David Fairchild had a wish list of places he wanted to visit to fortify the garden named for him in Coral Gables — the Caribbean and Indonesia, among them. But his trip to Indonesia was cut short by the start of World War II.
Fairchild, a renowned botanist and plant explorer, left an indelible mark on South Florida as he introduced thousands of exotic plants to the United States and developed numerous crops such as soybeans, mangos, nectarines, dates and wheat from his home, the Kampong, in Coconut Grove. Friend Col. Robert Montgomery founded a new garden in nearby Coral Gables to honor Fairchild’s career of plant exploration.
That garden, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, celebrates its 75th anniversary with a series of events, including tram and walking tours and lectures on the 83-acre garden’s storied past through March 2014.
“We’re still working on that wish list. Parts of the Caribbean are still in need of exploration, and the work I’m doing — in particular in Indonesia — is a part of the world David visited just after the garden was founded when he was 71,” said Carl Lewis, Fairchild’s director.
After World War II, Fairchild continued adding to his garden. Most of his plantings remain and thrive. He died in 1954 at age 85.
“We know where he wanted to go and collect, and we’re visiting those spaces and finding interesting new things,” Lewis said. “There’s so much left in the world to explore.”
It’s a safe bet that Fairchild, which had 85 members in its founding year and has grown from 1,000 members just two decades ago to 45,000 today, will be at the forefront of that exploration.
The 75th anniversary, Lewis said, is a milestone that “gives us the opportunity to go into our archives and revisit what our founders envisioned for the garden. They’d be blown away in many ways. We’re doing exactly what they envisioned in terms of a public space for inspiring diverse people with the beauty and importance of tropical plants. But, in many ways, we’ve gone beyond their wildest dreams in the way we have our own scientific research happening here. In the beginning, scientists were invited from the great universities around the world to study, but now we are building that expertise in-house,” he said.
For example, in December the garden opened its $6 million Paul and Swanee DiMare Science Village, which has four buildings, including science labs and classrooms for college- and graduate-level University of Miami, Florida International University and University of Florida students. The showpiece, a butterfly and hummingbird conservatory, towers 40 feet. The village sits on 25,000 square feet of land that once housed a maintenance yard.
To prepare for the opening of the science village and butterfly conservatory last year, 400 volunteers trained over a nine-month period to learn botanical information, animal interaction, and about birds and butterflies, said Nannette Zapata, Fairchild’s chief operating officer.
Genetic research, climate modeling, plant propagation and the study of animal life are among the studies taking place daily as guests — 400,000 a year, currently — engage with 125 staff members, 10 scientists and about 1,000 volunteers.
“Over the next five to 10 years, more of that expansion and growth will be university-level courses and graduate courses. The goal is to be a university hub where they can take all their classes here and tap into online courses and be the offline site for universities,” Zapata said.
Among the various projects under way at the new labs, scientists are propagating endangered orchids and reintroducing them to South Florida, said Bruce Greer, president of the board of trustees.
In addition, the Fairchild Challenge, an education program for elementary, middle and high school students from 250 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward, has 130,000 children roam the garden annually to interact with the scientists, horticulturists and teachers and work on projects. The influx of students is among the biggest changes seen at the garden over the years, Greer said. “The demographic change at Fairchild to a much younger group, with strollers and families and people dating in the last two to three years — that’s the future.”
Fairchild, who would be 144 as his garden celebrates its diamond jubilee anniversary, would recognize the now-towering African baobab tree he planted on the grounds but would no doubt marvel at the technological changes and growth that surrounds the majestic tree.
“I think the biggest difference was it was a passive experience — now it’s an interactive experience, whether through people or technology,” Zapata said.
Fairchild hopes to incorporate more technology during the coming year by tapping the proliferation of smart phones so that visitors can use them to scan chips affixed to plants, which will pull up informational screens.
“There are 75 years of history on these plants and specimens in the arboretum,” Zapata said. “That’s what we are working toward, because technology is so critical to everything.”
The changing community and its role in advancing knowledge about plants and species that feed from them is another profound change that would surprise the founders, Lewis said.
“Initially, the garden was built as a shop window for people unfamiliar with the tropics to be inspired. Now we live in a community where more than half of our residents were born in the tropics. Now we’re learning a lot more from our community, and education is a two-way street.”
Ironically, the devastating impact of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 set the garden on its path toward a progressive second 75 years.
“There have been a lot of milestones, but the one that stands out as a turning point was Hurricane Andrew,” Lewis said. “That was a point where the garden got a lot of support from the community here in South Florida and elsewhere. The scientific community made it clear how many friends of the garden were out there. If we look at the diversity of plants in the collection, there has been a steady increase. This dipped after the hurricane and picked up again. If you look at the progress of the garden and contrast that with photos of the devastation, it’s amazing the resilience in the way the garden recovered. We had hundreds of volunteers that literally propped the trees back up.”
As the revived Fairchild works its way through a year’s worth of celebrations, Greer pauses to reflect on the garden’s storied past.
“We made a plan eight to 10 years ago that we wanted to be a gateway for cultural activities for families and individuals to come try out certain things, whether it be art or music in a relaxing atmosphere, and it’s becoming everything we ever would have hoped.”
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