SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

March 12, 2014

Blooms & Butterflies

Blooms & Butterflies’


   What began in 1994 as an experimental novelty turned into the foundation for steady growth at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The annual “Blooms & Butterflies” exhibit — with the ever-popular Blue Morpho, above — will open on Saturday for the 21st year. 

                                                                                                                                    COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER DISPATCH FILE PHOTO


Popular winged creatures give a lift to conservatory


Someone who handles 20,000 butterflies a year understands: Their delicate appearances are deceiving. • “Several species are known to migrate thousands of miles,” said Chris Kline, a butterfly specialist at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. “I figure . . . (anything) that can fly 3,000 miles has to be fairly tough.” • Tough enough, it turns out, to hoist an institution on its shoulders.                                                                                                                                                                   @kgdispatch

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER DISPATCH PHOTOS Butterfly specialist Chris Kline checks on the insects as they work their way out of the chrysalides.

The creatures star in “Blooms & Butterflies,” a popular exhibit introduced 20 years ago as an experiment.   “‘Blooms & Butterflies’ helped the conservatory make an important financial transition toward the success we enjoy today,” said Bruce Harkey, executive director.   “It was really the first (attraction) that established a platform for the growth.”

Beginning on Saturday (8th), the Pacific Island Water Garden will lay out the exhibit — with hundreds of exotic butterflies flying freely among tropical plants and flowers — for the 21st consecutive year.

Conservatory leaders hadn’t committed to making “Blooms & Butterflies” an annual event when they started it in 1994, but the 47,734 visitors that it drew — more than two-thirds of the attendance that year — compelled its return.  Through the years, the scope of the exhibit has grown.

This year, compared with the inaugural four-week run featuring 1,000 butterflies, the attraction will span more than six months and encompass 26,000 butterflies representing 60 species, said Dee Ashworth, visitor experience manager.

The conservatory, too, has seen notable growth, from an annual budget of $1.5 million in 1994 to $7.8 million this year.   Annual attendance in that time has mushroomed from 70,886 to 181,000.

The venue is in the midst of a 10-year, $60 million expansion, with renovations of the John F. Wolfe Palm House and the addition of a greenhouse.  Further plans have yet to be finalized, Harkey said, but could include the construction of a butterfly house, expanded outdoor gardens and the restoration of a lake.   For now, though, the focus is on “Blooms & Butterflies.”

Kline will have his hands on most of the butterfly species delivered in boxes on trucks.   Given the three- to four-week life span of the insects, the conservatory will receive about 1,000 chrysalides a week from Africa, Asia, Australia and Central and South America until mid-September.

A butterfly dries its wings after leaving its chrysalis.

The chrysalides first hang from shelves for a few days in a climate-controlled “emergent center.” As the insects hatch and their wings dry, they are released into the exhibit.   “I enjoy watching the life cycle proceed,” said Kline, of Fairfield County. “Each species has its own little personality.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which strictly regulates the importing and care of butterflies, doesn’t allow the conservatory to breed the insects, as it doesn’t want the tiny eggs — and foreign species — escaping the exhibit.

  • The display prevents breeding by omitting plants on which butterflies lay eggs.

The popularity of “Blooms & Butterflies,” according to visitors, stems from the experience.   “People otherwise don’t get to be so close to butterflies,” said frequent visitor Mary Myers, 65, of the East Side.   “Knowing you are walking through an area where they might land on you is very thrilling.”    Her grandson Julian Myers, 7, has shown a particular interest, she said.

“We take him continuously throughout the season. He teaches us about the butterflies. He wears different clothing to see what colors attract them. It’s just a tremendous learning experience.”

Although the exhibit has remained largely unchanged, Harkey said, conservatory attendance during the exhibit has averaged about 80,000 annually for the past nine years.   “It’s like Christmas,” he said. “Christmas comes every year, but people still show back up. Butterflies are the mother lode because they’re beautiful and they’re animated.”

The importance of the offering is underscored in plans for the conservatory.   On the “wish list” for the next phase of the expansion: a dedicated butterfly house with low ceilings (for better observation of the butterflies) and other features that enhance the experience.   The estimated price tag: $11.75 million.

The conservatory has asked for $1 million from the state, with the rest of the money expected to come from both private and public sources, Harkey said.   Until then, officials are satisfied to welcome crowds again to “Blooms & Butterflies.”

The exhibit has lasted long enough, Harkey noted, that children who visited in 1994 might be showing up with their own children.   “So many of the successes of the conservatory,” he said, “really focus on those kind of educational, cultural and social experiences that live beyond the moment in people’s memories.”

“Blooms & Butterflies” will open on Saturday and run through Sept. 28 at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, 1777 E. Broad St. For more information, call 614-715-8000 or visit http://www.fp  .


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