Photos by Rachel Moscoso Denis
Narration by Ron Wiggins, Palm Beach Post
"I've already paid. You'll enjoy it."
I would enjoy being dragged naked through broken glass and thrown into the man-eating Venus' flytrap of Borneo. I had always taken growing stuff for granted and meant to keep it that way. I'll wade into the Everglades to see bromeliads growing in a stand of cypress or risk snake bite in the Fakahatchee Strand to see wild orchids, but I have limited enthusiasm for plants that aren't born free, free as the wind blows.
"Do they have an inversion roller coaster?" I asked.
"No rides. Just a guided tram tour through 83 acres of the biggest tropical plant collection this side of Singapore. And for lunch we'll have veggie wraps and Haagen-Dazs ice cream."
Oh. Why didn't she say so?
As our bus left the bustle and tacky-clutter of Miami and worked into the serene semi-tropical neighborhoods of the Cutler Ridge-Coconut Grove area, I began to understand that if there were truly 83 acres set aside for a botanic garden where we were going, it had to be the work of somebody very rich or somebody who got the land when the for sale signs were on pontoons.
And the rich guy wasn't Fairchild. Dr. David Fairchild, a Connecticut botanist, was already famous for plunging into jungles and coming back with cargo holds bursting with plant species. The man who founded Fairchild Garden, which opened in 1938, named the Garden after Fairchild as a tip of the hat to a dear friend who brought back the shrubs and trees and orchids. And that founder was Col. Robert H. Montgomery, a Miami palm fancier.
More than 500 varieties
Montgomery's collection on his Cutler Ridge estate exceeded 500 varieties, including cycads, a sort of palm/pine tree with a lineage 250 million years old.
(Back in the 1930s, Montgomery's dinner guests knew better than to even mention cycads if they wanted to get home before dawn.)
It was Montgomery who invited Fairchild and landscape architect William Lyman Phillips to share his vision. In the 1920s and '30s, Phillips was celebrated for his Florida designs of Crandon Park in Miami and Bok Gardens in Lake Wales.
That's a taste of the history of Fairchild Garden, and you can read plenty more at www.fairchildgarden.org Better yet, spend a day at the plant sanctuary and stop by the gift shop for a copy of The Dream Lives On — A History of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, by Bertram Zuckerman, $10.
Your first trip to FTBG won't be your last. Eighty-three acres of tropical flora is comparable to a golf course, and if you've ever walked 18 holes, that's a lot of walking. By the time you've walked through the Rain Forest, the Montgomery Palmetum, the Bailey Palm Glade, Cycad Circle, the McLamore Arboretum, the Victoria Amazonica Pool, the Tropical Flower Garden, the Vine Pergola and...
You'll be pooped! You won't have taken in a third of what I've listed and I wasn't through, and there's huge expansion plans afoot.
And if you see the garden before the end of May, you'll be further delayed to stop and gawk and wonder at the startling and I will say gorgeous Chihuly at Fairchild blown glass sculpture presiding over all the planting areas. You'll know you're looking at one of Dale Chihuly's extravaganzas the second you stop in your tracks and exclaim:
"What the... ?"
That will happen just past the gate, where you will behold a 30-foot high tangle of scarlet and yellow twisty blown glass tubes. I'm not sure if the display had a name, but I would go with "The Day Medusa Brought Her Snakes and Forgot Her Face." Or maybe "When Balloon Animal Makers Go Wild on Spring Break."
The Chihuly spectacular icloses May 31.
So you have to go see Fairchild for yourself, and your first priority should be to catch a 45-minute guided tram tour. Bob Petsinger was our volunteer show-and-tell tram guide. I took notes:
• The 83 acres of oak highland and drained tidal marsh were close to ideal for propagating tropical plants, which have almost no tolerance for temperatures below 80 degrees.
• The 5-acre tropical rain forest requires twice the 50 inches of natural rainfall in Miami, and the difference is supplied by misting and sprinklers.
• A spectacular rainbow eucalyptus tree, with hues out of an Easter egg basket created in its peeling bark patterns, is extremely rare, found in Malaysia. The garden features a monster tree called the baobab or "elephant tree" because in times of drought, elephants tear into it for water stored in its foamy bark.
• Research done at Fairchild with grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helped adapt strains of soy beans, rice, alfalfa, sweet potatoes, cotton, olives and other commercial crops for United States production.
• A favorite creation of landscape architect Phillips was a a scenic overlook dubbed the Bailey Palm Glade. In 1941 when Col. Montgomery decided he wanted a palm glade, the landscape architect was stumped by the request. He had never heard of such thing and here he held a doctorate in growing stuff.
"What's a palm glade?" Phillips asked.
"I don't know," replied Montgomery. "But it's a good word, isn't it? Design one."
With typical unselfishness, Montgomery named the glade after a great friend of the garden, Dr. Liberty Hyde Bailey, known throughout the chlorophyll world as the "dean of American horticulture."
The above was from our engaging and knowledgeable tram guide.
The rest is a cautionary note from me. I may not know plants, but I know exhibitionists when I see them. You might want to cover the kids' eyes when you cruise Cycad Circle in the Montgomery Palmetum. Cycads look like hairy palm trees and if they could stroll into town, they'd be busted for lewd and lascivious.
These primitive gymnosperms do not bear flowers, but shamelessly pop "naked seeds" directly out of cones the size of bread loaves. Somebody should clamp chastity belts over these shocking Vesuvii of fecundity. Or tell them to get a room.