Butterfly Habitat Garden
Emphasizes natural plant/butterfly partnerships
A significant objective in the Butterfly Habitat Garden is to emphasize natural plant/butterfly partnerships. Plant labels provide a plant's botanical name, common name, region of origin and indicates the specific life cycle it supports. ( nectar plants support the adult butterfly and host plants support an immature stage: egg, larva, pupa). This garden also demonstrates a variety of plant species that can be used to attract butterflies to any garden.
With tours available on a regular basis, a visitor can view the actual butterfly life cycle and gain insight into the miraculous metamorphosis of the butterfly species. It is an experience that will allow the visitor to learn to recognize and thus appreciate the butterfly in all its growth stages. Bring a camera and a quick eye. It will prove a most inspiring and rewarding experience!
About the Garden
The Smithsonian Butterfly Habitat Garden is 11,000 square foot area that supports plant species having specific relationships to life cycles of eastern United States butterflies. It is located on the East side of the National Museum of Natural History at 9th Street between Constitution Avenue and the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The original Butterfly Garden was built in 1995 with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee, a group dedicated to supporting education, outreach, conservation, and research projects within the Smithsonian through its fund-raising activities. The garden's success encouraged the Smithsonian Gardens to work toward tripling its size.
In 2000, the Garden Club of America designated the Butterfly Habitat Garden one of its Founder's Fund Projects and gave the Smithsonian a gift to expand the garden. This gift was in keeping with one of the GCA's goals, of restoring, improving, and protecting the quality of the environment through educational programs and action in the fields of conservation and civic improvement.The allure and significance of this garden is found not only in the beauty of the plant species themselves but also in the multitude of artfully enameled signs with text that interpret particular plant/butterfly relationships.
A walk down the long paths reveals native plant representatives from a wetland, meadow, and wood's edge. The urban garden displays of butterfly attracting plants that are more suited to an urban yard that might not have adequate space for the larger plant material.
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Journey Through the Habitats
The wetland mimics a low, damp area that might be found in a natural setting or a backyard. Surface water in wetlands provide areas for butterflies to "puddle" or obtain essential nutrients otherwise concentrated and unavailable in dry soils. Often, on cool spring mornings, one may notice early arrivals basking on the rocks provided for this purpose. This is a common habit for butterflies as they cannot internally regulate their body temperature, yet must be warmed thoroughly before flight. A variety of grasses and perennials found in wetlands provide protection from the wind and support feeding and nesting sites for butterflies. The perimeter of the pond is dotted with low depressions where shallow puddles might occur, particularly after a rainfall.
Large and lush! This is the scale of many of the dramatically bold plants found in this habitat. Here, visitors and butterflies alike find themselves in an open, warm, sunny location dominated by wildflowers and grasses. Butterflies are attracted to the plants not only for their flowers as a source of nectar, but also as a place for females to lay their eggs. Grasses offer important accommodations for the immaturestages for certain local species of butterflies. The bloom sequence begins in Spring with early pastel colors that are inviting to early season butterflies and culminate in crisp autumn colors of golds and purples providing the last bit of nectar before late arrivals migrate South. The meadow habitat is where butterflies are often found basking (roosting) in the sun to warm their bodies in preparation for flight.
The Wood's Edge
A woodland edge is a transition zone between an open meadow and the dense canopy of a forest. A shady woodland area is where many butterflies take refuge on a cloudy day or cool off on very hot days. As much as a butterfly needs the sun to perform metabolic functions, on cloudy days, it needs to hide. Host trees that provide butterflies in immature stages with food and protection, such as birches, tulip trees, cherries, and ash, are throughout this part of the garden. Other shade loving plants such as nettles provide a source of nourishment for certain larval species including the red admiral butterfly.
The Urban Garden
The urban garden area is dedicated to plant material that might not be native to this region but nonetheless thrives here. These plants tend to be smaller in scale, thus adopted more readily by the urban/suburban gardener with limited growing space. Here one finds many herbs, including rosemary, lavender, mint, and hyssop. These are some of the best butterfly attractants, with skippers and monarchs as their main attractees. It is here in the Urban Garden that a visitor will learn that some common garden plants will attract a variety of nectaring butterflies and bees.