Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Small colourful visitors brighten a January day

I have never failed to find something interesting to see at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden in Surrey. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, or whether it is January or June. Yesterday, however, I was visiting the Glasshouse along with Clare, from Plantpassion, to see the colourful visitors that take up residence in its steamy interior during the depths of winter.
Sure enough, there they were, flitting between the towering palms and the exotic tendrils of flowering climbers. Their colours were amazing - brilliant magenta pink for the females, and blue and green, with the occasional splash of bright red, for the males. Some even had those trainers with flashing lights.
What? Who did you think I meant? Oh, the tropical butterflies! Yes, I saw them too. And very lovely they were, but they paled into insignificance beside the sight of children, round-eyed with wonder, thoroughly enjoying a world outside their normal day-to-day routine.
One little girl, in her winter plumage of bright pink parka with fur-trimmed hood, got very excited when she saw a butterfly hatch out and shouted at the top of her voice: "Mummy, Mummy, I saw a WEAF-wing!" It's difficult to say leafwing when your front teeth are missing.
It's the third year Wisley has had butterflies in the Glasshouse. This year, by way of an extra treat, you could also see caterpillars, alongside the emergence cages where the pupae hang, ready to ease themselves out of their chrysalises and into a world of colour and heat.
The butterflies are imported as pupae from Belize, and supplied by the Stratford Butterfly Farm. In the wild, the caterpillar attaches itself to a twig before shedding its skin and becoming a chrysalis. The collected pupae have lost this, of course, and Cara Smith, one of the RHS staff, showed me how they stick the pupae to canes using Copydex glue - it's basically latex dissolved in water, so it's non-toxic (which is why it's good for false eyelashes, apparently).
These green ones below will hatch into Blue Morpho butterflies - they look like a little row of fairy lights, don't they?

Here's an owl caterpillar - it turns into one of those butterflies with a big "eye" on its wings

The butterflies in the Glasshouse have a lifespan of only a couple of weeks, so they die off naturally. They don't perform any pollinating role - they're just there to look pretty. Owl butterflies like laying their eggs on banana plants, of which there are many in the Glasshouse, and the RHS did have a nasty moment once when a mini-plague of owl caterpillars appeared. But they hatched into butterflies, and that was the end of that, said Cara. I suspect f-owl play. (Sorry.)

Here's Cara, below, at the emergence cage, where lots of newly hatched butterflies are waiting to go into the Glasshouse. To my surprise, she showed how to pick them up - she grasped the wings firmly between her thumb and forefinger, quite close to the body. I'd always been told you shouldn't touch a butterfly's wings, because you would cause irreparable damage. But as you can see, these seemed to survive OK, and look quite happy clinging to Cara's fingers.

Actually, it was difficult to decide whether it was the kids, or their parents and grandparents who were enjoying themselves more. It was comforting to see that, although we often tell each other we spend too much time at our computers or in front of the television, there still seems to be something in most of us that responds with wonder and enthusiasm to the natural world.

Cara very kindly released these specimens for us so that Clare and I could photograph them. The minute she let them go, we were surrounded by a heaving scrum of visitors brandishing their cameras and phones. It was as if the butterfly equivalent of Brad and Angelina had arrived in town. Above, some owls, and below are two tree nymphs.

These spectacular creatures below are Malay lacewings. They look like a vintage design by Missoni.

I know, from watching David Attenborough's extraordinary Frozen Planet series on DVD over Christmas (it's available on, American friends) that the sight of an untamed wilderness going about its seasonal business can hold my children transfixed - sophisticated adults though they now are. (I got told off for saying "Wow!" every five minutes.)
But even better is actually going outside to discover the world for yourself, whether you find a piece of it in a leaf, a bug, a puddle, a backyard, a park, or a polar ice field. So all credit to the RHS for giving kids the chance to see these tropical butterflies in such a wonderful setting.

This is either a Great Mormon, or an Asian Swallowtail, as is the butterfly at the top of the post. Both are members of the same family and they look quite alike, so excuse my lack of positive ID.