This morning the Fellows traveled to the edge of Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, Florida to visit The Kampong, of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Upon arrival, the Fellows met Director, Ms. Ann Parsons, and Head Horticulturist, Mr. David Jones, who provided an overview of The Kampong’s unique past. The history of horticulture on this property can be traced back to Dr. David Fairchild, who purchased the property in 1916 and named it The Kampong – a Malay word for a village, or a cluster of dwellings for an extended family.
At the time, Fairchild was serving as Head of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the United States Department of Agriculture. In this position, he traveled extensively throughout the world in search of plants suitable for introduction into the United States. In particular, Fairchild was interested in new varieties of economic plants, such as mangos, Mangifera sp., and avocados, Persea americana, whose unique characteristics might make them especially valuable. He developed The Kampong as an “introduction garden” for the plants he collected on these expeditions, many of which remain on the grounds today. Although he lived in Washington, D.C. most of the year, Fairchild also built a house on the property and made it his permanent home upon his retirement in 1928.
Almost 10 years after Fairchild passed away, Dr. Catherine Sweeney took over as the guiding voice of The Kampong in 1963. She had the financial means and the scientific expertise to preserve Fairchild’s unique plant collections. In 1984, Sweeney entered The Kampong into the National Register of Historic Places and, later that same year, gifted The Kampong to the then Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. This organization was primarily based in Hawaii and, with the addition of The Kampong as its only mainland property, was renamed the National Tropical Botanical Garden in 1988. The mission of the National Tropical Botanical Garden is, “to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions.”
The Kampong is in the midst of an interesting transition from private family estate to public garden and, during a tour of the grounds, the Longwood Fellows learned about some of the inherent challenges. For several years, the staff has been making a concerted effort to add landscape amenities to enhance the visitor experience. There has also been a stronger focus on documenting the collection through mapping and accession records. Today, much of the emphasis at The Kampong is education and each year the institution holds a variety of educational programs for college professors, physicians, and others using its living collections as an outdoor classroom. During their tour of the plant collections, the Longwood Fellows saw and sampled a number of famous “Kampong” introductions, including some unusual fruits such as Antidesma bunius, a member of the Phyllanthus family, that has dark purple, juicy, edible berries. The group concluded its tour with a relaxing walk from the heritage collections, through Fairchild’s research laboratory and home and out to the eastern edge of the property. Enjoying the view over the Bay, the Fellows were able to reflect on the unique history of The Kampong as well as the expert information and hospitality of their hosts.