Taking flight: Lawrenceville nursery remodels butterfly house

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A painted lady butterfly, its wings ablaze with bright orange color, draws nectar from a small white flower.

Nearby, a monarch butterfly rests on a rock, its wings still slightly crumpled from emerging that morning from its cocoon.

The tiny, delicate creatures are two of more than 300 butterflies living in the recently remodeled butterfly sanctuary at Randy's Perennials and Water Gardens, a garden center in Lawrenceville.

The 1,250-foot structure off Crogan Street, which from the outside looks like a large greenhouse, is home to eight species of butterflies native to the area. Originally constructed 10 years ago, the butterfly house had reached the point earlier this year at which Randy Kucera, the man behind Randy's Perennials and Water Gardens, decided remodeling was in order.

Upon entering the butterfly house, guests might be startled by a trickle of water dripping from just above the door.

"It wakes people up when they walk in," Kucera laughed.

The easy drip of water is intentional.

"Butterflies like to get their moisture off surfaces," Kucera said. "It's hard for them to get into a waterfall, they'll end up down into the waterfall, and they can't sip out of ponds, so they need a wet surface."

Once inside, guests will find the updated design is done in the style of English gardens and features an LED waterfall at the entrance, an elevated water garden in the center of the house and dual waterfalls at the rear exit, all surrounded by flowers and plants chosen specifically for this habitat, each serving as either a nectar plant or host plant for one of the butterfly species.

Nectar plants are those that attract specific species of butterflies that feed on the available nectar. Asclepias tuberosa, known as butterfly weed, is a popular nectar plant for all species of butterfly.

Host plants, or larval plants, are those on which butterflies lay their eggs.

Zebra longwing butterflies, whose names are taken from their long, narrow wings colored with yellow, zebra-like stripes, lay their eggs on passiflora, or passion vine.

Once the butterflies inside the sanctuary lay their eggs, which hatch as caterpillars, garden center staff then collect the larva from the plants and place them in hatching boxes that contain food for the caterpillars. Within a week to a week-and-a-half, the larva will enter the pupa, or chrysalis, stage before an adult butterfly emerges from the cocoon.

To allow children who visit the butterfly house to understand the life cycle of butterflies, a hatching house is set up inside the sanctuary. Chrysalises hang inside the small wooden structure, where children can watch as butterflies emerge, wings crumpled before they begin to unfold, from the tiny cocoons and are then released into the sanctuary when the hatching house is opened.

"It's really for showing these kids what nature is about because they're losing that," Kucera said of the hatching house. "It's a learning experience. It's what it's all about."

Meandering along the walkway inside the butterfly house, guests can stop to read signs that highlight interesting facts about butterflies: they have compound eyes consisting of tiny, individual photosensitive cells called ommatidia; they take in oxygen through tiny openings along their abdomens called spiracles; they are cold-blooded and need the warmth and energy from the sun to be able to fly.

"You can learn a lot coming here to the butterfly house," said David Waters, a Lawrenceville resident and owner of the landscaping company Beauty Revealed who designed the remodeled sanctuary.

While learning about butterflies is one aspect of the butterfly house experience, the overall design of the sanctuary was created to give homeowners ideas for what's possible in their own outdoor spaces.

"We created this as an educational experience, a place for people to be able to come and enjoy," Waters said, "but also we wanted to highlight some ideas they can do in their own backyard. That's why we used quite a variety of different hardscape material, from the retaining wall blocks to stacked stone to veneer stone. Give people an idea of hey, here are some things they can create in their own backyards."

The butterfly house is open during normal business hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. The butterfly sanctuary is open to the public. For more information, visit randysnursery.com.