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Exploring the horticultural treasures of Florida

One of the benefits of travel is exposure to greatness: Great art, great achievements in science or exploration, and great gardens. Most are the product of intensely focused individuals. Last week in Florida I viewed treasures of the horticultural world that exist because of the determination of three visionaries. Two are now departed (Dr. David Fairchild and James Deering) and one (Dr. Jeffrey Block) is very much alive and committed to medical science as well as “the art and science of nurturing nature.” Let me introduce you to them.

The Kampong

It was a privilege for garden writers (GWA members attending the Tropical Plants Industry Exhibition) to enter the Kampong, that some call one of the sacred places in American horticulture. (Kampong is derived from a word used in Malaysia, Brunei or Indonesia referring to a walled compound.)

It is the 11-acre estate on Biscayne Bay of Dr. David Fairchild. With his wife Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, David Fairchild bought the property in 1916. He was hired by the USDA to search the world for exotic plants, with the goal of helping to feed America. He introduced 200,000 exotic plants as well as varieties of soybeans, pistachios, mangos and other crops. In 1962 botanist and preservationist Dr. Catherine Hauberg Sweeney bought the property, eventually donating it to the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden. At the Kampong you would see some 30,000 plant species including 100-year-old mangos and avocados.

The Kampong is a botanist’s heaven but not necessarily a designed ornamental garden bursting with flowers – the kind that most garden tourists love. For that we must visit the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, founded by Col. Robert H. Montgomery in 1938 and named after his friend Fairchild. The 83-acre garden includes a giant African baobab tree and many other ancient specimens that Fairchild brought from nearly every continent in the world. This part of Miami is the only place in the continental U.S. that truly tropical plants can grow outside year round. Here visitors discover the fragrant allspice tree, a rainforest complete with orchids and tropical birds, and the Montgomery Palmetum with its rare palm species including many cycads (plants from the time of the dinosaurs). The butterfly collection in the Wings of the Tropics exhibit and the Tropical Plant Conservatory and Rare Plant House and tropical fruit collection are not to be missed. Thanks to Fairchild and the other scientists, preservationists, directors and volunteers, the Kampong and the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden are leaders in continuing horticultural education.


This is the subtropical winter home of agriculturist and industrialist James Deering, and I’m finding it difficult to capture in words or pictures. It’s called a European-inspired garden, reflecting 17th and 18th century Italian and French styles, practically crowded with sculptures, many carved from old and porous coral stone. Landscape architect Diego Suarez used classic, formal garden elements including parterres and shrub borders dividing the garden rooms, a theater garden, reflecting pool and a maze garden. Rare plants such as the Florida Challenger (the fourth largest Royal Palm in existence), the Peach Palm (Bactris Mexicana), and a Giant Elephant Ear (Alocasia) are interesting. But it’s the barge in the bay – like a party boat from a weird dream – that provided the most visual appeal. Wow. A stone vessel populated by Greek and Roman statues – some looking quite meditative considering the mermaids lolling all around. It was used for Deering’s parties, gondolas ushering the guests to and from land. I can only imagine the champagne and the sunsets on Biscayne Bay.

Deering, vice president and co-founder of the International Harvest Co., was no party boy however. In addition to his industrial prowess, he loved world travel, was passionate about the Renaissance (evident in the house and structures), and he understood the plant world. He saw that the rare mangrove forest and the many subtropical trees growing on the native coral rock would protect his gardens from hurricanes and salt air. So he preserved them. Now the forest and garden house endangered plants (the Redberry Stopper, Eugenia confusa, Bitterbush and Brittle Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum tenerum). Deering also loved orchids, and now through the David A. Klein Foundation Vizcaya shelters a 2,000-plant orchid collection.

Block Botanical Gardens

Dr. Jeffrey Block’s home is a plant-lover’s dream, with an invisible glass wall facing a tropical plant showplace. He collects and propagates bromeliads, ferns and begonias. He cares for 100-year-old mango and avocado trees. His yard has orchids draping from the trees, an island full of palms and ferns with a secluded morning coffee and reading refuge, and a desert plant area. Unusual trees abound – a spiny Pink Floss Silk tree, the country’s largest mango tree (a National Champion Tree) and largest Lipstick Palm. In his garden I saw my little houseplants all grown into tall, flawless beauties, happy in the Miami sunshine or palm-covered shade. I wanted Block to adopt them (and me).

Block is a physician (anesthesiologist) as well as a horticulturist, master gardener, and Florida State extension educator. He is also a leader in the study of science-based therapies in health care, including compassionate care using cannabis. He spoke with the GWA (garden writers) audience about his successful system for the desalinization of water – the reason he claims for his thriving plants and survival rates.

Block, Fairchild and James Deering are some of the rare few, the great ones, who make the largest contributions to our culture – in this case world-class horticulture.

Back home in WNY

Travel shows us great places and people, but remember to celebrate our own treasures in Buffalo. Have you seen the Impressionist display at the Albright-Knox, attended events at the Burchfield Penney, and checked out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House or Graycliff lately? So often I hear, “Oh, I haven’t gone to the Botanical Garden in years! It’s the place to see even before our next trip to Florida.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.