Swan plants – school health and safety

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This topic contains 13 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  Barbara Ryan 3 years, 12 months ago.

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    Happy New Year – could I ask for your help/good ideas? We planted swan plants at school in a small raised, brick garden area, specifically to encourage monarchs in for closer study, and the swannies have done brilliantly – too brilliantly. They grew huge and had to be cut back as they were overhanging areas where children pass.

    Our property manager and principal want to remove the plants completely for safety’s sake but I’m wondering if there’s anything else other people have done to ensure they complied with MOE health and safety. On a happier note, we had a large number of butterflies visit at the end of Term 4 and I’m hoping the caterpillars are doing well undisturbed.
    Thanks very much for your help!

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    Barbara Ryan

    At Muritai School in Wellington we have had no problems at all with swan plants in and around the school butterfly garden. The children have been taught at school that the plants are poisonous and are not to be picked at and to observe caterpillar and butterfly activity on them carefully with their eyes only. Classes have grown swan plants from seed and taken these home to plant in their own gardens. A newsletter was sent to parents outlining the pros and cons and precautions to take at home. Response from parents and teachers is that the benefits to the children of observing the wonderful transformation from egg to butterfly far out ways the risks!



    Our school is a keen monarch butterfly school and we have numerous swan plants around the school. We have recently done some replanting to keep them along a driveway fence-line and have moved the ones previously alongside the students playground areas. This seems to be working well and keeping everyone including our caretaker happy:)



    Hi there,

    My two cents is that it doesn’t sound like they should be removed. Others seem to have good ideas about enclosing it, or I would probably continue trim them….however, I have the opposite problem and mine die every year and I have to redo the garden :{ this is making it hard to really get the tagging going….Even after I bought some more established plants from Jaqui they still got all eaten up and then died.



    Yet another comment from another teacher:

    “…the principal and caretaker are over reacting. Sounds to me like they see the plants as being ‘messy’ rather than a hazard! The students should treat the area like a memorial and taught to give the area respect rather like tapu. Turn the plants into a kind of hedge, clipping the height if powers at be still going on about it. But for the protection of an endangered species they should not remove them.”



    Another response for you:

    I have 150 plants a parent raised and donated, nobody appears to be concerned about them in the school. We are a green/ gold enviro school and this is my class project so it is supported for enviro purposes, learning science in context , language experience, art and drama…powerful stuff. We have had wonderful experiences with the children and try and talk to them about respecting the plants and animals, and generally successful. I have the plants tucked into a scented garden we made about ten years ago and there is a year 5/6 class with a plant that grows well in the area outside their classes . Butterflies are wonderful!



    Thank you so much to everyone for taking the time to reply with these great ideas, especially during the holidays! Lots of things I didn’t know, and lots of ideas to try and keep everyone happy. Jacqui, thank you for those direct links to information and treatment. Thanks to forum members for sharing how to present the potential hazard to students sensibly – I think they can cope, but there was a concern that kids’ curiosity would overwhelm their common sense.
    And I LOVED the photo of the tyre plantings! If I can’t come up with a barrier and we do need to replant, they would work well in an area we’ve been sizing up for another habitat area out back of the school. Not a lot of soil to play with, so they’d be brilliant.
    Thanks again to the butterfly community, I really appreciate it.



    Hi, if they are determined to get rid of the plants, I bought a caterpillar castle from this site for my classroom. It is awesome… We just put in a potted swan plant with some eggs on it and the children were captivated observing their life cycle. We set them free when they became butterflies. None of the children tried to unzip the castle. It’s not as wonder our as seeing it all occur in their natural environment but it is an option. 🙂



    More feedback:

    We have had this discussion before at our school, and have made an effort to keep swan plants in tyres and near fence lines and away from walkways. We sought advice, and although poisonous, the poison levels are small and we decided that as long as we were fulfilling ministry requirements, it not worth missing out on the teaching and learning opportunities.

    The garden we have created was the end result of a terms worth of work about being ‘kaitiaki’ or guardians. Each class in the school decided on an environmental problem within the school and became kaitiaki of those issues and sought assistance with promoting social action. Through our unit we learned LOTS about butterflies/caterpillars/swan plants and the children have been very good at keeping away from the little caterpillars and swan plants.

    Good luck and hopefully your school will be able to come up with a solution that suits everyone! I have included a picture of our hungry caterpillar garden for you to have a look at!

    Caterpillar Garden



    This from Kathryn R, Hawkes Bay:

    Hi Erakol

    I’m a school teacher and have been ‘using’ monarchs in schools for many years. I had a similar problem when I wanted to grow stinging nettle in the school garden for admiral butterflies. Discussions can become quite emotive quite quickly and the bottom line is the children need to be safe. The easiest solution for the principal is to remove the plants. You need to show those concerned that there are other solutions that will ensure the children’s safety.

    In my case I was able to convince the community that the children would be safer if they did have the stinging nettles, as they were taught to recognise the plant, how to handle it and what action to take in response to accidental exposure to the skin. It is a case of the spinning wheel philosophy… when the king and queen knew their daughter could die from touching a spinning wheel they removed all the spinning wheels from the kingdom, so when Sleeping Beauty found a spinning wheel she had no idea what it was and was immediately curious and injured herself.

    It is dangerous to cross the road but we don’t want the children to stay on one side forever so we teach them to cross safely. The internet can be a minefield of problems but we teach them to navigate it safely and how to recognise and respond to inappropriate sites and messages. Aim for long term safety with the children so they understand what to do with swan plants and other things that can be toxic. Removing the plants only gives them safety in the short term.

    I see from the replies that people have already suggested a barrier to prevent children accidentally brushing the leaves. If you can arrange a cage kind of barrier with fine netting it is actually quite helpful as it also prevents the butterflies from coming and laying eggs on the crop.

    Good luck. Butterflies are a wonderful learning tool.



    as Norm says , a small barricade in front of plants is what a few Kindys do.

    Does the school have Kowhai trees, spathiphyllum house plants in the school if so they are toxic too.




    Some thoughts from a retired teacher in Central Otago:

    I did have a plant growing in the garden outside my class… prolific!! However as part of the monarch butterfly project and work I did with the children I also taught them about the swan plant, about the toxicity, we grew some from seeds etc etc. So we learnt about health and safety as well. The plant in the garden can be controlled by cutting it back off the pathways… I did that with mine outside the class.

    If the principal chooses to pull their plant out then my suggestion is to keep cuttings in water… I had to resort to that when I ran out of food for the caterpillars I had in the class. I did keep a number of swan plants in pots in the class but the caterpillars are such voracious feeders that I needed to supplement with stems brought in from the garden. With the pots of plants along with the stems in water we were able to rear many caterpillars. So perhaps include growing the plants along with the care of the MB as a full unit of work… I know my kids had as much pleasure as growing the plants in pots as they did in caring for the butterflies.

    Hope with helps cheers Barbara



    If the plant/plants are grown against a wall or fence it is a simple matter to run a barrier or low fence around the other 3 sides to keep the children from touching the plants.



    Great to hear of your efforts, Erakol.

    This point is covered in our Create Butterfly Habitat Course and also on our website under “Educational Resources”.

    There are quite a few plants (or parts of them) that are poisonous? This may come as a shock but it does not deter keen gardeners. Apple pips, cherry, peach and plum stones, parts of beans and peas, potato and tomato and rhubarb are examples.

    Also, lots of flowering plants are poisonous (or parts of them are) – like Oleanders and Antirrhinum.

    Milkweed such as swan plant is poisonous when ingested, but it is not banned in schools and educational institutions in NZ because of its educational value in teaching young children about metamorphosis and as an introduction to scientific experimentation.


    It is unlikely to be eaten because it is extremely bitter and if you get a little bit of juice on your tongue, well you will wish you hadn’t!. However, if the sap gets into the eye(s) it can cause temporary blindness.

    Encourage children to not touch the plant or the caterpillars. Handling caterpillars can also be detrimental to the caterpillars’ health, especially if you have compounds on your hands e.g. sunscreen.

    You should be aware of the indications and the treatment should you or anyone in your care be affected.

    Read the full information here:

    And as my grandson used to have multiple allergies – especially dermatitis – I warned him not to touch the plants. “Touch with the eyes only”. I said.

    Great to have you raise this point. I hope that teachers will add their comments to this thread.


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