Next time you find yourself walking on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, pay special attention to the plant life around you, and prepare to be dazzled by an abundance of orchids in bloom in the trees. The flowers are part of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Million Orchid Project, a five-year program that aims to reintroduce orchids in public spaces. Orchids now enliven Coral Gables and Coconut Grove; this leg of the project was funded by Stephen Bittel, chairman and founder of the local real-estate firm Terranova Corporation, as a gift to the City of Miami Beach.
Many varieties of orchid are native to South Florida. More than a century ago, the fragrant flowers would have been a common sight in trees throughout the area. But a lethal combination of exploitation — through agriculture, the houseplant industry, and urban development — has reduced the population of native orchids to the point they cannot recover without human assistance.
Enter the Million Orchid Project.
Pedestrians can enjoy 500 brightly colored orchids while strolling along South Beach's popular promenade. “Each orchid has its own personality and thrives at a particular time. As you walk through different seasons, different orchids will be in flower," says Tim Schmand, executive director of the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District. “Bring your camera — there are some breathtaking moments.” Even in this bustling shopping and dining destination, Schmand says, he has already seen people stopping to admire and photograph the orchids.
In addition to providing beauty, the project is an important conservation effort and a step toward respecting and renewing South Florida’s unique natural resources. As Schmand says: “Nature begets nature.” For instance, while installing the orchids on Lincoln Road, the Fairchild team discovered the exciting results of another environmental initiative: The endangered Atala butterfly was thriving in the area.
In the 1990s, landscape architects in Miami noticed the need for the rehabilitation of native plants. They concentrated on the coontie, a plant that used to grow abundantly in the Florida highlands and was the only source of food for larval Atala. Coontie was harvested to make Florida arrowroot and became such a vital part of early South Florida industries that it nearly went extinct.
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“But landscape architects in the '90s replanted them, and now Lincoln Road is packed with these Atala butterflies,” Schmand says. “It’s really quite spectacular, and we probably wouldn’t have noticed that if it weren’t for the orchids.”
In this way, the orchid project is a reminder to consider the vital balances and relationships of an ecosystem as “the architecture of the natural world,” Schmand says. “Most of us walk down the street and say, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty flower.’ We never think about what the real impact of that pretty flower is to the wider part of nature: the transfer of pollen, the creation of honey, the survival of butterflies. The plantings on Lincoln Road are a great botanical exposition of what can be grown in South Florida.” He notes that many other interesting species inhabit the area, including sapodilla fruit trees and a sausage tree (which, true to its name, looks like it’s covered in dangling meat).
It’s also no coincidence the orchids are being planted in public spaces. On Lincoln Road in particular, it adds to a growing effort to bring people together and engage them in various activities. The pedestrian mall offers live concerts, as well as free fitness classes nearly every day of the week; plans are underway for an exhibit of works by the famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
“One of the things that every public space should strive to do is help to build community,” Schmand says. “The goal for Lincoln Road is to create moments of surprising beauty, where you’re walking down the street and something captures you.”