For the Love of Butterflies

Aug 24, 2015

A passion for butterflies coupled with a yearning to protect their habitat is what drives 98-year-old Louise Hallberg, founder of the nine-acre Hallberg Butterfly Gardens in Sebastopol.

Standing on her front porch last Wednesday morning, overlooking the Dutchman's pipevine that her mother Della planted in the 1920s, Louise Hallberg is a picture of enthusiasm, dedication and sincerity--or what her docents call her “indomitable spirit.”

Her butterfly sanctuary, a non-profit corporation since 1997, has drawn more than 30,000 visitors, including scores of wide-eyed children and their teachers and parents butterfly enthusiasts, gardeners, and nature lovers. “Over 1000 visitors came on our Open Gardens Day on June 28,” she says. Many visitors come from out of the county, the state, and the country, she said.

Her expression turns to concern. I"'m terribly concerned about the drought. We've very low on rainfall. It was 105 on Sunday. It's been so hot, so long.” She is deeply concerned about the decline of butterflies. “I've tracked the butterflies here since 1992,” she relates. “We're not getting the numbers we used to.”

Louise Hallberg, who will be 99 next January, was born on the family farm. Her grandparents, John and Louise Neta Pearson, initially purchased 40 acres and expanded it to 130 acres, growing hops, berries, cherries, prunes, pears and apples. The oldest of their three children, Alfred, later took over the farm, and he and Della--the one who planted that Dutchman's pipe---raised two daughters, Louise and Esther.

“I remember when my mother found the Dutchman's pipevine growing along a country road and brought it here and planted it,” Louise recalls. “Look at it now."

Louise studied at Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Berkeley, majoring in political science. Then she worked 35 years as Santa Rosa Junior College registrar, retiring in 1975.

But it was the pipevine swallowtails that continued to spark her interest and what led to the formation of the butterfly sanctuary. She monitors the populations of many species of butterflies, keeping careful records. The numbers keep dwindling but not her passion.

“By sharing the knowledge of butterflies and providing for their habitat, we seek to promote and inspire the appreciation and conservation of the wonders of nature," she says in a brochure. "It is my fervent wish to enhance and preserve the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens so that future generations will always have the opportunity to behold the beauty of nature's wonderful miracle—the butterfly.”

On our visit, we enjoyed the ponds, the vivarium, the “secret garden,”  butterfly creek, pipevine theater, the woodpecker granary, the meadow garden, and the weather station that her family has monitored and maintained for more than three decades. .We glimpsed the Gravenstein apple orchard and ladders leaning up against the trees, a scene from yesteryear that never changes.

"We add new plants (funded by donations) every year," Hallberg says. The Hallberg Butterfly Gardens, in western Sonoma County, are open by appointment for docent-guided tours from April 1 to Oct. 31. Appointments are offered Wednesday through Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Contact the tour and volunteer coordinator (707) 591-6967 or email her at to arrange a visit.) The non-profit corporation offers books, posters, t-shirts and other gifts. It annually hosts an Open Gardens Day in June that includes a plant sale. Louise Hallberg continues to publish her newsletter, aptly named "The Pipevine."

Meanwhile, during our visit, the red-spotted pipevine swallowtail caterpillars went about munching the leaves of the Dutchman's pipevine,  while butterflies laid their eggs on their host plants: the monarchs on the milkweed and the anise swallowtails on fennel. 

We thought back to the conversation on the front porch with this remarkable 98-year-old "Butterfly Lady of Sebastopol" and her love of the swallowtails,  monarchs and dozens of other species of butterflies--and the worries she harbors, not for herself, but for the butterflies.

 "It's been so hot, so long."