OC Register Story

Scary Park Now a Butterfly Sanctuary


HUNTINGTON BEACH – A not-so-secret garden lies along Graham Street, surrounded by gray walls carefully repainted by community volunteers.  Orchids line the beds on the park’s outer edges, blooming alongside neighboring nectar-producing flowers. As hummingbirds dash past the newly planted trees, Park Restoration Coordinator Leslie Gilson lifts the edge of a milkweed leaf to uncover a butterfly egg.  “Everything has come alive,” Gilson said, describing the Norma Brandel Gibbs Butterfly Park’s transformation in the last three years.

Since the start of the restoration project in 2007, the dying Gibbs Park has once again become an overwinter resting shelter for hundreds of North American Monarch butterflies.

Gibbs Park had previously been dubbed “Scary Park” by local residents due to its substantial homeless population, overgrown brush, and towering dead trees.

Today, the park showcases the success of the city and the public in revitalizing the century-old eucalyptus grove and bringing back the Monarch butterfly after a 10-year absence, Gilson said.

“I hadn’t been looking for a cause to support. … I was in the right place at the right time,” Gilson said.

After 15 years abroad, the former puppeteer and special education teacher said she was shocked by the park’s deterioration.

“This just enraged me. I asked myself, ‘how could this be?’” Gilson said.

Although lacking in extensive knowledge about butterflies, Gilson went to the Huntington Beach City Council with storyboards detailing Gibbs Park’s neglected state after realizing that nobody was stepping in to restore the habitat.

She was approached by Huntington Beach Tree Society President Jean Nagy, who adopted her into the group as its “restoration coordinator” and helped Gilson obtain a license for gathering donations.

“This project has been a wonderful partnership between the city of Huntington Beach, Leslie, and the HB Tree Society volunteers,” Nagy said.

The city removed 179 dead eucalyptus trees infested with larch beetles in September 2007 and has now contributed up to $70,000 for restoration efforts, Gilson said. The city has also installed sprinklers and a cement mow strip.

The H.B. Tree Society has planted more than 160 trees supported by money from three state grants, Nagy said.

On May 8, 2008, approximately 150 volunteers planted more than 400 plants, including the first 64 of the new trees, Gilson said.

“The park, tree and landscape crew also deserve lots of credit because of all the assistance and knowledge they gave to the tree planting volunteers,” Nagy said. “We truly needed the park crew to help us give demonstrations on the proper way to plant a tree.”

The participants were successful in restoring the habitat, and in August 2010, the first wave of 100 migrating butterflies flew in and stayed for five days, Gilson said.

But in October, Gilson predicts the Monarch populations will soar as the butterflies begin their winter migration. The newly purchased milkweed plants are the Monarch’s main food source as caterpillars and will help attract the insects.

Gilson completed an intensive week-long internship at a butterfly farm and now gives educational talks to gardening clubs and visitors while encouraging young Huntington Beach residents to help the restoration effort.

One of the Tree Society’s goals is to connect a young person to every tree it plants, in hopes that the activity will carry over into adult life, Nagy said.

“I always tell our volunteers to name the tree after themselves upon completion of planting,” Nagy said. “This puts a big smile on their face.”

Volunteers from across the community have aided in the restoration, from park neighbors like the late 85-year-old Roy Graser, the project’s very first watering man, to local high school Key Club students. Six Eagle Scout projects have beautified the park, planting new flower beds and trees. The homeless have also stepped in to lend a hand, Gilson said, helping her tend to plants and assist with upkeep.

The Tree Society continues to meet monthly with city officials to discuss park improvement ideas, Nagy said.

Gilson is now shifting the park’s restoration focus to education programs. Donations are currently funding the Tree Society’s next project, a series of educational butterfly life cycle tiles to surround the park’s existing floor mural.

“This park is a living history of plants … the more education we can give these kids, the better off the community is,” Gilson said. “(Gibbs Park) has led me down a path I never thought I’d go.”