Addisen Bairrington rested her chin on her chest and blew gently on a big blue morpho clinging to her shirt, trying to get the butterfly to take flight.
The exhibit, which opened Saturday for a five-week run, puts guests in the midst up to 2,500 butterflies inside the 10,000-square-foot conservatory. Close encounters like Addisen’s are almost inevitable. The blue morpho of Central America, for instance, flies at waist height, said Steve Huddleston, the Botanic Garden’s senior horticulturist.
“Others fly at various levels,” Huddleston said. “They’ll be landing on flowers, on landing stations where we’ve placed ripe fruit and on people.”
The butterflies add excitement to what already is an enchanting walk through beautifully flowering plants on paths that pass quiet ponds and a tall waterfall. Butterflies are everywhere in the giant greenhouse, even underfoot, said Gail Manning, the garden’s entomologist.
“We tell people to watch their step because there are butterflies on the paths,” Manning said. “We have three to five volunteers stationed at critical points to answer questions and remind people not to touch the butterflies.”
A volunteer at the exit ensures that no guest walks out with butterflies, said Dale Clark, a lepidopterist — that’s a butterfly and moth specialist — who owns Butterflies Unlimited and helped import the 100 or so species in the exhibit.
Conforming to Agriculture Department demands, organizers have taken dramatic measures to ensure that none of the butterflies escape, Clark said. Beautiful as they are, most of them are foreigners whose caterpillars might damage local ecosystems if they got loose.
Between now and April 6 more than 12,000 butterflies will be released in the conservatory. Species that were favorites at previous exhibitions are returning from Africa as well as from North, Central and South America.
In an exhibit within the exhibit, guests may watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the Pupae Palace, a glass box near the entrance.
The Botanical Research Institute of Texas has a related exhibit, “Partners in Pollination,” at its adjacent facility at 1700 University Drive.
Everyone is fascinated by the beauty of butterflies, said Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who helped cut a ribbon to open the exhibit.
“This exhibit appeals to all ages, and I mean all ages,” Shingleton said. “I’m even going to bring my older wife down here to see it.”