Coconut Grove

The Kampong, a tropical garden destined for investigation and education

The Kampong in Coconut Grove is a green paradise in the middle of the city.
The Kampong in Coconut Grove is a green paradise in the middle of the city. el Nuevo Herald

The Kampong is, without a doubt, one of Miami’s best-kept secrets. It’s located in Coconut Grove at the banks of Biscayne Bay, its 11 acre territory houses an authentic garden where more than 2,000 tropical and aromatic plant species grow. All part of a collection originally planted there by famous horticulturist, David Fairchild, who in 1916 bought a property along with his wife Marian (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell) and turned it into his winter home.

Fairchild decided to give his new acquisition the name The Kampong, a Malaysian word meaning group of small houses. Considered one of the most influential horticulturists in the United States, the botanist dedicated his life to investigating plants and exploring the world in search of species which could grow well in the terrain and climate of the country.

He explored Asia, the South Pacific, India, South America, Egypt, China, Japan, the Gulf of Persia, the Orient and South Africa and was able to bring more than 30,000 varieties and new species to the United States, many of which he planted in The Kampong. These can still be seen there: tamarinds, lilacs from India, Ylang Ylang, tropical lilacs, Lignum Vitae, Guayacan and others.

In 1928, Fairchild and his wife left Washington, D.C., where they lived, and moved to The Kampong, making it their permanent residence. Three years later, Elsie, the sister of Marian, and her husband, Gilbert Grosvenor, bought the land next to The Kampong to make a house there and called it Hissar, the name of the city in Turkey where Grosvenor was born. The Fairchilds invited famous personalities of the time to stay at The Kampong, including Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Firestone, Henry Ford and Barbour Lathrop.

After Fairchild’s death in 1954 and Marian’s in 1963, the property was bought by Edward Cleaveland Sweeney and his wife, Dr. Catherine Hauberg Sweeney, whose key labor was to save the botanical treasure created there by Fairchild. In 1984, she was successful in including The Kampong in the National Registry of Historic Places and in the Registry of Pacific Tropical Botanic Gardens, a predecessor of the actual National Tropical Botanical Gardens.

Today, visitors can enjoy a truly magical tour through its gardens and can visit Fairchild’s house and studio. The place offers visits given by guides, who have studied the history of The Kampong and of each of its plants.

“Touring through the house and the surrounding areas of The Kampong is only allowed through guided tours, which of course, also include the gardens,” said Barbara Oppe, membership and event coordinator of The Kampong. “This service is offered every Wednesday and Saturday from September to June, but it’s necessary to make reservations.”

The Kampong can also be toured without a guide but only its gardens (without access to the house). Before starting the tour, visitors receive headphones and an informational brochure.

The garden also offers a series of cultural and social activities, events and weddings, classes and educational programs held in collaboration with different organizations and also carries out an intense investigative program. Students and plant lovers can take tropical botany courses (from June 28 through July 23, offered by Dr. Walter S. Judd of the biology department of The University of Florida in Gainesville, medicinal plant and environmental journalism courses in February.

“This year, we’ve also organized, along with the School of Environmental Arts in FIU, a fabulous summer camp,” said Ann Schmidt, another garden director at The Kampong. “It will run for two weeks from June 22 to July 3 and is for children 8 through 14 years old, it will feature activities involving the environment and incorporating the marvelous natural resources that we have here.”

The community can also enjoy activities such as a festival of flowers, exhibitions, poetry readings under the moonlight, concerts and garden fiestas. The exhibit “Everglades Connections: Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Tamiami Trail,” includes art and a conference given by Dr, Evelyn Gaiser and runs until June 13th. On Sunday, June 7, the Fiesta Royale Poinciana, the oldest festival in Miami, will be held. It will include a tour and flamboyant flowers.