When the Swallowtails Came Back … to San Francisco

A part-time volunteer at San Francisco Botanical Garden nurtures the return of a native butterfly species.

I’ll never forget stepping into the butterfly exhibit at San Francisco’s Botanic Garden a few years ago. Inside a carefully netted, flora-filled room, butterflies of every color and size floated past my eyes or landed comfortably on my sweater. It was like walking into a fairy tale. I remember wishing the exhibit returned yearly so I could take out-of-town guests.

Well, it turns out the Botanic Garden still has an ongoing relationship with butterflies, mostly due to the princely efforts of a part-time volunteer, Timothy Wong.

According to write-up from Ian A. Stewart for San Francisco Magazine, Wong is also a biologist at the California Academy of Sciences with a particular fondness for a beautiful indigo butterfly with orange specks, the California pipe vine swallowtail.

“In 2012, he approached the Botanical Garden about creating a habitat for the species, which they encouraged,” says Stewart in the article. “It wasn’t the first time the idea had been raised: Another enthusiast, Barbara Deutsch, had made a similar effort to reintroduce the butterflies there many years earlier. That population ultimately vanished after a year or two, but the vine she’d planted (and other vines that date back to the garden’s founding in the 1950s) remained, albeit shrouded in weeds.”

As the species’ presence on the peninsula had dwindled in recent years, Wong’s efforts helped reestablish a small colony with the help of local caterpillar donations.

“Once the colony numbered in the thousands, he began releasing some of them in the Botanical Garden. Wong says he made a key discovery in the early days: that the females preferred to lay their eggs on pipe vine that was close to the ground and in direct sunlight. Most of the mature vines in the garden were lost in the shade under a layer of grasses. That meant clearing more weeds. ‘The Botanical Garden was already set, or had the foundation, to be a butterfly habitat,’ Wong explains. It just needed some TLC.”

You can read more about Wong and this handsome native caterpillar here.

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