December 16, 2014

A Tropical Haven

Recently Bill and I did a 2 week road trip to Florida and made it all the way down nearly to Key West. We visited lots of our favorite parks and preserves and found several new places that deserve a return visit. We were mostly looking for butterflies but as usual we couldn't resist checking out all of the birds and plants as well.

If you ever get to the Miami area, be sure to check out the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. It is a mecca for plant enthusiasts, hosting a variety of species that are native to south Florida as well as lots of strange and beautiful plants from all over the world's tropical latitudes. Admission isn't cheap, but it is free if you're a member of Newark's Dawes Arboretum or many other similar facilities all over the country. 

Plenty of sun, heat and rain supports beautiful displays such as this:

Just a few days before our recent visit, several examples of Chihuly glass were installed in the gardens. I'm kind of a plant snob and feel like the botanical treasures in this place can stand on their own without the addition of these pieces but they are rather amazing and are probably very beautiful illuminated at night. Here are a few examples:

One of my favorite plants at Fairchild is the baobab tree, an African native that is enormous:

Here is what the sign says about it:

"In the grassy plains of Africa, baobab trees swell with water during the rainy season, attracting thirsty elephants that strip the bark to get to the moist tissue. The baobab has long provided people with material for cloth, rope, soap, dye, glue, fodder and medicine. For instance, in West Africa, the young nutritious leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach.

"It is impossible to accurately determine the age of baobabs because the wood is soft and spongy, and has no age rings. One thing if for sure, baobab trunks become very large and sometimes hollow out over time, prompting people to use them as houses, prisons, bars, garage barns and even as but stops! Our giant tree was planted in 1939 and is still growing."

I always marvel at this next odd plant, the cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis)! Its fruits are the size of coconuts

and the flowers are quite unusual:

Here is a picture of the entire tree:

It is native to the Amazon rainforest and grows to 75' tall. Apparently the white flesh of the fruit smells awful so most are not eaten.

This gigantic flower, Aristolochia gigantea, is in the same genus as the dutchman's pipe that grows in the eastern US (Aristolochia macrophylla):

This Brugmansia was stunning--it overwinters well in the Miami area but not in Columbus! I had one in a big pot one summer and loved it, then kept it leafless in the garage over the winter, and then it did well a second year. That was enough for me despite its gorgeousness--it needed loads of water and fertilizer to look anywhere near this good!

Some of this tropical vegetation attracts birds and butterflies. We were excited to see this white-crowned pigeon high in a tree--this bird is usually hard to see in thick hammock forests where it is usually found. We haven't seen one in a while and were surprised to see this one in the open!

We were pleased to find a lot of caterpillars of the atala butterfly, a once-common species that recently was difficult to find in Florida. Thanks to widespread planting of its host plant, called coontie, now it can be readily found in many gardens. Here is the striking red caterpillar

and what could be more gorgeous than this fresh adult!

And this is a beautiful Julia Heliconian that we spotted in Fairchild's butterfly garden:

Behind the scenes, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is active in botanical exploration, education, native orchid propagation, and many other endeavors. It is named for David Fairchild (1869-1954), one of the most famous plant explorers in history. He visited every continent, and brought back thousands of plants including the baobab tree pictured above. 

The beauty and history of this place and its devotion to promoting biodiversity make it a worthwhile destination in south Florida.