Column: Butterfly sanctuary educates on preservation, reveals wonder to visitors
Ernie Cowan’s Outdoors column
“Butterflies!” The cute little 4-year-old boldly shouted when someone asked her where pixie dust comes from.
That memory was on my mind on a somewhat drab weekday morning recently as I stepped through a large sliding door into a technicolor world of wonder filled with fluttering butterflies.
I felt like Alice passing though the looking glass into Wonderland.
This was my first visit to Butterfly Farms, a nonprofit, educational, conservation and research foundation in Encinitas that features a large, free-flight butterfly enclosure.
As someone who loves their delicate beauty, I was excited to see what Butterfly Farms was all about.
Butterfly Farms is nestled into the vanishing agricultural landscape of Encinitas, just west of the San Diego Botanical Garden.
I was met by CEO Pat Flanagan, who founded the organization with a partner in Vista in 2011 when they combined adjacent nursery operations then selling palm trees.
But Flanagan had a larger vision and wanted to create a butterfly environment similar to the free-flight hummingbird enclosure at the San Diego Zoo.
Eventually, their operation was moved to Encinitas where an enclosure, known as a vivarium, was built.
Today the vivarium is filled with both host and nectar plants for dozens of locally native butterfly species to lay eggs, hatch into caterpillars and then transform into butterflies.
It’s also filled on many days with big smiles and wide-eyed wonder from young and old visitors alike.
Flanagan admits to being fascinated by butterflies, and calls Butterfly Gardens a “marriage of space and experience.”
Raised in Ocean Beach, he was introduced early into plants and gardening and that interest eventually melded with his love of butterflies.
“If you have butterflies in your garden, you have a good environment,” Flanagan said.
He loves talking about the 150 or so butterfly species native to Southern California and how the public can help preserve them.
Most of these butterflies require specific plants, and Butterfly Farms sells a variety of host and nectar plants that will attract the colorful, winged insects.
Flanagan worries that butterfly numbers are down from historic highs, likely the result of urbanization, pesticides, agricultural practices and water regulations.
But there is hope.
The monarch butterfly is probably the best-known local species and is easily attracted to gardens planted with milkweed. Their numbers have been dwindling and on Thursday they were officially added to the endangered species list.
“We are seeing monarch butterfly numbers up in some areas this year, however, and that could be a result of more people creating urban gardens friendly to them,” Flanagan said.
To encourage that, part of the educational effort of Butterfly Gardens is to provide lists of plants that not only add color to urban landscapes and conserve water, but most importantly, create a nurturing space for butterflies.
Butterfly Farms also offers mesh cages that homeowners can use to protect the delicate creatures during their lifecycle until the adults are ready to be released. Once eggs are laid, the cages are placed over host plants to protect the emerging caterpillars from predators.
“When the eggs and caterpillars are protected in cages, we see about an 80 percent success rate,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan also raises monarch butterflies and releases them in the wild, including 1,000 that he recently returned to their native habitat.
“If more people got involved, we could see a return of monarchs in many places,” Flanagan said.
Asked to describe how butterflies affect him, Flanagan used the word “peace.”
“Running a business can be stressful, but when I am out and see a butterfly, it’s a sign that everything will be OK,” he said. “We sometimes see visitors moved to tears.”
Many cultures attach deep spiritual meaning to butterflies that center on transformation, hope, comfort and joy.
It was easy to see that everyone in the vivarium during my visit was affected in some way.
Small children were wide-eyed and giggly when a delicate red admiral landed on their shoulder, or when a brightly colored monarch softly touched down on a young lady’s nose.
Three older ladies sat with a butterfly identification card on their lap and seemed lost in wonder as they watched the nonstop fluttering of delicate cabbage white butterflies around blooming clusters of salvia.
There was magic in this place.
Asked to describe how they felt in the garden with butterflies, most said, “mellow,” “peaceful” or “calming.”
Butterfly Farms is located at 441 Saxony Road in Encinitas and is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily from April 15 to Nov. 15. Admission is $6. For more information, visit Butterflyfarms.org.
I paused a moment and put my camera down so I could take time to marvel at the beauty of the butterflies around me. These delicate creatures live for only a month but bring such joy to the world.
I reflected on the words of poet Tagore who so eloquently penned, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” Something to think about in an era when we seem to never have enough time.
As I prepared to leave Butterfly Farms, I noticed a little girl who had been crying when she was entering the vivarium. A red admiral had landed on the lavender ribbon in her hair, and she was just beaming.
It was like someone had sprinkled her with pixie dust.
Cowan is a freelance columnist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com.
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