“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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