BOOTHBAY HARBOR — It generally takes about a month and a half to complete the process called metamorphosis that turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. It took more than a year for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens to complete its most recent transformation.

Earlier this year, the gardens opened a new native butterfly and moth house, a 2,160-square-foot space that gives guests a new way to experience Maine’s landscape and native wildlife. Unlike many other butterfly houses, especially those in zoos, this house places as much importance on its native plant inhabitants as it does on the butterflies and moths, according to a press release.

“What makes our house cool and different from others out there is that we are highlighting the entire life cycle and focusing on butterfly/plant interaction,” said Anna Leavitt, a staff horticulturist in charge of the butterfly house. “We also plan to start collecting other species from the wild very soon.” 

On a recent visit to the gardens, more than a dozen people were in the butterfly house speaking with horticulturists about the many different species of winged creatures. Several of the people had come to the Midcoast on a cruise ship and decided to spend their day at the Gardens.

John and Betty Washington, from northern New Jersey, spent more than 20 minutes taking photos of some butterflies while chatting with horticulturist Leslie Paxson. John Washington said he used to think nothing about butterflies, but he has gained an appreciation for them as he’s gotten older.

“When you think about the life cycle and how a caterpillar ultimately becomes a butterfly or moth, you really have to scratch your head in amazement,” Washington said. “I mean, it’s really quite something.”

The planting scheme in the butterfly house is dedicated to supporting the entire life cycle of moths and butterflies native to Maine — a strategy offering visitors the opportunity to observe the life cycle of these popular pollinators first hand, egg to caterpillar to pupae to moth or butterfly. 

Visitors might see mourning cloak butterflies laying eggs on poplars and willows, or black swallowtails on dill and fennel. Painted ladies can be found almost anywhere, and monarchs, of course, congregate on the milkweed.

When the butterfly house opened, staff initially received around 200 caterpillars with which to populate the butterfly house, and many of its current occupants have hatched from eggs laid by that first generation. As the summer has progressed, the cycle has continued.

Though butterfly activity is temperature dependent, between diverse native plantings, egg-laying, egg-hatching, chrysalis/cocoon creating and adults emerging, there’s a diversity of learning opportunities happening all the time — even during Maine’s cooler, cloudier summer days.

Paxson said people are always fascinated by butterflies, despite not always cozying up to caterpillars.

“There’s a myth in our culture that wolves are bad and rats are evil, so we assign negative or positive characteristics based on what our own sensibilities are, and butterflies are in that category,” she said. “We’ve decided that they’re colorful and beautiful.”

Flying insects, she said, are just like plants. There are certain plants that on our lawn are called weeds, but if they’re planted by someone, they’re called perennials.

The native butterfly and moth house is important because of how the insects affect all wildlife, Paxson said, and they are trying to show how the wildlife and plant life in the house connects to the whole ecosystem.

“Almost all birds feed their young these caterpillars, and it’s all part of an important, delicate and well-regulated cycle,” Paxson said. “What we’re trying to do here is different than a lot of other houses, because we’re not just about having an interesting and exotic exhibit. It’s about the relationship and importance of all these things to each other.”

The centerpiece of the $30 million project is the new visitor center, part of a 20-year master plan that began in 2015 and will continue through 2035. Construction started in early January last year, and the center opened for guests for the first time in April.

“Our (new building) provides three times the square footage of the previous visitor center while utilizing practical, sustainable passive building standards,” said William Cullina, the Gardens’ president and CEO. “The adjacent entry court and gardens, featuring a blend of native and ornamental plants and stonework inspired by the Maine landscape, connect our guests to nature before they even step foot in the central gardens themselves.”

One side of the large, multi-story building houses the gardens’ administrative offices, and the rest of the building includes the lobby and a large gift shop. The old visitor center has been converted to a food space with a café, market and seating area. 

“The new, expanded visitor center is designed to accommodate our many visitors today and our anticipated increased year-round visitation, eliminating the long lines and wait times that we’ve experienced in the past,” said Erin Forbes, the Gardens’ chief financial officer. “The newly designed parking lots eliminate parking issues which, at our busiest times, could back traffic up onto the road.”

Cullina said the Gardens’ mission is to inspire meaningful connections among people, plants and nature, and accomplishing those connections relies on the smooth operation of many moving parts. 

“Safety, accessibility, comfort, and serving as a living example of the practicality of sustainable building and design practices all impact the visitor experience,” he said. “Anything that impacts the visitor experience impacts the delivery of our mission.”

Forbes said people have longed complained that they’ve encountered long lines and difficulty parking, especially during the Gardens’ premier holiday event, Gardens Aglow. The new expansion relieves these visitor pain points and will allow people to focus on mission delivery and discovery of the opportunities provided by the facility.

“Our expanded facilities make the visitor experience much more relaxed and impactful which, in turn, has a positive impact on fundraising,” Forbes said. 

Thom Fleetwood has attended Gardens Aglow with his fiancée, Amy Walters, for several years and often ran into large crowds in the old visitor center after spending more than 10 minutes trying to park. He said he couldn’t believe it when he first saw the new facility.

“It’s really stunning and I can only imagine all the other returning visitors will have the same reaction,” Fleetwood said. “The size of the lobby will help immensely during high-traffic times, like during the holidays.”

Amanda Russell, director of guest services, said so many people stop in their tracks as soon as they enter the new building.

“It’s tremendously airy, light, and accommodating — people love it and constantly comment on how gorgeous it is and how it’s easy to navigate,” she said. “It’s a wonderful prelude to the Gardens itself.”

For more information, visit mainegardens.org.

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