Winging It

For business or pleasure, here comes the Great Butterfly Chase

Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, and Kerr, a CPA, don't have the problems of tracking butterflies over a 15-mile area. They got the inspiration for the special garden when they began building their home in the Rice University area nine years ago.

"We really wanted a garden, but the space we were building on was so small we couldn't decide how to do it," Kerr says. Their friend Peter Roe suggested that they start thinking of the outside as just another room. "Kind of like inviting nature into your house," Blackburn says.

Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.
Carlin Deguerin
Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.

That type of nature is a cheap tenant. The technical name for the kind of landscaping they cultivate is zero-scaping, but it looks more like antiscaping. A butterfly garden needs no regular visits by professional gardeners, no daily deluges of water or even insecticides. The owners explain that evolution takes over the process, weeding out the weak species from the strong.

Tapley says he just keeps his plants healthy, often with a dose of his homegrown compost, to attract the butterflies. "I read somewhere that insects -- bugs -- are opportunists, and what they are looking for from a plant are free amino acids, but the healthier your plants are, the fewer free amino acids exist." Caterpillars are unaffected.

Tapley said new gardens are usually very successful because butterflies respond well to first-time installations. Males of the species are known for being territorial. They "will patrol their particular area and really get agitated when another male comes around," says Tapley. His explanation was evident when an intruding Swallowtail and resident patrolling Monarch engaged in a dip-and-dive aerial dogfight before the Swallowtail flew away.

Plant varieties are designed to lure butterflies in. During a tour, Tapley points out the Lemoni of the marigold family. Its soft, hairlike leaves are silky and leave a citrusy smell on the fingers of those who handle them.

"This passion vine here is a popular plant to the Gulf Coast Fritillary [butterfly], for egg laying," says Tapley. He motions to a vine whose flowers look more Martian than Texan, with its spindly purple petals and oversized greenish-yellow pistils. Its leaves were eaten away, proof of its popularity with the Fritillary caterpillar.

Of course, the patience required for naturalists isn't necessarily shared by all butterfly enthusiasts. More and more entrepreneurs are cashing in on the commercial aspects of butterfly breeding and farming. These butterflies don't migrate -- they soar in overnight via Fedex or UPS.

"Butterflies: no longer a luxury confined to wealthy European Estates," touts the Web site of Butterfly Whispers Farm of Arkansas. Like scores of other firms, the company promises shipments of live butterflies for mass release at the customer's special occasion. They usually go with less visible butterflies -- the ones in the stomachs of brides and grooms.

Depending on how fancy the containers and other considerations, these specially bred butterflies go for about $10 a head, plus fairly hefty shipping charges.

"Because of the increase in demand for butterfly releases at weddings and special events, we want to caution you that there are several companies on the Internet that have recently jumped into the business, that do not have the proper facilities to produce strong healthy butterflies," warns the Web site of the Magical Beginnings farm. It says competitors try to undercut prices but often cannot fill the order.

Several Texas butterfly farms are among those listed as members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association. A Seabrook company, Education Science, hawks various rearing and breeding kits, along with plants and seeds suitable for feeding the critters.

There's also a brokers' site, a stock market of sorts for trading species and unloading overstocks. To the uninformed, a posting by Butterflies and Blueberries Inc. appeared to be for procuring something more than winged insects: "We have extra painted ladies for shipment to you by Thursday."

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