Around the Mall & Beyond

Plant and the butterflies will come: This summer the Smithsonian's new garden welcomes its winged visitors

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Butterfly Garden. Just the name makes you smile.

It really is almost as if the butterflies were growing out of the tips of the blossoms, delicately fluttering their outrageous wings as they suck the nectar.

The idea is not new, and for some years now books telling how to start your own butterfly garden have been on the market. But the Smithsonian's garden, on the Ninth Street strip east of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), is new this summer. This delightful place was inaugurated earlier this year with the release of many dozens of painted lady butterflies at a spectacular kids' party. Besides 75 Young Associates, practically everyone Smithsonian was there. After all, five different groups and the Smithsonian Women's Committee have had something to do with this magical stretch of garden, a place that will attract an assortment of colorful little winged visitors three seasons of the year.

Naturally, the gardens people were involved. "That area always had lovely flowers," recalls Nancy Bechtol, chief of the Horticulture Services Division, "but it was sort of a catchall. We wanted something more meaningful than just pretty flowers."

Butterflies and gardens had been bouncing around in a number of heads here. Gardening Supervisor Walter Howell even drew up some plans four years ago. Over in the Department of Entomology, the thought had occurred to Don Harvey and Liz Klafter, each of whom pursues the art of butterfly gardening at home. Don's urban garden is on Capitol Hill and Liz's is a more spacious spread out in Maryland.

"I didn't know anything about Howell's plans," Bechtol says, "but one day just as I was thinking about how that garden could better relate to the Natural History museum, Don Harvey called with this neat idea. So I mentioned it to my staff and learned about Howell's drawings."

Horticulture, NMNH's Entomology and the Office of Exhibits worked together on the garden, while the Insect Zoo and the Smithsonian Associates joined up to plan the party. Collaboration of this sort is most unusual at the Smithsonian or anywhere ("It's the territorialness of it, I guess; it's ingrained in people — literally, turf wars"), but all was harmony, or almost.

"It was sheer pleasure working with Don and Liz," reports Bechtol. "We needed their expertise to match the various species to the plants they are attracted to. We got a grant from the Smithsonian Women's Committee and the Office of Exhibits wrote and produced the signs — a big item."

The garden is 400 feet by 81 feet, and even though it runs along the Ninth Street underpass, the butterflies won't be as tossed about by traffic slipstreams and smog as they might be elsewhere.

The garden is divided by pairs of American holly trees into five sections: the orientation area, a wetland, an urban garden, a wood's-edge habitat and a meadow. Each mini-environment attracts different kinds of butterflies, explains Bechtol. And note this, please: she's hoping that as many as 86 species of butterflies will visit the garden at one time or another.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus