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Flights of Fancy

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Hundreds of live butterflies will delight visitors at the Conservatory of Flowers' special exhibit "The Butterfly Zone"

SAN FRANCISCO - Hundreds of live butterflies will take up residence in San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers this spring and summer to demonstrate the relationship between plants and the countless critters that pollinate them. A new exhibition “The Butterfly Zone: Plants and Pollinators” on view March 24 - October 29, 2006 gives visitors to the Conservatory a chance to get eye to eye with a butterfly and to learn why our survival really does depend on the birds and the bees.

Walking amongst a wide variety of brightly colored blossoms, visitors can observe lots of busy butterflies flying from flower to flower. “The Butterfly Zone” allows people to get up close and personal with several species including Zebra Longwings, Julias, Swallowtails and Monarchs as well as a number of moth species like the magnificent Luna moth.

The Butterfly Bungalow in the middle of the gallery also lets visitors observe one of the most critical stages of the butterfly's life cycle - the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. At the Bungalow, you can see the chrysalides, hardened exoskeletons formed by the caterpillars. These intriguing structures are as various as the creatures that created them -- some jade colored with lovely gold spots, some sporting prominent and unusual horns. Inside, hard work is going on to complete a total metamorphosis in just two weeks! Many visitors will be lucky enough to catch the moment when one of these transformed and winged beauties emerges.

Butterflies may be the highlight of this exhibit, but pollinators come in all shapes and sizes. Bees are the most important pollinators in the world, but there are many other including moths, beetles, flies, birds, bats and mammals. “The Butterfly Zone” also features several larger-than-life models of some of these others - a giant honey bee, scarab beetle and a bat.

Interpretive panels throughout the gallery help to explain how all of these creatures play a role in the life cycle of plants. Butterflies, for example, land on a flower and use the taste receptors in their feet to determine whether this is a good stop for a drink of nectar. If so, they'll uncurl their long proboscis and settle in to feed. In the process, they rub up against flower parts laden with pollen, which sticks to their heads, bodies or legs. Off they fly with the unintended cargo, which gets transferred to other plants when the butterflies stop to feed again.

This process, pollination, makes it possible for plants to reproduce. Plants grow from seeds. In order to form seeds, the DNA in pollen from one plant has to fertilize egg cells in another. Seems simple enough, but it's a process that isn't commonly understood. “I think if you asked most people to explain how a flower turns into a cucumber, they wouldn't be able to,” says the Conservatory's Acting Director Jim Henrich. “But life as we know it just wouldn't be possible without pollination - no flowers, no plants, no fruit. It's a critical natural process. We want people to understand that and to know there are some very important insects and animals that do the work.”

Some pollinators and plants, like the Monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant, have evolved so closely that they can't survive without each other. “Our hope is that just knowing something like this might make people think twice about using toxic insecticides or yanking native grasses and plants,” says Henrich. “Our actions have a huge impact on these delicately balanced relationships.”

The exhibit is open Tuesdays - Sundays from 9 am to 5 pm and is free with admission to the Conservatory. The public should call (415) 666-7001 or visit for more information.

The Conservatory of Flowers is a spectacular living museum of rare and beautiful tropical plants under glass. From Borneo to Bolivia, the 1,750 species of plants at the Conservatory represent unusual flora from more than 50 countries around the world. Immersive displays in five galleries include the lowland tropics, highland tropics, aquatic plants, potted plants and special exhibits. Opened in 1879, the wood and glass greenhouse is the oldest existing conservatory in North America and has attracted millions of visitors to Golden Gate Park since it first opened its doors. It is designated as a city, state and national historic landmark and was one of the 100 most endangered sites of the World Monuments Fund.