Like no other: Bonita’s butterfly garden
Dew glistens on the light pink powder puffs that cascade from numerous trees. Rare coontie plants sprout from the ground, passion vine twists and climbs upward. Throughout the greenery and bursts of flower colors, flit hundreds of butterflies from 20 varieties.
The Butterfly Garden of VillageWalk in Bonita Springs is like no other garden in town. It spans two acres and stretches for about half a mile.
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Just after sunrise on Friday mornings dozens of volunteers, wearing matching turquoise shirts and tan flap hats, scurry in and out of the fauna and flora; pruning, weeding, watering and planting. By 10 a.m. the butterflies finally awaken to stretch their wings and begin sipping nectar. The garden is a paradise for the 50 volunteers and for the residents of the 1,600 home community that walk the path admiring the 10 adjacent butterfly gardens.
Six years ago, this place was just a tangle of thick brush, weeds, logs, rocks and exotics. In 2015 a British couple decided to start a butterfly garden and it took off from there. Linda Blaise is a founding member and has been the chairwoman for the past four years.
“When we started, we had nothing. We had weeds up to here,” Blaise began as she pointed to her waist. “We had no butterflies.”
They began clearing the 10 plots, putting butterfly host plants in the ground and by collecting caterpillars.
“We have been adding things little by little,” Blaise described.
The flowers provide the nectar for the butterflies, but also make the garden more attractive for visitors.
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“We are not just a butterfly garden,” Blaise said. “We are a semi-botanical garden. Because if we don’t get the support of the residents, we would not exist. Butterfly gardens are usually not pretty, so we have both.”
The more residents that visit and enjoy, the more they learn, and that’s what Blaise hopes for.
“Education is a big deal,” Blaise stressed. “I want them to learn these plants are crucial to the butterfly’s survival.”
That is why she invites people from other communities to learn how they can create a natural garden that attracts butterflies.
“There are communities where people want to start a butterfly garden and they hear of my name and the garden here and they call me,” Blaise said. “They come here to get inspired.”
Blaise has a teaching degree from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus, but got most of her butterfly gardening knowledge from Google, pamphlets, and books. She learned important facts such as that the polydamas swallowtail caterpillars munch on both calico Dutchman pike and gaping Dutchman pike, but the pike vine swallowtail can only eat the gaping Dutchman. The other plant is toxic to it.
She’s placed signs throughout the gardens labeling plants and the caterpillars that use them, along with ones on flowers and other garden facts. For example, a sign about passion vine shows photos of the zebra longwing, gulf fritillary and Julia butterfly as needing it as a host plant.
It wasn’t easy starting the garden. The volunteers were not given a budget. It costs about $24,000 a year to buy everything from hoses and tools, to fertilizer, plants and more.
“In the beginning we were all spending our grocery money,” Blaise joked.
Blaise began a yearly pie sale where she made 500 key lime pies in her home that she sold for a $15 each. She also organized a yearly plant sale. Then along came the man she calls her “Garden Angel.” Mack Worl decided to donate enough money so Blaise could stop her pie baking and spend more time planting.
“We walk this thing every day and we were here when it was nothing and I needed a tax write off,” Worl said. (Donations qualify for a 501C3 deduction)
“And you can put the money in your own community and it stays right here,” added his wife Arlene.
Other residents add to the donation pot. Some give them plants. On a recent morning, the volunteers found two huge desert rose plants worth about $1,000 anonymously left for them at the garden. Many donate their time.
“For a community project, this has really brought a lot of families together,” Blaise said.
Linda and Gary Schweers used to walk the path and enjoy the garden. Then they began stopping to help. A year ago, they became members.
“It’s a labor of love,” Linda Schweers said. “Now the whole community can enjoy it. We are from Chicago so we learned a lot about the native plants here.”
“I like being outside especially during this horrible year with Covid,” added Anne Brownstone, a three year volunteer. “Everyone works so hard to keep everything beautiful.”
Paula and Paul Kuk joined a year ago.
“It gives us something to do. I do the heavy lifting,” Kuk said.
“I love seeing these butterflies and bees and the hummingbirds,” added Nina Iraggi, a nine year volunteer. “I like seeing things bloom in the different seasons.
Barbara Salatto was tending her section of garden four years ago when she noticed something white in the nearby brush. She soon discovered it was a rare white powderpuff tree. That led to her clearing that section to highlight the tree and then planting native vegetation around it to expand the garden.
A few years ago, volunteers heard that the Atala butterfly, that was thought to be extinct, was discovered in the Miami area. They spent about $900 purchasing Coontie plants for them and securing some caterpillars. The group successfully raised their first batches of Atala and hope someday to do it again.
As the sun rose higher and the dew dried up on the delicate flowers, the butterflies began to emerge. A Gulf fritillary posed on an orange ground orchid. A zebra longwing dipped through the branches of a powderpuff tree, and a monarch flitted from one yellow buttercup to another. Soon more and more butterflies began enjoying the garden alongside the volunteers and residents.
“When we started we had no butterflies,” Blaise reiterated. “Now we have all this.”