YOU'D THINK a butterfly garden would be tranquil.
Entering the South Conservatory at Brookside Gardens, however, makes you feel like a dazed newcomer to a busy butterfly city. Insects zip by, intent on their errands. Some, like the excitable orange Julia, dither in circles, while others, like the stately blue morpho, glide with sang-froid. At times you can actually hear the gentle flap-flap-flap of wings as the insects fly by. One brushed the back of my neck; the sensation was like being swatted with a Kleenex. Another landed on the spine of my notebook. I was thrilled.
"Wings of Fancy," the garden's annual live butterfly exhibit, includes local species, along with cousins from Central and South America. Staff horticulturists strive to create an environment that replicates the creatures' natural habitat. Butterflies love warm, sunny weather; they need an abundance of flowers and a puddle or two. Misters located near the ceiling keep the exhibition space humid while fans stir the air and offer a little relief to human visitors. "The exhibit is self-perpetuating," says staff horticulturist Kerrie Nichols. "The environment will support the butterflies through all four stages of their life cycle," from humble egg to ravenous caterpillar, contained pupa to winged adulthood.
The butterflies' inauspicious beginnings are subject to closer scrutiny in the Caterpillar House. Docents show visitors tiny eggs on the undersides of leaves. Caterpillars, meanwhile, are a bit easier to spot; curators pinpoint their locations on the plants each morning with purple ribbon. Certain species are attracted to specific host plants for shelter and, more vitally, food. The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly likes to feed on the spiky-leafed pink turtlehead plant. The black swallowtail has more gourmet tastes, preferring parsley, dill and fennel. While a caterpillar, the butterfly undergoes some of its most significant (some would say appalling) growth, molting its skin at least four times and increasing in size by 200 percent. In this context, the chrysalis must be a welcome retreat.
Though the Brookside butterflies replicate their number over the course of the exhibit, their efforts are supplemented by imported chrysalides from South and Central America and local butterfly farms. The cocoons are displayed in "emergence boxes" -- think of them as butterfly nurseries -- with glass doors so visitors can coo over those inside. Most of the chrysalides look like cicada hulls or dried leaves. Although I did not see a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, a number of new butterflies were going through the emergence ritual of unfurling and drying their wings. A few were even testing them out, flying around the box, no doubt eyeing the inviting garden just outside. New butterflies are released into the exhibit twice a day.
Part of the conservatory's appeal is the landscaped garden of nectar plants designed to delight our eyes and whet butterflies' appetites. Like Oscar Wilde, adult butterflies have simple tastes: They like only the best. Flowers with heavy, rich fragrances attract them, as do vivid colors such as purple, hot pink, red, orange and yellow. With so many butterflies in a contained area, it's possible to watch their individual behaviors and consider how they parallel our own. One butterfly landed on a fiery red zinnia to "smell" it with her antennae, as if shopping for produce at Whole Foods market. A monarch butterfly meanwhile dined on a heliotrope. Using her long black proboscis, she pierced the blossom's center to sip the nectar like a tourist sipping a tropical cocktail through a straw. Far less appealing sources of nectar are the platters of decaying fruit placed throughout the conservatory. Brown peaches and dried citrus were on the menu the day I visited. Apparently the platters are a real treat, as evidenced by a group of small orange and brown butterflies I saw crowding around some rotting bananas.
Viewers can determine who's flying at any given time with the aid of "Photo ID" posters displayed next to the emergence boxes. Some of the names sound like characters in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, like the silver-spotted skipper and the great spangled fritillary. Along with their common names, species are identified by their proper, often unpronounceable, Latin classifications. Hence, the ruby-spotted swallowtail is really the Papilio anchisiades and the red cracker the Hamadryas amphinome.
Enthusiastic volunteers are on hand to answer questions. Impressed by an immense butterfly with wings the color of blue eye shadow, I asked volunteer Janis Moran what kind it was. "That's the blue morpho -- he really is a showstopper." With a wingspan as wide as my hand, it didn't so much fly as float by. While the morpho is a favorite with visitors, Moran prefers the elegant erato longtail, which was sunning itself on a nearby rock. The erato is easy to identify, with black velvety wings cut across with a dash of red, like a lipstick stain. Before leaving the exhibit, visitors are asked to turn around a time or two in front of a volunteer to make sure part of it isn't leaving with them. Butterflies have been known to escape, riding out on someone's sweater or backpack, unbeknown to the carriers.
A visit to "Wings of Fancy" is enough to make you an amateur lepidopterist. Brochures are available with instructions on how to design a butterfly-friendly garden. You need not undertake a major landscaping project: Butterflies are attracted to such common garden plants as zinnias, marigolds and mint, which are readily available and easy to grow. You may well emerge an environmentalist as well. "People are amazed by the butterflies," Nichols says, "but we hope the show will open their eyes a little more to their surrounding environment." Consider the uncertain fate of the Baltimore checkerspot, the official state butterfly of Maryland. Its host plant, the pink turtlehead, along with other aspects of its habitat, is rapidly dwindling as local lands are developed. With butterflies around, who really needs another strip mall?
In addition to being things of beauty, butterflies inspire us. They have long been regarded as symbols of hope, transformation and spiritual renewal. Perhaps the dramatic physical metamorphosis they undergo -- from a blip on a leaf to a brilliant, winged adult -- reminds us of the transience of existence. After all, the life cycle of some butterflies is only two weeks long. Like cherry blossoms in the spring, they are only here for a short time. All the more reason to see them while you can.
WINGS OF FANCY -- Through Sept. 19. Open 10-4 daily. Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton. 301-962-1400. www.brooksidegardens.org. $4, children 3 to 12 $3, 2 and younger free.