`Winged flowers, or flying gems'. Exotic butterflies, gathered from around the world, light and flutter around their new home in Georgia, a lush, sunshine-filled conservatory that is the largest in North America

A CRUMPLED leaf clings to a passion vine growing along a terraced wall inside the huge glass crystal. Suddenly the ``leaf'' flies away, revealing two pairs of fluorescent purple wings, and lights on a pink blossom. Nearby, a giant paper kite spreads its checkerboard wings on an almost invisible netting draped over the glass panes. The deadleaf, so-named because of its perfect camouflage, and the giant paper kite are only two of the 50 species of butterflies gliding through the Day Butterfly Center.

This magnificent new structure, the largest glass-enclosed butterfly conservatory in North America, will open Sunday at Callaway Gardens, 70 miles south of Atlanta. As part of Callaway's 3,000-acre horticultural gardens and resort, the 15,000-square-foot facility houses 800 to 1,000 butterflies and a variety of lush tropical plants.

The octagon-shaped conservatory contains 854 double-glass panes braced with thin metal struts that support the 30-foot ceiling. Inside, the airy crystal looks and feels like a small tropical jungle, with cascading waterfall and hummingbirds. Because butterflies are coldblooded, the temperature is set at 78 degrees F., with 70 percent humidity.

While there are close to 50 butterfly houses around the world, ``this structure is strikingly different from any other butterfly house in the world,'' says Atlanta architect Henri Jova, who also drew up the plans for Atlanta's Colony Square Hotel and the Carter Center. ``We selected a design that would express the lightness of the butterfly and provide lots of free-flight space.''

The structure, which took almost a year to complete, cost $5.3 million. The lead gift for the construction came from Deen Day Smith, wife of the late Cecil Day, a devout Christian, who founded Days' Inns. Mr. Day liked to compare man's birth and death to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. After his death in 1978, his wife proposed building a butterfly center in his memory at Callaway Gardens.

Mrs. Day arranged arranged for Hal Northrop, the president of Callaway Gardens, to see one of the butterfly houses in London. ``As I learned more about butterflies' importance as pollinators and their role in the food chain,'' he recalls, ``I realized how much a butterfly center would fit into the overall mission of the gardens.''

Indeed, Mr. Northrop says that ``the center is the most meaningful step in making people more aware of the world we live in and the natural sciences than anything we've done.''

Some of the more exotic and rare butterflies have been captured or raised by Frank Elia, resident lepidopterist and center manager. While butterflies are found in almost every region of the world, Mr. Elia traveled to Ecuador, an area rich in a variety of tropical species. There, he spent a week baiting butterflies with rotten fruit sprinkled with cognac. Early each morning, he set out piles of soft bananas to lure his catch.

``Using cognac on rotted fruits is one of the old tricks of the trade,'' Elia says. As they sipped the nectar from the bananas, Elia netted the unsuspecting insects and placed them in glassine bags that had been moistened on the inside.

He packed his delicate specimens in plastic containers and hand-carried them back to the United States. At his small lab, he set up breeding colonies in plastic cups and screened cages.

Many of the butterflies, which go through four stages of development, and typically have an adult life of only 14 days, will eventually be raised in the breeding area near the conservatory.

The butterflies that Elia cannot bait and raise himself come from brokers or butterfly farms that circulate computerized price lists. The prices, ranging from $2 to $7.50, are determined by the rarity and beauty of the species. He has purchased pupae, the third and resting stage of the metamorphosis, from the Far East and Costa Rica.

``I paid $7 for an emerald banded swallowtail pupa from the Philippines - it's one of the most beautiful display butterflies in the center,'' Elia explains. ``When it flies, it flashes different shades of green and blue.''

As he talks, he places a passion vine into a plastic bag for transfer to the breeding area. ``I call a broker and place my order. ... Four days later, Federal Express delivers a box of chrysalids - a type of pupa - carefully packed in foam rubber.''

After he receives his precious cargo, Elia glues the chrysalids, which look like slivers of jade or ivory, to the tops of wire cages or pieces of cardboard. Some butterflies wiggle out of their chrysalids within a few days; others may not emerge for as long as two weeks after delivery. When their wings unfold and dry, Elia scoops the butterflies into a plastic gag and takes them to the screened tent inside the breeding house.

``We're giving these butterflies lots of TLC,'' says the young lepidopterist. ``We're raising a dozen tropic species now,'' he says - among them ``the third generation of orange tigers, a species that comes from Taiwan.''

Caterpillars chew their way out of their eggs, then devour several times their weight in leaves every day. ``Butterflies are really gourmets,'' Elia explains. ``The females actually taste the plant with special organs on the ends of their front legs to make sure it's the right plant.''

Since butterflies are host specific, the center must provide different host plants for their feeding and development. Tom Brinda, director of Callaway's horticulture program, has brought in a variety of tropical plants from all over the Southeast and West Coast. Under Mr. Brinda's direction, the horticulture department has cultivated rows of flowering plants such as lantana, penta, and buddleia, or butterfly bush, to supply nectar for the adult butterflies. The insects extract the fluid from the brightly colored blossoms with their long, strawlike tongues.

``We've selected some very unusual palms to provide a canopy in the conservatory just like you'd find in a rain forest,'' Brinda explains. ``We've also created some shaded areas, since some species need less light than others.''

Because education is an important part of Callaway's mission, visitors will be able to watch the four stages of the butterfly's metamorphosis in large display cages in the conservatory. ``We want the visitors to see the butterflies emerge from their chrysalids close up,'' Elia says. ``As soon as their wings are dry, we'll release them into the conservatory, so they can begin their courtship and mating rituals.''

The center also features an outdoor garden of multicolored flowers, to attract the 65 or so species native to Georgia. The tiger swallowtail, Georgia's state butterfly and the mascot for the center, and the migrating monarch are two of the more frequent visitors. The native garden is designed to show how anyone can plant gardens to attract butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.

``We're trying to conserve butterflies' natural habitat and teach the principles of conservation to the public,'' says Bill Barrick, vice-president and director of the garden. ``Butterflies illustrate the vivid link between plants and animals in the food chain. They're valuable pollinators.''

Since very little is known about the history and life cycle of tropical butterflies, the center will also conduct some research. ``In the next year,'' says Elia, ``we'll be working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve some of the endangered species on the Florida Keys.''

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