Fabulous Fairchild

Tony King is your guide on a tour of this famous U.S.A. garden.
Tony King, 34 Keats Avenue, Romford, Essex, RM3 7AR, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002

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Left: Cuban beauty: Copernica macroglossa.
Right: Thai take-away: Kerriodoxa elegans.

There can t be many gardens in the world where, outdoors, palms such as Chamaerops & Nannorrhops rub shoulders with Loidicea (the Double Coconut or 'Coco de Mer'), Licuala, and Kerriodoxa. Fairchild Tropical Garden is one such.

In the last issue I described some of the native palms of southern Florida, now I would like to take you on a ramble through Fairchild, and show you some of the introduced species.

But first, a few words of history...

Planted on 83 acres (34 hectares) in South Miami, the garden was founded by the wealthy Colonel Robert Montgomery in 1935 and named after his neighbour, the great plant collector Dr David Fairchild. It was the latter's expeditions in search of palms that quickly ensured that the garden boasted one of the largest and most varied plant collections in the world. This is still true to this day.

Now, where shall we start? With a warning perhaps that since palms are planted throughout the garden you must be prepared for quite a walk if you want to see the full range. However, many are grouped together in areas where microclimates have been created to suit their precise requirements. So, on with your stout walking shoes, and we'll be off.

Here, just inside the entrance, is the first such area. It's sunny and open with a distinctly 'dry' feel. Not surprisingly, most of the palms in this area come from regions where drought is a regular occurrence. Especially well represented are the many fan palms of the Caribbean. The most unusual and eye-catching is a Cuban native, which revels in the name of Coccothrinax crinita. It most resembles a living haystack, topped by a crown of fan-shaped leaves, and makes our more familiar Trachycarpus seem almost bald by comparison!

Cuba seems to have a number of spectacular palms, and one that rivals even the 'shaggy dog' described above is the Cuban Petticoat Palm, Copernicia macroglossa. Perhaps the most attractive of all palms, it has a mass of closely packed, circular leaves which are not shed, but are retained right down to the base of the trunk, giving the appearance of a drum or a complete crinoline, rather like those elaborate dresses worn by the European ladies of fashion in years gone by. A relative of this species is of commercial importance as a source of a valuable wax, and is much planted for this purpose in Brazil.

Contrasting with the fans is a 3m feather palm with a fat, black trunk covered with stout spines. This is the Cuban Belly Palm (Gastrococos crispa to the botanist), aptly named, as the trunk, with such a huge girth in the middle, tapers down to the base, making the pa lm look quite lop heavy.

The Cuban plants do not hold a monopoly in the this part of the garden however, and sharing it we can see palms from the other side of the globe, from the Mascarene Islands in fact, in the Indian Ocean. Often dry and windswept, they are home to the three species of Latania, and all are represented here. Curiously, each species has its own distinctive leaf colour, and this provides the common names of Red, Yellow and Blue Latan Palms, any of which would make a unique, attractive and contrasting addition to any palm collection.

A short hop takes us to the fringes of this arid area, and to a more familiar plant, our very own European Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis, in the form of a multi-trunked specimen. Its bedfellow is none other than Nannorrhops ritchiana, the Mazari Palm of Afghanistan and Pakistan, though a smaller, and less densely leaved plant than the fine specimen at the Villa Thuret in the south of France.

Following the winding path we head for a different habitat altogether - the Rain Forest, pausing on the way to admire the popular Triangle Palm, Neodypsis decaryi. These are mature trees, with the wonderful triangular crowns from which they get their common name, supported by more conventional round trunks. Hopefully, seeds from cultivated trees such as these will take the pressure off the wild stands in their native Madagascar.

Piercing the canopy, a huge Fish Tail Palm, Caryota, is beginning to bloom, the clusters of flowers emerging from the highest leaf bases. Successive flower clusters will appear lower and lower down the trunk, and when the last one has opened and set seed, the tree will die. 'Monocarpic' is the term used to describe this phenomenon. A real rarity, not often illustrated, is the breathtaking fan palm from Thailand, Kerriodoxa elegans. One of the few native stands of this recently described palm is just behind a popular tourist spot on Phuket Island, southern Thailand, called the Waterfall Gardens. Thousands of tourists go there every year, and leave without realizing that one of nature's masterpieces was just around the corner. Perhaps it's just as well.

In this area too, grows another monocarpic palm, whose scale is really difficult to take in and whose sheer size precludes its appearance in the glasshouses of Europe. It is the Talipot Palm from India, Corypha umbraculifera. Its fan leaves are immense. They can reach 5m across and are carried on stalks up to 4m long. One leaf would cover the floor of an average sitting room, and, with its stalk, is certainly bigger than the side of a London double-decker bus! The trees grow for some 30 to 80 years, reaching up to 25 metres tall before producing the largest inflorescence in the world containing millions of flowers. In time, fruits containing seeds not much smaller than golf balls rain down in their thousands, and when the last one has fallen, the tree dies from sheer exhaustion! Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the trees at Fairchild are but youngsters.

Leaving the shade of the rainforest, we now step out into the sunshine and head for the path that encircles a large lake, the centrepiece of the garden. Keeping a careful lookout for snoozing alligators, we can admire reflections of many palms in the lake's mirror-like surface. If we are keeping one eye open for the 'gators then with the other we must watch out for falling fruit, as we are nearing another huge and economically important palm, the Palmyra Palm, again of India. Its Latin name is Borassus flabellifer, and its large and heavy fruits, almost the size of a coconut, are being shed. The thought of being caught by a falling palm nut kept this palm nut from making too close an inspection!

Welcome shade along this lakeside walk is provided by avenues of Royal Palms, Roystoneas, so popular in the tropics for this kind of planting because of the regular and even growth of their massive, almost white, marble column-like trunks. And here are some other interesting trunks, on Bottle Palms, Hyophorbe, whose unique appearance, truly bottle-like, always provokes comment from the public.

Next, as we head back to our starting place, a spectacular sight is presented to us: a silver torch, created by 5 or 6 trees of the Madagascan Bismarckia nobilis. Large, shiny, silver fans rustle in the breeze, supported by dark, thick trunks. Some of these palms are bearing fruit, black and hard and the size of walnuts. Sadly, the fact that it grows a deep taproot makes pot cultivation of this palm difficult.

Onward now through groves of fruiting coconuts, we arrive at plants labelled 'Jubaea', but to me they bear little resemblance to the magnificent Chilean Wine Palm so familiar from visits to the French Riviera. Perhaps it's just too warm here for it, and it s good to know that we can at least grow some palms better in Europe!

As we get nearer to our starting point, the unusual form of an African Hyphaene Palm catches our eye. One of the few palms to naturally form a branching trunk; they carry strongly costapalmate leaves, that is, with the leaf stalk extending well into the fan shaped leaf. A sort of half way stage between fan- and feather shaped leaves. The common name 'Gingerbread Palm' comes from the smell of the woody fruits, as they wait to be distributed by passing elephants! Altogether a most distinctive palm, especially when viewed in silhouette.

As we arrive at the exit, hopefully not suffering from heat exhaustion, we can reflect on all we have seen. Palms too numerous to mention, assembled from all over the world. With new species being added constantly, tested against a climate that can be very cold at times during the winter, a world class collection of palms, cycads, and other tropical plants, let us hope that the time to take another stroll around this, Florida's other magic kingdom, will not be too far away.

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  13-12-19 - 05:18GMT
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