Waiting in the Wings

BY Rebecca Germain and T. Travis Brown

The butterfly intrigues us. From their beautiful coloring to their delicate life cycle these magical creatures inspire and capture our imaginations. But theres more to butterflies than meets the eye. Theyre also members of our community members that play a vital role in maintaining our environment reminding us of our responsibility to it and continually teaching us about the art in nature. Its this delicate legacy that inspired Mary Lou McEachern and her daughter Mary Margaret to donate a butterfly house to Airlie Gardens in memory of husband and father Hugh Alexander McEachern Jr.

Mary Lous house sits nestled in palm trees and faces the waters surrounding Cedar Island. The house is whitewashed and well-kept the grounds green and lush. She answers the door brimming with Carolina hospitality an invitation to come inside sit at her kitchen table enjoy a cup of coffee and “make yourself at home.”

In the beginning

Most butterflies and moths begin life as an egg attached to a leaf. Tiny caterpillars hatch from the eggs and begin furiously eating the plant upon which they were laid. Some species like the tomato horn worm (which transforms into a beautiful hawk moth) can be heard chewing from several feet away. After eating their fill caterpillars retire into a cocoon called a chrysalis where they rest and develop into adult butterflies or moths.

Mary Lou remembers when you could rent an entire house at Wrightsville Beach for $75 a month. It was 1962. She worked downtown during the day and then returned each evening to the beach cottage she shared with her roommate. “In the spring school teachers graduated from ECU and then got jobs in Wilmington for the fall. In between they didnt have much money. So wed let them stay with us ” Mary Lou says laughing at the memories. “We met a lot of girls that way and we still keep in touch. I had a good time growing up.” It was during one of those summers that Mary Lou met Mr. McEachern or Sandy as she came to know him. Each morning Mary Lou carpooled to work with his roommate Peter. It wasnt long before Sandy asked him “Whos that girl with the short curly hair?”

Sandy and Mary Lou married in February 1969. In that same year Sandy and friend Ray Ballard joined forces to create Raysand a commercial building company. One year later Sandy and Mary Lou had a baby girl Mary Margaret McEachern.

Mary Margarets law office is located in Historic Downtown Wilmington in a purple house with plum shutters. Above the fireplace in her office hangs a painting of a man smoking a pipe. His white hair is windblown and he has a thick grey beard and kind eyes. “I got that painting because it reminds me of my dad ” she says smiling. “If you take away the beard those are his eyes.”

Closer look

One of the best ways to see these insects is to just look “smaller.” There are many small species that are easy to find on the clovers and dandelions among your shrubs and grass. Although they are not as flashy as a tiger swallowtail many of the smaller species such as hairstreaks  and coppers are also brilliantly colored.

Sandy graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a bachelors and masters degree in English. He studied creative writing and some of his work was published in a book created by one of his professors.

“He also loved to build things ” Mary Margaret says. Sandy designed and built the McEacherns home on Cedar Island. He even installed a super-efficient heating system that he invented. Many of Mary Margarets memories revolve around tinkering with tools and building things with her father. They built her first boat together when she was only 7 years old. And when Mary Margaret developed an appreciation for antique cars Sandy set straight to work creating a Model T out of a spare lawn mower. “He just loved doing things for people ” she remembers.

One thing Sandy loved was helping with the Azalea Belle Tea. For as long as Mary Lou can remember Azalea Belles from all over the Cape Fear area have gathered in their antebellum dresses to enjoy tea by the waterside at the McEachern residence. Sandy helped so much with these events from the setup to storing the supplies that the gardening club inducted him as an honorary member.

You are what you eat

Many butterflies must lay their eggs on just the right species of plant. For instance tiger swallowtail caterpillars eat wild black cherry and tulip tree leaves long-tailed skippers eat the leaves of legumes (plants in the bean family) like sweet peas and silver-spotted skippers eat the leaves of many types of legumes. Most arent quite as devastating as tomato horn worms which are voracious eaters and many native caterpillars feed on plants that we would consider to be weeds.

Try this at home

To attract transient butterflies try leaving one corner of your yard for plants that feed several kinds of caterpillars such as dill cabbage broccoli parsley milkweed willow or hackberry and whatever you do avoid pesticides.

When Sandy wasnt busy running his business or tinkering with a new design he could tell you a story or two all true. Well mostly true. “As my uncle put it hed never lie but hed never let the truth get in the way of a good story ” Mary Margaret laughs. Mr. McEachern could tell you about the year he traveled almost 30 000 miles with his wife as they watched their daughter train for the Olympics competing in long-distance races all over the country. Or he could tell you stories that seemed to jump right out of an Indiana Jones movie stories about living in the jungles of Brazil with a pet monkey. “My husband jokes with me. He says Your dad had to be 104 when he died because theres no way mathematically he could have done all the things he said he did ” Mary Margaret says.

After 63 years of love laughter adventure invention and stories Sandy passed away in September 2004. His lifes journey will be commemorated by the building of the butterfly house at Airlie Gardens donated and built by his company Raysand with contributions from the community. “Since we have the ability to build the house itself its really a nice legacy to my dad ” Mary Margaret says.

Making your yard alluring

To attract adult butterflies (and hummingbirds too) to your garden plant the brightest sweetest-smelling flowers you can find: lantana lilac verbena marigolds zinnias and butterfly bush are known for their ability to attract many species. Surprisingly thistles and some very plain flowers in the aster family are among the best butterfly magnets.

Opposites attract

Several flashy butterflies are more attracted to rotting fruit or tree sap than any beautiful flowers you can provide. Building a compost pile can solve this problem and any butterfly garden can be augmented with the addition of a shallow sunny water source.

The structure will be 3 000 square feet constructed from environmentally friendly materials and will house local native species of butterflies. Butterflies play an integral role in our planets environment. They pollinate flowers and plants they provide food for many different types of organisms and they help control plant populations. But according to Matt Collogan the Environmental Education Program manager at Airlie “Butterfly habitats in North Carolina are diminishing as a result of rapid development.” Collogan hopes that the butterfly house will help people understand how wonderful our natural biodiversity is and educate visitors on how our daily behavior affects the life cycles of these butterflies and our environment. To help visitors learn how to bring butterflies a little closer to home Airlie will provide plant lists and show guests how to orient those plants in their own gardens.

Making a positive I.D.

Eastern North Carolina is one of Americas hot spots for butterfly diversity. You can learn to identify the different species with books like Butterflies through Binoculars The East: A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Eastern North America by Jeffrey Glassberg and Dragonflies through Binoculars: A Field Guide to Dragonflies of North America by Sidney W. Dunkle.

The butterfly house will also focus on education for elementary school students. Jim McDaniel the director of the gardens explains “One of the curricula taught in second grade is life cycles and the butterfly is one of the best teaching tools we can use.” McDaniel and Collogan have witnessed firsthand how butterflies foster student curiosity and help promote environmental education. Last year Airlie Gardens constructed a temporary butterfly house to use as both an educational tool for the community and as a learning tool for the staff at Airlie as they prepared for a permanent structure. Each day they would release the newly emerged butterflies into the house. “Releasing the butterflies to our display became my favorite part of the day last year ” McDaniel says. “Theres nothing more special to watch than a childs face as butterflies are released.”

The staff at Airlie hopes to break ground on the butterfly house in the coming weeks in order to celebrate a spring opening. It will be a seasonal attraction open from early spring to late fall each year. For more information call Airlie Gardens at (910) 798-7700.