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Where in the world can you find a fried egg tree? A sausage tree? A teddy bear palm? A dead rat tree? A cannonball tree? An ice cream bean tree? A gingerbread palm?

Windows to the Tropics conservatory
Windows to the Tropics conservatory
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

These are only a few of the rare plants, palms, cycads, flowering trees and vines in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The 83-acre conservation, research and educational garden is located in Coral Gables, a Miami suburb. Adjacent to Matheson Hammock Park, it's a 20-minute drive from downtown Miami and Miami International Airport.

Amateur plant collector, Robert Montgomery, opened the nonprofit garden in 1938. He recruited author and plant explorer, David Fairchild, to help him. (He's the person who brought the famous Japanese cherry trees to Washington, DC. His father-in-law was inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and his brother-in-law founded the National Geographic Society.)

Tram and walking tours

There are three ways to explore the garden: self-guided walking tours, free guided walking tours (mid-November to April) and narrated tram tours, included with the admission price.

On the McLamore Arboretum Walk, we examined fallen blossoms from the ylang-ylang tree, Cananga odorata. Oil distilled from these inconspicuous flowers adds fragrance to Chanel No. 5 perfume. In the arid rock garden, we spotted the spiky-leafed agave, which distillers use to make tequila.

Reading sign in Fairchild conservatory
Reading sign in Fairchild conservatory
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Carefully avoiding the spine-armored trunk of the silk floss tree, we made our way to a Jamaican dogwood. The self-guided tour pamphlet, which we picked up at the entrance to the garden, explained that the leaves of this tree were once used to catch fish. When crushed and thrown into the water, they release a poison that stuns the fish, allowing people to gather them.

The Palmetum Walk also offers its share of natural curiosities. We saw a talipot palm, Corypha umbraculifera, which produces the largest flower spike in the plant kingdom, with 10 million flowers and a ton of seeds. Buddhist monks used to record sacred writings on their enormous palmate leaves.

Cannonball, sapodilla and sausage trees

Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball tree, is named for its round, inedible chocolate-brown fruits. In the wild, bats pollinate the fragrant cup-sized flowers. Here, in the garden, workers fertilize them by hand.

Near the main path, we spotted a spreading sapodilla tree, Manilkara zapota. Its white, sticky sap, called chicle, was the original base for chewing gum. (Hence the name Chiclets®.) Sapodilla fruit tastes like brown sugar.

Another self-guided walk is a one-hour loop through the lowlands, offering glimpses of some of the garden's eleven lakes. An amazing variety of hibiscus blooms here, ranging in color from blue-grey to vivid orange. Among the many fig trees, our pamphlet singled out the sycamore fig, once used by Egyptians for mummy cases.

The unusual sausage tree, Kigelia pinnata, comes from Africa. Its night-blooming flowers, pollinated by bats, resemble little saxophones. The fruits look like giant hanging salamis. They can grow to two feet long and weigh up to 15 pounds.

Sausage tree
Sausage tree
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although our tram tour covered some of the areas we saw on foot, our guide, Lynn, pointed out several trees and flowers that we missed on our own. She told us that Montgomery Palmetum is one of the largest and most diverse in the world. There are more than 1,500 palm accessions planted in the garden, with 128 genera and more than 500 identified species.

Among them, she identified oil palms, which produce orange-colored fruits that smell like olives. Manufacturers use oil, extracted from this fruit, to make soaps and detergents. Suddenly, the brand name, Palmolive®, made sense.

Lynn stopped the tram next to a teddy bear palm, so we could feel its soft brown furry trunk. We then made our way past date palms, royal palms and gingerbread palms to a corojo palm or Gastrococos crispa. "It's native to Cuba," explained Lynn. "Although there are threatening spines on its bulging trunk, Cubans used the palms to make canoes and water troughs. They also made a drink, called toddy, from its sap."

Mesquite, gumbo limbo and ice cream bean trees

The trees Lynn showed us were as fascinating as the palms. A West Indian mesquite tree, with wood that flavors smoked meat. An ice cream bean tree, which produces fruit that tastes like ice cream. A gumbo limbo or tourist tree, with red peeling bark, that resembles a sun-burned tourist.

"Since gumbo limbo is soft, carpenters made horses from it for carrousels, before the advent of plastics," noted Lynn. "Indigenous Calusa Indians used to spread its sticky sap on tree limbs, so they could capture song birds. The sap is now used to make glue and varnish. In some countries, people plant the branches side-by-side around their homes. They soon have a living fence because the limbs root almost immediately."

Without a doubt, the most unusual tree we saw was the baobab. "This 60-year-old baobab is small compared to the massive 1,000-year-old baobabs in its native Zimbabwe," explained Lynn.

"In Africa, baobabs are so large, that they've been used as railway stations, jails, dairies, dormitories and bars. People use their bark to make rafts, canoes, a poison antidote and anti-fever and dysentery drugs. The porous wood fiber stores thousands of liters of water during the rainy season, so men and elephants use it as a source of water during droughts."

Baobab and bamboo

Baobab fruit
Baobab fruit
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lynn reached into a box and pulled out a baobab fruit. We simultaneously recoiled in horror. "That's why they call it the dead rat tree," she said. The resemblance to the rodent was remarkable. "Baboons eat the cool-tasting fruit pulp. Humans use it to make cream of tartar," she added. "Rope, made from the fibers of the bark is so strong that it can hold down the tree's only natural enemy, the elephant."

As we drove past the mangrove preserve toward the bamboo collection, a land crab skittered across the road. "Other animals live here, too," said Lynn. "A couple alligators inhabit this lake. On a school group tour this morning, the children counted 49 iguanas."

Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The bamboo garden was planted in 1993. While we gazed at 20 species of the fast-growing grass, Lynn told us about a Japanese variety that grows over a meter a day. "Bamboo is also the favorite food of pandas in China. Here, in the US, Thomas Edison used bamboo fibers for the element of his first light bulb."

Even after this comprehensive tour, there's much more to see in the garden. Windows to the Tropics is a state-of-the-art conservatory that houses over 1,900 plant species too delicate for even Miami's mild winters. Exhibits, based on themes like plant coloration, plant-animal interactions, plant reproduction and diversity of form and function, include orchids, bromeliads, ferns and palms, including the red-trunked sealing wax palm and stilt palms.

Stilt palm trunks don't touch the ground. Roots hold them up in the air. Eventually, they grow so high that people can walk under them.

Stinky and fragrant flowers

A stroll beneath the 560-foot-long Vine Pergola offered us close-up views of more unique plants. Take the birthwort from Brazil, for example. You need to hold your nose to examine its mottled maroon and cream flowers. The smell of rotten meat attracts flies, which pollinate the flowers, but repels most visitors. A garlic aroma, meanwhile, exudes from the funnel-shaped lavender flowers of the climbing garlic vine, native to Brazil and Mexico.

Far more attractive, are the fragrant, waxy flowers of the bridal wreath vine, the waterfall of violet, pink and purple shower-of-orchids vine and the turquoise lobster-claw blossoms of the jade vine.

In the two-acre Richard H. Simons Rainforest, we walked along paved pathways viewing epiphytes and lianas (woody vines), without worrying about stinging ants and malaria. We learned how plants adapt to survive, how plants and animals interact and how we benefit from rainforest plants.

Birds and butterflies visit the marsh, mangroves and Florida native species in the Keys Coastal Habitat, in the southeast corner of Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. Lignum vitae trees are native to the Florida Keys. One of the hardest-known woods, it was used for ship parts and bowling balls. In the 1500s, people shipped its resin to Europe as a medicine.

On walking tours of the William F. Whitman Tropical Fruit Pavilion, visitors learn about the collection, conservation, and distribution of tropical fruits like mango, jackfruit, lychee, longan, canistel, durian, mamey sapote, mangosteen, rambutan and sapodilla.

Red hibiscus
Red hibiscus
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

They can taste champedak and langsat fruits, while learning about the genetic diversity of tropical fruit and the garden's use of grafting and horticultural techniques to culture exotic tropical fruits.

Research, classes and special events

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is also a living laboratory for research scientists. On our way out, we met a research scientist, from Harvard, who was studying the water uptake of rattan, a climbing palm.

For the public, the garden offers school programs, children's tours and classes in art, cuisine, garden crafts, health and horticulture. Topics range from orchid-growing to flower photography. Free research seminars feature topics like DNA barcoding for plant identification.

Annual flower shows and plant sales focus on bougainvillea, cacti, roses and other plants like bonsai. Year-round special events include the International Orchid Festival in April, the Mango Festival in July, art shows, concerts and afternoon teas.


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: www.fairchildgarden.org

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