Around the Mall & Beyond

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

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.

"That's potential," she says. "That's how many have ever been actually spotted and counted in Washington. We know they're migratory, but their native habitat is right here. We have 36 pairings of butterflies and plants."

Come on. You are pulling my leg. I have lived in Washington 23 years, and I have certainly never seen anything like 86 varieties of butterflies. More like three, and one was probably a moth.

Not at all. "The reason you only see a few varieties," explained Horticulture's landscape architect Paul Lindell, "is that in the name of progress we destroyed the wetlands and meadows. So in the city you see only those types that eat the kinds of plants allowed to grow there, which are kind of limited."

Ah, so. We are talking about weeds. Butterflies love to hang out on the edges of fields and pastures, where the weeds grow happily. In a city, a field is not a field but a vacant lot and is apt to be paved over or mowed.

Now, a weed can be many different things, and there are people who declare war on anything that comes up that isn't the zinnias or marigolds they planted. But to butterflies, those independent plants, from clover to dandelions, from crabgrass to viper's bugloss, are gourmet-quality foods.

How do you get the different butterflies to gravitate to the different sections of the garden?

"Plant and they will come," says Horticulture's entomologist Mark Hardin. "Most butterflies are very host-specific. They like just one or two kinds of food."

The monarch, for instance, the famous big orange creature with black borders that looks like a Tiffany lamp, loves milkweed in its larval stage. As an adult, the monarch sucks the nectar from the flowers of goldenrod, milkweed and many others. The zebra swallowtail larva eats nothing but pawpaw and as an adult feeds on nectar. The small larva of the white cabbage, or checkered, butterfly goes for cabbage leaves, which would seem only right, along with broccoli, mustards and cress, but it too switches to nectar when it grows up. Most adults prefer nectar, and the garden will feature flowers with enough nectars to make a butterfly giddy: cinquefoil, dandelion, geranium, red clover, sumac, pepperbush, mints, aster, and some plants that I'd never heard of.

Many hundreds of plants will go into the Butterfly Garden. Several varieties will be replenished and some will be replaced seasonally as the residents, both larval and winged, require. You understand, the Butterfly Garden is a three-season proposition, with nectar sources such as dandelion and wild geranium available in the spring, pepperbush in the summer, and goldenrod in the fall.

"At our greenhouses," Bechtol notes, "the staff couldn't believe some of the stuff we were asking them to grow for us. Alfalfa, clover, weeds and forage crops — things that we had to call some farmers to get advice on. We needed to know how to grow alfalfa throughout the summer. There will be willows and other trees too. We want the garden to look nice all year, and the woody plants will help in winter."

Painful as it may seem to some, various vegetables — notably that all-time favorite, cabbage — were included with the certain knowledge that they would be regularly destroyed by caterpillars. Gardeners will simply have to replace them as required.

At this point I thought it would be a good idea to ask Hardin to remind me of some of the things I'm sure I once knew about butterflies.

They start as an egg. You knew that. They are laid on a host leaf or under it, to become larvae, tiny worms, and to eat and molt, for two or three weeks, when they turn themselves into chrysalids, or pupate. Eventually they emerge as beautiful butterflies, unfolding their magnificent wings and flittering off to try out this delicious new adult diet that they suddenly crave, having never given it a thought in their former life.

There is a fine children's book on the subject, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel), by Eric Carle, who was the guest of honor at the June children's party. With the wave of a magic wand, the author and illustrator gave the signal to release the butterflies. Each child had been given a curious wax paper envelope. Inside, neatly folded wingtip to wingtip, was one of the garden's new inhabitants that had been raised from caterpillarhood in the Insect Zoo. Gently, the children coaxed them out of the envelopes into their hands, where more than a few youngsters had one or two precious moments to study the beauties before the butterflies took flight.

I took some time to meander along the garden, coming first to the wetland, representing salt marshes, peat bogs and other poorly drained areas as well as freshwater shorelines. The extreme moisture here discourages many plants, but grasses, trees and some wildflowers thrive in the spongy soil. The viceroy butterfly will stick around in this patch because it wants to be close to the black willow plants.

Next came the meadow strip, full in the sun, often dry for long periods and rich with wildflowers, providing all sorts of nectars for the adult insects. As visitors stroll by, they might envision a true country meadow humming with insects and bright with wildflowers and the flitting wings of butterflies. Here you are apt to see the delicate yellow sulfurs, noshing on red clover and vetch.

The wood's-edge habitat is shadier, with loose soil and decomposing leaves. It includes a transition area from sunny meadow to woodland shade. It is here that you will find the red admiral, with its concentric bands of red, blue, black and brown, no doubt eating the false nettles that it insists are better than chocolate, and some spotted varieties of butterflies that like dogwood, paper birch and other such delicacies. The reason you find spotted ones here, of course, is that the dappled shade helps them to hide from predators.

Finally, the urban garden features sunny areas and sheltering windscreens, both natural and man-made. This section is probably the most easily imitated by any local citizen who hopes to attract butterflies to the backyard, for all the plants here are just the sort of flowers common to the backyard garden or window box.

While I'm on the subject, here are some basic rules for the home butterfly gardener, as listed by E.J.M. Warren in her delightful The Country Diary Book of Creating a Butterfly Garden, a British work published here by Henry Holt: avoid pesticides and all poisonous chemicals. Plant in masses, using flowers of one color, rather than single plants in a variety of colors. Go for single blooms rather than double. And stick to the vivid flowers, not the paler ones. Butterflies have a great color sense, rare for insects, but the colors should be bright.

I think the Butterfly Garden is going to be one of Washington's favorite spots. It can't help but be beautiful. Everything about butterflies is beautiful. Even naming them seems to have slightly pixillated many a solemn lexicographer: papillon in French, mariposa in Spanish, farfalla in Italian, Schmetterling in German, sommerfugl in Danish . . . And in English, though the dictionary insists it comes from the Old English buttor-fleoge, most of us suspect that "butterfly" is just a whimsical way of saying "flutterby."