Getting in touch with nature

The author Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, “Butterflies are not insects. They are self-propelled flowers.”

Regardless of your taxonomic view, both flowers and butterflies are visible in abundance this summer at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG). Visitors can view the latter up close through July 29 in the Garden’s Butterfly Pavilion.

Now in its third year, the living display features a host of area-native butterflies in all stages of development, from egg to caterpillar and from chrysalis to fluttering adult.

Their names are nearly as colorful as their wings: California dogface, monarch, pipevine swallowtail, gulf fritillary, mourning cloak and cabbage white.

There are currently 50 to 100 butterflies flitting from plant to plant in the 24- by 36-foot net enclosure located near RSABG’s Walter Lantz classroom. They often alight on visitors as well, particularly those who opt for white or light-colored clothing and move slowly.

“Look, he’s on your hat!” exclaimed 5-year-old Isaac Fang to a COURIER photographer who served as an unwitting host to a monarch butterfly. Isaac visited the Butterfly Pavilion on Wedneday, June 21 with his mother, Elizabeth, and his 4-year-old sister, Anna.

“He’s so cute,” he said of another specimen who landed on his own hand.

The Butterfly Pavilion is a smaller display than the one currently on view at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. But the number of butterflies at the attraction hosted by the Claremont botanic garden is growing daily. Eggs dot the leaves of the native plants growing in the pavilion, spiny orange and black pipevine swallowtail caterpillars squirm in a terrarium and cocoons dangle like earrings from twigs attached to a square of Styrofoam affixed near the pavilion’s entrance. (The monarch butterfly cocoons, which are jade-colored with gold points here and there, are particularly striking.)

“You get to see the full life cycle of the butterfly,” notes pavilion coordinator Bill Gendron. “Most pavilions buy their butterflies as chrysalises from Costa Rica. We offer local fare.”

At $2 per visit, the neighborhood Butterfly Pavilion is also a bargain compared to the LA museum’s enclosure, which costs adults a $15 entry fee. (Butterfly Pavilion visitors must also pay for RSABG admission.)

For the love of butterflies

The local butterfly habitat is very much a labor of love.

Beginning in March, Mr. Gendron began roaming the Garden with a net, scooping up caterpillars and capturing butterflies. His living harvest is now drawing about 90 visitors per day, a 90 percent increase from last year. Apparently, word is getting around.

“I like the pipevine swallowtail,” said 10-year-old Claremonter Amelie Cook, who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a butterfly during her Wednesday visit. “It’s a really nice blue color.”

Another local girl, Gabriella Armijo, 9, was also entranced by the show of color.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” she said. “You could learn a lot about butterflies. This is the most I’ve seen at one time.”

Some kids never outgrow that excitement. Mr. Gendron collected and curated butterflies from childhood through his college years.

“I’ve always been captivated by butterflies because of their beauty,” he said.

He drifted away from the hobby while pursuing his career as an engineer, then rediscovered his entomological passion upon retirement.

“A lot of my engineer friends are butterfly collectors,” he said, noting that both pursuits require close attention to detail.

You can see that conscientiousness in the displays outside of the Butterfly Pavilion, which include children’s books about butterflies and boxes of carefully pinned specimens of southern California butterflies ranging from the size of a quarter to the span of a hand.

There’s a certain poignancy to the vibrant display of delicately-inked wings, considering their lives were cut short mid-flight. However, while most of the smaller butterflies only live a week, the educational displays can be enjoyed for years to come.

Inside the pavilion, life is in full, quivering bloom. The butterflies get all the nutrition they need from the smorgasboard of plants that has been provided. Still, they delight in sticking their noses—called a proboscis in the world of insect study—into sliced oranges that have been arranged on hanging feeders to provide additional calories. During Wednesday’s visit, another creature hoping for a snack was spotted, a lizard lying on the roof of the net enclosure, staring hungrily at the butterflies inside. It couldn’t help it; the insects are lizards’ natural prey.  

“We are torturing them,” joked Pauline Nash, public relations and marketing specialist at the Garden.

Ms. Nash hopes many in the community will take advantage of the pavilion, and also invites the public to the attraction’s closing day. Those who visit the RSABG on July 29 will get into the Pavilion for free with Garden admission. Guests may well want to be a part of the day-long “release party,” helping a fluttering or crawling bug back into the wilds of the preserve.

Of course, participants will want to use a soft touch, said Mr. Gendron, who is stationed at the pavilion for the course of the exhibit, providing bits of “I didn’t know that!” wisdom to all who care to learn more about these prettiest of bugs.

“They’re a little delicate,”?he said. “Their exoskeletons can’t take any crushing force. But their wings are remarkably flexible. You can almost tie them in knots.”

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is located at 1500 N. College Ave. in Claremont. For more information, call 625-8767 or visit

—Sarah Torribio


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