Reiman Gardens: Winged Enchantment | Winged Enchantment: Reiman’s Butterfly Garden & Sustainable Rose Garden

Reiman Gardens, named after Iowa State University alumnus Roy Reiman and his wife, Bobbi, features 14 acres of gardens, including an indoor conservatory and Butterfly Wing.

The crowd had already thinned as my parents, sister, and I arrived in the late afternoon on Mother’s Day for a visit to Reiman Gardens, the largest flower garden in Iowa. After a drive through endless stretches of cornfield rows spread out in large motionless squares, we found the long-awaited treat for flower-lovers. Reiman Gardens, nestled in the heart of the Iowa State University campus in Ames, features an indoor conservatory, butterfly garden, gift shop, and rambling outdoor gardens. Little did we know that we were visiting at a transformational time for the facility.

As we flipped through brochures at the information counter, waiting to pay our $7 general entrance fee, Director Theresa McLaughlin and her crew of coworkers had been mulling over mission statements in the back offices. Speaking with her later, I was let in on the garden’s new plans. “Reiman Gardens has an entirely new mission this year,” Theresa told me. “Our goal used to be to educate and enchant. Now we aim to educate, enchant, and inspire environmental stewardship with displays of living beauty.”

Ephemeral Beauty

I was enchanted from the minute I stepped into the butterfly garden. I peered through a glass encasement spattered with dried strange-looking fluids. Behind the glass dangled row upon row of chrysalises, some compact and pristine, shaking with the life inside them, others hollow empty shells.

Tiny paper labels revealed hundreds of fascinating butterfly names from around the world. Idea leuconoe, “Tree Nymph of Malaysia,” marked a cluster of cocoons glimmering like brilliantly golden peanuts, each banded with tiny black braille bumps. Next in line was Troides Helena, a gathering that resembled miniature rhinoceroses with fiercely pointing horns. This bunch reminded me of maturing autumn leaves, darkening from a spring green to a deep, rusty orange as they came closer to emerging. Nearby hung cocoons like wooly Brazil nuts, wrapped up turquoise fairy wings with gold filigree, and many more waited to hatch behind glass walls.

Soon we entered the butterfly garden. With the facility’s high arching ceilings, natural light, and warm, moist air, I could hardly tell I was indoors. The environment is designed to match the tropical conditions that these native and exotic species of butterflies are used to living in. I had to watch my step while walking around the circular path, as butterflies wove in and out of the pink and purple chenille plants growing on the path’s edge. A Julia Longwing butterfly greedily dug its face into a cluster of purple flowers, like a child attacking a slice of watermelon.

Summertime… and the Learnin’ is Easy

Reiman Gardens’ mission “to educate,” so thoughtfully executed by the staff, was beginning to kick in. The signs explaining the displays made learning effortless. My dad and I approached a volunteer, an elderly lady with short grey hair and a sincere smile, asking about the liquid that lay in silver dishes scattered throughout the gardens.

“Gatorade,” she replied agreeably. “They just love it; it’s very sweet.” She told us that each butterfly has a lifespan of approximately two weeks. “Fifteen new butterflies are set loose in the garden each week,” she said. “These butterflies come in from butterfly farms all over the world. Reiman Gardens has a USDA permit to have them shipped here. They have to be extremely careful, as the cocoons are very fragile.”

Both the conservatory and butterfly gardens are well maintained, with an interesting selection of exotic plants and signs describing each plant and its properties. In the conservatory, a circular walkway surrounds a complex grid simulating a honeycomb. In the center of the high-ceilinged room, wooden hexagon-shaped flower boxes merged, brandishing a plethora of electric-yellow daisies and theater-purple poinsettias. Finishing off the effect was a glass encasement filled with honeybees going about their daily hive duties.

In the back corner of the conservatory I found my favorite flower of the day: jam-jar-sized peach-colored bells draping like halos from a petite slender-stalked tree. Checking the sign, I was pleased to read the appropriately named “Angel’s trumpets.” Bleeding-heart vines fell over ledges in a weeping cascade, and yellow Japanese irises pointed up eerily like a field of bayonets at the ready.

The Greening of Reiman

During our visit in May, I was a bit disappointed that the rose gardens were not in bloom. Some sections of the outdoor gardens, which have been greatly expanded over the past few years, looked in need of attention. With a staff of only 11 full-time horticulture employees (25 would be more appropriate), and only a third of its budget provided by ISU, Reiman relies heavily on volunteers and fundraisers.

Nevertheless, the Reiman folks have been forward thinking and innovative with the resources given to them. During our visit, they had just replaced their hybrid tea roses with a carefully selected collection of three breeds of disease-resistant, winter-hardy roses for the first sustainable rose garden in the country. These include Buck Roses, bred by Iowan Griffith Buck; Earth Kind roses, selected by the Texas A&M University Agriculture program, and Easy Elegance roses, developed by Bailey Nurseries of Minnesota. 

Companion plants such as Russian sage, Japanese aster, crabapple, elderberry, and boxwood play a vital role in the garden’s success. “Monoculture gardens are much more susceptible to disease and pests,” Theresa McLaughlin informs me. “Japanese beetles can be a big problem for us, and the companion plants have made it much harder for the beetles to go from rose to rose, destroying the garden.”

The Buck rose gets its name from nationally known rose hybridizer Dr. Griffith Buck. A professor of horticulture and microbiology at Iowa State University, he took on the challenge of breeding roses specifically to survive Iowa winters. Dr. Buck is celebrated with a display in his honor at Reiman Gardens.

Most rose gardens need to be sprayed with fungicide every ten days to prevent disease, but Theresa was pleased to announce that “last year Reiman Gardens did not need to use one drop of fungicide.” Moreover, although roses usually need intensive work to flourish, “these low-maintenance roses require less water, have repeat blooms, and do not need to be covered in the winter,” she said. “This new structure has made it possible to cut labor by 75 percent!”

Reiman Gardens, with its third mission of incorporating sustainability, has reduced its staffing needs while simultaneously helping the environment. Not only that, Reiman is also creating themes to educate visitors about sustainability and ecological stewardship. Their playful theme this year is “A Novel Garden,” combining the plants of Reiman Gardens with scenes and characters from classic literature.

“There is a gorgeous floral display in the conservatory, illustrating the concept of Eternal Youth from Peter Pan,” says McLaughlin. “A list will be posted of 10 things that children can do to save our resources from running out.” (A bit like saving Peter Pan from having to grow up, you might say.) Other imaginative scenes will be scattered throughout the gardens, such as a Mad Hatter’s tea party in the herb garden celebrating Alice in Wonderland, or a walk-through whale made out of willow branches to honor Moby Dick.

Since my visit in the spring, they have completed some remodeling, improving the conservatory building, the Butterfly Wing, and gift shop, and adding the Garden Room for educational events.

Reiman Gardens has set many goals for improving the sustainability of their facility by January of 2009. They plan to implement a new recycling system, use only green biodegradable products and compact fluorescent lights, and install light sensors and energy-efficient on-demand water heaters. The gift shop aims to sell only local, organic, handmade, or fair-trade products. And they are always looking for new ways to garden, creating rain and ditch gardens to utilize all of their land.

When our trip around the gardens came to an end, we piled into the car, all in agreement that it was a great place to visit. I liked knowing that the custodians of Reiman Gardens have taken on environmental stewardship—that each cocoon inside had a guarded place to break open, a safer haven than they could find out in the world.

Reiman Gardens is located just south of Jack Trice Stadium (the ISU football stadium) in Ames. Summer hours, through September 1, are daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Butterfly Wing: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For further information, call (515) 294-2710.

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