Lumpkin County, just north of here, is Georgia’s land of gold. I’ve had a lot of fun prospecting there and occasionally finding a bit of gold in the bottom of my pan.
But never, until now, have I had gold fly to me through the air.
This airborne gold comes not from some long-lost mine, but rather from the 800-square-foot glass conservatory that’s the centerpiece of the Dahlonega Butterfly Farm.
Located on Castleberry Bridge Road just west of the gold rush town of Auraria, the Dahlonega Butterfly Farm is the brainchild of Jo Ann Goldenburg. She is passionate about nature – but especially about butterflies.
How did Goldenburg get into gold-country butterflies?
“I wish I had a real good answer to that one,” she says. “I guess it was a hobby that just snowballed.”
As a child, Goldenburg raised plants to attract butterflies. She would search the plants for caterpillars to bring home, putting them in “anything I could find.” Then she would feed the caterpillars (“Caterpillars go through a lot of leaves,” she says.) and tend to them until the caterpillars formed pupae and adult butterflies eventually appeared.
Years later, and well into a career in Atlanta television, she realized that she still had that fondness for butterflies.
“Always in the back of my mind, I kind of had this idea for a butterfly garden,” she says.
A big butterfly garden.
And so one night, she sat down and put together a 17-page plan outlining her vision.
“Then,” she says, “I put it aside and let it sit for a year to make sure I wasn’t crazy.”
Meanwhile, she had become interested in the Dahlonega area.
“Dahlonega had always been my getaway spot,” she says. She acquired 8 acres and then got to work. The result is the butterfly farm that you find there today. The farm opened June 1, and has been drawing a steady stream of visitors ever since.
Turning off Castleberry Bridge Road and into the farm’s gravel parking area, one of the first things you’ll see is the caterpillar habitat area off to your left.
“The plants there are messy,” she says, referring to a good many chewed-on leaves, “but that means that the caterpillar habitat is working.”
Ahead is the office and gift shop. And just beyond the gift shop is the highlight of it all: the butterfly conservatory itself.
Because butterflies typically live only two to three weeks, a steady stream of new residents is required. Where do the new butterflies come from? They’re hatched from pupae (acquired from growers in Florida) in the so-called containment room, located just off the gift shop. It takes about two weeks for new butterflies to emerge from the pupae, in a process known as “eclosing.” After emerging, the butterflies spend about 10 minutes pumping up their wings and then another four hours waiting for their wings to dry so they can fly. Then they’re transferred to the fully enclosed conservatory, where they fly free – and where visitors like you and me can enjoy one-on-one interaction with these colorful delegates from the insect world.
At any given time, Goldenburg says, there are about 200 adult butterflies flitting about in the warm air of the conservatory. The temperature is kept in the butterfly-friendly range of 86 to 90 degrees.
That’s a little on the warm side, but the scene is so captivating that you won’t mind at all as you wander along the winding pathway. It loops through lush plantings of nectar plants (where the butterflies go to drink nectar) and resting plants (where they alight to rest).
In the conservatory, butterflies seem to be everywhere, many of them fluttering through the air.
One, a golden beauty about two inches across, lands on my ballpoint pen.
There we are – me with pen in hand while a butterfly perches comfortably on the barrel of the pen about two inches from my right thumb. It seems to be sizing me up.
“This will give me a great story to tell,” I say to myself, thinking how I might describe the encounter.
But then, in a flight (pardon me) of fancy, I find myself wondering what might happen if the tables were turned. What if I was the subject and the butterfly was doing the reporting? What sort of story might the butterfly tell about its encounter with me?
One of Goldenburg’s goals is make sure that the story the butterfly might report would be a good one – one of environmental awareness and responsibility. Her idea is to develop what she calls a “science and education center,” where people can experience nature up close, learning to appreciate and protect it in the process.
She goes on to share her thoughts about why butterflies make such a great starting point for developing such attitudes.
The magic of butterflies, she says, “is one of the first things we learn about nature,” and she wants to capitalize on that to encourage a broader awareness and appreciation of nature in folks of all ages.
The butterfly on my pen, apparently satisfied, flicks its wings and flies away.
“That was neat,” I say to myself, ready for another up-close butterfly encounter.
I look down the path toward a cloud of butterflies, which seem to be hovering around two young ladies who turn out to be Ashlynn and Adyson, daughters of Melissa and Joseph Chapman. Like many other families, the Chapmans are regulars at the butterfly farm – and judging from the grins on the kids’ faces, the fun never fades.
“We actually got a season pass,” Melissa Chapman says. “We’ve already been here three times.”
The kids, for their part, are carrying “butterfly sticks,” small sponge-tipped sticks that have been dipped in nectar. Butterflies zone in on the nectar and land right on the sticks. The girls hold the sticks perfectly still and watch the butterfly as it enjoys what is presumably a tasty and refreshing snack.
“Would you like to try a butterfly stick?” Goldenburg asks me. Of course. She hands one of the sponge-tipped sticks to me, and I slowly approach a resting butterfly.
“Just hold the stick up next to it,” she says. I do, and the butterfly delicately steps from the plant to the stick. I slowly bring it closer — close enough to see every detail and especially the electric shimmery colors of its wings.
My own daughter, now grown and visiting us, is with me at the butterfly farm. She, too, is mesmerized by the dance of winged color that flutters around us.
“Dad,” she says, “you’ve got to bring the grandkids here.”
I will. You can count on that,
What’s ahead for the Dahlonega Butterfly Farm?
Goldenburg sees the farm as more than just a neat place to meet butterflies one-on-one. She has described it as “a vision for a sustainable future … a future with clean air, fresh water and thriving vegetation. It combines a love for the environment with the science and research needed to create positive change for the community and for generations to come.”
She is smiling as she walks along the path in the conservatory, talking with visitors about butterflies and how they fit into the ecosystem as a whole. She shares the excitement every time a butterfly lands on a stick or on a child’s shoulder (or a writer’s ballpoint pen).
Once or twice, I catch Goldenburg looking thoughtfully out beyond the conservatory’s glass walls, out toward the rest of her 8 acres.
I wonder what she’s planning?
I can’t wait to find out.
The Dahlonega Butterfly Farm is located at 427 Castleberry Bridge Road, Dawsonville, GA. 30534. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Adult admission (ages 13 and up) is $8, and children 12 and under are $5. Group and school tours, as well as very reasonable season passes, are also available. For more information, call 706-867-9473 or visit dahlonegabutterfly.com.
Learn about the hiking trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Steve Hudson’s book Hiking the Hooch. It’s available from local outfitters, from the park headquarters at Island Ford, and on Amazon. Signed copies are available direct from the author at www.chattahoocheemedia.com.