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Louise Hallberg, Graton's ‘Butterfly Lady’ turns 100

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Louise Hallberg, Graton's ‘Butterfly Lady’ turns 100

By David Abbott

Despite record-setting rain, and a storm raging in the West County, more than 100 people attended local icon Louise Hallberg’s 100th birthday celebration at the Graton Community Club on Jan. 8. Origami butterflies decorated the hall and a cake honored the centenarian known as “The Butterfly Lady.”

“The storm was horrible, but at least the electricity didn’t go out,” Hallberg said on a recent afternoon during a break in the storms. Louise must have felt very much at home at that party, as her mother Della Hallberg had been a charter member of the club founded in 1914, and she has been a member since 1974.

A place in Graton history

Louise Hallberg was born in Sebastopol on Jan. 3, 1917 and has lived on the Graton property on Oak Grove Avenue most of her life. In 1882, her grandfather John F. Hallberg bought 40 acres on a hill south of Oak Grove Elementary School, where she and her sister Esther attended school. He built a two-story Victorian house, and planted apples, prunes, pears, hops, berries and cherries. The orchards were passed on to Alfred Hallberg, and then Esther and her husband, Haven Best, who oversaw operations. The Hallbergs and Bests owned orchards all along Highway 116 so they established an apple cannery in downtown Graton, the Hallberg Canning Corporation Cannery.

Her father, Alfred Hallberg, was a trustee at the Oak Grove school and a collector of information, a trait he passed on to his daughter Louise. After Oak Grove, Louise attended Analy High School, then Santa Rosa Junior College and went on to study political science at UC Berkeley. When she returned to Graton, Louise began a 35-year career as Registrar at SRJC, retiring in 1975.

“Graton has changed a lot,” Louise observed. “Back then, I rode an electric streetcar to Analy. There were only two houses in Graton and now there are about 200.”

A love of butterflies

A child discovers a Pipevine Chrysalis while on tourLouise Hallberg’s fascination with butterflies began early in her life. “In school, I heard about birds and flowers, but not about butterflies,” she said. “When my mother planted Dutchman’s pipevine in the 1920s, we had a food supply for the black caterpillars that became the Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies.”

Little did Louise know that her mother was setting the foundation for what is possibly the oldest butterfly garden in the country. After retirement, she started to seriously study butterflies, taking biology classes at the JC from the famous Santa Rosa botanist Milo Baker, namesake of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

In 1988, the garden opened to Oak Grove students and in 1997, the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens were incorporated as a non-profit and opened up to the public. Since then, more than 30,000 people have toured the gardens and enjoyed bio-diverse property among the vineyards surrounding Graton and Sebastopol.

“I came here in 1988 with my second-grade daughter and there were pupae in the bathroom,” Gay Bishop, member of the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens board of directors, said. Bishop was so impressed with Hallberg’s dedication to the butterflies, she couldn’t help but get involved, even penning a book for the students who visit the gardens titled “A Class Trip to Miss Hallberg’s Butterfly Garden.”

Butterflies by the numbers

Pipevine_Swallowtail CaterpilarLouise Hallberg is a statistician and a great observer of things. Not only has she kept meticulous records of butterfly populations, but the property hosts one of the longest-running weather stations in the country. 

Her father, John, began gathering local weather information in 1930 and the garden became a federal weather station in 1968. To this day, each Monday Hallberg calls the local newspaper, Sonoma West Times & News, with a weather report published weekly in the paper.

But it is her work with butterflies that will leave a lasting legacy for the Graton centenarian, who has influenced the study of Lepidoptera in the Bay Area.

Western Pipevine Swallowtail ButterflyIn 1990, Hallberg called the Strybing Arboretum [now the San Francisco Botanical Garden] in search of butterfly plants and mentioned the number of Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies on the property. They were so impressed, a group including Strybing curator Don Mahoney came to visit and gave some advice on how to plant for butterflies.

Thus began a more focused approach to planting and more detailed record keeping that began in 1992. “What [we didn’t know] was that butterflies need nectar plants and host plants,” Hallberg said. “We learned what host plants were best, and brought in more host plants.”

Nectar plants feed the butterflies and host plants provide food for caterpillars, and each butterfly species requires a specific host plant.

The property will generally have 5-6 species on a daily basis once the weather warms up. More than 40 varieties of butterflies are known to have visited the gardens. Pipevine Swallowtails are the most numerous, but the species vary depending on the trends of the butterfly populations.

“We’ve made an oasis here by creating biodiversity,” Hallberg said. 

The butterflies bring birds and other animals follow. There are 17 turkeys on the property, as well as a “squirrel ghetto” – up to 11 of them – foxes, owls and coyotes down by a creek on the property.

Hallberg Butterfly Farm display of butterfly attracting flowers

Tours of the property

The gardens are open for guided tours by appointment from April 1 to Oct. 31 every year, Wednesday through Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Additionally, there is an Annual Open Gardens Celebration on Sunday, June 25th this year that serves as a fundraiser for the non-profit. This year will be the 20th anniversary. The celebration features a plant sale, children’s activities, book sales, science exhibits and much more. 

It takes about 60 volunteers to work the garden during the season, so they are always looking for help. To arrange a tour, call 707-591-6967, or email Leah Brorstrom at leahbro@yahoo.com.

To learn more, go to hallbergbutterflygardens.org.

Hallberg Butterfly Gardens, 8687 Oak Grove Avenue, Sebastopol, California 95472