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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