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Green Hairstreak & The Butterfly Man

A film by Melissa Peabody

Green Hairstreak & The Butterfly Man is about one man’s efforts to save a local species—the stunning and iridescent Green Hairstreak butterfly of San Francisco.

The man is Liam O’Brien. A charismatic artist and former stage actor, he has also become a self-taught expert on all things butterfly, especially the dwindling pool of butterfly species that remain in San Francisco—only 33 of the 48 species documented in the early 1900s.

It was his encounter with the Green Hairstreak in 2007 that transformed a growing passion into a calling, and he set out to find more of them. What he found was the Green Hairstreak might well be at the edge of local extinction. He spotted them flying at only 3 isolated habitats—Hawk Hill, Rocky Outcrop, and the Presidio Bluffs—essentially “island” ecosystems cut off from one another by blocks and blocks of houses, sidewalks, asphalt roadways, and non-native plants.

Liam: “The idea to do something for this butterfly gestated through the whole year as I surveyed for other species. I knew that isolated butterflies of this type—Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks—have a set formula. Males hang out sort of near where they are born. Females disperse away. If we could flood the neighborhood with the main plant she uses to host on, the Chalk Buckwheat, we could save her. If she shoots down streets full of Home Depot gardens and can’t find it, her eggs and her life would be for nothing.”

And so, the Green Hairstreak Project was born, profound in its potential effect, but simple in application. It involves going from door to door, convincing neighbors to plant Chalk Buckwheat, Wild Cucumber, and Seaside Daisy in their gardens. And it involves convincing the city of San Francisco to allow volunteers to plant these natives on small roadside patches of remnant undeveloped land, so female Green Hairstreaks shooting past have plants to eat, and plants on which to lay their eggs.

Liam: “We are more famous in this county for what is gone than for what is actually here. The Xerces blue butterfly was a butterfly that flew out in the Sunset District and disappeared in the 1940s. That’s what we’re known for. Wouldn’t it be great to be known instead for what we were able to save?”

This is the story of how an encounter with a very rare and special butterfly transformed a man, and how that man is now doing everything in his power to transform an urban landscape into a place where this butterfly can survive.

Some good news already: In May of 2010, a year after the project was launched, a Green Hairstreak was photographed at a newly planted site, sitting on native buckwheat.

Associated Members

Melissa Peabody


We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture