Local Obituaries

‘A true plants man’: Larry Schokman, who nurtured a leafy gem of Miami, dies at 82

Larry Schokman checks out a Paniculatum, one of the many species of plants at the Kampong, in 2000.
Larry Schokman checks out a Paniculatum, one of the many species of plants at the Kampong, in 2000. Miami Herald file photo

To the end, Larry Schokman’s life revolved around the plants.

For more than three decades, the horticulturalist and former tea planter brimmed with love for all green things and how to care for them. As director at the Kampong National Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove, Schokman — who moved to Miami in the 1970s and quickly put down roots — nurtured the formerly private estate into a beloved fixture of South Florida’s botanical community.

He died earlier this month, friends and colleagues said. He was 82.

Like many of the plants he doted on at the Kampong, Schokman was a transplant to Miami’s shores. Born in the rocky central highlands of Sri Lanka in 1934, Schokman followed in the footsteps of his father, a tea planter, and took on the family trade. But in 1972, he left the tea plantation and Sri Lanka, intent on exploring more of the many plants the world had to offer.

He landed in Miami and, the following March, joined the Kampong as superintendent. The estate was then owned by Catherine Sweeney, who had bought the 10 acres from the heirs of David Fairchild, the American botanist, and rescued it from development. The property was later gifted to the Hawaii-based National Tropical Botanical Garden, which administers it today.

When he joined the Kampong, Schokman quickly set about reviving the garden’s trees to flowering health. He also went to college — twice, earning degrees from Miami Dade College and Florida International University.

Under his watch, the Kampong bore fruit: literally. Mangoes, longans, governor’s plum, avocados, sapotes and citrus appeared on the decades-old trees in the gardens, according to Miami Herald reports at the time. He also nurtured the oldest royal poinciana in the county, which had been planted by Marion Fairchild back in 1917.

Appointed director in 1998, Schokman became an even more vocal advocate for the garden and, by extension, South Florida flora. He introduced to the Kampong new plants he collected on his travels, and oversaw additions to the facilities, which included a new science lab, dormitory and education center.

His enthusiasm for the plants was infectious: He was as eager to conduct long, detailed tours of the grounds as he was to compare the hues of the loud and showy royal poincianas that bloom annually in the region.

Nor was the Kampong his only domain: he served on the boards and leadership of several horticulture groups, including the Rare Fruit Council International, TREE-mendous Miami, Friends of Chapman Field and the Tropical Flowering Tree Society, the latter of which he served as president. He also served on advisory beautification and environment committees for the city of Miami, where he championed the planting of flowering trees along busy roads and the interstate.

His commitment to making public spaces greener was so deep that “he has become the father of all the beautification projects” in Miami, David Lee, FIU’s biology department chair, told the Herald in 2006. “But he’s such a decent person, he would never go out of his way to call attention to what he’s done.”

He even spent so many Saturdays maintaining plants and hosting botany meetings that he told the Herald that year his wife Colleen “calls our home our second home.”

After his retirement in 2007, Schokman, who lived right across the street on Douglas Road, remained devoted to the plants at the Kampong as the garden’s director emeritus. He was honored with a bevy of awards, including a rare Alumni Service Medallion from his alma mater FIU and the 2015 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration.

Sir Ghillean Prance, a prominent British botanist who nominated him for the Fairchild medal, described Schokman as “a true plants man.”

“Larry knows and loves every plant at the Kampong,” he said at the time.

The Coconut Grove gardens were still so dear to him that, before his death, he said he hoped to have his ashes scattered around the massive trunk of the garden’s nearly century-old, 18-foot wide baobab tree. The tree was downed — for the second time — during Hurricane Irma last month, but re-rooted the week before last as the gardens are slowly restored.

Now, it will be where Schokman is laid to rest.

He is survived by his wife Colleen. Details on services were not available.

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