Nature's Way

Karen T. and The Butterfly Garden

by Lakin Khan

Spring has been arriving in fits and starts this year, the few promising warm days interrupted by cold rain and gloomy skies. Hasn’t stopped the flowering plants and trees though; they are still bravely bursting forth with buds and pollen, as we so sneezily notice. The butterflies are noticing as well, waking up from their winter sleep-over, busting out of their chrysalids as the day temperatures climb. It warrants a walk out to The Butterfly Garden to see what’s up.

Along the way, I stop at Charlie Brown’s for a cup of tea with spry and sparkling Karen Tillinghast, Lead Gardner, the founder of the Garden. “Originally it was the Bird and Butterfly Garden,” she says, “but pretty quickly it became just The Butterfly Garden."

The Garden was established in 1993 by Tillinghast and several student assistants. Just as they started the project, Mary Merritt, from the Santa Rosa Garden Club, showed up and immediately adopted the Garden as one of her volunteer projects. For the past 14 years, the club has been crucial to the garden, with the members digging, scraping, planting and raising funds. "It’s been a volunteer operation from the start. Her support and enthusiasm for the project, and the participation of the Woman’s Garden Club for funding and volunteering, was what made it happen." says Tillinghast as we walk past The Lakes toward the fire road at the east end of campus.

There, at the juncture with the Walking Bridge, stands an inviting blue sign with "The Butterfly Garden” in white letters. Although it’s a bit cool where we stand in the shade, the tattered edges of the cloud banks are pulling back, and we walk forward into a bright patch, the enveloping sun warm and welcoming. Best for butterfly spotting, as Tillinghast notes. And lo, within seconds, a dark butterfly scoots past our ears to land on a Pink Flowering Currant bush by the planting and potting sheds. “That’s a Pipe-vine Swallowtail, one of my favorites,” Tillinghast says. “It looks black at first but the two hind wings are really an iridescent blue. The caterpillars live on Dutchman Pipe Vines; the flowers look like a Sherlock Holmes-type of pipe.”

The creek gurgles behind a row of trees on our left as we walk down the road, the sun anointing our heads and shoulders, whispering sweet nothings about those warmer days we should expect out of spring. In quick succession we spot three other species of butterflies, all common to the garden at this point of the season:  Mourning Cloaks, whose soft dark wings are edged in yellow, White Cabbage Butterflies, flitting white dots darting around the small meadow and Anise Swallowtails, splendid creatures with cheerful yellow markings that attract the eye.

Butterflies and moths belong to the Order Lepidoptera, which contains from 15,000 to 20,000 species around the world. They have a fascinating life cycle. An egg, laid on its specific host plant, hatches into a larva (more commonly known as a caterpillar), which munches steadily and to its tiny little heart’s content on the host plant. Then, following an inner directive, it seeks a likely spot on the plant and enters the pupae stage, creating a shell around itself known as a chrysalis. Within that shell, the caterpillar basically melts into a soft stew that will reconstitute itself in time into a butterfly, released from the chrysalis when spring days reach a pre-determined, specific temperature.  It then has its short adult life in which to gain strength, find a mate, reproduce and start the cycle over again.

Butterflies have life spans anywhere from two weeks to two months, depending on the species; the Monarchs who live up to ten months and travel thousands of miles are an extreme exception. In that short lifespan, the specific arrangements of its habitat are criticial: host plants for the caterpillar, nectar flowers for sustenance, sunny basking spots and some water. All these elements need to be in close proximity to each other or the hatched butterflies might die before they find nectar, or be too depleted when they locate a larval host plant to lay sufficient eggs.  

“We discovered that a Butterfly Garden is more than having nectar-rich flowers,” Tillinghast says, “it is really a whole web. The nearby creek provides the water, we planted the nectar and larval host plants within close range of each other. Then we hoped for the best.” And the best seems to have happened, for up to as many as 15 different species have been seen on the annual Butterfly Count weekend held on or around July 4 in this small but beautifully created and maintained garden.

Near the end of the fire road, Tillinghast points out the Dutchman’s Pipe Vine; indeed it has tiny pipe-shaped flowers dangling like earrings along its branchlets, though, alas, devoid of its dedicated caterpillars. Perhaps the pupae have already hatched and are flitting about as full adults in their black and iridescent blue two-toned winged glory.

As we turn to leave, I spot a brief splash of orange, which Tillinghast quickly identifies as a Painted Lady, another common visitor. There is no doubt that Tillinghast has transformed a left over space into a welcoming oasis for butterflies, that by the dint of her efforts she has made a check mark in the plus column for nature and her creatures.

ABOVE, Northern Checkerspot photo by Shahram Marivani

LakinE-mail our amateur campus naturalist with any observations, stories or reactions you have about our shared environment with the natural world on campus. Khan is an administrative coordinator in the biology department and can be reached at


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