Category Archives: North American Experience

A Day at the Zoo

(photography by Raakel Toppila)

A great day today at the Minnesota Zoo.  We spent the morning with Director Lee Ehmke, Horticulture Supervisor Kim Thomas, and Ken Kornack, Director of Capital Projects at the Zoo.  After meeting Lee at the entrance, we explored the newest exhibit, “Russia’s Grizzly Coast.”  The three grizzly bears are part of a new trend in immersive zoo display that seeks to engage the senses and create a seemingly boundless natural space surrounding the animals.  Plant materials mask the surrounding buildings, key sightlines are emphasized, and sound recordings draw visitors into a more intimate experience.  And by visitors, I mean children.  Lots of them.  Everywhere.  The bears are a huge hit.

Kim Thomas’ lean crew of horticulturalists throughout the year has the unique job of creating regional and species appropriate displays.  This is easier said than done, considering the physical demands on the plants.  For example, Kim quickly discovered that grizzly bears do not pick blue berries.  They just eat the entire bush in one bite.  Thankfully, hundreds of acres of surrounding woodlands provide an abundance of animal browsing materials.

In the new Leed Gold meeting space behind the grizzly den, the Fellows had the chance to ask Lee and his team what it’s like to manage a zoo serving over 1 million visitors each year.  The organization is one of two publicly owned zoos in the country, and covers 485 acres just south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and equidistant from both.  The zoo is moving towards a denser model of visitor circulation, including a more intense experience over a smaller area.  The older zoo design of “five hundred acres and a monorail” essentially failed.  The wildlife was too far removed from the visitors to create a meaningful experience.

In addition to managing a wide array of species from dolphins to tapirs, the Zoo boasts a 1,500-person amphitheater for musical performances, several green roof projects, and an active outreach program visiting each of the 87 counties in Minnesota.  Over lunch, the staff covered everything from the master plan to their young friends group, and provided rare insight into their much-loved institution in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.

Second Years Travel to the State of 10,000 Lakes

(photographs by Felicia Yu)

North American Experience has begun yet again.  The second year Fellows and Dr. Lyons landed Wednesday in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota with the goal to explore what the region has to offer in the realm of public horticulture. Minneapolis is a fun city.  The neighborhood near the hotel is filled with eclectic places to eat and spend time. Even better, there are “Nice Ride” bicycles for the public to check in and out of locations all over town to help us get around town during time off.

Our first stop was the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. We were fortunate to be greeted by both Ed Schneider, current Director, and Peter Olin, former Director who served at the Arboretum for 24 years. An hour-long tram tour introduced us to the 1,137 acres of land maintained by the Arboretum, featuring themed collections, gardens, a prairie, ponds and woodlands.  We were especially excited by the Patrick Dougherty exhibition in front of the visitor center, entitled the Uff da Palace.

The Landscape Arboretum faces the challenge of gardening and maintaining collections in USDA plant hardiness zone 4 (average annual minimum temperature -20F to -30F).  However, they do so in stride, boasting impressive collections of crabapple, hosta, lilac, ornamental grasses and roses. Even in the warmth of the summer, the cold temperatures to come are never far from a Minnesotan’s mind. The Arboretum has devoted much of its research to developing cold-hardy commercial fruit varieties such as the Honey Crisp apple, the Frontenac grape and the North Star Cherry. Their ornamental woody plant breeding program resulted in the development of a series of cold hardy azaleas.

Intermingled among the collections of the Arboretum are special places for reflection…

And play….

And discovery…

We enjoyed lunch together with our host, Ed Schneider and Judy Hohmann, Marketing and Communications Manager who gave us insight into the operations of the Arboretum. Three hours of self-guided exploration under the beautiful blue open sky was hardly enough time to return to our favorite spots. Our visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was a great introduction to public horticulture in the Twin Cities.

Don’t Sweat It!

Our final destination, Joshua Tree National Park, is located a few hours east of Los Angeles in the California high desert, where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts meet.  After miraculously escaping most of L.A.’s notoriously nightmarish traffic, we found ourselves on Twentynine Palms Highway, which traversed the north border of the Park and connected the eclectic desert towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms.  We geared up for a morning departure from our hotel, but before we even boarded our van we were struck by the austere beauty of the barren mountains before us.  The contrast of their running peaks against the cloudless blue sky was razor sharp..  And while the morning temperature was comfortably warm, we knew it was headed for at least 100° F and the low relative humidity would all but eliminate any sensation of sweating!

Bronze art meets blue sky at the Oasis Visitor Center

Marnie enjoyed the cool interpretive signs

Once through the Park entrance, we were blown away by the fascinating ecosystem rolled out before us.  Many of the surrounding boulders were smooth and sculpted, as evidenced by one in particular called “Skull Rock,” aptly named for its noticeable “eye sockets” that stared with frigid determination amidst the desert heat.  When venturing out of the van, we stuck to prescribed trails but were not disappointed by our discoveries, being constantly vigilant for anything sharp, prickly, or spiny.  This was particularly true while hiking within the Cholla Cactus Garden of Opuntia bigelovii, sometimes called “jumping chollas” for the plant’s ability to break off in pieces when touched (ouch!), stick to you for a while, then drop to the ground and root at a distance from the original plant.  A great feature for asexual colonization, but at the painful expense of the vector.  Fortunately, none of us assisted the cholla in its spreading pursuit that day!

Cholla Garden Vista

Many plants were weathering the heat nicely, like the Missouri or Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima), an herbaceous, native perennial.  This plant has an enormous tuber, which facilitates survival under extreme drought. Apparently, the fruit is edible only when harvested young, as it gets increasingly bitter with age.  The Joshua tree itself (Yucca brevifolia) occurred as sparsely distributed individuals or in dense populations, depending upon your location.  Some appeared to be holding on for dear life, while others were statuesque, well branched, and stately.

Buffalo Gourd

Buffalo Gourd

We continued to trek the easier trails, such as the Barker Dam loop that led to a grand pool of water – a great surprise amidst the desiccated landscape and simply a beautiful sight.  We drove to Keys View, exited the van, and walked up to the overlook to witness a sweeping vista.  The signage indicated the relative location of the infamous San Andreas Fault, the city of Palm Springs, and a snow covered Mt. San Jacinto in the distance.

Barker Dam

So literally and figuratively, don’t sweat it when visiting Joshua Tree National Park.   Enjoy and appreciate the extremes!

8 intrepid travellers, a few Joshua Trees, and a not-so-small pile of rocks

Photos by the Class of 2011

Pot Party!

A pot (washing) party that is – that’s title of the flyer inviting volunteers to help wash flower pots at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG). The volunteers at the party had visions of the mother lode of pots being washed when we popped into the nursery on our tour of the Garden.

Patrick Larkin tours the group throughout Rancho Santa Ana's foliar tunnels.

Patrick Larkin, Executive Director of RSABG and former fellow of LGP, generously spent a full day touring us around this lovely native plant garden in Claremont, California. Patrick believes that Suzanna Bixby Bryant was visionary in establishing the Botanic Garden on her Orange County Ranch back in 1927. Her impetus was the disappearance of the native California plant habitat due to development, combined with being saddened by the largest Californian plant collection not being in California but in Kew Gardens.

Follow the leader...

Follow the leader...

Today the Garden still displays and promotes the landscape use of native California plants. The topography at Rancho Santa Ana has defined the location of the Garden’s collections:  the desert plant collection is on a dry gravel alluvial washout; the clay soil of the Indian Hill Mesa area is the location of California natives and cultivars arranged to inspire visitors to grow native plants; the northern Californian plants are situated in a cooler east facing site where the cold air drains down from the mountains overlooking the garden and the native plant communities collections such as the Chaparral and coastal sage shrub are situated further from the entrance for visitor who want a more in depth experience.

The Container Garden casts some intricate shadows.

The Container Garden casts some intricate shadows.

RSABG has a strong research component to its mission and is associated with the Claremont Graduate University. The RSABG research staff is affiliated with the University and responsible for the University’s Botany Program. Dr. Lucinda McDade, Director of Research, explained that the focus of the Garden’s research is on systematic and evolutionary botany. There are currently 2 masters and 11 PhD students studying at the Garden.

This Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) really POPs!

The Botanic Garden has four types of collections, in addition to the living plant collection that includes live oaks and salvias; there is a library collection of rare plant books started by Bixby Bryant, the fourth largest herbarium in the US with 1.1 million specimens and a seed collection of native California plants including rare, endangered and threatened species. “It’s all high tech in the seed processing and storage lab” jokes Michael Wall, Seed Conservation Program Manager, as he points out the Sears bought freezers to store the seed collection.

Rancho Santa Ana's Library houses many intricate and ancient texts. The group is in awe of the botanical art!

Rancho Santa Ana's Library houses many intricate and ancient texts. The group is in awe of the botanical art!

Becky and Dongah are captivated by the Seed Manual that Michael Wall, Seed Curator, displays to the group.

“Take the time to invest in your volunteers” was the advice from Shawn Overstreet, Plant Collections Manager and RSABG has certainly found inspiring and fun ways to engage the volunteers. A volunteer “Sign Tsar” regularly inspects the gardens for proper plant signage and interpretation, a “Bench Brigade” maintains the donated benches, an entomologist staffs the butterfly house, not to mention the pot party crowd!

The 100F heat of the desert was beckoning as we left Rancho Santa Ana and headed out to Joshua Tree for our final stop on this wonderful Southern Californian North American Experience.

Photos by Kate Baltzell

“The most public Public Garden I’ve ever worked for”

Located in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden was our destination on Tuesday. Richard Schulhof, the CEO, welcomed us in the Visitor Center and escorted us to the staff conference room. Richard has been the CEO for just nine short months, but already seems to have an amazing handle on the Arboretum. He demonstrated this as he walked us through the organization’s framework and unique responsibility to its community.

The Arboretum has an interesting history. Its 127-acres have been under cultivation since the West was settled, but the most well known owner was one E.J. Baldwin. A man who accumulated his wealth through gold mine investments, Baldwin converted thousands of acres into an agricultural estate. The heart of the estate eventually became jointly purchased in 1948 by California and the county of Los Angeles, with the goal of building an arboretum around the historic buildings. This direct tie with the government from its inception has given the Arboretum a real responsibility to serve its community.

Richard brought us up to speed on the Arboretum’s current state of affairs and discussed the impending challenges and goals. He had a real excitement for where the Arboretum was going, and stated that this was, “the most public, public garden” for which he has ever worked. Major upcoming transitions for the Arboretum include a change from county government funding to reliance on a recently created Los Angeles Arboretum Foundation, and the impending creation of the first Korean Garden in North America. Richard hopes that all of these goals will ensure that the Arboretum continues to serve its community well.

As Richard wrapped things up, two additional staff members arrived: Jim Henrich, Curator of Living Collections (a college friend of Dr. Lyons) and Tim Phillips, Superintendent. They were our tour guides for the remainder of the day, beginning with a behind-the scenes tour. Our first stop was the Arboretum Library, where Librarian Susan Eubank energetically introduced us to their public collection. Another highlight was the new permaculture garden, created and maintained by Caitlin Bergman. Yet throughout the day and regardless of where we were, the air was filled with the mournful caterwauling of the local peacock population.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch with the Arboretum staff, and then departed for the “front of house” tour with Jim and Tim. We were introduced to their many global collections, from Madagascar to Australia, as well as historic elements dating from before E.J. Baldwin’s ownership of the land. Even with the broad range of plant collections, historic buildings, events and activities available at the Arboretum, it seemed that each led back to serving and educating the community. Tim and Jim offered much insight into the operations of an Arboretum, from biological control to on-site management of film production crews. Even in golf carts, we had to rush to see all the garden areas. At the conclusion of our visit, we would have to agree that this Arboretum is one of the most “public public gardens” we have experienced!

Tim and a desert-dwelling palm (Ravenea xerophila)

Photos by Rebecca Pineo

A Day at The Huntington

Horticulture appears third in the name, but don’t let it fool you—The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has some first class flora. The Huntington’s founder, business magnate Henry E. Huntington, possessed a penchant for plants as well as books and art.  His resplendent 120-acre estate features an array of specimens from around the globe that thrive in the mild Southern California climate.

The Huntington's collection of agave and other succulents is one of the largest in the world

The Huntington's collection of agave and other succulents is one of the largest in the world

Despite being a delight for the plant lover, the institution’s plant collections are sometimes overshadowed by the more well-known research library and museum. Kitty Connolly, The Huntington’s Associate Director of Education, expressed the need to advocate for the horticultural collections within the larger institution. One accomplishment in this arena was the construction of The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science, which houses “Plants Are Up to Something,” a family-friendly exhibit designed to encourage discovery of plant processes through scientific inquiry.  “Real plants, real tools, real science” was the conceptual motto for exhibition development, which combines interactive science stations with the beauty of a lush conservatory.  Winning the 2007 American Association of Museums Excellence in Exhibition Competition certainly helped throw the spotlight on The Huntington’s plant wealth.

Zoe takes time to stop and smell the exhibit

After taking a brief tour of the herbarium and tissue culture lab with Plant Conservation Specialist Sean Lahmeyer, we were encouraged to explore the grounds on our own. Outside the conservatory, a panorama of green awaited, with an expanse of rolling lawns that perfectly matched the scale of the gargantuan library and museum.

Grinning from within the massive Bambusa beecheyana that stood just a few steps away from the grand entrance

Discrete garden areas transport visitors to plant communities that are worlds apart. The Desert Garden is packed with cacti glowing golden, the sharp relief of spikes and spines, and flaming red euphorbia blooms that shine in the sunlight.  Inside the Jungle Garden, the cooling sound of waterfalls guide you through rich green undergrowth, shaded by a canopy dripping with vines. The drier, more open Australian Garden is punctuated by exfoliating Eucalyptus, absurdly plump bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris), and mass plantings of kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos sp.) The serene Japanese and Chinese Gardens interpret a different continent entirely—not just for visitors, but also for films ranging from Memoirs of a Geisha to Ironman II.

According to a security guard, one Iron Man robot was positioned just to the right of the Japanese Garden's lovely bridge

A peek through a moongate into the Chinese Garden

One of the last stops was the Children’s Garden, an artful and entertaining space for tykes ages two to seven, designed to create a positive garden experience for the young (and young at heart).   Interactive magnetic sculptures, a myriad of water features, and places to climb, crawl and run leave children thoroughly charmed.

We too left the botanic gardens thoroughly charmed—not only by the horticulture, but by the hospitality of the staff members who offered a glimpse into the heart of The Huntington.

Photos by Dongah Shin

Underwater without the noseplug…

After a brisk stroll through the Cannery Row district in the seaside town of Monterey, we approached the unassuming entrance to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The lobby was crawling with visitors, ranging from young and old to local residents and tourists.   Friendly staff welcomed us with opened doors (literally they were holding the doors open!).  Jim Covel, Manager of Training and Interpretation focusing on the Guest Experience, was our extremely knowledgeable and forthcoming leader for the afternoon as we explored the Aquarium.  He had a way of describing aspects of the Aquarium that made the insight into the guest experience totally relevant to the way we think of the guest experience in the public horticulture world.

Jim highlighted their new interactive ecological game on our tour

The beginnings of the Aquarium started with a vision from David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, who brought a dream to reality with the help of many experts in the field of marine science.  The Aquarium is located on the site of a former sardine cannery (how ironic!) and opened in October of 1984.  Its popularity has increased with each passing year, with an annual attendance now reaching an astonishing 1.85 million visitors, with most arriving in June, July, and August.  The day prior to our visit, the Aquarium had 8,000 visitors.  The top three groups to visit the Aquarium are San Franciscans, then southern Californians, and thirdly, East Coasters-like us!

A plethora of guests gathered around the tank to watch and learn as the diver fed the fishes.

The overarching idea behind the layout and exhibits at the Aquarium is to spotlight what is local, while keeping the space open with as few walls as possible. Jim expressed that all of the habitats and animals we would see represent what is native to the waters of the Monterey Bay.  He asked us to pretend we were scuba diving in the area because the Aquarium showcases a snapshot of the regional underwater world.  We loved the walls of glass that allowed visitors to see the natural views of the Monterey Bay, and beyond.

The panoramic view from the Aquarium, complete with a seal and commorants, reflects the habitat on the inside.

The guest experience is of utmost importance at the Aquarium and the formation of the Guest Experience Group helped to build the synergy amongst all employees who come in contact with the guests.  The guests experience what Jim called “touch points” when they walk in the door and start to explore.  These sensory experiences range from floor level, mobile touch pools to jellies in jars (or acrylic see through tubes) that give the guests an up close encounter with sea life.  We all participated in the fins-on components that awaited at each new exhibit.

One of the few uninterpreted areas of the Aquarium, guests prefer to simply experience the jellies in the ethreal surroundings.

Our wonderful chaperone, Marnie Conley, and Dr. Lyons demonstrated for us how to swim in the children's area.

Another revolutionary idea of the Aquarium is the use of “living labels”  where knowledgeable staff serve as information providers throughout the facility, whenever possible.  After our experience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we felt we had learned so much that we, too, could become certified “living labels.”  The Monterey Bay Aquarium may not have formal gardens or elaborate plant collections, but we soaked up a plethora of ideas for a successful (and fun!) guest experience.  Thanks so much to all the staff of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and especially Jim Covel, for such a stimulating underwater encounter!

The group, from the left: Kate, Dongah, Laura, Zoe, Kristen, Rebecca, Jim and Bob

Photos by Laura Aschenbeck

Fight, Love, Live

When we first arrived at Filoli on Sunday morning, we were warmly greeted by Lucy Tolmach, the Director of Horticulture.  A horticulture alumna of the University of Delaware, Lucy has been working at Filoli for more than 20 years.  She proceeded to share some delicious homemade muffins with us and introduce us to the Filoli organization.

Grand Entrance: NAX LGPers stroll towards the Georgian style Filoli Mansion

Filoli originates from America’s Gilded Age when Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn bought the property located on the south end of Crystal Springs Lake.  Mr. Bourn was born for creating Filoli! Lucy told us that all of the design ideas for the gardens and house came from Mr. Bourn, who worked closely with the architects and gardeners during their construction. Mr. Bourn’s often-quoted credo was “fight for a just cause; love your fellow man; live a good life.” In fact, he crafted the name of the estate from the first two letters of the words fight, love, and live.

Door with a view: Filoli's Sunken Garden

The Bourn family lived on the estate from 1919 until 1936, when it was sold to Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth. Mrs. Roth faithfully kept Bourn’s garden design with 29 gardeners, and in 1975, she donated the 654-acre estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Currently, the garden is maintained by 14 staff and more than 200 volunteers – just a fraction of the total of 1,000 volunteers throughout the organization! It would not be overstated to say that Filoli would not survive without the volunteers’ help. Another important element of this garden is its internship program. Mrs. Roth desired that the garden be used to train gardeners, and Lucy has brought the internship program to new heights.

The Knot Garden was a smorgasbord for the bees but the lavender was the clear favourite

The 16-acre Formal Garden includes the Walled Garden, Sunken Garden, Knot Garden, Rose Garden, and Woodland Garden along the two parallel north-south walks influenced by European style. We also toured part of their Fruit Garden (the biggest private fruit collection in the US) and were treated with samples of yellow raspberries and fragrant, rare strawberries (Alpine x California ‘Marta du Bois’).

Clock Tower at Filoli

A window on the clock tower at Filoli

The Gardens at Filoli (except the Rose Garden) lack labels because the staff wants to deliver the sense of a private garden’s look and feel. We all thoroughly enjoyed the un-labeled Knot Garden that was intricately planted with lavender and rosemary ball topiaries. At one end of these designs, raised containers held miniature gardens mimicking the pattern of the larger designs on the ground. The masterpiece of Filoli is the formal Sunken Garden, a landscape design typified by the rectangular pool that reflects the Clock Tower image, the goblet shaped olive trees and hedges, and even the mountain backdrop to the west.

Drifts of colours in the Knot Garden

Drifts of colours in Filoli's Knot Garden

The Sunken Garden has the most wow factor of Filoli's garden rooms

We were amazed by what we saw at Filoli, and feel that they are truly living up to their mission:

“ Filoli is dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and stewardship of the cultural traditions and natural history of this country estate for public education and enjoyment.”

Photos by Zoe Panchen

August 22-Day 6: Summary

North American Experience (NAX) 2009 began slightly less than a week ago when we all boarded a plane in Baltimore and headed for Florida.  Our landing in Miami may have been a bit bumpy, and getting our rental van a bit frustrating, but in no way did these experiences serve as a metaphor for our travels ahead.  What we were about to see and experience could never have been predicted by even the best Web site or personal conversation prior to our journey. At each stop along our diverse itinerary, our hosts welcomed us with an enthusiasm for our visit and a genuine spirit of excitement to showcase their institutions… and each shined in doing so.  We all listened carefully wherever we were and we engaged almost every other sense to help us remember each site.  We licked the back of mangrove leaves and tasted unusual tropical fruits, experienced a plethora of fragrances from both flowers and foliage, listened to the sounds of water and wildlife most everywhere we went, experienced a myriad of plant textures, and took tons of photographs. And yet, for reasons likely attributable to our career choice of public horticulture, we would like to return again to add to our experiences!

An abstract view of the outstanding bismarkia palm.

An abstract view of the outstanding bismarckia palm.

Just some of the fruits we tasted along the way.

Star fruit...Just some of the fruits we tasted along the way.

The North American Experience does more than showcase plant collections, it showcases people; and if public horticulture leadership can be taught, then leadership by example may be one of the best teaching strategies. At each one of the sites on the NAX itinerary, the staff candidly and openly shared their success stories, challenges, creative approaches to problem solving, plans for the future, and how they viewed themselves as unique amongst other public horticulture institutions.   Our hosts also shared how they “fit” within their neighborhoods and communities, whether in ways to increase their own membership or how they can enhance the educational curriculum of the local school systems. Our hosts were especially interested in the future of public horticulture, and discussed institutional survival and/or expansion in terms of financial, capital, and human resources, which indeed included roles for the students.  We witnessed an infectious optimism everywhere we went, regardless of the size or age of the institutions we visited.  Sources of private and public support were changing but clearly evident, volunteers provided valuable contributions for all staff and departments, and institutional relationship building was alive and well.

Peering through the giant milkweed.

Peering through the giant milkweed.

Even the reflections were beautiful at Vizcaya.

Even the reflections were beautiful at Vizcaya.

We owe much to those who took the time to meet with us during NAX 2009 – South Florida.  We return home with a greater understanding of public horticulture operations and an increased network of professional colleagues who we hope to see again in the future!

Cascading waters at Vizcaya.

Cascading waters at Vizcaya.

Richard Keefe and Carolann Sharkey of Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

Richard Keefe and Carolann Sharkey of Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

August 20th – Day 5: Montgomery Botanical Center

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.

Scenic vista of Montgomery estate house

Scenic vista of Montgomery estate house

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.

Director, Dr. Patrick Griffith, telling Fellows about conservation efforts at Montogomery Botanical Center

Director, Dr. Patrick Griffith, telling Fellows about conservation efforts at Montogomery Botanical Center

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.

Judy Kay, Montgomery Seed Techinician, with recently collected fruits of Nypa fruticans

Judy Kay, Montgomery Seed Coordinator, with recently collected fruits of Nypa fruticans

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.

Closeup of palm fruits

Closeup of palm fruits

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.

Closeup of palm flowers

Closeup of palm flowers

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.

Jon Pixler supports a precious palm from the dangerous winds in Miami - What dedication!

Jon Pixler supports a precious palm from the dangerous winds in Miami - What dedication!

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.