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Up-close interaction: Chatfield Farms exhibit provides encounter with native butterfly species

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By Deborah Swearingen

Kathie Smith’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she felt the small chrysalis shake in her hands.

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“Oh my goodness,” she said with excitement. “Thank you for letting me have that experience.”

The Littleton resident has been a volunteer with the Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms for about two years, but last week was her first time holding a chrysalis at Chatfield’s annual butterfly exhibit.

The seasonal exhibit, which closes on Sept. 24, is a collaboration between the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. It began in 2014 and is meant to showcase native butterflies and plants.

While walking the gravel paths in the covered garden, one can encounter hundreds of butterflies, including cabbage whites, monarchs, painted ladies, variegated fritillaries and more, and more than 50 native plants species.

“You don’t really realize how many butterfly species Colorado has,” said Kelly Strassberg, a Butterfly Pavilion employee who works on weekdays at the exhibit. “We’re actually top five in the country for diversity, so we have a lot of butterflies here compared to other states.”

As an insect lover, Strassberg feels lucky to have the opportunity to educate others about butterflies and moths, and the butterfly exhibit at Chatfield Farms provides the perfect place to do so. At the exhibit, visitors can have an up-close and personal view of the entire life cycle — from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly.

The intimacy of the experience is something Smith hears regularly from those who stop in.

“They can watch a monarch butterfly lay an egg right in front of their nose,” she said. “It’s very, very special.”

Lynda and Tony O’Hara of Littleton spent time browsing through the butterfly house last Friday, and both were undeniably impressed with their first visit.

“I loved it,” Lynda said.

The butterflies were an obvious high point for Lynda, but she called the flowers “phenomenally beautiful,” as well.

Angie Jewett, a horticulturist at Chatfield Farms, helps design the exhibit each year and she said doing so can be a challenge.

For the most part, the plants in the butterfly exhibit are nectar sources instead of host plants. The nectar source provides food, whereas the host plant provides a place for the butterflies to lay their eggs.

“It’s interesting to garden or design here because really you’re not just designing for an aesthetic. You’re designing for sustenance for an animal,” she said. “ … We always try to change up the design so that, as visitors come in year to year, the butterflies are sometimes changing, but then we also kind of change the look so that it’s a new experience every time.”

In Strassberg’s eyes, Jewett is the artist behind the butterfly exhibit, but Jewett is quick to attribute the beauty to another source.

“Nature does most of it,” Jewett said with a smile. “She does a good job.”