When visitors tour the Wildflower Center, a highlight is often a half-acre garden tucked away at the back of the main footprint. The Ann and O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden features habitat that also draws dragonflies, moths, hummingbirds and frogs. "If you build it, they will come," could be the garden's motto.
"It has the most diversity of habitat in an area of its size on site," the Center's Horticulture Director, Andrea DeLong-Amaya says. "The more different plants you have, the more diversity of insects you'll have."
This October 11, the Center commemorates the 10th anniversary of the garden, which showcases about 300 native plant species. It was developed with funding from the Weber Family Foundation Fund of the Greater Houston Community Foundation.
Center supporters can join in by: touring the garden with the horticulturist who oversees it on October 13 during the Fall Plant Sale and Gardening Festival; taking an October 16 Go Native U workshop about butterfly gardening; and for children, dressing up in insect costumes for a parade at this year’s Goblins in the Garden October 28.
The Wildflower Center also celebrates the 10thr anniversary of the McDermott Learning Center this October. The structure within the Butterfly Garden was originally built by the founder of the Driskill Hotel in the 1880s to house horses on Whitis Avenue, and has been renovated into an inviting indoor space where beautiful nature art is shown. These intimate exhibits of photography, pottery, paintings on silk and more have included a show by world-renowned origami master Robert Lang and the 3-D watercolors of Shou Ping. Complementary exhibits by sculptors such as the late Damian Priour grace the Center grounds throughout the year.
To learn more about the McDermott Learning Center’s history and those who funded its relocation and renovation, visit: http://www.wildflower.org/architecture/?id=mlc
To see the Lady Bird’s Lake exhibit currently featured there, visit: www.wildflower.org/exhibits.
Visitors who come to enjoy great fall blooms at the Center could also see clouds of Queen butterflies above Gregg's mistflowers at the Butterfly Garden, purple passion vine with orange Gulf Fritillary larvae crawling on them and more.
"We've been seeing quite a few butterflies out there with this year's rain, so it looks promising," says Gardener Samantha Elkinton, who has overseen the garden for seven years.
New glass windows and other updates to the garden's Insectary are making the building's inhabitants more visible. The Insectary near the Homeowner Inspiration Gardens houses butterflies and moths at different stages of development. Elkinton sometimes serves as the adult insects' dating service, helping males and females interact in this safe space to produce progeny. "I love getting to watch school groups look at caterpillars and see the Insectary volunteers release butterflies," she says.
The garden designed by Judy Walther of Environmental Survey Consulting provides other opportunities to view the invertebrate life cycle up close. Chrysalis and cocoons are placed into eclosion boxes just before the growing butterflies and moths shed their overcoats and unfurl their wings. In addition, strategically placed benches provide chances to watch insects in action on their own turf.
A good spot for a "Wild Kingdom" moment is the pond at the heart of the garden, in front of the McDermott Learning Center. Besides yellow water lilies and pickerel weed, the pond hosts mosquito fish, tadpoles and an occasional ribbon snake that is harmless to people -- but not pond inhabitants. DeLong-Amaya adds, "The pond is mostly patrolled by dragonflies, which are a big predator of butterflies, but it is all part of what goes on in nature."
The pond's edge, where salt marshmallow, Mexican primrose willow and other native plants grow, is her favorite place to see butterflies 'puddling' (drinking water laced with minerals that leach from granite gravel there). It is a great place to take photos while the butterflies are single-mindedly feasting.
Puddling places were among the elements designed into the garden to attract insects. Among the other features are:
Meadows: Swallowtail butterflies, Monarchs and Red Admirals are among the sun-loving insects. The Butterfly Garden includes a short-grass prairie with fall bloomers such as blackfoot daisies and fall asters whose nectar is popular. Two sections of tall-grass prairie with taller wildflowers attract skipper butterflies, whose larvae eat grasses.The meadows were improved in recent years to make larger patches of single species throughout the Butterfly Garden. "Butterflies are attracted to huge amounts of one flower blooming," Elkinton says.
Every week, 15 Wildflower Center volunteers help maintain the Butterfly Garden sections, about half of which have been updated in recent years. More than a dozen other volunteers assist Elkinton at the Insectary, where she will raise Gulf Fritillary butterflies as well as mate Polyphemus moths and others this fall. Next spring will be the sixth year she and Center volunteers will mate giant cecropia moths.
"We're very thankful to have volunteers who help us maintain this garden and educate the public about pollinators and their importance," Elkinton says.
To learn more about Butterfly Garden features, look for interpretive signs in the garden. To learn how to create a butterfly garden, visit: http://www.wildflower.org/howto/show.php?id=29&frontpage=true.
To see native plants that benefit North American butterflies, moths or bees, visit: http://www.wildflower.org/collections/.
To help survey insects and other creatures on the Wildflower Center grounds, join Center volunteer Val Bugh Thursday’s at 8:30 a.m. near the Administration Building. To see the results of her weekly surveys online, visit: http://www.austinbug.com/survey/faunaproject.html.
Story by Barbra A. Rodriguez
Slideshow images by Bruce Leander