This is a great month for butterflies. People who want to celebrate them—and save them—will flock to Los Rios Park, a certified butterfly garden in San Juan Capistrano, on Aug. 7 for the annual Festival of Butterflies.
Los Rios Street, with its blooming native plants and historic single-wall houses, is probably my favorite street in Orange County. I know it as a walker, as it was my route to the train for a decade. Rural. No sidewalks. Nobody treated it like anything special for, um, a couple of centuries. Some of its buildings date to 1794, making it the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in California. The street is named for Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier who arrived with Junipero Serra in 1776. So far, the Rios family has inhabited their home on the street for 10 generations (yes, there are ghost stories).
For good reason, the Rioses have erected a “private” sign of late. I have noticed the number of tourists on Los Rios Street grow exponentially, and I’m sure that must be a pain for the families who live there. The festival is largely centered away from the homes, in Los Rios Park.
About 5,000 visitors
attended the first butterfly festival in 2019, many drawn to the event because there was an explosion of the Painted Lady butterflies traveling north from Mexican deserts for the super bloom.
There are all things butterfly at this event: merchandise and art for sale, crafts, fun talks and interesting walks, live butterfly music, even a butterfly cafe.
“It’s educational, but it’s also entertaining. We don’t want it to be like going to school,” says Jim Taylor, whose Fiesta Association helps put on the event. Taylor is a computer programmer and stand-up comic who also serves as Fiesta president, organizing all the Fiesta events, including the Swallow’s Day parade.
Underlying the butterfly entertainment is a crisis that has fallen upon us to address promptly. The wintering monarch butterfly population along the California coast has decreased by 97 percent, from 4.5 million in the 1980s to 2,000 counted in sites last year. Scientists don’t have a handle yet on why the monarchs are nearing extinction, but climate change, pesticides, and habitat loss are factors.
Saving the monarch is at the top of the list at the festival, which will equip us with the tools and the know-how for attracting monarchs and feeding them in our yards.
I headed to Los Rios Street recently and wandered among the paths of native species at the Montanez adobe, watching a few butterflies darting among the purple sages. I stopped to stick my nose in the fat yellow pompom of a Matilija poppy, unable to quite separate myself from its thick sweet talcum.
Marianne Taylor, the organizer of the festival (not related to Fiesta Jim, but married to the mayor of San Juan Capistrano), showed me the native milkweed plant, which residents living at least 1 mile from the coast are encouraged to plant.
“The monarch eats this whole plant. All of it,” she says. “This is the lifeline for the monarchs. If they don’t eat it, they die.”
Festivalgoers will learn everything they need to grow a garden to attract butterflies, and they’ll be able to buy kits put together by festival partner Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, containing the best butterfly plants.
Taylor has walked about a block from her gorgeous home built in 1887 by the Basque LaBatt family. It’s the headquarters for her nonprofit, Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens, which puts on the festival and also helps people learn about gardening as therapy and a way to connect with nature.
During the week, Taylor devotes herself to teaching agriculture and natural resources for the Orange County Department of Education. She also runs a gardening program in the mental health unit at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
Goin Native originally hosted a garden show. But the group found it was competing with too many other garden shows in Orange County. Taylor was sitting on her porch, watching the butterflies dance in her own native garden, thinking about how much solace the butterflies gave her, particularly after the death of her sister Susan Cain at age 35 from cancer.
“It shook my world,” Taylor says. “I went through a very deep depression, and only the garden could tend to my heart and my losses. So I am a huge advocate of gardening because I know that’s where we can heal ourselves—body, mind, and spirit.”
She had something of an epiphany: Butterflies just might be the best way to connect people with nature.
Goin Native board member Jim Taylor said the group aimed for a modest festival in 2019: “Everybody said don’t expect a lot of people.”
And then thousands of visitors stepped off the trains.
“We were out of everything by noon, and the trains kept coming,” Marianne Taylor says. Organizers are doubling down this year to make sure there is enough to go around.
Festival organizers hope to build a butterfly vivarium in Los Rios Park eventually, with proceeds from the festival and sponsorships.
“Our hope is that we can make everyone aware of the plight of the butterflies and how once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” Marianne says.
The takeaway is that we can all do something to save the butterflies. And we need to do it now.
I mean, just try to imagine a life without butterflies. I can’t