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Butterflies in the Glasshouse at RHS Garden, Wisley

Entomologist Anna Platoni with a Blue Morpo Entomologist Anna Platoni with a Blue Morpo RHS and Luke MacGregor
23 Jan
Thousands of tropical butterflies have come to the glasshouse at Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley

A warm room full of butterflies – what could be better?

Winged things have begun to emerge from their chrysalises at RHS Garden, Wisley. Even after spending two weeks scrunched up, undergoing complete metamorphosis, the creatures are quick to get airborne. ‘Most take between 30 minutes and two hours to dry out their wings,’ says Anna Platoni, the garden’s entomologist. ‘Then they are ready to fly.’

Over the next seven weeks, around 6,000 butterflies will be released from the garden’s puparium and into the tropical glasshouse. ‘There are more than 50 tropical species to see,’ says Platoni, ‘and you can see different ones depending on the time of day.’ The glasswings, with their see-through scales, fly early in the morning and later in the evening. Meanwhile, there is always a good chance of seeing the Giant Owl and iridescent Blue Morphos. These two are among the largest of the species on show and have wing patterns to marvel at.

Giant Owl credit RHSThe Giant Owl butterfly. Is it mimicking an owl, a lizard or both? (Image: RHS and Luke MacGregor)

‘The morphos’ name comes from the Greek word for dream – like morphine,’ explains Platoni. ‘When explorers came down the Amazon and saw these big blue butterflies, they thought “we must be dreaming.”’ The Great Owls’ name comes from its large eye markings, which, when its wings are open, resemble an owl’s face. ‘However, the owl butterflies rarely sit like that in the wild,’ explains Platoni, ‘and more often are found with their wings closed, leading people to think it might be mimicking the side of a crouching lizard too.’

The butterflies seem indifferent to people around them, and will often land on heads, faces and shoulders in their search for nectar. Others prefer fruit, especially if it’s rotten. ‘Butterflies can only suck liquids through their tongues, and rotten fruit has more broken-down sugars,’ she explains. ‘The more rotten the better.’ A number of fruit tables dotted around the glasshouses allow you to get up close to some of these species.

Credit Luke Macgregor and RHS(Image: Luke Macgregor and RHS)

In the puparium, visitors can watch the new butterflies emerge, while the adjoining education centre teaches about butterfly life cycles and native species. ‘We also wanted to show the kind of species you can expect to see in your own garden,’ says Platoni. ‘The UK has almost 60 species to see in the wild.’

As well as butterflies, the garden also houses dozens of orchid species to admire and, in the temperate zone, a number of aloes are about to come into bloom. In all, it’s a lush and colourful place that feels a hemisphere away from the winter outside.

Butterflies in the Glasshouse is at RHS Garden Wisley until 5 March. Admission is free with normal garden entry. RHS members go free.

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