On Gossamer Wings

  • Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman' in a hedgerow planting.
    Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman' in a hedgerow planting.
  • Spring Azure or 'Echo Blue' butterfly (photo by Bob Stewart)
    Spring Azure or 'Echo Blue' butterfly (photo by Bob Stewart)
  • Common Sheep Moth ; this is a male with it's feathery antennae.
    Common Sheep Moth ; this is a male with it's feathery antennae.

The Lycaenidae; Blues, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Metalmarks, are usually small, very delicate looking butterflies; many of them brilliantly colored and some with very interesting life cycles. The apparent fragility of these tiny creatures earned the family the common name ‘gossamer-winged’; but the vigor apparent in their life strategies, belies this moniker. This is the largest family of butterflies, with almost 6,000 species worldwide; but named species are often termed ‘complexes’ because there is still so much to be learned about their anatomy and behaviors. New species are still being discovered – and not just in the tropics – a new ‘blue’ was discovered and named right here in California as recently as 1998!

My Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ is in full glorious bloom in my hedgerow; and this always seems like the start of ‘butterfly season’ to me.  So many lepidopteran species associate with the many different Ceanothus species; and the Spring Azure – also called the Echo Blue (Celastrina ladon echo) is one of the first in early spring. The Spring Azure uses several different host plants in succession, and in a good year may have three, or even four broods. The first brood is often on Ceanothus, and second broods on California Buckeye; but they also use Creek Dogwood and Cream Bush as larval host plants. Larvae have also been recorded on Huckleberries, Chamise, and even Blackberries!

Ceanothus, besides being a beautiful, drought-tolerant shrub (mine get no additional summer water once established) is a plant with numerous resources for wildlife. The flowers are buzzing with bees and all sorts of small insects; and many different birds and insects forage for seed once it has matured. The number of butterflies that use Ceanothus as a larval host plant is astounding: California Tortiseshell, Pale Swallowtail, Hedgerow Hairstreak and California Hairstreak, Pacuvius Duskywing, as well as the Spring Azure. 

Not to even mention the other lepidopteran species whose larvae feed on the foliage; I once brought in what I thought were caterpillars of the Tortiseshell; but they proved to be the Common Sheep Moth (Hemileuca eglanterina) ! This is an incredibly beautiful day-flying moth, and not at all common anymore:more on that in another posting!