It's a Jungle in Here

Battling orchid thieves and years of neglect, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden finally takes root

Davidson wants the garden to be taken seriously, to earn accreditation from the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, to showcase its prized plants. That's the mandate of new director of operations Joyce Yaffe, who comes from the International Game Fish Association in Dania Beach, and part-timer Monica Ozores-Hampton, a Ph.D. horticulturalist from the University of Florida. "The grounds have been vastly improved," Davidson notes, "but we have a long ways to go to become truly spectacular."

In short supply at the garden are members. According to Davidson only 150 people currently pay the $35-a-year minimum, and fewer still are involved. And there lie the seeds of controversy. Long-time fundraiser and conservancy founder Claire Tomlin, for example, says, "There is too much attention on the horticulture and not enough on outreach to the community. The garden is on the verge of being world-class. But unless membership and momentum are kept up, it's going to remain a secret."

Membership is critical, agrees Davidson. "But the reason we took control of the garden," he points out, "was to put more emphasis on the plants, which the city wasn't in a position to do. One of my concerns has been that until we have a garden that has some horticultural value, and is also labeled and has a guide map, people come to the garden and don't know what they are looking at." The first comprehensive listing of the garden's holdings, along with a brochure that will assist visitors on self-guided tours of the grounds, is in the works.

Orchids drive some people to do crazy things, a lesson learned the hard way at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden
Steve Satterwhite
Orchids drive some people to do crazy things, a lesson learned the hard way at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden

Another thorny issue is what to do with the 40-year-old, glass-domed conservatory, which sits in the middle of the garden as a massive eyesore. Palm fronds shoot skyward through windows broken out by vandals. The building has been condemned by the city, and only parks department employee Hector Torres is allowed to go inside. He comes by three days a week to water the hothouse's untamed jungle, which includes several rarities, among them a wild poinsettia from Trinidad. "I'm supposed to wear a helmet when I go in there in case glass falls down on my head," quips Torres.

Plans for the garden's current site, however, may soon be moot. The city's master plan proposes moving the garden about a block south of its current site, to what is now a parking lot on the northeast corner of Seventeenth Street and Convention Center Drive, across from city hall. There, according to architect and urban designer Bernard Zyscovich, "the garden would be front and center as a signature entry point at Seventeenth Street into an urban park. That would be the best location for it."

The conservancy does not oppose a relocation, which has not yet been approved by the city. "As a gateway, serving more tourists and citizens -- that would be wonderful for us," says Davidson. But, he continues, the garden's board of directors is concerned about the threat of increased noise at the proposed site and the loss of momentum if the garden were shut down completely during a move. A new conservatory could be positioned to mitigate noise from traffic, Davidson suggests, and the garden could be transplanted in stages. "I suspect we'll know more within three or four months," he predicts. In the meantime his board has "decided to go ahead with improving plantings with the idea that we wouldn't do anything that couldn't be moved."

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