The day after Hurricane Irma, Craig Morell bushwhacked his way to the Kampong, dreading what he might find.
First he came upon the wreckage of the enormous banyan tree at the red entrance gate, which had grown into an archway over the drive. Chunks of the canopy on the right side were sheared away. The left side had been uprooted and crashed onto the pond.
Morell, director of the historic National Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove, went to look at the Sorrowless tree, the biggest of its species in the U.S. and one of his personal favorites. The top two-thirds of the tree were on the ground.
"It’s such a graceful tree, a magnificent rain forest understory tree with big clusters of orange flowers," he said. "I cried."
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He checked on the chrysophyllum imperialis from Brazil, one of only three in the nation and the rarest specimen on the property.
"Largely untouched," he said. "I was definitely sweating that one."
Next to the house David Fairchild built on his estate in 1926 stood the Mother Fairchild tree, a Royal Poinciana that Fairchild’s mother planted.
"Not a branch gone," Morell said. "It was protected by the house, as they knew it would be."
The Kampong’s famous baobab tree, planted in 1928 by Fairchild with seeds from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was not so lucky. The baobab was knocked down for the fourth time in its life, having succumbed to punches by Cleo in 1964, Andrew in 1992, Wilma in 2005 and now Irma.
The baobab will be erected again, this time by a 75-ton crane.
"I’ve been explaining to crane companies that it’s a tree the size of a humpback whale," Morell said. "I find myself saying, ‘Hello? Hello? Are you there? Yes, it’s a 15-ton tree with an 18-foot circumference.’”
To Morell, each rare tree and each exotic plant inside the eight-acre compound has a biography, an organic personality that goes beyond its scientific classification. Trees are categorized by family, after all. He’s curator of a collection of eccentric characters.
Walk around the Kampong and you can walk around the globe. Fairchild, a botanist who introduced more than 200,000 varieties of plants and crops into the U.S. – including pistachios, mangoes, bamboos and flowering cherries – wrote “The World Grows Round My Door,” about his Javanese-styled home on Biscayne Bay.
The sturdy house withstood the Sept. 10 battering. The same cannot be said of the surrounding landscape, which looks like it was put through a blender.
"I was saddened and stunned, but the Kampong is resilient," Morell said, pointing to a decapitated Mayan breadnut. "Think of the trees as survivors of a near-fatal car accident. We’ll do triage for the first month, then six months of critical care, then three to five years of long-term rehabilitation and therapy.
"It’s not hopeless; it just looks that way."
The plan to resurrect the baobab is representative of the recovery effort throughout the Kampong, where 260 of 600 trees were downed or damaged. Ninety percent have been propped back up or will be soon thanks to the quick response and hard work of gardeners and contractors. The Eden Project in Cornwall, England, sent a tropical arborist who spent seven days up in the trees trimming injured branches. A staked cannonball is already sprouting new leaves and flowers.
"While some trees that Dr. Fairchild planted were mortally wounded, they were propagated and planted elsewhere and we can reclaim them," Morell said. "We can put out a call and hear back, ‘OK, I’ve got that one and I’ll graft it for you.’”
Damage at the Kampong followed no pattern. Some 70-footers blew over and 10-footers stood up; some hardwoods were ripped apart and softwoods stayed intact; a 120-year-old mango made it, a monkeypod samanea did not. Morell said the Kampong sustained more damage than Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden or the U.S. Department of Agriculture Subtropical Horticulture Research Station on Old Cutler Road, because the Kampong has greater tree density, thus more shallow-rooted trees. The Kampong contains species native to rain forests and valleys, environments not subject to cyclonic winds, Morell said.
"We have evidence of three types of wind damage – hurricane, tornado and downburst, which is the wind version of a water balloon dropped from the sky, a sort of cosmic stomp," Morell said. "It’s similar to the damage caused by Andrew or Wilma, but in some cases worse because the wind was blowing for 12 hours during Irma. Branches were worried to death. Any fighter can last for a minute in the ring, but 12 rounds against Conor McGregor is going to hurt you severely."
While a group of University of Miami environmental science students conducted a field study of tree damage, Morell drove a golf cart through mud and traipsed out to the tip of the point to show how the 10-foot storm surge – which flooded over the property’s tennis court – wreaked havoc on the popular, picturesque spot for weddings and serene spot for contemplating the horizon. A palm tree stands proud and brave, but the green grass is turning brown, covered with seaweed and strewn with sand and rocks – some very large displaced rocks.
"We had a succulent garden three feet high – all wiped out," Morell said. "What kind of wave can pick up a half-ton boulder? It’s difficult to say what happened here."
For Morell, Irma was hurricane No. 6 at garden No. 4 in a career dedicated to nature. His previous stint was at Pinecrest Gardens, which had 63 banyan trees beaten up during the storm.
He estimates it will take $250,000 to pay for restoration at the Kampong. A crowd-funding page has been started at www.youcaring.org/thekampongwillrise. He is optimistic about the recovery of one of Miami’s most enchanting places.
Fairchild’s heavyweight baobab lay on its side, its mangled roots exposed to the sun. Morell patted the dark gray trunk, smooth and hard as concrete.
"Down but not out," he said.