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Fairchild Garden - Paradise Lost?

Last August, Hurricane Andrew struck Florida with devastating force. One of the areas hardest hit was Fairchild Tropical Garden. But all is not lost...
Steve Swinscoe, Manatte, Le Houga 32460, France
Chamaerops No. 10, published online 23-09-2002

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These photographs show well the devastation brought by Hurricane Andrew on it's path of destruction through Fairchild tropical Garden on August 24th last year. Signs of reconstruction can be seen in the lower photo however, where these survivors can be seen supported and propped up.

Early on Monday morning, August 24th 1992 Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida, just south of Miami, Florida's biggest metropolis, with sustained winds of over 140mph (at times over 165 mph), torrential rains and tidal surges of 16 feet above sea level. It had been more than 30 years since a hurricane of such intensity had struck Florida. The majority of South Florida's constantly growing population had never before experienced the ravages of a hurricane and could only imagine what awaited them. Andrew left behind a trail of destruction as it crossed the southern tip of Florida and headed for the Gulf of Mexico before finally dying out over mainland Louisiana. It was the costliest natural disaster ever in the United States with damage estimated at $20 billion in wrecked homes (63,000 destroyed and 250,000 people left homeless) and businesses. If the hurricane had passed 10 miles further north, over Miami, the figures would surely have been even higher.

As an aside, the majority of the 700 islands of the Bahamas located due east and south of Florida were spared. Residents of Nassau on New Providence Island counted their blessings in that the Bahaminan capital went unscathed and quipped that it was lucky that the hurricane was named Andrew and not Sarah, dreading the havoc that a Hurricane Sarah might have wrought!

In light of the destruction to man-made structures it is easy to imagine the effects of hurricane force winds, rains and tides on the natural landscape. South Florida is a tropical paradise when it comes to gardens. The normally benign climate, with generous sunshine, year round mild temperatures (average daytime high temperatures in January are 75F) and abundant rainfall, is responsible for the lush vegetation, both native and introduced, which grows all year long.

It is the only place in continental U.S.A. where the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) grows like a native. Legend has it that a Spanish galleon, the appropriately named Provudencia, was shipwrecked on the coral reefs off the South Florida coast in 1878. She was carrying a cargo of thousands of coconuts, bound for Spain. They washed up on the shore and took root, transforming a barren stretch of sand into one of the world's most expensive pieces of real estate, Palm Beach, shaded ever since by the waving fronds of beautiful coconut palms.

Many of Miami's foremost tourist attractions were ravaged by the hurricane, among them, The Parrot Jungle, Vizcaya, The Monkey Jungle, and Metrozoo, which boasted a new and extensive palm collection. One of the hardest hit was probably Fairchild Tropical Garden. This garden, founded in 1935 by Colonel Robert Montgomery and named after the renowned botanist Dr. David Fairchild (see "Chamaerops", April 1991, "Fabulous Fairchild" by Tony King) is the only tropical garden in continental U. S. A.

Fairchild was chosen as the setting for the 1992 International Palm Society Biennial, and planning for this important event began more than a year in advance. However, after Andrew's rampage it looked like it might have to be called off, or re-located. Many South Florida organizers saw their own homes and gardens damaged or even destroyed but, in the midst of cleaning up and re-building, they nevertheless welcomed I. P. S. members from all over the world, including Britain and France. On Wednesday November 11th, visitors to the Miami Biennial convened at Fairchild to view the gardens, to witness first hand the damage and to admire the progress made in clearing up after the storm.

Crews came from as far away as Maryland and were still at work during our visit. Chainsaws were buzzing everywhere, a heartbreaking racket in a normally tranquil garden where the songs of birds and the rustle of palm fronds are usually the only sounds to be heard. The crews were faced with a daunting job and hundreds of volunteers helped to make order out of the tangled vegetation. It was decided to leave, near the entrance, one small corner of the garden, as it was found the day of Andrew's rampage, as a reminder of the storm's fury.

Botanists from all over the U. S. A. as well as Europe rushed to help retrieve palm parts and specimens of tropical hardwoods for future study. Some of these specimens were shipped to the National Cancer Institute for research into possible ant-cancer and anti-AIDS properties they may contain. Buds, wood, and roots were inventoried.
The administrators of Fairchild learned a lesson from the experience of Kew Gardens following the terrible storm that struck that garden several years ago and toppled centuries-old trees there. As at Kew it was decided to sell some of the wood from some of the downed trees either as logs or pre-cut boards. Only timber not readily available from other sources was put up for sale and all proceeds were destined for rebuilding the garden.

The losses suffered at Fairchild included more than 1,000 palms (about 20% of the collection) along with estimates of as much as 75% of the other vegetation. Also lost was the top of the rare plant house, the irrigation system, and the brick pillared pergolas that supported flowering tropical vines. Over 300 palms had to be replanted, propped back up or braced. Evidence of these efforts was seen throughout the garden, with stakes serving as supports until the palms, which tend to have relatively compact rootballs, produce new root ramifications. All the palms treated in this manner were severely pruned in an effort to help them recover. An inventory taken three months after the event indicated that 41 species were totally lost. Nevertheless a substantial collection remains of 4000 palms of over 600 species.

Chuck Hubbuch, curator of palms at Fairchild, noted that they learned from Andrew the many ways in which a palm can die, as debris was cleared after the storm. Understory palms were crushed under the weight of massive fallen trunks and branches. Others simply broke free from their roots and blew away. The trunks of others broke off at varying heights and the terminal buds of still others sometimes blew right out of the crowns, leaving green lower fronds but no growing point. Some palms were beheaded, with their crowns broken off from the top of the trunk.

Despite these losses, Fairchild's palms seemed to fare better than many other plants there. Those that best resisted Andrew's winds and rains were Veitchia, Hyophorbe and Roystonea, as well as low-growing species such as Chamaedorea cataractum and Phoenix roebelenii Others that did well include Satakentia, Latania, and Bismarckia. The greatest losses in palms included Livistonas, which, despite their robust appearance, proved particularly brittle and snapped off at varying heights. Most Syagrus were lost as well as Caryotas, Arengas, and, somewhat surprisingly, Cocos nucifera, the coconut palms that, one would have thought, would take hurricanes in their stride.

Typical American optimism has prevailed at Fairchild following Andrew's rampage and in the midst of the destruction the garden's administrators managed to find a bright side to the havoc wrought by the hurricane. In effect it offered a clean slate to re-think Fairchild's future direction and goals. The garden is at a crossroads and it must be decided whether to seek to aggressively increase the annual visitor count, presently at about 70,000 and, at the same time, enhance the garden's standing in the scientific community. Prior to the hurricane, in April 1992, the Hoard of Trustees adopted a mission statement with the goal to become the premier tropical botanic garden in the world, setting the highest possible standards for its landscape design and collection, and to serve as a primary source of information on tropical plants and inspire responsible attitudes about the environment. Chuck Hubbuch outlined a palm collection policy to guide the garden toward its goals.

The garden plans to specialize in New World palms and will include all those native to Florida and the Caribbean, particularly from coastal regions of Venezuela, Colombia and Central America. The proposal is to grow the type species in each genus in the palm family, made up of more than 200 genera.

Major renovation projects had been approved at that time, among them renovation of the Bailey Palm Glade, and funds were earmarked for these projects. New projects proposed following Andrew's romp include entrance improvements with new palms and beds, restoration and enhancement of the rain forest, establishment of a xeriscape garden and a dry tropical garden, enlargement and reconstruction of the rare plant house and the construction of a major new irrigation system.

Foremost in these new plans is the underlying requirement to beautify the garden, so that it can serve to inspire local visitors interested in ideas to enhance their homes with new plants for their gardens. As Director Bill Klein put it, "The concept is that the garden should be an outstanding example of landscape design and show how different plants can be utilized." All of these projects together will make it possible for Fairchild to achieve the world-class garden status to which it aspires.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to attend the I. P. S. Biennial in Miami witnessed first hand the power of the forces of Nature untamed. On August 24th 1992 Fairchild Tropical Garden was brought to its knees, down but definitely not out. It is exciting to realize that, instead of tolling the death knell of this fabulous garden, Hurricane Andrew has instead ushered in a rebirth that might otherwise not have been possible.

And South Florida's tropical climate is already healing the wounds, proving that Nature can heal as well as destroy. Let's return soon to revisit the new Fairchild Tropical garden.

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