Butterflies + kids = magic

Area gardens and exhibits bring these insects close to children


Maybe it’s the way they fly through the air, their many colors or the books and fairytales about them, but children always seem happy to see a butterfly. And there are plenty of Chicago-area places for children to get happy and see butterflies—outdoors and in.

Outdoor butterfly watching is best now through October on sunny days, according to Tim Pollak of the Chicago Botanic Garden, (847) 835-5440, www.chicago-botanic.org.

The Botanic Garden’s outdoor gardens—from the forest to the prairie—attract different species of butterflies. The same is true at the Morton Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie, (630) 968-0074, www.mortonarb.org. Or the Garfield Park Conservatory’s outdoor gardens, (773) 638-1766, www.garfield-conservatory.org.

For a comprehensive live outdoor butterfly exhibit, visit the Brookfield Zoo, (708) 485-0263, www.brookfieldzoo.com. In its fifth year, there are normally 350 to 400 butterflies of 20 different species from the United States. Butterflies flit around as you walk on a mesh-tent-covered walk of crushed limestone; naturalists are available to answer questions.

If you want to take the hunt indoors, visit the Notebaert Nature Museum, (773) 755-5100, www.naturemuseum.org. The museum’s Butterfly Haven is the state’s only live exhibit with butterflies from around the world, says Doug Taron, curator of biology there. The collection features more than 1,000 butterflies of 80 different species.

The haven is filled with butterflies fluttering and gliding. They feed on the plants that fill the room as well as trays of fruit scattered about. A small waterfall empties into a pond in the center of the exhibit and a mirror stands at the exit so visitors can be sure no freeloaders are attached to their clothes. Immediately after the exit, there’s a hatching room, which gives you an up-close look at the butterfly life cycle.

On a recent visit, my son, Jack, 5, sat very still on one of the benches, hoping a butterfly would land on his shoulder. (Touching them is discouraged but it is fine if they land on you, Taron says.) Jack lost his patience and got up to explore, but there are many opportunities to get close to these beautiful insects.

“Butterflies have good vision. If you run at them they will fly away,” Taron says. “If you approach slowly and don’t make grabbing motions, you will be able to watch what they are doing and get a much closer look at them.”

If you prefer to do at-home butterfly watching, attract them to your backyard with plants such as dill, which attracts the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly, Taron says. “The caterpillars will hatch and start eating the dill.”

Monarch butterflies will soon come through on their annual migration, some flying as far as Mexico to Canada. To feed these orange and black beauties, order free milkweed seeds or buy milkweed plants at www.livemonarch.com.

Pollak says having some plants that attract adult butterflies and others that attract caterpillars in your garden will allow your kids to see a butterfly’s life cycle and metamorphosis.

As a kid, Pollak remembers collecting caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies. “Those are great memories.” Mike Phillips


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