August 19th – Day 4: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

With the forecast calling for storms, we headed to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG) just down the street from where we are staying in Coral Gables. When we arrived at the Garden, we were greeted by former Longwood Graduate Fellow Ms. Christie Leiva. Recently promoted to Horticulture Supervisor, Christie oversees the maintenance of the Garden’s extensive plant collections, spanning over the institution’s 83 acres.  The FTBG mission is, “…to save tropical plant diversity by exploring, explaining and conserving the world of tropical plants…” Dr. Carl Lewis, the Director, and Christie discussed how this vision is communicated through the institution’s tremendous plant collections, conservation initiatives, and innovative educational and research programs.

Group shot in front of the lakes.

Group shot in front of the lakes.

Close up of dragon fruit cactus flower (hylocereus undatus).
Close up of dragon fruit cactus flower (hylocereus undatus).

The Garden was founded in 1938 by Col. Robert H. Montgomery, who named it after his plant explorer friend Dr. David Fairchild. As part of their partnership, Dr. Fairchild embarked on the first plant collecting expedition for FTBG in 1940 to regions of Southeast Asia. This trip would turn out to be Dr. Fairchild’s final collecting voyage. To commemorate his legacy, the Garden is currently developing a Southeast Asia collection, uniquely and appropriately sited on an “island” within the grounds and representing species collected on his final trip.

Chihuly glass artwork in conservatory.

Chihuly glass artwork in conservatory.

The garden was originally designed by William Philips, student of notable landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead. Unlike other historical estates FTBG was intended to be just a garden, and never a residential estate. Therefore, Philips’ design was simple and, as Christie explained, follows a traditional museum layout, with long “hallways” of turf leading to gallery-like spaces. Even today this layout holds true, with plant additions placed in the beds like paintings on gallery walls, lining the edges of the turf corridors. The design allows for better plant growth providing ample space and sun exposure for the diverse plant collections.

Close up of the cannon ball tree (couroupita guianensis).

Close up of the cannon ball tree (couroupita guianensis).

The Garden hosts a wealth of remarkable taxonomic and geographic collections representing species from tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world.  The most significant of all the plant collections at FTBG are palms and cycads, representing over 500 and 120 species, respectively. One palm of particular significance that was highlighted during our tour was a species in the genus Carpoxylon. Through the mid 1980s the species was only known by a single seed that was held in the London Natural History Museum, but had never before been described in the wild. Knowing nothing about the appearance of the plant, researchers pieced together a possible description of what a mature specimen might look like, based only on the single seed in collection. In the late 1980s, the species was finally identified in the wild by researchers on an expedition to Fiji. Remarkably, the description that was developed from the single seed closely matched the plant’s actual appearance.

Bismarckia nobilis in the palm garden.
Bismarckia nobilis in the palm garden.

Another amazing specimen was that of Zamia pseudoparasitica, the only epiphytic cycad species, which is native to the high canopy in the cloud forest of Panama. The Garden also features an extensive collection of tropical fruit trees as well as a tropical fruit breeding program.  Responsible for many new introductions each year, the Garden holds over 500mango (Mangifera) varieties.

Shari and Andrew hanging out under the fig tree.

Shari and Andrew hanging out under the fig tree.

In the end, our visit to the Garden and discussions with staff was a tremendous experience and opportunity. So much so, that we will be returning tomorrow afternoon for round two at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden!

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