- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

Orchids and butterflies are two exquisite creations that sometimes rely upon one another for sustenance. To see a few of them is a treat; to see hundreds together is a marvel.

The Smithsonian Institution's exhibit "Nature's Jewels: A Living Exhibit of Orchids and Butterflies" offers such an experience. The event, which runs through May 26 at the Arts and Industries Building, is about "showing people the diversity of orchids and how they interact with their environment," says Mark L. Hardin, one of the curators.

The exhibit includes 200-plus varieties of orchids. Some are common species that are observed or purchased easily in this country, and some may be glimpsed only in their native habitats, which range from Arctic regions to the tropics, from sea level to elevations as high as 12,500 feet.

The greatest diversity of orchids is found in warmer areas of the globe, Mr. Hardin says, and "Nature's Jewels" highlights orchids from those warmer regions, where the plants often grow in trees or in the crevices of rocks.

Strolling along a gently curving path in the orchids-only segment of the exhibit, visitors are able to gaze on a lush orchid bouquet from the large purple blooms of the Laelia anceps to the delicate white Masdevallia Snowbird.

The orchid family is a diverse one because of the flowers' relationships with all their pollinators, which mainly include flying creatures such as birds, butterflies, bees and other insects, Mr. Hardin says. Some of the most exotic flowers actually serve as elaborate decoys to trick specific pollinators. For example, some Oncidium species favorites of Mr. Hardin display small groups of yellow flowers that at first squint look like a bunch of angry yellow jackets. In nature, apparently, bee onlookers are fooled.

"They think the flowers are a swarm of bees that has entered their territory," Mr. Hardin says. "They bumble around and pollinate the flowers."

The second attraction of "Nature's Jewels" is the butterfly house. The 1,000-square-foot facility is a contained tropical habitat. Visitors are admitted in groups of 20 or fewer, and the 80-plus-degree temperatures, with 60 percent to 80 percent relative humidity, welcomes visitors out of the cold "to experience the tropics for a short time," Mr. Hardin says.

The butterflies arrive for their stint in the exhibit either as adults or as chrysalides.

Curators glue the chrysalides, which is the butterfly's pupal stage, to strings and display them in a temperature-controlled chamber until they are ready to emerge. Sometimes the butterflies are shipped live to the exhibit in glassine envelopes, Mr. Hardin says. Curators carefully remove them by their wings and set them free in the gallery, where they'll live from one week to a few months in the habitat.

The 450 or so individual butterflies in this habitat represent 20 to 45 species. There are reds, purples, bright yellows, oranges and spots. They sit, roost and feed on nectar and rotten fruit. They also fly, frequently landing on a visitor's head or shoulder.

The butterfly house is a special place for children, Mr. Hardin says.

"Kids are absolutely fascinated," he says. "They'll observe things adults won't. Kids are down at a different level physically, and they see everything. It's magical to them. In nature, kids see butterflies at a distance. They rarely get nose to nose with one."

Several boys visiting the exhibit are doing just that. Colin Chadduck, 12, his 10-year-old brother, Aidan, and Bram Walzl, 10, have just entered the butterfly house. They chatter excitedly about the beautiful butterflies within reach.

Mary Chadduck of Alexandria, the mother of two of the boys, says the group is on its way to the National Air and Space Museum, with a stopover to see the orchids. The butterflies are "a bonus a fun extra," she says. "I also like it because it's a controlled environment and they'll land on you. You're not going to get that in nature."

The connection between nature and children is natural, Mr. Hardin says.

"You get kids involved in nature, and they're drawn to it," he says. "The awe that they feel is indescribable. And our exhibit is constantly changing. If kids come one time, they may see some really outrageous orchid and butterfly species, and if they come again, they may see something entirely different."

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