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On the Wing: Brookgreen Gardens new butterfly exhibit ready to take flight

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

More than 500 butterflies will begin winging their way around a new exhibit at Brookgreen Gardens next week.

“Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience” is due to open April 1, after more than a year of planning.

“It’s going to be a fantastic addition. People like to look at butterflies, but they don’t know much about them; just that they’re pretty,” said Charleen Winkler, the gardens’ director of public operations and historical interpretation. Winkler is part of the team that planned and developed the exhibit.

The way it’s being designed, she said, it will create a beautiful and peaceful environment for people to observe butterflies, but will also be an educational experience, as visitors learn more about butterfly life cycles and habits.

The new 78-by-36-foot screened-in exhibit, located across from the Lowcountry Zoo, will include a butterfly garden area featuring native plants and a sculpture fountain, and a room for chrysalises, where visitors can watch as butterflies emerge and unfurl their wings.

The butterfly house is inspired by a similar one Bob Jewell, president and CEO of Brookgreen, visited at Desert Botanical Gardens near Phoenix. He said he saw the delight people of all ages took in the exhibit and knew it was perfect for Brookgreen. He talked to staff at the Arizona gardens, who pointed him to Spineless Wonders, the company that constructed the exhibit.

Based in Minnesota and owned by Kraig Anderson, an entomologist, Spineless Wonders has built about 30 similar exhibits around the country. They started work at Brookgreen on March 3.

“It’s truly a turnkey operation,” said Helen Benso, Brookgreen’s vice president of marketing. “They came in with all the netting and frames and put the whole thing together.”

The exhibit is budgeted to cost about $200,000 and was paid for by the Friends of Brookgreen Gardens.

Jewell said the butterfly house fits with Brookgreen’s mission and design.

Brookgreen was originally designed in 1931 in the shape of a butterfly with spread wings.

The butterfly house will open with eight species: gulf fritillary, monarch, zebra longwing, giant swallowtail, black swallowtail, red admiral, painted lady and American lady. About a dozen new species will be added each week through June.

The plan is to eventually have 94 species, Benso said.

As the opening nears, she said visitors are every bit as excited as staff who have watched the project come together.

“They’re ready to come see it,” she said. “We’re getting lots of phone calls and interested people coming by. It’s a shame, because a lot of part-time residents are just here for the winter and this is the time they’re leaving.”

Benso said she talked to one winter resident who said she has to return home to Canada before the opening, and was so disappointed she’s changing her annual plans next year to stay longer.

The butterfly house will be open seasonally, from April 1 to Oct. 31 each year, because most butterflies need minimal temperatures of about 65 degrees to thrive.

The exhibit will accept 25 visitors at a time, with groups changing every half hour. Visitors won’t be able to touch the butterflies, but Benso said that won’t stop the butterflies from doing some observation of their own and landing where they will. Visitors will have to be “dusted” on the way out to ensure no butterflies get loose.

Admission to “Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience” is $3 for adults and $2 for children, in addition to regular garden admission. For information, call 235-6000 or visit www.brookgreen.org.

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