Fairchild Garden’s Butterfly Dreams

Butterfly dreams do come true if you are Martin Feather. Martin is the curator and exhibit manager for the new Butterfly Conservatory at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. After 10 years of planning and two years of construction, the “Wings of the Tropics” Clinton Family Conservatory opened its doors on December 1st to around 1500 enthusiastic guest.

For Martin, a Northern England native, it’s been a long, wonder trip to his dream. His butterfly dream started while working in London at the world’s first commercial butterfly exhibit, he then became manager at the Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World in Scotland, he met his American wife in Costa Rica (both were at a butterfly conference, naturally), moved to Hawaii with her (where there are plenty of butterflies to study), then to Kentucky (to curate the butterfly exhibit at the Louisville Zoo), then to Texas (as curator of Horticulture and Entomology for the San Antonio Zoo). Then Fairchild Garden asked him to be a consultant on their young project. Soon thereafter, Feather negotiated to run the conservatory and has since moved to South Florida where, according to him, “his dream is now complete.”

The dream is a 40-foot high containment structure that houses 2500 butterflies from around 45 species in what can only be describe as a screen-enclosed Garden of Eden.  The mostly Asian, Central American and South American butterflies flutter amongst guests and are joined by six playful hummingbirds that dart through the lush plant life and drink nectar from the abundant flowers. To add to the natural bliss, a crystal clear stream, complete with waterfall, runs the entire length of the space.

“What I hear from people as they walk through the door is WOW,” gushes Feather. “We’re thrilled with this and the guests are absolutely blown away.” I can attest to the feeling of awe once inside.  There is nothing quite like being surrounded by these colorful flying critters by the hundreds.

On average, butterflies only live about three weeks. So, to keep the numbers up, Martin imports about 1000 pupae-stage winged guests from foreign breeders. Once at Fairchild, the chrysalis are cared for inside the Vollmer Metamorphosis Lab. in specialized cages where guests can watch the butterflies emerge.

Twice a day, the staff releases the newly hatched butterflies into the conservatory to the thrill and delight of onlookers. At first, they just crawl out of the netted cage. But, when the temperature gets above 75 degrees and the sun hits these brand new baby butterflies they start to fly. It’s an amazing sight to see.

Around the grounds, there are fruit feeding stations where sliced mango attracts some butterflies.

The exotic imported flowers, laden with pollen, attract the others. Martin can name each, such as heliconids, morphos and owl butterflies. I just look at the diverse beauty that sometimes lands right on your hand or shoulder to say hello.

Interactivity is key. Martin explains, “We want to engage the children because these are the people who are our next generation of scientists…the people who can move us forward. And this is a great way to get them enthused about nature and science.”

There is no doubt this is a family affair. Bring your cameras and get ready to snap a lot of shots because, while incredibly beautiful, catching butterflies in flight is no easy task.

The butterfly conservatory is just one part of the brand new $6 million Paul and Swanee DiMare Science Village. With four cutting-edge educational labs, a ton of Ph.D. scientists and other resources, the partnership between Fairchild Gardens and Miami-Dade County will allow for multiple teaching and classroom opportunities at all levels of education.

For Martin Feather, that’s just another feather in his cap.  For now he is delighted to say, “We’re instantly popular and that’s the way we’d love it to stay.”