It's a Jungle in Here

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

The thieves showed agility and good taste. To get in they had to scale two seven-foot metal picket fences, pass the loot carefully to accomplices, and then climb back out. And their timing was perfect. Almost everything they took was in bloom.

"It was sort of sad," says master gardener Mary Becker, the 74-year-old volunteer who cares for the orchid collection at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and who discovered the first of two recent break-ins. Among the 50 or more plants stolen was Becker's favorite, a fragrant foxtail orchid (Rhynchostylis) she had lovingly repotted and which, bearing a stalk of white blooms dappled with pink, was in the full flush of its once-a-year glory.

In the realm of nature's decoratives, orchids are crown jewels whose delicate, ephemeral blooms have inspired murder and obsession among those who live to possess them. "Nothing in science can account for the way that people feel about orchids," writes Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief, the story of an eccentric South Florida man arrested for stealing wild orchids from the Faxahatchee Stand State Preserve. "Orchids seem to drive people crazy. Those who love them love them madly. Orchids arouse passion more than romance. They are the sexiest flowers on earth."

Alas, Becker supposes that the culprits who carted off her plants last summer were nothing more than larcenous opportunists who burgled the garden not because they coveted orchids but because they were readily converted to cash. "Probably sold them for five dollars each," she grumbles. Miami Beach police took reports, but the crimes remain unsolved.

Still the orchid thefts linger as a defining event for the botanical garden as it struggles to emerge from a years-long fallow period and blossom into a first-rate cultural center and tourist attraction. The $2000 alarm system now aimed at the orchid collection is not the only change in the garden. This past July the City of Miami Beach yielded full operational control of the five-acre oasis to the nonprofit Miami Beach Garden Conservancy. From an annual budget of $286,000 -- most raised through grants and donations -- the conservancy has hired a full-time staff of four to bring the garden out of the shadows.

"For years the garden has been the city's best-kept secret," says conservancy board chairman Bruce Davidson, a retired Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida executive. "But we have some interested citizens with passion involved now, and we're going to make this a serious botanical garden."

What is currently an irregular-shaped oasis of greenery across from the Miami Beach Convention Center traces its roots to 1926, the year a major hurricane roared through South Florida. In response to the destruction, garden clubs were formed to restore the subtropical foliage the winds swept away. According to conservancy member Helene Owen, those clubs cooperated on various civic-beautification projects and tended their own gardens until the late Fifties, when Miami Beach voters passed a bond issue that included $150,000 to build a tranquil refuge in the city center across from what was then called the Exhibition Hall. The garden opened in the fall of 1962.

Over the next three decades the garden flourished in a partnership between the city, which tended to basic maintenance, and volunteers, who donated time, plants, and expertise. Of course weeds cropped up, as did politics. The number of people willing to get their hands dirty varied with time, and so too did the level of enthusiasm. And naturally the world changed. The notion that a free public showplace for trees, shrubs, and flowers was an essential city amenity lost currency in the what's-in-it-for-me decades.

By the Eighties the unfenced garden had become a popular homeless encampment. Plants were trampled, topiary was damaged, and the loggia of the modest office and classroom building became a makeshift shelter for the down-and-out. At night the grounds looked like a parking lot for shopping carts. Vandalism was commonplace. At one end of the loggia a plaster statue donated to the garden by Helene Owen and her late husband John was beheaded several times. Owen recalls seeing the remnants of open fires used for cooking. The walkway water fountain was discovered unplugged in the mornings, circumstantial evidence that the vagabond campers were pilfering electricity to hook up a radio or television. Even worse, "they were cooking crack in there," says Owen, a Miami Beach resident since 1948.

In the mid-Nineties the renaissance began with the formation of the conservancy and the installation of a perimeter fence. Volunteers restored the Japanese garden, planted 150 species of bromeliads, and removed repetitive foliage. The gift shop was spruced up, regular classes in horticulture and the environment offered, and in 1999 the Arts in the Garden series began sponsoring performances by musicians from the New World Symphony.

The conservancy has money -- about $2 million, thanks to a share of the city's $92 million general-obligation bond program for physical improvements, coupled with matching grants. The 100-seat auditorium is for rent, as are the meeting rooms and the grounds for weddings and private parties. Funds also are raised at the annual Palm Ball, a live-orchestra gala under the stars. The theme of this year's March 2 event: "A Night in Rio."

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.

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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