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Collecting Butterfly Gardeners

Collecting butterfly gardeners

By Attila Kapitany

Neil Marriott

Garry Sankowsky

Attila Kapitany

Don Teese

The famous clichéd question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? For botanists and plant-lovers it may be more of a question of what came first, the plant or the seed? These questions do not have a simple definitive answer yet serve a great purpose in making us think hard about the origin of all living things.

I have found a link between some types of plant people that may be worth investigating further, if not only to explore the hypothesis as to why some people take up a lifelong journey with plants, and perhaps how to use this information to encourage some of our disenchanted youth to follow a career in botany or horticulture.

Butterflies came before plant interests, for many people, some I know. Yes, it may be suggested almost immediately how silly this all sounds, especially if we all belonged to the same clubs i.e. Butterfly club, or plant club, or some such. Please humour me and read on.

People who chose to spend endless hours nurturing and appreciating plants, potentially 24/7 seem to have an almost endless passion for the task (critics may cite this as ‘obsessive’). These passionate plant people that I write about usually end up specializing in a genus or similar ‘grouping’ of plants, where people can hone their interests, that in time give these individuals a level of expertise (and higher regard from others).

I consider myself a passionate cactus and succulent person who is also increasingly interested in our native flora, especially those that are succulent, to any degree. After 30 years I have become well known for these chosen plant interests, resulting in many people regarding me as a leading expert.

As a young boy I began collecting butterflies and insects. Yes, killing, hunting, to collect and pin up my prize trophies. That’s just what butterfly collectors did, without much thought beyond obtaining as many different ones as possible. The thrill of the hunt perhaps was also there but this never developed to blood sports with guns, knives or even a fishing rod. In my early teens my interest in girls quickly closed my butterfly collecting down! Though at age 53 I still have some butterfly specimens left on my walls. This insect history was basically the limit of most of my ‘cruelty’ to nature. Here the story changes quite a bit. During those collecting years I had tried ingenious ways to lure butterflies to the garden, which included learning about their preferred plants for nectar or egg laying. Learning to identify and grow plants soon overtook my butterfly collecting hobby where plants in habitat and cultivation now consume much of my business and private life. While I still have a garden where butterfly attracting plants are significant, these day I only admire the majestic creatures that visit.

So for me butterfly interest started first, plant interest came second.

I was in far North Queensland a few years back, interviewing a lady about her native succulent collection, her name is Nada Sankowsky. There, by chance, I met her husband Garry whom I also then interviewed as an aside. Garry is regarded as one of Queensland’s most prominent tropical plant experts. It turned out through the interview that one of his main specialties was butterfly attracting plants. To my surprise he and Nada told me that they once owned and operated Australia’s first and largest butterfly farm at Mt. Tamborine, near Brisbane and that he too, started growing plants initially as food plants for his butterflies.

Approximately two years ago, I was invited to speak at a Grampians native plant society where my wife Michele and I met Neil Marriott and his partner Wendy, and stayed at their home for the night. Neil a very well-known Grevillea expert and breeder, author of many books on native plants, environmentalist and nurseryman; casually, without prompting, he began telling me how he started his plant interests as a boy by planting butterfly-attracting plants in his parent’s garden.

So for Garry and Neil it was a similar story to mine. Basically butterfly interest before plants. Funny now how all three of us are prominent and heavily involved in the plant world. At this point in time, it still all seemed just coincidental.

However, last year at an Open Garden Scheme Fair, there was a closing ceremony with plant vendors sharing a drink. Here I met Don Teese for the first time, formerly of Yamina Rare Plants (now Yamina Collectors Nursery in Monbulk, Vic). The famous Yamina Rare Plants Nursery has always been synonymous with being exceptional for its plant knowledge, quality and range. By chance I was chatting with Don, of my butterfly links, when his jaw suddenly dropped! Don excitedly took over the conversation explaining how he started with butterflies and moths as a small child. In his bedroom he had boxes and cages with branches and leaves of food plants for insects and their larvae. Notably, gum leaves for the emperor gum moth larvae which would pupate in his bedroom so as to have pristine moth specimens hatch before his eyes.

Well that’s it for my list of people, hardly a survey… but are there others? From these incidental meetings of strangers living across the continent who have only ever met me once or twice ….. it certainly appears that there are other character traits among us that are similar. Also the past has not left any of us. It was always on the tips of their tongues to be told.

As I write I sit in an open sunny garden surround by plants as an American monarch glides by! African monarchs also last year, and my greatest treat—a Tailed Emperor butterfly Polyura sempronius (images of this butterfly and its lavae taken in our garden are shown at top of this article) that came and stayed for weeks. A large graceful butterfly that is very rare in Victorian gardens. I’m certain the simplest of events such as an insect passing by can still fascinate and entertain the four of us and so many more people I’ve yet to meet.

Are these ‘people links’ tenuous and irrelevant or is it worth investigating to unearth keys to reinvigorate youth interest in plants and horticulture that at present seem almost lost?

This second article in this series was first published in the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria’s printed quarterly magazine: Gardeners Gazette summer 2013.