Rooftop oasis


Garden atop New World Center in Miami Beach is a sanctuary from the city

If you go

Tours of the New World Center and rooftop garden, 500 17th St., Miami Beach, last about 45 minutes and are available at noon Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Reservations required, 305-673-3331. The tour costs $5.

Special to The Miami Herald

As you walk toward the fanciful New World Center in Miami Beach, take a moment to look up.

“It looks like a forest up here,” says Raymond Jungles, the Miami landscape architect who designed the center’s rooftop garden.

Jungles usually landscapes private homes but here he got a chance to do something different. “It’s important to me to get involved in public projects that people can see and enjoy,” he says. He particularly likes this space of more than 3,000 square feet when it’s used for events. “People complete the space and bring it alive,” he says.

But not everyone gets to visit. For the privilege, you pretty much need to be a donor, one of the staff or fellows studying music at the center, a participant in a docent-led tour or a renter of the space.

As you are whisked to the sixth floor in an elevator lined with sparkling, quilted stainless steel, you might not know what to expect when you are deposited in a glass vestibule.

“This is a sanctuary,” says Jungles. “For those who come here, it’s an escape from the dense city. It’s very calming and pleasant.”

Discover his creation by stepping outdoors to enjoy the sweeping views. You’ll see planes at eye level pulling banners in front of white Art Deco buildings along the coast. And if you are on a tour, docents Dollie and Stan Jonas of North Bay Village might help you pick out the roofs of the mint-green Jackie Gleason Theater, the Miami Beach Convention Center and the Temple Emanu-El Synagogue.

“When I create a garden, I design for the climate,” says Jungles. “You have to think about the place.”

So you’ll find plenty of shade, native plants that resist wind and salt, and trees that will remain relatively small so they don’t need much trimming. Jungles also likes native plants because when their seeds are carried by wind, birds and visitors, they propagate an urban forest.

Once off the elevator, you might first notice the island garden surrounding a skylight. Planting boxes are filled with philodendron and native grasses. As in most of his projects, Jungles has limited his “palette” to just about 15 species.

These include the Burle Marx philodendron with its three-pointed leaves. Jungles claims to have been the first to bring this plant from Brazil. Muhly grass creates a purple haze at certain times of the year and silver love grass shimmers in the sun. There also are regal red-and-purple-leafed alcantarea imperialis. These slow-growing bromeliads will form a blossom at the end of an eight-foot spike and then die. But they throw off pups that can be propagated.

“They are one of my favorites,” says Jungles, 56.

The island is surrounded by seats with backs because Jungles calls himself “lazy.” He likes to lounge when he’s seated. So he helped design the gently curving, comfortable cement benches. From these you can appreciate the transparent walls surrounding the garden for safety and wind protection. They are covered with wedding bouquet vines that add the sweet aroma of their showy white tubular flowers.

Along the western and northern expanses of the garden, closia rosea, or autograph trees, are used for their “sculptural capability.” But Dollie and Stan like to let visitors write their names on the tough leaves. As the writing breaks through to the succulent center of the leaf, the word remains until the leaf falls. Dottie remembers one visitor from Russia who was excited to find a message in her mother tongue.

Red-trunked acacias or acacias seyals, with their small yellow flowers and graceful branches, add a gentle touch. Silver saw palmettos add their shimmering fans to the mix.

And the spear-like stems of the encephalartos hildebrand and the wide-leaf coontie add their own primordial interest. “I like these cycads because once they are established you know just how big they’ll grow,” Jungles says. He’s worried the encephalartos hildebrand may be susceptible to wind damage, so he’s keeping an eye on it.

Along the eastern wall you’ll find large tufts of native fakahatchee grass. A number of planters are filled with gumbo limbos. “I like to look down the garden and see all the trunks that look like a forest,” he says. Jungles chose them because they remain small when planted in restricted areas and, in heavy winds, they tend to drop twigs and leaves before they lose limbs.

In fact, when the garden was first planted about two years ago, Jungles was worried that a hurricane might topple some of the trees before they had time to establish themselves in their five-foot-deep planters. The trees that now reach 30 feet high have withstood winds over 50 miles per hour.

He’s only had to trim the trees once. “I love to climb trees,” he says, so he used an eight-foot ladder to do the trimming himself. At the bottom of the gumbo limbos you’ll find carefully manicured yellow-green golden creeper. Jungles didn’t plan for these to be quite so neatly trimmed; he’d prefer they be allowed to cascade over the planters. But he realizes he may have pushed the envelope for “the wild look,” he says.

So he is considering replacing the creeper with the bluish purple flowers of Mexican salvia alongside the peach blossoms of bulbine. That’s another plant he introduced from Brazil, he says.

And one day he hopes all the areas covered with brown mulch will be covered with greenery. What’s more, he’d like to introduce crickets so their sounds would fill the night air.

“All gardens are works in progress,” he says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at

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