Betty Ford Alpine Gardens hosts annual butterfly launch and Breaking Records exhibit |

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens hosts annual butterfly launch and Breaking Records exhibit

Painted lady butterflies are often orange and black and are known for their long-distance migrations.
Courtesy photo
If you go…
  • What: Annual Butterfly Launch
  • When: Thursday, May 25 at 12 p.m.
  • Where: Betty Ford Alpine Gardens
  • More info:
  • Note: Breaking Records exhibit opens May 26 and runs through the summer

A flurry of orange-toned painted lady butterflies will fly through the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and beyond, as local third-graders release hundreds of them at noon May 25.

For three decades, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens has been hosting the Butterfly Launch. At the beginning of May, it distributed butterfly kits to every third grader in the valley. It takes about two to four weeks for the caterpillar to develop into the chrysalis, or pupal, stage; at that point, students carefully hang the pupa on the sides of nets. Throughout the month, they learn about butterflies, until, on May 25, they let their butterflies fly free.

“Just watching the whole life cycle is a great experience for them,” said Nanette Kuich, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ education director. “It’s also a fantastic introduction to insects, which we can’t live without, but most folks are introduced to insects in a bad way (as pests).”

Painted lady butterflies are one of the most common butterfly species in the world. The orange and black insects are known for their long-distance migrations, particularly for their move from North Africa to Europe, which can include millions of butterflies that travel nearly 30 mph, covering up to 100 miles a day. Sometimes they fly so high they can’t be seen by the naked eye, and other times, particularly in the spring, they fly low, about 6-12 feet from the ground, making them easily visible.

The public can watch the butterfly release at noon. That day, kids also participate in scavenger hunts and painting activities, as well as see birds and reptiles on display.

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“It’s just really a fun day for everyone,” Kuich said.

At the beginning of May, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens distributed butterfly kits to third graders in the valley.
Courtesy photo

Breaking Records

On May 26, a new indoor and outdoor exhibit, Breaking Records, showcases the science of phenology, which is a fancy way of stating: the study of nature over time.

The outdoor exhibit focuses on expeditions to the coldest and highest places in the world through 12 educational panels about alpine plants, which tend to remain low to the ground to protect from wind, have a short growth cycle due to temperature and grow slowly but are very long-lived.

Scientists have observed and documented alpine plants, including the time they bloom and seed, for centuries. These days, researchers are returning to those same harsh environments and discovering change is afoot.

The exhibit presents scientific data that indicates a “great acceleration” in earlier blooming and seeding of plants, since the 1980s.

“Blooms are occurring much earlier than they have been, and we have data that these changes are also happening in China, the U.K. and Switzerland,” Kuich said. “It’s significant data that indicates a rapid changing of plants to climate conditions.”

The exhibit includes Alexander von Humboldt’s research in the late 1700s, through 1805. He was the first to recognize that specific plants grow in various zones. Side-by-side panels in the exhibit illustrate how the zones have changed due to climate change.

Indoor signs describe observations of plants over hundreds of years, such as how a flowering cherry species in Japan, first documented in the 1500s, is now blooming earlier.

Of course, the exhibition focuses on fun and games, as well. Kids will love the Tundra Explorer, a floor-sized game based on Chutes and Ladders. Players follow Arctic explorer Knud and his dog sled team as he heads north. But watch for those crevices that can bring you down, and be on the lookout for dog sleds that can speed you up.

The Flower Phase Family Scavenger Hunt awards prizes to kids who find 10 of the 20 plants that the Alpine Gardens’ experts collect weekly data on and send to the National Phenology Network and Project Budburst, to help track the phenology and life-cycle changes of plants.

The free public gardens have showcased alpine plants that thrive in high-alpine environments since 1985, acting as a living museum of greenery and blooms. Its terraced gardens display more than 3,000 species of alpine plants from around the world.

Nick Courtens, curator of plant collections, and his team carefully curate each plant that grows in the garden, packing a plethora of unusual species from around the world, including the Himalayas, Central Asia, Europe, South Africa and North America.

“Anywhere there are mountains, we represent the regions,” Courtens said, adding that they’re constantly educating both locals and visitors about alpine plants, since not many gardens grow such plants, particularly in the quantity Betty Ford Alpine Gardens does. “Behind the beauty, there is a lot of science happening in the gardens.”

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