Monarch on big berry manzanita, by J Shields

Let’s face it: lawns are dull. They’re one type of plant, spread across acres of land and supporting few, if any, animals. They’re good for ball fields and marching bands, but otherwise they’re generally a waste of water and space. It’s no wonder that children gravitate toward playgrounds instead, when they can find them. At least playgrounds provide some hope of interactivity.

Native plant gardens are a different story. They are full of sights and smells unique to California, taking you through the seasons with their blossoms and seeds, and attracting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Even a couple of native plants will attract butterflies that are looking for a meal and a place to lay their eggs. It is this rich interaction between plants and animals that makes native plants engaging and gives people a reason to spend time outdoors, immersing themselves in a world of senses, and sharing their observations with others.

City of Butterflies / Ciudad de Mariposas uses the engaging power of native plants to increase the number of accessible play spaces by thousands and put the power to create those spaces into the hands of children.

Theodore PayneIn this pilot project, children and their families will develop a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural environment through nurturing and observing of plants and caterpillars. All of the plants and animals will be local, native species that provide an authentic connection to place and help participants to make their own neighborhoods more sustainable, healthy, and engaging. By taking action that demonstrably increases the number of native plants and butterflies in their neighborhood, these children will become effective eco-activists and develop the understanding that they have the power to shape their environment.

With the support of a LA2050 grant, City of Butterflies will be offered to children and families taking part in the LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program through club-based activities, family outreach events, and on field trips that connect participants to the environment and cultivate a culture of civic engagement and environmental activism. Participating households will each receive:

  • Pale swallowtail butterfly on Humboldt lily, by Marc Kummel

    Instruction on how to care for the plants and identify the caterpillars and butterflies that are sure to visit them.

  • A bilingual booklet illustrating the plant/butterfly connection, life cycle of butterflies, growing cycle of plants, how to plant and care for nectar and forage plants, space to record observations, and suggestions for signs to create to identify the plants and butterflies
  • Four 4” plants: the mature plants will all be 3’ or under to fit into smaller spaces or to grow in containers. Forage plants for caterpillars will be paired with nectar plants for butterflies. Each participant will get two of each plant so there will be enough mass to attract butterflies and as a safeguard against the failure of one plant. Species will depend on season – late spring, early summer monarchs: milkweed for caterpillars and verbena for butterflies; fall – seasonally and regionally appropriate plants, for example, near the coast, dune buckwheat supports El Segundo Dune butterflies and caterpillars.

Encouraging play often involves large-scale projects centered on public spaces. Instead, this project creates dispersed but interconnected play spaces, putting in the same neighborhood plant natives as children. City of Butterflies will empower children to be the agents of change in their own lives by showing them how they can shape their environment to make it more engaging for themselves and more life-sustaining for all.

By Marc Kimmel


for Theodore Payne Foundation in PLAY

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Thanks to Ann Hadlock for the beguiling vision of a City of Butterflies and for the use of the name.