The Leopard Lacewing lights on a visitor’s hand and seems to like it there, spending what would amount to a good portion of its three-week or so lifespan just hanging out.
But don’t feel bad for the colorful little guy who seemed to delight in showing off his lovely tan, black and red wings to several guests at a preview tour of his new, lavishly decorated home in Coral Gables. Soon, there should be about 4,000 exotic butterflies joining him, along with a handful of hummingbirds, rare orchids and tropical plants.
Call it a scientist’s playground. A nature lover’s paradise.
The future of plant science, education and entertainment arrives Saturday at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden with the opening of the $6 million Paul and Swanee DiMare Science Village. The world-within-a-world at the 83-acre Fairchild sprung from grounds that once housed an old maintenance yard. After 10 years of planning and two years of construction, this new nature space seamlessly blends into its two-acre neighborhood.
The village’s four buildings cover more than 25,000 square feet and feature labs, classrooms for college and graduate-level university students, a stainless steel-screened butterfly and hummingbird conservatory that towers about 40 feet, and an expanded rainforest that flows right to the doorways of labs and classrooms.
The latter amenity, says Fairchild’s chief operating officer Nannette Zapata, promises to give university students a window view rivaling vistas seen in lush Hawaii. Already, a class from Florida International University is installed here, rapt in an instructor’s discussion of tropical plant taxonomy. Fairchild Garden director Carl Lewis envisions a nature-enshrouded university campus with 10 scientists, 20 graduate students and 40 undergraduate research students at work and study at the Science Village within five years.
Some are already in place. A room away from the FIU class, as dappled sunlight falls onto his white examining table, Michael Hass, formerly a forensic biologist for Miami-Dade County, grinds Caribbean plant tissue with a mortar and pestle. Hass has traded the study of human tissue for plant tissue but the goal is the same — to identify and learn about life forms with a goal toward conservation of a species.
Zapata points out that the same technology that goes into human genome projects can be conducted with plants. “With the DNA, you can really identify what the plants are,” she says.
“The whole concept is circle of life,” Lewis adds. “We need to understand the diversity of these forests.”
Genetic research, climate modeling, plant propagation and the study of animal life will become an interactive experience for garden guests, “almost in your face” by design, says Lewis. Two-way intercom speakers are mounted along the rock walls of the butterfly conservatory.
Practically everything the scientists will do and say inside the labs will be visible and audible to guests in the conservatory. Gone are the days of men and women in white robes laboring in secrecy.
“Today’s scientists are really about teaching people and engaging people,” Lewis says while standing under an amber Chihuly chandelier inside the village’s new 150-seat glasshousecafé. It overlooks the butterfly and hummingbird home.
“Whatever we are doing needs to be outside. Nothing should be behind the scenes.”
The idea is to ensure that elementary, middle and high school students from 250 schools throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties who pass through Fairchild annually have an opportunity to engage with a scientist, horticulturist or a teacher.
“The great thing about butterflies is that they are one of the best ways to explain how all life depends on things,” Lewis says. “We have a world-class collection of tropical plants and a collection of hummingbirds and our visitors and the 150,000 students get to see that beautiful diversity of animal life and how it depends on their intricate relationship with plants.”
The Wings of the Tropics Exhibit in The Clinton Family Conservatory is, arguably, the village’s piece de resistance. Under the guidance of British horticulturist and butterfly exhibit manager Martin Feather, visitors will stroll along leaf-imprinted paths as thousands of butterflies such as heliconids, morphos and owl butterflies imported from Central and South America and Asia flutter under a canopy.
Keen eyes can spot hummingbirds darting from plant to ground, where they find nourishment. On a recent day, mango, peeled just for them, lay near a small waterfall. Scenic views for dining aren’t just for people, after all. Butterflies, meanwhile, feast from special pollen-laden flowers, imported and grown here.
Feather orders his winged guests in pupae stage from breeders in Central and South America and the Philippines, about 1,000 weekly.
The new arrivals can be spotted inside the Vollmer Metamorphosis Lab behind glass where visitors can see the labeled chrysalises. Twice a day, Feather releases the butterflies into the conservatory in front of guests. This is where the friendly Leopard Lacewing stopped for a spell on a recent morning. Children, in particular, are likely to delight in these colorful releases.
Fairchild plans to display about 40 species, though the USDA has granted the garden a permit for more than 200. Feather hopes to arrange themed season displays depending on how the butterflies flourish.
By the 2015-16 school year Zapata says that 95 percent of Miami-Dade schools will be engaged in the scientific Fairchild Challenge, a major environmental education program for grades K-12. The new conservatory and its adjacent labs should play a significant role.
“If kids are engaged early on in life, they grow up with an awareness and sensitivity of nature and therefore become citizens of nature,” Zapata says. “That’s one of our main goals.”
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