A natural treasure


Miami Beach Botanical Garden offers ideas on how to use plants in landscaping

If You Go

Information: Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach; 305-673-7256; www.mbgarden.org.

Hours: The garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Docent-led tours meet at the front gate at 2 p.m. Saturday. The tour lasts about 30 minutes and there is a suggested donation of $5. Admission is free.

Parking: Limited paid parking is available but there are nearby public lots and parking garages as well as street parking.

Special to The Miami Herald

Celebrating its 50th birthday, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden welcomes visitors across from the bustling Miami Convention Center. Standing at the open metal gates, it’s easy to get a sense of what these 2 ½ acres have to offer.

“This isn’t just a park. It’s a treasure,” says Benoit Jonckheere, who has been horticulturist at the garden for six years.

Here at the entry, take time to look up to the canopy of pink flowers on the towering silk floss tree high above your head. Now look into the garden, where there’s an open sight line to a pond in the middle of a spreading lawn.

Keep looking and you’ll see the far reaches of the garden and a weeping fig with buttressing roots and an oversized sea grape backing up to the historic Collins Canal.

Although the park feels open, there are plenty of twists and curves where you’ll discover the natural beauty this garden has to offer.

First developed as a golf course, the land was designated a city park with gardens in 1962. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew blew through, the park suffered even further decline.

But in 2011, it underwent a $1.2 million renovation by renowned landscape architect Raymond Jungles. Since then there have been investigations into shady contracting deals involving the garden, but the questionable deals don’t affect what you’ll experience if you visit this park with its grand mix of natives and exotic species.

Follow the ribbon of walkway running from the gate and you’ll pass a kapok tree. It may be small today but Jonckheere looks forward to the time its buttress roots reach eight feet high and it towers up to 80 feet above the park.

Keep walking and you’ll discover the path was carefully laid out so you’ll encounter the ylang ylang tree. It was in this very spot even before the redesign. It’s had time to grow so that its graceful limbs sweep down to the ground.

One passerby stopped in her tracks to determine the origin of the heady fragrance in the air. She quickly realized it was wafting from the tree’s yellow flowers, which are used to make Chanel No. 5.

As you walk further, you come to a wetland area in the corner of the main pond. Here, spiral rushes with their whimsical curlicue stems stand sentry around the roots of a red mangrove tree. The pond also is home to purple water lilies.

The water feature was added to remind us how Miami is surrounded by water, says Howard Goldman, a volunteer who leads park tours.

The silvery leaves and purple flowers of autumn sage and the bright blue petals of salvia flowers thriving at the water’s edge add more color. The plants attract not only us but butterflies, bees and birds.

Nearby is a limestone block fountain originally designed by Morris Lapidus, who also brought Miami Beach the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau hotels. It was updated in the redesign so that its water pours from the top instead of shooting up from jets at the bottom.

Sit here in the shade of palms with your feet resting on a soft tuft of dwarf mondo grass. It’s as cute as it is small. Close your eyes and listen to the fountain’s gently falling water. Now look out over the purple haze of waving muhly grass and beyond to the sweeping zoyzia grass lawn.

It’s hard to believe you are mere steps from Lincoln Road.

Take a minute to locate the spiraling fronds of the petticoat palm. With age, they turn brown and fold down to form a “skirt” around the tree.

Now look at the fronds of the nearby pony tail palm. This particular tree was hidden behind other palms and grasses in the park before it was moved to this spot by the water. The fronds look like they’ve been gathered together and clipped in place, just like a young girl’s hair.

These are just two of the 80 palm varieties you’ll discover in this garden.

For those interested in native plantings, Jonckheere has gathered them on the west side of the park. A visit gives homeowners a chance to see how to use these varieties in the landscape, he says.

Pine bark pathways take you past the red and yellow tubular flowers of the fire bush and a necklace pod tree that has seedpods resembling strung beads.

There also are live oaks, coco plums, a lignum vitae, white indigo berry bushes, the evergreen Florida privet and a fernlike wild tamarind tree.

Instead of the usual ficus or ixora hedge along the fence, Jonckheere has planted bitter bush, yellow elder, Simpson and Spanish stoppers, Myrtle of the river and Jamaican caper. He wants you to see how well these natives work together at the property’s edge.

Moving along the path you come to the Japanese Garden that was part of the park’s original design. Created with the elements of feng shui in mind, it boasts a graceful bridge painted vibrant red.

Walk across it and you not only hear the water running beneath you but you also are lulled by the rustle of bamboo. The dark lengths of black bamboo, the silvery angel mist bamboo and the bright stalks of the yellow bamboo are just some of the varieties you’ll discover in this park.

As one German tourist enjoying the garden concludes, “It really is nice to be here.”

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

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