Keys Homes
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Butterfly conservatories are abundant and thriving

By RON HAMBURGER Key West garden Club

What are the butterfly conservatories? How and when did they originate? Can they contribute more to society than the direct education of those who visit them? Can they stimulate the economies of underdeveloped countries and encourage the conservation of precious tropical rainforests?

These were some of the interesting questions addressed by Martin Feather, director of Fairchild Gardens butterfly exhibits when he spoke at a recent meeting of the Key West Garden Club.

Feather was born in London and trained in horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He worked at the London Butterfly House in the mid-1980s and has since traveled extensively designing and managing butterfly and other invertebrate exhibits from Scotland to Texas. He has managed the Wings of the Tropics in the Clinton Family Conservatory at Fairchild Gardens for the past year.

"The first butterfly conservatory was established privately in Dorset, England by Robert Gooding in 1978, Feather said.

"Gooding kept butterflies for his own pleasure and raised silk moths," he told members. In fact, some of the material produced by his silk moths was used to create the wedding dress for Princess Diana."

Ten years later, Clyde Farrell established the first public conservatory, the London Butterfly House. He soon opened four more similar venues in Europe, Feather said.

By 1996 the number of live butterfly exhibits had skyrocketed to 150 worldwide with 24 in America and 60 in England alone. The first butterfly exhibits in the U.S. were created in 1988 at Callaway Gardens in Georgia and Butterfly World in Florida.

These conservatories are building with many translucent windows and ceiling panels that allow visible light rays to enter. The sun's energy is trapped as heat, absorbed by the soil, tropical plants, flowers and even the air inside the building. Add supplementary heating, humidification and ventilation systems, and the all-important chrysalises of tropical butterflies and the tropical plants they require for reproducing, (caterpillar host plants) and feeding (nectar plants) and you have created a conservatory, an insect zoo in a modified greenhouse.

Invite the paying public and inspire, educate and amaze adults and children alike with some of the oldest questions about the mysteries of the biological world and some of their most current scientific explanations.

Where do all of the exotic butterflies come from? Why the rain forests of course. Parallel to the rapid increase in the number and popularity of these live insect exhibitions has come a huge increase in the organization and conservation of a new farming technique. Rain forest farming occurs in Central and South America and in the tropics worldwide. Farmers there no longer use the slash and burn method of farming the clear cut the forest to raise non-native exportable cash crops.

Rather, they have learned to conserve the rain forest ecosystem to renewably produce chrysalises, a stage in the butterfly life cycle during which the butterfly can be shipped worldwide. In that life cycle the adult female deposits fertile eggs on the tender new leaves of the host plant. The emerging caterpillars hatch and have choice food at hand.

They grow rapidly and wrap themselves in chrysalises -- at this point they can be shipped. After seven to 10 days of metamorphosis, adult butterflies emerge from the chrysalises, pump fluid into their folded wings to expand them and then bask in the sun to dry. The cycle begins again as the adults mate. A portion of the chrysalis crop is returned to the forest while the remainder is sold for high profits around the world. The profits support many local workers and raise their standard of living, speeding up economic growth in the countries involved.

Although Feather did not mention the possible problems that could arise with this rapid introduction of foreign plants and animals and their possible diseases into our temperate climate from geographically distant areas, he did paint a rosy picture of the potential educational and socio-economic benefits that might ensue from such a large-scale global commercial development.

The speaker suggested plants that are useful in a South Florida butterfly garden, some of which include bleeding heart, flaming glory, dusty miller, coral tree, wild poinsettia, Panama rose, red globe pentas (no hybrids) heliotrope, blue porterweed, buttercup, red jatropha, coral tree, firebush, ixora, wild coffee, hibiscus bougainvillea, Spanish needle, giant milkweed, lignum vitae, wild tamerind, powderpuff and the Geiger tree. Plant these and the butterflies will come.

The speaker had high praise for the book Florida Butterfly Gardening, by Marc and Maria Minno.

Our own Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is at 1316 Duval Street.


Ron Hamburger is recently retired in Key West and is a member of the Garden Club. He enjoys learning about the beautiful flora and fauna of south Florida. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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