Butterfly Conservatory – Niagara Falls

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When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph visited us in May 2016, how can we miss a trip to the Niagara Falls.   Niagara Region has much more to offer, other than the falls, like Niagara Gorge, Welland Canal, and Wine Country.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).

The place, a nature lover should not miss is the Butterfly Conservatory, filled with beautiful free flying butterflies, a tropical wonderland located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. It really is a near ethereal experience.

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Whenever I see butterflies, my mind races back to the nostalgic memories of our childhood in Kerala, India.  Kerala is home to more than 500 birds, 330 butterfly species from the largest butterfly in India, Birdwing, with a wingspan of about 25 cm to the smallest, the Grass Jewel with only 2 cm.  It is also home to 68 species of dragonflies –   the most common types being Malabar Torrent Dart, Yellow Bush Dart, Pied Reed Tail, and the Long-legged Clubtail.  Many writers and poets were fascinated and inspired by these romantic creatures that they became subjects of some great contributions to Indian literature.

As kids, we enjoyed the sight of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around, especially after the monsoons (June to August) and during the Onam Festival (end August / early September), when the flowers would be in full bloom.  We chased and caught a few of them.  We used to catch these little beauties and tie a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights. 

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We would prompt the dragonfly in our captivity to pick up small pebbles. We increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.  

Advent of rubber cultivation and extensive use of pesticides in Kerala for over three decades have driven these beautiful creations of God from our farmlands.

Thumbi Thullal (Dance of Dragonfly) is a dance performed by women of Kerala as a part of Onam celebrations.  About six to seven women sit in a circle and the lead performer (called Thumbi meaning Dragonfly) sits in the middle of the circle. The lead performer sings melodious fast paced songs and other performers clap their hands and sway to the melody.  Gradually the tempo of the song increases and the lead performer brushes the floor with her hair as if she is possessed by a spirit.  It usually ends with the lead performer fainting or playacting so.

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Back from nostalgia. At the commencement of the Niagara Gorge, about 10 km from the spectacular falls is the Butterfly Conservatory.  This glass-enclosed conservatory is home to over 2000 butterflies.  This state of the art facility is designed to have a tropical environment within a Canadian climate characterised by both warm and cold weather.  The mechanical and electrical systems maintain optimum environmental conditions for the butterflies and plants while accommodating comfort needs for its visitors.

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Around 45 different species of butterflies can be found fluttering in this rainforest setting spread over 11,000 square feet. The exact number of butterflies and species fluctuate on a day to day basis.  The butterfly conservatory accommodates as much as 300 visitors per hour.

The self-guided walking tour of the Butterfly Conservatory begins with a short, informative video presentation that is close captioned for the hearing impaired.  After this, one is allowed to explore the area and spot different species of butterflies as they fly all around you. The setting has a lovely pond, waterfall and a series of meandering pathways amidst several tropical plants with lovely flowers.

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The jungle vegetation and delightful fluttering of hundreds of beautiful butterflies are unusual and a very uplifting experience.  Everywhere there are exquisite butterflies floating in the warm, moist air or spreading their iridescent wings on leaves and flowers.  One can even catch them mating.

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It is a great place to see beautiful butterflies up close but you are not allowed to touch them, because if you touch their wings they get damaged and they cannot fly anymore and may die.  One may photograph them, but surely they need to be kept out of harm’s way. 

The Conservatory currently hosts species such as Monarchs, Swallowtails, Owls, Mosaics, Red Lacewings, Blue Morphos and Small Postmans. The green house setting also hosts goldfish, turtles, beetles, toads and Eurasian quails to help regulate insect population.

The best part about the tour is that you can actually get the butterflies to land on you. Some might be even willing to rest on your outstretched hand. Visitors are encouraged to wear bright clothes, wear perfume or cologne and move slowly if they wish to have butterflies land on them. 

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Plates filled with fruits are kept at certain places to attract butterflies who like to feed on these and you can watch them doing so.

Most of the butterflies have been imported from farms in tropical countries while some have been raised in a greenhouse behind the conservatory.  The tour is not only entertaining but also educative.  One can watch the metamorphosis process and the life cycle of a butterfly in real time.  One can also observe the butterflies come out of their cocoon, dry their wings and take their first flight.

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Adjacent to the Butterfly Conservatory is the Floral Clock.  This unique and stunning display is a very popular stop and is photographed almost as often as the Falls.  The planted face is maintained by the Niagara Parks horticulture staff, while the mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro, the originally builders of the clock.  

The Floral Clock is 40 feet wide, with a planted area 38 feet wide, making it one of the largest such clocks in the world.  The Tower at the back of the clock, houses Westminster chimes that chime at each quarter of an hour.  There is a 10-feet wide water garden that curves 85 feet around the base of the timepiece.

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If you are lucky you may come across the Niagara Parks Commission’s gardeners crawling along the special aluminium ladder they lay across the face of the clock, in order to plant and tend the clock face. Designs are created a year in advance to allow for the proper preparations. Tin dividers are built and installed to prevent soil slippage caused by the slope of the face of the clock. The clock is stopped during the planting process.

The floral design is changed twice each year.  Spring designs are made up with Tulips, Forget-Me-Nots or similar plants, therefore, do not last long.  It is followed by Violas planted in late Spring to provide a colourful design.  From the latter part of May, traditional carpet bedding material is used until frost occurs. The summer designs in general are made up of approximately 24,000 carpet plants whose foliage rather than their blooms provide the necessary contrasting colors. Flowering plants are not suitable for summer planting because the plants that are used must be kept trimmed to form relatively sharp contrasting patterns and not be allowed to grow up and interfere with the movement of the hands. For this reason reddish, green and yellow Alternanthera and Santolina form the background and markings of the various dial designs from year-to-year.   California Golden Privet and Blue Festuca Grass may be used for contrast. In winter, the summer design is perpetuated by using rock chips of various colours.

Anyone planning a visit to the Niagara Falls on the Canadian side must include these little wonderful sites in their itinerary.  Always remember that the falls are better viewed from the Canadian side as one can hardly see it from the US side.  So, always obtain a Canadian Visa in case you are visiting the Niagara Falls.

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