Butterfly garden opens at Norfolk Botanical Garden Nature: Neighboring wildflower garden draws delicate insects for their favorite meals.


NORFOLK, Va. -- Holly Cruser's heart flutters when she spies a butterfly, especially if it's feasting on the sweet nectar of a blossom.

"A swallowtail can work one buddleia panicle a day," says Cruser, referring to the flower clusters of the plant commonly called the butterfly bush.

Talking with visitors about the recent opening of the new 2-acre Bristow Butterfly Garden at Norfolk Botanical Garden, Cruser leaves the group to walk over to where she can get a better look at a butterfly she can't readily identify. She tiptoes closer to the butterfly who is "puddling" or working the muddy soil for nutrients. Generally, male butterflies take to mud to draw out salts, minerals and proteins that help develop their pheromones for mating, says Cruser.

Finally, Cruser decides the puddling butterfly is a spice bush swallowtail who is too busy to worry that a photographer's camera is suddenly focused on his personal needs.

"You're behaving just like a movie star," Cruser coos to him.

Two years of planning

A Virginia Beach-based landscape designer who specializes in habitat gardening, Cruser knows every square inch of the butterfly garden because she's been planning its layout since summer two years ago. The just-installed plantings will take several years to mature and blend in plants already there. There are aspects of the butterfly garden that haven't even been started or completed yet.

Even so, the butterflies and moths are arriving. The cabbage whites hover around the catmint. The monarchs go after the milkweed. Sulfurs like the short and wild field grasses. Silver-sided skippers feed on the purple butterfly bush.

Cruser is known throughout the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for her devotion to wildlife gardening. She practices it at her Virginia Beach home and she preaches it during the many presentations she gives as a landscape designer, horticulture instructor and volunteer master gardener. She's also a member of the board of directors for the Butterfly Society of Virginia and is president of the South Hampton Roads Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society. It seemed only natural that the botanical gardens would turn to Cruser when Julia Bristow wanted to give the gardens an endowment to honor her late parents and brother, all three outdoors and gardening people, with a living memorial.

"I'm the wild child around here," says Cruser. Her subtle humor is just as contagious as her desire to see everyone try a trowel. "I'm the only one doing this." The wild child in her, however, turns serious when she gets down to putting landscape plans in blueprint form. She picks plants with research-based purpose.

To get butterflies, you need certain caterpillars. To get caterpillars, you need the plants they like to eat. That means the swallowtail caterpillar wants to gorge on host plants such as fennel, dill and parsley.

"Adult butterflies are not very specific as far as nectar plants but they are more specific where they lay eggs and what the caterpillars must feed on," says Cruser. "A tiger swallowtail may come to your garden and play on your buddleia all day, but will look for a tulip or black cherry tree to lay eggs."

Butterflies are attracted to food and host areas in three main ways: color, shape of flower and foliage, and scent, says Cruser. Color really matters so it's important to mass and combine flowers in effective ways.

Adjacent to the new butterfly garden is the botanical gardens' wildflower meadow, a rippling sea of color and shapes this time of year. The meadow and butterfly habitat are perfect neighbors because the butterflies can flit back and forth for their favorite meals.

'A brave step'

"This is a brave step for the gardens because everyone is used to see something neat and tide," says Cruser.

She's right. Elsewhere in the botanical gardens, you see neat rows of rose bushes, the formality of a Japanese garden, clipped hedges, perennials planted in planned patterns and herbs tucked behind a Colonial fence.

The butterfly garden goes more natural, especially as you move further back into its plantings. Pesticides will be a no-no, and hand weeding will be necessary to protect the wildlife and plantings. The area needs to maintain its wild and rangy look, says Cruser.

Visitors will notice materials planted in drifts with color combinations and spacing slightly different than in traditional gardens, says Cruser.

After all, it's a site planned and planted for insects, not people. But visitors are invited to look around and learn.

Visiting the garden

What: New Bristow Butterfly Garden

Where: Norfolk Botanical Garden, 6700 Azalea Garden Road, Norfolk, Va.

Cost: Regular garden admission, $3.50 adults, $2.50 ages 62 and over, $1.50 ages 6-18.

DETAILS: New garden with more than two-acres designed to attract mainly butterflies and moths and some hummingbirds. More than 400 species of plants designed in four progressions: form to informal, sun to dappled shade, dry to wetland, general butterfly-attracting to specific families. Areas created especially for tiger swallowtails, Virginia's official state insect.

Telephone: 757-441-5830

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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