Butterflies and Blooms at Chicago Botanic Garden

I have always been fascinated with butterflies. There’s something about their unique morphology and dance-like flight that mesmerizes me. Last month during my visit with Shawna Coronado to Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG), we were excited to get a sneak peak at the new Butterflies and Blooms exhibit that opened on June 2. Butterflies and Blooms joins the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden as the newest attractions at the garden and supports CBG’s continuing effort to educate visitors both young and old.

Once through the double-door “butterfly lock” (an anteroom that prevents the butterflies from escaping when people enter and exit the exhibit), we stepped onto a gravel path that guides visitors in a loop through a garden composed of plants that provide food and shelter for a wide variety of butterflies.

Bright colors abound, even in the signage that provides information on butterfly life cycle and habits. Education is provided in small chunks, ideal to help younger visitors digest and understand.

The flower heads dangling at the ends of arching branches of Buddleia are a favorite source of nectar for many butterflies. It’s no wonder the common name of this plant is Butterfly Bush. You may be able to see a few butterflies on the mesh walls of the butterfly house. Our June 1 visit was unseasonably cold (in the 50s) and cloudy, so the butterflies weren’t very active. If you want to see the exhibit in full flight, I’d suggest visiting on a reasonably warm day. Butterflies love sun and warmth.

In addition to plants, the butterfly house staff provide ripe fruit and water on horizontal platforms. If you’re trying to attract butterflies to your own garden, providing landing spots with available water is a great start.

At one end of the butterfly house is the hatchery. Because the typical butterfly life cycle is short, new butterflies are continually released into the exhibit. An outside vendor provides the chrysalis attached along wooden dowels. Visitors to the exhibit can see into the hatchery and watch the butterfly emerge and spread their wings for the first time. The window to the hatchery will need to be cleared of smudges regularly, as I expect a large number of wide-eyed faces plastered up against the glass all summer long.

CBG staff use what they call “ephemeral signs” to add additional information snippets, keeping visitors learning all along their short walk through the exhibit. Even I learned something: how to pronounce the word proboscis. Who knew?

Even the butterflies helped out with the teaching and learning.

As we were reaching the end of the path, a Monarch perched on a Buddleia long enough for us to snap a few photos. It was one of only a handful of butterflies that were active during our visit, but gave us a glimpse of what the exhibit would look like on a bright summer day.

These beautiful insects are not shy about landing on humans, so visitors are asked to use a set of double mirrors to check themselves for hitchhiking butterflies before leaving the exhibit. It’s also an opportunity to take a self portrait during your visit.

I checked in yesterday with CBG staff to see how the exhibit has done so far this summer. Dawn Bennett, Exhibitions and Program Productions Manager, said, “We’ve seen a lot of repeat visitors (some coming 4-5 times already) and photographers who want to see the different kinds of butterflies. New butterflies are released all the time, so there is added incentive to return. Kids, from babies and older, tend to get mesmerized by the butterflies and want to stay a long time to soak it all in.”

I bet some of those older kids that Dawn is talking about look just like me.

The Butterflies and Blooms exhibit is open until September 3, 2012. For more information, visit the CBG website. Many thanks to Julie McCaffrey, Media Relations Manager at CBG for taking time to share this and the other CBG gardens with Shawna and me.

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