Today we headed to our final destination, Montgomery Botanical Center. Unlike many of the institutions we have visited throughout the week, Montgomery is primarily in the business of research and conservation, with a focus on palms and cycads collected from the wild.
The site of Montgomery Botanical Center was the private home of Colonel Robert H. Montgomery and his wife, purchased in 1932. After developing a renowned and much visited collection of palms and cycads, Col. Montgomery decided to found Fairchild Tropical Botanical as a public garden for everyone to see. After he passed away, his wife Nell founded the then Montgomery Foundation and continued giving land parcels to the organization throughout her life. When she passed away in 1990, she bequeathed the remainder of the 120-acre property to the Montgomery Botanical Center, along with a substantial endowment.
Today, the Center is open by appointment only and has about 750 visitors annually, many of them visiting scientists from around the world. In line with its collection focus, it holds approximately 400 of the world’s 3000 palm species and 230 of the world’s 300 cycad species. We met with Executive Director Dr. Patrick Griffith, who spent the entire morning giving us a thorough tour of the amazing collections. Ms. Tracy Magellan, Community Outreach Manager, and Dr. Chad Husby, Collections Manager and Botanist, also accompanied us and shared their expertise. We first visited with the Collections Department staff to see their plant database and mapping operations. And we also got a chance to see the Seed Bank operation, overseen by Seedbank Coordinator Judy Kay. Judy pollinates plants, and collects and stores seed and pollen from throughout the garden. Many of the seeds are provided to botanic gardens throughout the world, and a portion is auctioned off to plant collectors. The Center will soon be breaking ground on a new seed bank facility, which will triple the size available.
Throughout the tour, Patrick pointed out many rare and unusual species, each with its own unique story. One of the rarest palms in the collection was Corypha taliera. There are only twenty of these plants left on the planet, all of them held in botanical collections. Montgomery Botanical Garden holds thirteen of these, which will not flower until they are 80 years old. Once they flower they will die, but they produce millions of flowers and seeds, which will be crucial to the future of this rare plant.
Montgomery Botanical Center has three biologists who focus on cycads, palms, and a relatively new collection of tropical conifers. These scientists travel around the world collecting new species, which they will plant and study at the Center. This work has resulted in some new plant discoveries and introductions, such as Syagrus vermicularis. This palm, with its yellow and stringy flower structures, was named after vermicelli pasta, and is native to Brazil.
During our visit, Patrick and his staff spoke a lot about hurricane damage, which is a huge threat to these rare collections. We saw several species that were still recovering from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Many of the species collected from other areas of the world are not very hurricane-tolerant, and the rarest species are distributed throughout the world to protect the few surviving specimens. We did get to see a large Pithecellobium dulce, which was knocked to the ground in 1992 and has continued to grow, sending up new shoots and branches at a 90-degree angle.
We enjoyed our visit to the Montgomery Botanical Garden Center immensely. The staff was welcoming and extremely knowledgeable and the collections amazed us. It was a great way to wrap up our institutional visits in South Florida.