Crazy for Coco Palms

It's highly unlikely members of the Miami Beach Garden Conservancy would be caught dining on hearts of palm. They're more likely to be found nurturing palm trees than devouring their guts at dinner. The conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group, was founded by eight members in 1997. Its mission: to restore the grounds, conservatory, and meeting rooms of Miami Beach's Garden Center. Formally dedicated in 1962 and long a location for local garden club meetings and flower shows, the once-popular center fell into disrepair in the 1980s and became a haven for the homeless in recent years.

Conservancy members raised more than $100,000 to fence-in the five-acre property, and soon after embarked on the chores of pulling weeds, clearing debris, and planting, planting, planting what would become the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, renamed by the city and reopened in 1998. Tucked behind the Miami Beach Convention Center and the Holocaust Memorial, the garden is a surprise to many who consider Miami Beach little more than a nightlife hub and a tourist hot spot.

"Miami Beach was founded to be a coconut palm plantation," says Victoria DiNardo Montifiore, president of the conservancy, who got involved with the group two years ago. "Around the turn of the century, a grower came down here and thought this was the perfect place to put a palm plantation, which basically was what he planted along Lummus Park." Luckily for us the plantation failed miserably, prompting one disgruntled investor, John Collins, to come south years later and recognize the area's potential for agricultural development. "We owe a lot to the coconut palm tree," notes a giggling Montifiore. "It really got things rolling!"

The garden, though far from complete, also is progressing quite well. It hosts horticultural lectures, plant sales, and workshops; children's programs; and meetings of the American Orchid Society. It also has become an alternative venue for small classical music concerts and art classes. Last year after a lengthy hiatus, the Miami Beach Orchid Show was resurrected and debuted at the site. Suddenly aware of the garden's promise as a viable attraction, the city has lent support by hiring a horticulturist and helping out with maintenance.

The plant devotees' first love may be digging through the dirt, but they know how to have fun, too. Conservancy members throw their own version of an extended garden party beginning this Monday with Palm Festival Week. Lasting not seven but actually six days, the festivities include a concert by members of the New World Symphony, lectures by palm experts on important subjects such as lethal yellowing, workshops for children and adults, a drawing class, an art exhibition, and a walking tour. A daylong fair will honor the venerable coconut palm with a display of unusual trees, cooking demonstrations, illustrations of innovative uses of the palm, a plant clinic, and more. The closing event features live music, a fashion show of tropical-inspired garb by designer Fernando Garcia, a picnic dinner, and a screening of what else -- the Marx Brothers' zany movie, Coconuts.

Like the perpetual tending to a garden, the work of the conservancy, which now boasts a whopping 350 members, is seemingly endless. They're researching the merits of different types of greenhouses and attempting to have a brand-new one constructed. (The current conservatory was condemned by the city and will be torn down eventually.) They're hoping to devise a landscape design plan and renovate meeting rooms and offices. And, of course, they're raising awareness among the public.

"We're hoping to encourage people to think more about Miami Beach as a plant place," Montifiore says. "There used to be a very strong history here with the other garden clubs and orchid shows. I talked to someone from one of the other garden societies from up the coast and they said, 'Oh, Miami Beach used to be so well-known for their plantings and floral displays.' And I said, 'Well, what happened to that? Let's be beautiful here.' People tend to think about the hardscape and not the landscape, and that's too bad."

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman