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AFLUTTER WITH BUTTERFLIES

Just like parents, a couple raise the insects and release them out into their garden.

She feeds them, cleans up after them and coos to them, her voice dripping with excitement.

"Hey, buddy," she says. "You look like you're ready to crawl."

These are not infants, not even puppies. They're caterpillars and butterflies - hundreds of them - who have captured Cathy Edson's attention.

"They're my babies," she says. "They're just so beautiful and wonderful."

Edson, 58, and her husband, Steve, 60, are butterfly farmers, of sorts. They catch caterpillars in their garden and transplant them to homemade cages, where the caterpillars enter the chrysalis stage. Once they emerge, Edson prepares to release them in what has become almost a daily ritual.

They live in a two-story home in Lake Heather Oaks, where a collection of butterfly-friendly plants have joined together to create a jungle in the Edsons' back yard. Butterflies of all colors and sizes flutter just beyond the screened-in pool.

Around the pool patio is where Edson cares for these young insects. Steve Edson started building nurseries for his wife five years ago when the couple saw a butterfly cage for sale in a bird store. Neither wanted to pay $175 for it, so Steve Edson went home and created one.

Cathy Edson bought books on butterflies and started to raise her own, starting a hobby that has turned her mornings into a regimen of cleaning, feeding, gathering, cooing and releasing.

She is an expert on the types of plants, called host plants, on which butterflies like to hatch eggs. She can identify the type of butterfly that will eventually emerge from the pin-sized egg based on the leaf where it sits.

The nectar plants are for the adults to enjoy throughout their life span, which for some lasts only a few weeks. Edson raises her own plants and herbs to ensure they are free from insecticides and pesticides.

Each morning, she cleans their cages of droppings. Then she goes outside in search of more baby caterpillars among such plants as pipe vine, fennel and dill. Sometimes if she watches closely enough, she can actually see butterflies laying their eggs. She plucks the whole leaves holding the tiny baby caterpillars and places them inside the nurseries, far away from hungry lizards and ants.

The hatcheries, which hang from beams, are filled with edible plants and caterpillars at various stages, including chrysalis, in which they transform into cocoon-like forms. They remain in that state for about 7-14 days. Once they emerge as butterflies, Edson waits a few hours for their wings to dry before she releases them.

The caterpillars spend their days eating. Sometimes, Edson will take one out and let it crawl along her hands. If it's a black swallowtail and she happens to disturb it when it doesn't feel like being touched, it raises its antennae.

"Wanna see?" she asked.

She picked one up, but it moved its head back and forth, like it was perched on a mountain top, taking in the view from every angle.

"You are just putting on a show, aren't you?" Edson asked.

Then the antennae shot up.

"There you go," she said, putting him back down. "Now he's mad."

Edson estimates she has released hundreds of butterflies since she's been raising them. Her grandchildren love to see them, although the older girls have grown squeamish of touching the caterpillars.

"I knew nothing about butterflies," said Edson, who booked flights for a hot air balloon company before retiring. "But anyone can do it. It's so much fun."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5312.

Attracting butterflies in your garden

BUTTERFLY SPECIES HOST PLANTS NECTAR PLANTS

(for egg laying & food source) (for adults)

Black swallowtail parsley, Queen Anne's lace, fennel butterfly weed, phlox, clover, thistle

Tiger swallowtail wild cherry, willow, tulip tree butterfly bush, lilac, bee balm

Clouded sulfer clover, alfalfa, pea family aster, goldenrod, yarrttow

Variegated fritillary violet, passion vine, stonecrop butterflyweed, clover, milkweed

Monarch milkweed family milkweed, lantana, lilac, goldenrod, zinnia, cosmos, butterfly bush

Source: Cathy Edson

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