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.

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!

August 18th – Day 3: Naples Botanical Garden

This afternoon, we drove across the state to visit the up and coming Naples Botanical Garden. Brainstormed by local residents in the mid 1990s, the Garden is currently completing construction and will open to the public on November 14th, 2009. Executive Director Brian Holley and his staff graciously invited us to visit the 160-acre site, which was an invaluable experience to learn more about botanic garden creation and construction.

The new (and colorful!) Visitor Center at the Naples Botanical Garden

The new (and colorful!) Visitor Center at the Naples Botanical Garden

A view of the entrance garden with its beautiful mosaic wall and lively plantings

A view of the entrance garden with its beautiful mosaic wall and lively plantings

A close-up of the Naples Botanical Garden's mosaic wall

A close-up of the Naples Botanical Garden's mosaic wall

While a typical South Florida rainstorm passed by, we had the opportunity to hear the perspectives of Jill Barry, Director of External Affairs, and Joyce Zirkle, Chief Operating Officer. We then boarded golf carts to get an overview of the site, stopping to see the progress on some of the notable garden locations, including the Children’s Garden, the Brazilian Garden, and the pond system. We had the expertise of Brian Galligan, Horticulture Manager, who pointed out some of the notable plant specimens along the way.

Executive Director Brian Holley telling Dan and Andrew an exciting tale

Executive Director Brian Holley telling Dan and Andrew an exciting tale

Dan on the boardwalk near the Caribbean Garden

Dan on the boardwalk near the Caribbean Garden

Both Brians then sat down with us to discuss the garden structure and history. The purpose of this garden is to reflect landscapes and cultures within 26 degrees of the Equator, and there are already locations for future Asian and African inspired garden areas. We all agreed that this will be a fantastic new botanic garden and a great resource for tropical horticulture.

Before heading back to the east coast, we couldn’t resist stopping to dip our toes in the Gulf of Mexico, and arrived just as the sun was about to set. It was a good thing we stopped, or Bob never would have met his feisty dolphin friend.

Behold: the Gulf of Mexico!

Behold: the Gulf of Mexico!

Bob training for the Dolphin Rodeo

Bob training for the Dolphin Rodeo

August 18th – Day 3: The Kampong

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.

Curator David Jones shows Bob, Andrew, and Keelin a unique seed

Curator David Jones shows Bob, Andrew, and Keelin a unique seed

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.

Dan and Keelin hiding behind some seriously jumbo-sized elephant ears

Dan and Keelin hiding behind some seriously jumbo-sized elephant ears

This little guy is just checking the sprinkler head!

This little guy is just checking the sprinkler head!

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 mask of a woman gazes out from the aerial roots of a banyan tree

The mask of a woman gazes out from the aerial roots of a banyan tree

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.

Sampling some tasty fruits off a specimen tree in the Kampong's collection

Sampling some tasty fruits off a specimen bignay, Antidesma bunius, in the Kampong's collection

A view of Biscayne Bay from a bluff on the Kampong's grounds

A view of Biscayne Bay from a bluff on the Kampong's grounds

August 17th – Day 2: The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

Today the fellows toured and experienced the only frost-free tropical forest garden in the continental United States. Located off the coast of Florida, The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden has an extensive collection of native plants of the Northern Caribbean Rim. The largest portion of their plant collection is endemic to the Florida Keys, containing approximately 60 endangered species. These collections preserve and protect important germplasm, while also serving as an important educational tool. The Garden currently runs educational programs for all school age children on Key West, reaching over 3,000 children annually. The Garden also has five docent led tours highlighting different ecosystems and plantings throughout the institution.

Entrance to Garden

Group at Garden entrance

Palm frond with fallen Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia) petal

Florida thatch palm (Thrinax radiata) frond with fallen Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia) petal

Our group was guided by docents Beryn and Rick Harty, who shared their extensive knowledge of the Garden’s history and plant collections. Beryn explained that the Garden was established in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration to foster jobs and tourism throughout the Keys. After opening, the Garden quickly became the #1 tourist destination in Key West. During World War II, part of the Garden was turned over to become a military base. The Botanical Garden was initially started with displays of tropical plants from around the world, but in 2000, the collection became focused on natives. However, many large exotic specimens remained from early periods, like the huge Barringtonia (Barringtonia asiatica), the beautiful Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia), a few large autograph trees (Clusia rosea), and an impressive sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata). Of the few other non-natives that can be found in the Garden are several nectar and host plant species for native butterflies.

View of Butterfly Garden host and nectar plants from below. Giant Milkweed (Calotropis gigantea) with light-purple bloom, Firebush (Hamelia patens)

View of Butterfly Garden host and nectar plants from below. (giant milkweed (Calotropis gigantea) with light-purple bloom, firebush (Hamelia patens) with orange bloom)

Jon investigates blooming ground-cover

Jon investigates blooming ground-cover with interested audience

Beryn and Rick proudly told us that the Garden now has collected 72% of all shrubs and 80% of all trees native to the Keys. Two particularly impressive native trees found throughout the Garden were the pigeon plum (Cocoloba diversifolia) and the sea grape (Colcoloba uvifera).  We were all given good advice to stay clear of one native tree during our stay on the Keys. This tree was the poisonwood (Metoplom toxiforum), whose wood and foliage causes a reaction similar to poison ivy, but is also able to exude toxic sap during a downpour.  One other plant that surprised the fellows was the endangered semaphre cactus (Opunita corallicola), which is reduced to only one male population found on Key West Island.

Beryn shows Dan interesting bloom

Beryn shows Dan interesting flower structure

Firebush (Hamelia patens) in full fruit

Firebush (Hamelia patens) in full fruit

After our delightful tour, we met with board members Richard Keefe and Carolann Sharkey who shared many new and exciting plans for expanding the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. One new project that we saw being installed was the new pond. This pond is built on top of an aquifer and plans to showcase native fresh water flora and fauna. Another new construction project is a LEED certified visitor center, for which the Garden will begin a capital campaign this year. A few other projects that are on the horizon include: a scenic by-way, an internship program, more educational tours, a Miami blue butterfly garden and a Cuban forest garden. These plans are only made possible thanks to dedicated and passionate volunteers, staff, and board members. The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical garden is truly fortunate for them and is a must see destination when in the Florida Keys.

Keelin bares her Limber caper (Capparis flexuosa) fruit

Keelin bares her limber caper (Capparis flexuosa) fruit

North American Experience – Day 1: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a beautiful Renaissance-style estate located on the outskirts of Miami, was the first stop on our week-long journey to the public gardens of South Florida.  When we arrived at the front gate this morning, we were welcomed by Ian Simpkins, Vizcaya’s Chief Horticulturist, who oriented us to the garden’s history and spent the next several hours touring us around the 54-acre estate.

One of the first views we saw as we entered Vizcaya.

One of the first views we saw as we entered Vizcaya.

Vizcaya was built between 1914 and 1916 as the winter residence of James Deering, native Chicagoan and Vice President of the International Harvester Corporation. Deering initially purchased 180 acres of land upon which to build his estate, paying the then-exorbitant sum of $1000 per acre. At the time, Miami was little more than a wilderness outpost, with a population of only 10,000 living among extensive black and red mangrove swamps.

The mansion as viewed from Biscane Bay.

The mansion as viewed from Biscane Bay.

Vizcaya has been a public garden and museum since the mid-1950s, when Miami-Dade County purchased the estate from Deering’s nieces. Today, the garden welcomes 180,000 visitors per year, and serves as one of Miami’s most well-regarded public horticulture institutions.

Our host, Ian Simpkins, shows Jon part of Viscaya's orchid collection, which includes over 4,000 specimens.

Our host, Ian Simpkins, shows Jon part of Viscaya's orchid collection, which includes over 4,000 specimens.

Vizcaya’s natural beauty owes much to James Deering’s ethic of environmental conservation. Unlike most other wealthy landowners of the era, Deering chose to preserve much of the native woodland located on his estate. To this day, the tropical hardwood forest, known as a rockland hammock, lends Vizcaya’s landscape a unique and beautifully lush quality. The Miami Rock Ridge, a coral-based limestone formation, forms the area’s geological substrate and enables this locally-endemic forest type to thrive.

A blue crab peeks out from behind cascading fountains.

A blue crab peeks out from behind cascading fountains.

Deering hired several experts to direct the design and construction of his estate. F. Burrall Hoffman, architect, designed the mansion and other buildings; Diego Suarez, noted garden designer, created the landscapes; and the landscape architect Paul Chalfin served as artistic supervisor of the entire endeavor. The mansion and its surrounding gardens were built in a style reminiscent of French and Italian late Renaissance design, and were furnished with European artifacts and statuary Deering collected on his trips abroad.

Apollo posing with Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia).

Apollo posing with Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia).

The Center Garden, located just to the east of the mansion, serves as a main focal point in the landscape. Its central feature is an elongated central pool flanked by an allee of stately live oak (Quercus virginiana) trees and twin parterres of orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata). At the far end of the garden is a multi-tiered fountain behind which is an Italianate garden structure known as a casino.

Stairway

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Vizcaya, and only wish we could have stayed longer! As it was, we had to get on the road to travel to our next destination, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.