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Fairchild Tropical Garden

One of the foremost botanic gardens in the world, Fairchild is a Mecca for palm enthusiasts. Here, Florida born Mike Horwitz whets your appetite.
by Mike Horwitz, mikehorwitz@compuserve.com
Chamaerops No.37, Winter Edition 2000

Picture: Entrance to Fairchild Tropical Gardens with Wodyetia bifurcata.

Fairchild Tropical Garden (FTG): I drove by it regularly growing up in Miami, but never did appreciate it. Gardens? Boring. Palm trees? Boring; well, except for coconut palms which were good for climbing and for their coconuts. Palmettos were simply a nuisance, and even more so when your schools were named after them (Palmetto Elementary, Palmetto Junior High School). How one’s ideas change with maturity! Now I would put FTG on the top of my list of places to visit in Miami, especially for those interested in palms, cycads, and basically all species of exotic tropical and sub-tropical vegetation. So when we visited Florida this past Spring, we naturally made FTG our first trip.

The timing was good as the Spring Show and Sale of the South Florida Chapter of the International Palm Society was being held at FTG, featuring the palms of Cuba. This was an opportunity to view and purchase from 600 species and varieties of palms and cycads, from a total of 27 vendors, both professional and amateur. According to the S. Florida Chapter brochure, when they first started having these sales in 1981, there were 150 species available; quite a contrast to today.

Unfortunately there are logistical problems in taking plants back to the UK, but this should not lessen the pleasure of „window shopping.” Do be warned though, that you will end up walking away with a real feeling of envy for what people living in much warmer climates then ours can grow outside, as well as the growth rates they can achieve. I did learn, however, that Trachycarpus does not grow very well in the South Florida heat, so be happy for this one advantage. If you have not worked out the logistics of taking plants back to the UK, you can still take home a souvenir from your visit. Seeds are being given out by the South Florida Chapter, to encourage distribution of palms. The seeds available will depend on what is fresh at the time. I came back with some Butia Capitata.

Another attraction is the Montgomery Garden House, where you can view the original water colour paintings of Lee Adams, painted in the 1960‘s (reference: Principles, 39(1), 1995, 42-45). Reproductions (size 20"x30") of three of these paintings are available to purchase. I have enjoyed looking at them in our dining room for several years now. There are also other prints available along with every book imaginable on palms and cycads in the FTG book shop.

After finishing with the Show and Sale there is the rest of FTG to see, which in itself is enough of a reason to visit. I will not attempt to describe in detail FTG, instead let me quote from their brochure: „you will find the renowned collection of palms, cycads and other tropical plants which provides a living laboratory for scientists, and the opportunity of discovery for everyone.“ That is no exaggeration. FTG is 83 acres in size and was established in 1938 by Robert H. Montgomery and Dr. David Fairchild. As far as their collection of palms goes, the Montgomery Palmetum is a world renowned collection including some 900 species, many of which are endangered.

One of my favorite spots in FTG to visit is the conservatory called „Windows to the Tropics“ where plants which may not be hardy enough to withstand the relatively cool Miami winters are kept. What I find particularly interesting is the collection of bromeliads and numerous Red Sealing Wax palms (Cyrtostachys renda) with their outstanding red trucks.

Of course there are palms throughout FTG, with the largest concentration in the Montgomery Palmetum. Follow the „Palm Walk“ through this area to view the palms. In addition you are encouraged to leave the path and walk on the grass for a close-up view. Also in this same area is the „Sunken Garden,“ a natural hole in the limestone containing a small pond and waterfall—a nice place to cool off on a hot day. I have a vested interest in the garden, as my Father built the waterfall.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit FTG very hard. Looking at the gardens today, at least as a visitor, you would never know such an event took place. The one exception is a small location which was left in the state it was in after the Hurricane passed through, to allow it to recover naturally. It is worth a look just to see the size of the massive oak tree that was toppled during the storm.

The South Florida Chapter holds a palm sale in November as well as March, both excellent times of year to visit Florida (see the FTG web page for exact dates). On that note, let me tell you how to get to FTG via the scenic route. From Miami Beach or Miami International Airport find I95 south. Take Exit No 2 to S.W. 8th/US 41, turn left in an easterly direction (if you turn right to the west, you will end up in Little Havana and if you want to try Cuban food this is the place to go). Turn right/south onto Brickel Ave/US 1, which is lined in part by royal poinsettia trees, which are stunning in the Spring when in bloom. Pass the entrance to Rickenbacker Causeway leading to Key Biscayne (if time allows a drive along the causeway gives excellent views of the city and Biscayne Bay). Turn left onto South Bay Shore Drive past the Planetarium and Vizcaya. Continue on until you reach the area called Coconut Grove, one of the older parts of Miami where you will have nice views of the bay and the many sailboats on it. When I was a teenager, Coconut Grove was the hippy hangout. The hippies have grown up and, in the process, found the meaning of money. As such, now you will find rather expensive marinas, condos, shops, and restaurants. As you would expect, there will be many coconut palms along the route, species which are resilient to lethal yellowing, which destroyed the original tall varieties.

When you come to the centre of the Grove you veer right onto MacFarland Lane and then shortly after a sharp left on to Main Highway, which takes you through the commercial centre of the Grove. Stay on Main Highway through some of the wealthy residential areas lush in sub-tropical vegetation, till you reach Douglas Road, then turn left, then a right onto Ingraham Drive. At the intersection of Ingraham Drive and Le Juene Road turn left, and after a short distance you will reach a traffic circle (round-a-about, the only one I know of in Miami); take the exit to Old Cutler Road. Continue along a road which is shaded much of the way by giant Baynon Trees with their multiple trunks/roots, until reaching Old Culter Road, which will eventually lead up to FTG. In my opinion, that is the best drive through Miami.

You can visit FTG via Internet at www.ftg.org.
For further information you can also contact me at: mikehorwitz@compuserve.com.


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