The Rio Grande Valley is a respected destination for butterfly enthusiasts, who travel to South Texas in droves each year for a chance to find species that cannot be spotted anywhere else in the nation.

From South Padre Island to Starr County, the geography differs enough to make drives from one end of the Valley to another worthwhile for many eco-tourists, who might be able to spot a different species in Brownsville than in McAllen, for example.

Because of this, the NationalButterflyCenter in Mission organizes an annual Texas Butterfly Festival, which concludes today but has featured guided nature tours to a number of refuges and hotspots—including some “secret gardens” on private lands.

“It’s peak butterfly season now,” said Marianna Treviño Wright, the center’s executive director. “And it could continue for months if we don’t have ‘winter,’ which we frequently do not in the Rio GrandeValley. So we’re busy planting, we’re counting butterflies. We’re assessing the volume of species. We have a lot of butterflies.”

Through the course of the year, approximately 350 species of butterflies that can be found in the Valley’s four counties—which is “really unprecedented on the American landscape,” she said.

“We have more butterflies in Deep South Texas than anywhere in North America,” she added.

That’s the driving reason the North American Butterfly Association founded its National Butterfly Center in Mission—and why it has long-term plans to continue building and investing in the 100-acre property not far from the Rio Grande.

The butterfly diversity in the Valley still might surprise some residents, who may seldom see many varieties inside city limits in areas not cultivated with butterfly friendly plants.

“A lot of that is because as we develop we remove a lot of the weeds and native plants,” Treviño Wright said. “And I hate to say ‘weeds.’ We want those. Butterflies want it wild and weedy, and all of those native plants that grow on the roadsides and the wild places.”

Many popular landscaping plants—though beautiful to people—do little to attract or feed butterflies and caterpillars.

“Butterflies need food, but they need two types of food,” Treviño Wright said.

Caterpillars need host plants to devour leaves and foliage, which will grow back. Butterflies need flowering plants, which provide nectar and might also attract hummingbirds.

Plants are so vital to the mission of the NationalButterflyCenter that NABA continues to devote acres of its property to important plants. The NBC recently planted on 4 1/2 acres to grow a federally endangered plant found growing wild in few places in the United States—all in the Valley. The Tamaulipan kidney petal is a shrub with only three known populations left in the wild.

“We are cultivating this land specifically for butterflies,” Treviño Wright said.

The plantings help the environment beyond butterflies, such as helping birds and other wildlife. Also, the impact should help the local economy.

“Every year, we get tens of thousands of eco-tourists,” she said. “The economic impact has been calculated at over $460 million a year, just for our four-county region.”

By RYAN HENRY Staff Writer