesperiidae are small to medium size with wingspans ranging from one to three inches.   This family is moth like and are brown, black, white or orange.

Snouts, Libytheidae are brown, orange and white with wingspans of one and a half inches.  Their elongated mouthparts give the appearance of a snout, and are often disguised as dead leaves while hanging upside down.

Swallowtails, Papilionidae, are large and extremely colorful butterflies with black and yellow hind wings.   Three to five inch wingspans with tails that fork.

Whites and Sulfurs, Pieridae range from small to large with one to four inches of wingspans.  Mainly these butterflies are white, yellow or orange with/without black spots.

Since the remaining nectar and food larval plants list won’t be posted until next week’s blog, I added a few below.

Butterfly Mist, Ageratum corymbosum attracts butterflies of all kinds for a nectar source during summer and fall.  The alkaloid in the blue flowers attracts male Queens and after ingestion releases an aphrodisiac to attract females.

Fern Acacia, Acacia angustissima is not only an attractive plant, but will attract the creamy yellow Mexican Sulphur as a larval food plant.

Happy desert gardening,


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Butterfly Gardening

Part I

I wish I had more information years ago when I got rid of the pupa on the plants in my garden.  It was in hindsight that I learned these were metamorphosing butterflies—final stage.   There are no words to describe the horror after realizing what I had done.  Does the mistake count as much when it was under the advice of someone else?   Thus, I followed through and well... killed some of nature’s most beautiful creations.  Today, thankfully there are numerous books and websites dedicated to butterfly gardening that can help even the novice gardener. 

In the Sonoran Desert there are over 250 species of butterflies, which are divided into six families.  Even though there are a variety of ways to attract butterflies into your garden, not all flowers, plants, shrubs or trees will entice them in for nectar. It doesn’t matter if your yard is large or small, but specific plants and placement are the key reason butterflies visit or not.   

Butterflies use plants in sunny locations for one of two reasons: as a source for nectar or as a larval food plant.  When used as larval food plants, there are four cycles to a butterfly’s transformation.  These are the egg, larva, pupa and adult stages.   In the southwest, butterfly season is visible from mid February through November when temperatures range between 65-95°F or just after a rain.  It is not uncommon to see some species in December and January depending on how warm the winter may be.

Adult Gossamer
Photo Courtesy of William Vann

I grow a variety of plants from both the nectar and larval food source to ensure a balance of attracting butterflies and their passage.  This blog begins a series and partial list of plants and butterfly species for the southwest desert region.  This week I’ve added a few larval food plants, one nectar source and two of the six butterfly families to get enquiring minds started.

Larval Food Plants
Butterflies love herbs in the Parsley family, which they use as larval food plants.  A species named the Black Swallowtails will find their way to these plants.  These herbs will incur plant damage during the process, but you can grow a herb garden for yourself and one for the butterflies if you desire.  Keep yours free of the caterpillars by picking them off and relocating them.  Don’t use harsh chemicals that will kill caterpillars and butterflies, but perhaps organic products that discourage them.  Parsley attracts springtime butterflies in migration.  

The Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis velutina is a dominant shrub and tree species native to the southwest desert which has an edible mesquite pod used for a food source by rabbits, squirrels, deer and other animals.  The Velvet Mesquite is extremely vivid with gold blossoms in the springtime.  Not only is it an essential part of the desert eco-system, but is also larval food plant for butterflies.   Hairstreaks are often found in these trees in the hot summer afternoons and evenings.

Velvet Mesquite Tree
Spring 2011,  Mesa, Az

Nectar Source
One of the many nectar sources is the beautiful Trailing Lantana, Lantana montevidensis, which is a ground cover that invites almost all types of butterflies.  This plant comes in two colors, white and purple, but other colors are available, but they don’t trail or cascade.  I like white because it brightens up my garden.

Two Butterfly Families of the Southwest
Swallowtails, Papilionidae, are large and extremely colorful butterflies with black and yellow hind wings.   Three to five inch wingspans with tails that fork.

Photo Courtesy of William Vann

Blues, Hairstreaks and Metalmarks, Lycaenidae, also called gossamer-winged butterflies are small with wingspans of one inch.   Bright gloss tones that often resemble metallic. 

Arizona Metalmark
Photo Courtesy of William Vann

This is Part I of a three part series on butterfly gardening.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

White Gardens

Using Moonlight to illuminate your garden

One of the most beautiful gardens I have ever come across is a "White Garden."  If you've never seen one before, then a great surprise awaits you.    You may think that a white garden in the written sense sounds boring.  On the contrary, in appearance, it is exquisite not only during daylight hours while basking in the sun's rays, but especially at night glowing under a silvery moon.   

Just like the name implies, a "White Garden" is a array of flora that creates white blossoms, variegated leaves or plants that are of a silverish tint.  All flowers whether they are from shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines and trees are white.  White gardens are not without purpose and nothing new, but have been traced back to Japan during the Medieval times.  The idea of using all white flowers was created to reflect the moonlight.  Since then, white gardens have emerged and reemerged throughout the world and in home gardens all across the US.

The White Garden goes by other names such as Moon Garden, Moonlight Garden and Moonbeam Garden.  Regardless of the names, the effects are identical in that they harness the moon's illumination and reflect light.  The best time for a white garden is during the full moon phase, which is mesmerizing.  Regardless of the phase of the moon, the garden will still reflect any portion of the moon's light.

In the past I have used plants such as: White Vinca, Petunias, Verbena, Snapdragons, Trailing Lantana, Southwestern Mums, Desert Zinnias, Bougainvillea, Roses and Trailing Desert Broom.  I didn't want you to be limited, so I have put together a list for almost every available white flower, annual, perennial, ground cover, succulent, shrub, vine and tree that is suitable for a White Garden in the Southwest Desert.  If space is limited-try planting the whites in pots on balconies, decks or in your backyard.  With a white garden or a white pot—you’ll never be disappointed.

Plants for White Gardens
Any white annual, biennials, perennials, bulbs, rhizomes and tubers from the list below will do well.  Also, include silvery or white variegated foliage plants to enhance moonlight effects.  A few shrubs are repeated in the tree category because they can be either.

Southwest Cosmos, White Vinca, Alyssum, Petunias, Bacopa, Verbena, Marguerite Daisy, Snap dragon, Spreading Fleabane, Five Spot, Shirley Poppy, Moss Rose and Zinnia "Profusion' Series and Begonia

Ground Cover
Trailing Desert Broom, Bush Morning Glory, Trailing Lantana, Myoporum and Tufted Evening Primrose

Low-Water Succulent and Accents
Desert Milkweed, Grass Tree, Candelilla Banana Yucca, Soaptree Yucca, Paleleaf or Blue Yucca

Southwestern Mums, Hosta, Iris, Lily, roses, Gaura, Blackfoot Daisy, Autumn Sage, Globe Mallow, Rain Lily and Desert Zinnia

Silvery Agave, Variegated Euonymouys, Viburnum, Apache Plume, Bee Bush, Triangleleaf, Bursage, Texas Olive-shrub or tree, Little-leaf Cordia, Flattop Buckwheat, Kidneywood, Texas Sage, Wolfberry, Myrtle, Oleander, White Plumbago, and Arizona Rosewood

Anacacho Orchid Tree, Desert Willow, Texas Olive, Feather Bush and Arizona Rosewood

Queen's Wreath, Bougainvillea, Baja Passion Vine, Lady Banks' Rose and Potato Vine

Happy Gardening,


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thyme and Thyme Again

Did I hear my local Meteorologist right tonight on the evening news?   It’s going to be ninety five degrees within the next few days.  If this is true—summer is already here!  What happened to spring?  Regardless, this will be a real treat after an unusually cool spring here in the Sonoran Desert.   The warm weather is inviting and will be a perfect time to clean and prepare the herb garden for the upcoming months.   Among the many herbs up for inspection in my garden is the hardy Thyme

Thyme, Thymus vulgaris also known as Garden Thyme or Wild Thyme is a member of the mint family.   Thyme is an annual, perennial and herb that blooms in early summer with small fragrant purple, pink or white flowers.   Presently, there are over one hundred types of thyme around the world.   Three of the most popular varieties are the Garden, Lemon and Wild Thyme.

Variegated and Narrow Leaf Thyme

Ways to distinguish the common varieties are by their leaves, which are either narrow or broad leaved, or variegated.   Thyme is used throughout the Sonoran Desert as ground cover and grows well in containers.  It is also used decoratively for its cascading abilities to creep along walls and throughout rock gardens.  Imagine growing some Creeping Thyme or having some Wild Thyme in your own garden.

I grow my Thyme in a large decorative clay pot, which I keep elevated on a plant stand.  The stand holds the oversized pot fourteen inches off the ground and keeps the annoying, but cute desert rabbits from getting into my prized possession.  This hardy leafy plant grows at its best in loamy, well drained and neutral soil conditions.   My Thyme gets full sun with almost no shade and perseveres in the warm desert weather.   Although, thyme is known more for its culinary appeal, it has a variety of medicinal properties that just may surprise you.    

In the Kitchen…
Thyme gives off a pungent, bitter and warm flavor when used in: soups, gumbos, chicken, vegetables, jams and stews.   For other uses, it can be made into tea, tinctures and oils, or dried in capsules.   It has also been found to aid in the digestion of high fat foods.  

Additional Uses for…
Thyme are found in its medicinal properties such as: antibacterial, antifungal, astringent, sedative, tonic and diuretics.  It also stimulates the lungs by relieving congestion, and rejuvenates and boosts the immune system.    Thyme can be used as a topical for conditions such as: arthritis, insect bites and stings.  Herbalists suggest using Thyme as a bath herb for sore muscles or add to homemade soaps and massage oils.

Thyme when the stems appear to be spiny and lacking their leaves.
If slightly out of shape, then prune lightly.  
Prune in late summer after the bloom, or in the fall after the first frost.

More Fun Thymes
Hi Ho Silver Thyme, Moonlight Thyme, Winter Thyme, Passion Pink Thyme, Lime Thyme, French Thyme, English Thyme, Silver Thyme, Tuffet Thyme, Common Thyme, Orange Thyme, Lemon Thyme, and Wild Thyme.

See Sources Tab for References

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rosemary Trails, Green and Blue

This winter has been one of the coldest on record for the last fifty years in the Sonoran Desert region.  Until the freezing temperatures, my trees, shrubs and plants have endured six years of vitality with no problems.  My yard, however and everyone else’s in the neighborhood is a fiasco of brown demise.   After loosing over thirty plants, it is now time to re-landscape.   I’m really sorry for the loss, but I find it energizing to explore the season’s new plants at the local nursery.   It’s not the laborious work that excites me, but basking in the after glow of a well thought out and planted garden.

Before planting though, there’s a huge dead plant problem that we must address.  My husband, David and I have to cut back the oversized Lantanas, Hibiscus and Bougainvillea’s.  Then, it’s on to digging out the roots, which I gladly pass the shovel over to him.  Finally after all the laborious work, we cut the plants down to small sticks so they can fit into the green bin that get’s collected once a week.  This part seems like a walk in the park compared to the previous exertion.  With the green bin getting collected once a week, this project should take around six weeks.  

After carefully analyzing ideas for my new garden I realize hardy plants will be best to take the place of those that have recently passed.   In my backyard I have a retaining wall and since all plants will have to be replaced I’ve decided to add Trailing Rosemary.  This will give the area an evergreen and decorative lift. 

Trailing Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis is a fragrant evergreen ground cover that thrives in arid zones.  It also tolerates frost and freezing temps as low as 10° F.   This evergreen is not only attractive, but also blooms tiny blue (almost purple) or white flowers.  The bees do love these flowers, so if you don’t mind the buzzing, then Rosemary will brighten any desert garden all year long. 

Rosemary flowers from winter to spring and does well in the full sun (six hours or more).   This moderate growing ground cover is a desert gardener’s dream because it’s drought resistance and doesn’t need daily watering.  In fact, the plant only needs water every two-three weeks in the summer and once a month in the winter.  If the leaves turn yellow, then take it as a sign to give it more water.  

Rosemary likes a sandy, well-drained soil and requires only a fish/kelp emulsion to jump-start it at the beginning of the growing season.   Although, difficult to start from seed, you can cut a two inch stem from an existing plant and propagate by placing it in water.  Once the roots grow, plant in a warm location with indirect sun until the plant is established, then transplant to a sunny location.  

Plant Trailing Rosemary in herb gardens, containers or in pots on balconies for beautiful cascading effects.  I also use regular upright Rosemary shrubs to accent my retaining wall for a border effect.  This will give any big empty space depth and color.

Trailing Rosemary
Photo by Bev McMann

To prune: Shear the top, but not past the last bit of foliage to encourage the side branches to spread.

Culinary herbs—add to vegetables, poultry and soups.  Rich in Vitamin A, C, Iron, Phosphorus, Zinc and Magnesium.
Rosemary infused olive oil
Medicinal/essential oils
Cut Flowers

For References see "Sources" tab.