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In September, migration is in full swing. Watching birds, butterflies, and dragonflies absorbs most of my time in the field. It is thrilling to encounter a large mixed flock of warblers passing through high in the tree tops; to spot sandpipers and plovers at False Bay mining the mud for invertebrates to fuel their long flights; or to give a nod to the pipits, horned larks, and tattlers along the southwest shoreline as they hurry through for points perhaps far south of this island way station.

Amidst these moments of discovery, I always make time to seek out a particular late-blooming species of wild plant. It supports a small tribe of tiny butterflies that add an ethereal touch to the waning days of summer and guide us into fall. They are not migrators, rather residents of our island. I always look forward to seeing them.


The plant I seek is pearly everlasting. Some summers back while exploring the south end of the island, I discovered a small, very special patch of the glistening white plants that seemed to be a magnet for other late-summer wildlife. Nearly two-dozen Woodland Skippers were nectaring on the creamy blooms of the patch in just the few minutes I observed them that day. The tiny, tawny butterflies - less than one inch across - were having a feast. And, they did not seem to mind when I bent down to get a closer look at them. I suspected there were more butterflies to be found there and I knew I would return.

Pearly everlasting is a familiar plant to many islanders. It is a lustrous white wildflower that grows commonly on rocky slopes and in open woodlands, meadows and fields. Perhaps you have seen it along roadsides, too. It is an aster, related to the pussytoes (Antennaria spp.), found from alpine sites to the sea.

Its scientific name is Anaphalis margaritacea. In Greek, "ana" means upward, above or high upon, and “phalos” shining white. Margaritacea is from the Latin Margarits for "pearl or "pearl-like" and thus we have a shining white, pearl-like flower, standing erect, with the typical composite structure of the Asteraceae (sunflowers). It is a rhizomatous perennial that grows from 18-36” tall.

Biologist Leslie Haskin commented long ago in Wildflowers of the Pacific Coast: "Each individual blossom is a delicate study in soft, pearly shades. The centre is yellow when in bloom, becoming brown with age, and the regular arrangement of the imbricates, parchment-like scales, which, shingle-like, surround each tiny bloom, is very interesting. The whole effect of the arrangement is like that of a half-opened white water-lily."


As a common plant, some folks cut and hang pearly everlasting upside down to dry and, as it retains its color and texture, the flowers become beautiful, long-lasting bouquets.

Pearly everlasting has a rich cultural history with the First People of our area: pillows and mattresses were stuffed with the hardy flowers; an infusion of the entire plant was used to wash wounds; the flowers were also used to make a tea that combated asthma; rubbing the plant on ones hands softened them; and folklore tells us it was mixed into a salve for burns.

The stand of pearly everlasting I have returned to each late summer since that first encounter is only about ten feet by less than twenty feet in total area.  The clusters of white button-like heads appear just a tad denser than tissue paper, gleaming against bright green lance-shaped leaves that shine silver beneath. The plants grow closely together and are very showy.



This August, the skippers were there again. They are endearing little souls, common in island gardens and especially attracted to lavender. They are energetic, too, darting about the landscape and, when perched, looking a bit like tiny jet planes having made a soft landing on a cushion of tissue-thin blooms.

I knew they were not the only butterflies that count on pearly everlasting for food. Another common grassland dweller, the Ochre Ringlet also spends time nectaring on the blooms. Like the skipper, the ringlets are beautifully patterned in shades of light brown and gold. They are a bit bigger (about 1.5") and rounder, as opposed to the angular-shaped skippers. They are a typical species of the plains; their hosts are native and naturalized grasses. The ringlets are subtler than the skippers, too. No frenetic flights here, just short bursts of soft fluttering out of the grass when they go in search of food.

I made several visits to that patch of pearly everlasting this year. Just the other day, I stopped by to see how the butterflies were doing. The morning air was warm but brisk and the powder-blue sky free of clouds. The breeze was on hiatus leaving the grass perfectly still and statuesque. A pair of red-tailed hawks were making circular swoons overhead, an extended family of California quail scurried across the road, goldfinch were bouncing through the thin air on their way to another thistle feast, and cedar waxwings were gorging on hawthorn berries up the way. The cricket chorus was in full voice. These are the late-summer days so many of us cherish.

I sat a spell on a split-rail fence observing that patch of wildflowers and enjoying the quietude. In thirty minutes, over a dozen ringlets and skippers visited the sweet blossoms and some stayed as there was no reason to leave when such an immovable feast was at hand.

A grasshopper climbed a board one of the blooms for a rest and humblebees were there, too. A variegated meadowhawk, one of the dragonflies I seek each September, hovered over the patch for a moment perhaps eying the tiny butterflies as a possible meal. Then two Purplish Copper butterflies swirled over the pearly-white gathering and touched down on the flower heads and proceeded to feed. It was nice to see the colorful sprits. The females are brown to bright orange above with black spots and brown borders; the males may, at first, appear to be more subtle, even pinkish tan, but when the light brushes their bodies just so, a blue-violet, sometimes lilac hue refracts from the scaly surface of their wings and they shimmer and glow.



Robert Pyle, in his classic work, The Butterflies of Cascadia, wrote of the Purplish Copper: "The butterfly is one of the great survivors in the urban landscape ... watchers will enjoy the Purplish Copper almost everywhere, often as a member of a tough gang of highly adaptive species including the Mylitta Crescent and Woodland Skipper. Together they help keep Washington from being completely butterfly-free."

And, indeed, the only member of this gang that was missing was the Mylitta Crescent, once very common here on the plain but less so in recent times.

Another butterfly species, the American Painted Lady (kin to the Painted Lady and West Coast Lady both found here), uses pearly everlasting as both a host plant and a nectar source. The adult females lay their eggs on this plant and the emerging caterpillars feed and pupate there, as well. I've only seen the American Lady on San Juan once, thanks to the acute skills of Eleanor and Kurt McMillan who spied one at Cattle Point several years ago and were kind enough to spread the word. Perhaps late-summer Ladies stop at this patch of pearly everlasting, too, but prefer their privacy.

As the morning warmed into the 70s, I felt satisfied that the pearly everlasting was again fulfilling its support role to other wildlife. I hesitated to leave, wondering what I might miss by walking away too soon, and as I headed to my car, a red admiral butterfly fluttered past me low and fast, likely headed for a blackberry patch down the way. Several years ago, I witnessed a red admiral butterfly migration event at this very spot. Dozens of the bold black and red, brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) sped by on another miraculous journey. As night fell, the stragglers found food and refuge here on the plain before moving on the next morning.

So, why do I pay such close attention to pearly everlasting - a native - that is common to our island, and to the butterflies and other insects that use the plant? One of the reasons, of course, is that both the wildflowers and the butterflies are beautiful to behold. Another attraction is the plant's place in the community of wildlife that lives and (hopefully) thrives here eking out a living along the dry roadbed as its habitat inevitably undergoes change. Pearly everlasting is a white beacon for these tiny butterflies that work hard to adapt to these changes. They are the survivors and to be recognized and admired as an integral part of our grasslands.

While the crickets chirp, the red-tailed hawks, harriers, and eagles soar overhead, and the dragonflies hover nearby, I find that taking a few minutes to look closely at this late-bloomer helps me understand how this ecosystem works; how the flora and fauna are connected in this grand, inter-woven web of life; and how each species has its own unique role to play in Nature's ever-unfolding drama.

Pearly everlasting was named, in part, because it outlasts the other summer wildflowers and cheers us into fall. Butterflies and other insects know of the plant's importance in their lives. Sometimes the simple pleasure of spending a few minutes watching a small patch of pearly everlasting, and the life forces that ebb and flow there, reminds me that the plant enriches my life, too.

SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK / PEARLY EVERLASTING. Text and photographs copyright 2012 by Susan Vernon. No part of this column may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author.

Susan Vernon is the author of Rainshadow World – A Naturalist's Year in the San Juan Islands.

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Last modified onSaturday, 27 September 2014 22:25