updated 2/13/2008 3:03:28 PM ET 2008-02-13T20:03:28

A tropical garden is opening in downtown Washington, brightly colored plants, warmth and humidity, and hundreds of butterflies fluttering around visitors.

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Best known for dinosaur bones and a giant stuffed elephant, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History on Friday is opening a new, permanent, butterfly pavilion.

"Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution," offers visitors a chance to get close up and personal with the bright, fluttery creatures and to learn about their relationship with plants over millions of years.

They're not the first living creatures at the museum — there is an insect zoo right next door to the new exhibit — but there's much more opportunity for interaction with the butterflies.

"It's breathtaking and magical," museum associate director Elizabeth Duggal said Wednesday at a preview of the exhibit.

The exhibit's main hall, open to all museum visitors, tells the story of millions of years of co-evolution of butterflies and plants, a 200-million year relationship in which each has influenced changes in the other, said entomologist Ted Schultz.

Butterflies were around in the Jurassic era and have outlived the dinosaurs, he noted. Today there are thousands of species of butterflies and moths around the world.

Within the exhibit is the 1,200 square foot butterfly pavilion, a controlled tropical garden which will have 400 or so butterflies at any given time.

There will be a $6 charge — with discounts for children, seniors and groups — to enter the garden itself, though it will be free on Tuesdays.

Exhibit manager Nate Erwin said the charge is needed to help cover the pavilion's operating costs, estimated at up to $1 million a year.

There is a staff of 10 to tend the plants and butterflies, he explained, and new butterflies must be purchased from around the world constantly. In addition, the Smithsonian horticultural division has devoted an entire greenhouse to growing pesticide-free tropical plants for the exhibit.

Butterflies have an average lifespan of two to four weeks, Erwin said, and Agriculture Department regulations prohibit the museum from breeding nonnative species. Those in the pavilion come from Asia, Africa and North and South America.

Double entry and exit doors with a burst of air when the door opens keep butterflies inside the exhibit and staff members check visitors as they leave to make sure there are no stowaways on them.

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