A Hollywood couple use their travels to create a garden of delights


Special to the Miami Herald

Silvio and Estee Sperber have created many memories while on trips to California, Jamaica, Italy and Guatemala. When they return home, they keep those memories alive in their backyard by recreating some of what they’ve seen.

For example, on a trip to Chateau St. Jean winery in Napa Valley last year, they stumbled upon a wooden cart with wooden wheels set in a small garden near the tasting room.

“I took photos and brought them home to have it recreated here,” Silvio says. The cart now stands in a corner of their three-quarter acre garden in Hollywood. Its bed billows over with white and red allamandas as well as pink and red begonias.

Their house’s tile roof is covered with purple and pink bougainvilleas that remind the couple of a hotel they visited in Positano, Italy. The top of the three-story hotel was grown over with bougainvilleas that were probably 400 years old.

“The flowers were overflowing the roof line and it was just amazing,” Silvio says. When they returned home, they worked to achieve the same effect.

During certain times of year, these showy flowers tumble from the roof to carpet the surface of the swimming pool. But the Sperbers don’t mind. The flowers remind them of a restaurant they visited in Guatemala that brought in bougainvillea flowers to cover its pool.

“We’ve gotten trillions of ideas on our travels. Between each tree and bush in our garden, a story can be told,” says Estee.

Silvio grew up in Buenos Aires. His mother had a garden when he was a child and she had lots of house plants. “But I never got involved,” says Silvio, who admits he preferred to curl up with a book and study.

But in 1988, when he bought this house and two lots, things changed. “I always liked the outdoors and since I moved here, gardening has just come naturally to me,” he says.

Estee got her love of gardening from her grandmother, whom she’d visit in upstate New York during the summers when she was a child. “My grandmother tended her garden like it was her whole life,” Estee says.

But as Estee grew older, she was too busy raising her own children and working as a physician’s assistant to do much planting on her own. That’s until about four years ago, when she married Silvio.

The first plants Silvio remembers buying were Neoregelias, a group of bromeliads known for their colorful leaves often dressed in red, cream, pink and shades of green.

“I saw them growing on the trunks of a palm tree and I just fell in love with that,” he says, remembering a visit to Sunshine Bromeliads in Southwest Ranches. This is where he met owner Josefa Leon, who has guided his bromeliad purchases ever since.

To showcase these epiphytes that can grow without soil, he stripped the lower leaves and limbs off a euphorbia drupifera, a tree-like succulent that grows near his patio. Then he affixed the bromeliads with black plastic pull ties until they put out roots and attached themselves to the trunk.

On the shady side of the trunk he’s placed bromeliad varieties that don’t need much sun such as the Neoregelia morado, which has green and purple leaves, and the Neoregelia Picasso with its green-and-cream-striped leaves speckled with purple.

On the sunny side of the trunk, he’s cultivating Billbergia hallelujahs that have pink and green leaves with white spots. The Neoregelia Caroline has leaves that are red below and green on top.

The sun is particularly important to his Aechmea Mexicana, whose pink accents become brighter in the light. And his Aechmea Blanchetiana has blanched to bright orange in full sun.

Today the tree is home to about 70 bromeliads and about a dozen low-voltage spotlights that show them to advantage. “At night, we come out here and change the lighting according to what we’ve planted and how it’s growing. We play with the effects,” says Silvio.

The couple’s garden boasts almost 500 bromeliad plants representing about 20 varieties, with many Neoregelias including tossed salad, fireball, voodoo, hot pink and gazpacho.

“They are just beautiful,” says Silvio, who is a retired interventional cardiologist. He likes that they are “tough plants” with hard leaves, have interesting shapes and last a long time.

Estee’s special spot in their garden is a planter near the pool that has a tiered rock fountain flowing in it. “We call it ‘My Spot,’ ” she says and she has carte blanche to plant whatever she likes in this space.

She’s given it an African theme by using the appropriately named Aechmea tigers with leaves that sport purplish black and cream stripes. There’s also a Madagascar palm. Its chubby trunk covered with thorns is capped by a small crown of fronds and white flowers.

The faces of cement lions stare from the wall behind the planter where they are attached. The lions are just some of the decorative pieces the couple has collected at antique stores or found at construction salvage sites as well as on their travels.

“This is our oasis to work in, relax in and to view. When my family and friends come here, they think they are at a resort,” Silvio says.

Besides the stunning red, hot pinks, greens and purples of the bromeliads, there are plenty of colorful crotons in the curving beds that follow the perimeter of the property. The narrow twisting leaves of the corkscrew croton make it clear where this plant got its name. The William Craig croton adds a touch of drama with its red and black leaves.

The couple seems to favor red, having planted lots of red pentas, heliconias with their hanging flowers, shrimp plants, firecracker plants, geraniums, Thai plants, bird of paradises and torch gingers.

With plenty of color and variety to satisfy your eyes, the garden doesn’t neglect your other senses.

A gentle breeze makes a soothing swish as it passes through the fronds of 17 towering royal palms, 10 shaggy queen palms and four bushy foxtails. A bamboo chime produces a rhythmic “clump, clump” in the wind as a metal chime tinkles lightly.

“We just sit outside and hear nothing but nature…the wind in the palms, the water in the fountains,” Silvio says.

When you’ve seen and heard enough, close your eyes and take a deep breath. You just may become intoxicated with the scent of sweet almond or the heady lushness of magnolia. Chaise lounges, strategically placed in pairs around the pool, assure that the couple can relax and enjoy the aromas of these plants as they bloom.

“Some people go to a shrink, some people do yoga,” says Silvio. “But this garden is my meditation. It grounds me and brings me back to earth.”

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

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