Miami had no shortage to beautiful palms, beachy grasses, and colorful crotons, but Miami’s curated palms couldn’t quite compare to the natural beauty of the keys. That is until I visited Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
This botanic garden has been in operation since 1938 and was established by Dr. David Fairchild and Col. Robert H. Montgomery. These two men dedicated their lives “to collecting, documenting and studying tropical and subtropical plants from around the world.” According to the garden’s website, Dr. Fairchild’s work centered around “useful plants” that may be of use to the American people. During his travels across the world, Dr. Fairchild brought back hundreds of plants that have become staples of American agriculture, such as “mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboos and the flowering cherry trees that grace Washington D.C.” Colonel Robert H. Montgomery was a businessman who was interested in plant collecting. The two met when Dr. Fairchild retired to Miami in 1935.
Col. Montgomery was the one who established the botanic garden and named it in honor of his friend the good doctor. According to the garden’s website, “many plants still growing in the Garden were collected by Dr. Fairchild, including a giant African baobab tree by the Gate House,” and its largest collection is of cycads and palms. In addition to “housing” a large cycad and palm collection, there is a 2 acre rain forest exhibit that features the different levels of the rain forest and includes orchid displays.
While I was at the Fairchild Botanic Garden the heat index was at 111° F (including humidity), so walking around the garden was difficult. Luckily for me, the garden offers tram tours so I got to sit in the hot, hot heat, feel a few good breezes, and see the grounds. The tour guide was informative and pointed out some amazing plants. Here are some of my favorites:
Victoria lilies are native to the Amazon rain forest where they can grow over 9 feet in diameter. These lilies and their lily pads are exceptional for many reasons other than their size. Their flowers only bloom at night and the flower itself only lasts for 48 hours. As the bloom builds in its bud the plant begins to produce a lot of heat. On the first night the lily blooms white and radiates heat and scent that attracts pollinators to the female flower. As dawn comes closer, the pollinators that have not left the flower are trapped inside as it closes and undergoes an amazing transformation. During the course of the day, the lily turns from a white female flower to a pink male flower. On the second night, the lily opens its pink petals and frees the pollinators that are now covered in male pollen. This is an incredible trick that ensures the survival of the species because these newly released pollinators then find female white liles to pollinate and the lilies can successfully reproduce. These plants are not simply floating beauties. They also have a magnificent way of protecting themselves from being disturbed or moved. According to my tour guide, these lilies have razor sharp thorns along the sides and bottoms of the lily pad, which can cut and maim anyone or thing who attempts to move them. Every lily has its thorns.
Although the word “palm” is used in its name the coontie is actually a cycad that is native to southeast United States, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Grand Cayman. Cycads have a palm-like appearance, but produce cones as their reproductive organs versus palms which flower. (You can read more about their differences here.) Coontie palms are native to Miami, but this particular one was given as a gift to Fairchild Botanic Garden. According to my tour guide, this cycad is 225 years old and lived most of its life in Mexico before it was gifted to the garden. And yes, if you’re wondering, that entire spread of low lying cycad all comes from the same plant. This coontie is old and massive!
The coontie palm also goes by the name Florida coontie and Florida arrowroot. According to my tour guide, its cones were used to make arrowroot flour by the native American tribes in the Miami area. The cone itself is poisonous, so to make it edible, the native tribes would boil the poison from the root before grinding it into flour. Another cool point about these cones is that they are the plant’s reproductive organs and you can’t tell the sex of the cones unless you open them. Male and female cones are produced separately on different plants.
Like the coontie palm the ponytail palm is not actually a true palm tree. In fact it’s a shrubby tree that’s “native to semi-desert areas of southeastern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala where it typically grows to as much as 30′ tall.” One of its common names “pony tail palm” references how its evergreen leaves cascade over its branches while its other name “elephant’s foot” refers to the shape of its trunk where the bottom widens.This widened area is called the caudex and it’s where the ponytail palm stores its water. The ponytail palm trees at the Fairchild Botanic Garden have more swollen trunks and caudices than would normally be found in the arid climes of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala because of all the water it gets yearly. These guys are commonly found as houseplants and are often listed as succulents, but don’t be fooled by commercial labeling! We know the difference between succulents and trees.
The Talipot palm is an actual palm tree that is native to India and Sri Lanka. This palm tree has the crown for tallest palm tree in the world growing up to 82 feet tall and the largest inflorescence in the world, which means that it has the largest flower structure in the world. According to my tour guide, the Talipot palm’s inflorescence produces millions of small flowers once in its life time anywhere between 30 and 80 years of age. According to the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, “more than a year after flowering, hundreds of thousands of fruits will be ripe and” fall to the ground. Shortly after the fruit falls, the palm dies. In the case of this palm, the Fairchild Botanic Garden will collect the fallen fruit in order to grow another palm. Being able to see this palm bloom was a once in a lifetime event! Hopefully the next time I visit there will be little baby Talipot palms where their mother once stood.
Of all the plants I saw on my trip my absolute favorite, the most bizarre, and the pièce de résistance was the cannonball tree. This tree is native to the Amazon rain forest and its flowers are some of the strangest I have ever seen with petals that look like a cross between a rose and a sea anemone. These flowers are not only strangely beautiful, but they also have the most beautiful smell while still on the tree that attracts bat pollinators. However, my tour guide informed the group that the cannon ball fruit that eventually grow from the flower have a rancid smell that attracts animals and bugs, which spread its seeds.
It was a real treat to see this tree in bloom because it only grows and survives in subtropical climates. So, outside of visiting the rain forests of Central and South America, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is one of the only places in America to see it. You can read more about the interesting structure of its flower in this blog post by the New York Botanical Garden.
There’s so much more to the Fairchild gardens that captivated my imagination. I hope that by reading about this selection you’re inspired to take a trip of your own to visit these exquisite grounds and immerse yourself in the beauty and education it has to offer. The gallery below represents only a fraction of what this garden has to offer.
After seeing the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden I was sure there couldn’t possibly be anything cooler, but the hanging gardens at the Perez Art Museum of Miami proved me wrong. Lookout for my final installment of my Hot, Hot Heat series featuring the hanging gardens of Perez Art Museum of Miami next Sunday!
Do you have questions about my visit to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden? Are you looking to plan a trip? Or do you just have questions about your indoor and outdoor plant babies? If you’d like to know more about my travels or if you have questions about your plant colony, leave a comment below or feel free to contact The Garden Generalist. I would love to hear from you!
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