Butterfly migration, flights

Butterfly activity seemed higher than normal yesterday on Figueroa Mountain. There were many dark orange California tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica) butterflies flitting around, always moving out of the way of the car when they were close to the road. There were also lighter-colored orange butterflies that, when flying in the road, occasionally flew under/into the car.

While walking in the “meadow”, I noticed bright yellow butterflies with a somewhat haphazard flight pattern, and light-orange butterflies flying fast and always in the same direction. I wondered what was at the end of that direction. The significance of this only started dawning on my otherwise occupied mind (flying butterflies are swept to the back because they are not photograph-able), when I was on a trail some miles away from the meadow. The flight in the same direction by the light-colored orange butterflies was possibly part of a migration.

On returning home, I googled for more information and came across Art Shapiro’s butterfly site, and saw that there was a painted lady (Vanessa cardui) migration further north. Since I thought my observations were of importance, I sent in the information that the migration had been observed on Figueroa Mountain. In an e-mail reply to a number of people, he stated that other reports had been received on this 5th day of the migration.

Painted Lady
(Painted Lady on Zaca Manzanita)

California Tortoiseshell
(California Tortoiseshell on Zaca Manzanita)

While most of the migrating painted ladies do not stop for nectar or any other activity, I guess there are always the rebels in the crowd. [On edit: the butterflies stop migrating when they run out of fat.] I saw a large number in flight, but found one that had stopped for nectar, and another that seemed to be depositing eggs. The nectaring painted lady had tarried at a Zaca manzanita, a shrub full of insect activity at the summit of Figueroa Mountain.

I was photographing the many California tortoiseshell feeding on the manzanita, when the painted lady found a few urn flowers. The California tortoiseshell butterflies over-winter and fly the following spring until April/May. I had wondered what the source of their nectar was, and found it at this manzanita. (I had gone to the summit only to look for flowers of an unusual monkeyflower — which was not blooming yet — and came across a host of other activity.)

Brown Elfin
(Brown Elfin on Bigberry Manzanita)

Brown Elfin
(Brown Elfin chrysalis? on Bigberry Manzanita)

I also walked down a “promontory” near the serpentine sunflower area, and where many bigberry manzanita grow. I observed another butterfly whose host plants are found in the heath family (Ericaeae), seemingly to be in the process of depositing eggs – the brown elfin, active from March to June.

While in this area, I observed the second non-flying painted lady, that may have been depositing eggs – on what could be California poppy.

Painted Lady
(Painted Lady on California poppy?)

And finally, many common ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) were seen. The information I sought about popcorn flower indicated that it was not a butterfly plant, but the common ringlet was occasionally seen on popcorn flowers. Common ringlets have three flights from February to October and their host plants are grasses.

Common Ringlet
(Common Ringlet)


Chocolate Lily, Fritillaria biflora

More than one species of chocolate lily grows in a number of states in the United States. One of these species, Fritillaria biflora, is native to the coastal ranges of California. I have seen it at a number of different places along Figureoa Mountain and Happy Canyon Roads.

Although “biflora” indicates two flowers, there are often up to five flowers on the plant.  It grows mostly in grassy meadows with heavy soils. For this reason it is often difficult to photograph the whole plant, because the leaves are obscured by grasses. This year, I found a plant growing in a rocky area, where the entire plant could be photographed – a plus, since the leaves are also attractive, and the entire plant is a study in graceful lines.

Chocolate Lily
(Figueroa Mountain – Chocolate Lily – February 28, 2009)



Ethnobotanic: The bulbs of chocolate lily were eaten by most Coast and Interior Salish peoples, either boiled or steamed in pits. Chocolate lily, also called “rice root” by Indian people, has bulblets that look like grains of rice. The bulbs grow relatively close to the surface and are easily extracted. Bulbs were dug in spring (before flowering) or in summer or fall (after flowering) using a digging stick, a wooden spade, or the fingers. Chocolate lily bulbs were cooked immediately, or could be partially dried, then stored in a cool place for winter use. They were cooked for about 30 minutes in a cedarwood box, by boiling for a short time then mashing to a paste, or occasionally, by baking in ashes. Chocolate lily bulbs were used as an item of trade. Even when cooked, they are slightly bitter, and some people used to soak them in water overnight to reduce the bitter flavor. In Fritillaria species, the major carbohydrate is reported to be starch (Yuanovsky and Kingsbury 1938). ” (1)


Star Lily, Death Camas, Zigadenus fremontii

Update note:

The new name of this plant is Toxicoscordion fremontii (Torr.) Rydb. in the MELANTHIACEAE family. Please see links at end of post.

The first large viewing stop along Figueroa Mountain is a serpentine area on the left. I call the it nine-mile-serpentine stop. A little further up the road from this spot, was a rocky hill with scattered plants of one variety of death camas. Mixed amongst these were a few chocolate lilies (lower left of photo), with very dark red flowers in contrast to a darker brown chocolate lily seen at the nine-mile-serpentine stop (next post, chocolate lilies).

Death Camas
(Figueroa Mountain – Field of Fremont’s Death Camas – Click image for larger version)

Death camas is a poisonous plant, and the name is derived from the fact that early explorers, who confused it with other camas, died or became very ill. The bulb of the plant, after being ground into flour and eaten, resulted in members of the Lewis and Clark expedition becoming seriously ill. Death camas was confused with large camas and small camas (camassia bulbs), important food used by native Americans. Death camas bulbs contain zygadenine, a toxic steroidal alkaloid, and were one of the few native bulbs not eaten by Indians.

Death Camas
(Figueroa Mountain – Fremont’s Death Camas – Click image for larger version)

There are two species of Death camas that grow on Figueroa Mountain; Zigadenus fremontii and Zigadenus venenosus (which blooms May-Jul). In the Jepson species key, each type falls into a different group of Zigadenus, divided by the first key:

  • 1. Perianth parts 3–6 mm, stamens >= perianth
  • 1′ Perianth parts 5–15 mm, stamens < perianth

where perianth, or the floral envelope ( peri- + -anth, “around the flower”), includes the petals and sepals.

Death Camas
(Figueroa Mountain – Fremont’s  Death Camas – Click image for larger version)

In the picture above, the stamens appear to be shorter than the perianth, and thus the species appears to key out to Zigadenus fremontii. It was named after Charles Frémont, an officer in the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, who detailed the geology and flora found when exploring California in 1844. Zigadenus fremontii ssp minor has been reported growing in the area where these were photographed, so possibly they are the minor sub-species.



Rusty-haired Popcorn Flower, Plagiobothrys nothofulvus

An early spring flower (March to May) that is very noticeable, is rusty-haired popcorn flower, or Plagiobothrys nothofulvus. It grows mostly below 2500 feet in fields and along hillsides. The popcorn appearance results from the clustering of a few small white flowers in a small coil at the top of the plant. The flower (corolla) is very small, from 3-9 mm wide, and the hairy areas are tinged with a rusty color. There are five white petals, and at the center, a five-lobed “washer” center that varies from white to yellow. It is not a butterfly flower, but is visited by very small insects.

Popcorn Flower
(Figueroa Mountain – Rusty-haired Popcorn Flower – Click image for larger version)

Popcorn Flower
(Figueroa Mountain – Rusty-haired Popcorn Flower – Click image for larger version)

Popcorn Flower
(Figueroa Mountain – Rusty-haired Popcorn Flower – Click image for larger version)

“Though not showy, taken singly, they often cover the fields, presenting the appearance of a light snowfall, from which fact the Spanish-Californians have bestowed the pretty name “nievitas,” the diminutive of nieve, snow.” (1)

Native American uses include the harvesting of the leaves as edible greens, and a purple dye from the stems and root. (2)

  1. The Wild Flowers of California By Mary Elizabeth Parsons
  2. Native American Ethnobiology by Daniel E. Moreman

Redmaids, Calandrinia ciliata, Khutash/xutash/pil

(Figueroa Mountain – Fringed Redmaid – Click image for larger version.
The focus of this image is the superior ovary, which becomes the fruit/seed.)

Fringed redmaids were seen in a number of places in the lower altitudes of Figueroa Mountain Road this year on two short trips there in February.

Below is a sequence of redmaid photos, of interest because of the color variations. I think they are all variations of Calandrinia ciliata – I wonder if the palest is an albino variant (recessive allele), or a genetic variety. I have seen white blue-eyed grass, and some white clarkias (normally shades of pink).

Khutash is the name given to them by the Chumash, where the “uses include eating the toasted seeds and using the flowers as offerings in sacred hot springs” (1).

“Large quantities of Calandrinia ciliata seeds have been recovered by archaeologists in burial sites in Chumash territory in the Channel Islands of Southern California (Timbrook 1993). Not only were the seeds used as ceremonial offerings, as evidenced by these burial sites, but also they are often mentioned in Chumash myths (Timbrook 1990). ” (2).

“In the old days, the Chumash people bathed frequently in hot springs (6). The pool was prepared with prayer. Red maids, Calandrinia ciliata, called khutash in Chumash, were sprinkled onto the water. The water was treated with a few Californian bay leaves, Umbellularia californica, psha’n in Chumash (pronounced pshokn). People bathed in the water to soothe themselves, comfort their arthritic joints and to feel normal again.” (3)

Redmaids are also found on both the eastern and western areas of More Mesa, and grew in abundance in the burned area last year, 2008.

Red Maids
(Figueroa Mountain – Fringed Redmaid, about about 1/5 white –
Click image for larger version)

Red Maids
(Figueroa Mountain – Fringed Redmaid, half white –
Click image for larger version)

(Figueroa Mountain – Fringed Redmaid, mostly white, growing in an
area where the cream cups grow – Click image for larger version)

(Figueroa Mountain – Fringed Redmaid, the entire plant –
Click image for larger version)


  1. Palliative Care Among Chumash People
  2. USDA Plant Guide
  3. The Advantages of Traditional Chumash Healing
  4. US Forest Service – Plant of the Week, Red Maids