Crowding the Cycads

Combining exotic glass with exotic plant life is, apparently, like mixing peanut butter with chocolate or rock with rap. People dig it.

When the colorful, exotic sculpture of glass artist Dale Chihuly met the horticultural maze of London's Kew Gardens last year, Brits went mad — in four months the Royal Botanical Gardens had 120,000 visitors, more than in the entire previous year. In Columbus, Ohio, the glass/plant pairing was such a hit two years ago that the Franklin Park Conservatory trustees decided to buy the whole friggin' glass exhibit for seven million dollars. And in Chicago, where Chihuly glass tripled attendance at the Garfield Park conservatory, breathless civic leaders called the exhibit "a knockout" and credited it with helping to revitalize a blighted neighborhood.

Now can Chihuly, the one-eyed, glass-blowing savant from Washington State, do the same for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden?

Absolutely, but there's a hitch.

On January 15, a cool and beautiful Sunday, some of the most scenic parts of the park had been turned into parking lots. A usually secluded path through the quiet eastern section was being used as a driveway. And as families jostled with each other to ogle cycads, wild ginger, and a rainbow of glass orbs, the wait for a sandwich reached 25 minutes.

Couldn't these mobs of newbies damage a precious peach palm? "No, there haven't been any problems," says Paula Fernandez de los Muros, a Fairchild spokesperson. Nevertheless some visitors on Sunday were seen pulling leaves from trees and tromping off the paths, pushing aside bromeliads and tugging on fruit that blocked their path.

It all began in early November, when four semis and a team of Chihuly roadies rolled into Coral Gables and started weaving 25 tons of glass sculptures into Fairchild's 83 acres. They plopped purple and yellow orbs into ponds, hung yellow chandeliers from palm trees, wove glass reeds among air plants, and then erected Chihuly's pice de résistance, the red and yellow Tower of Glass, in front of the visitor center — all to dress up one of the world's leaders in preserving rare tropical plants.

"Chihuly at Fairchild: A Garden of Glass," which began a six-month gig December 3, has already smashed records. Attendance at the garden tripled in December. Membership soared by 700 percent even though the price of admission doubled — now it's twenty bucks for adults. And the exhibit has attracted a whole new audience of people who never would have visited a botanic garden.

Of course, Fairchild has prepared for the Chihuly-ites. Security has been increased; volunteers have been alerted to keep an eye on the hoi polloi. And so far, Fernandez de los Muros says, there have been no major problems.

Moreover, many of the extremely rare, fragile plants that botanists come from around the world to see are housed in another garden a mile away that is accessible by appointment only.

But the crowds, and perhaps more significantly the cars, have — at least during weekends in the high season — done away with the quietude the park has offered for more than 50 years.

Cammie Donaldson, of the Florida Native Plant Society, says she would ordinarily be worried about hordes of stampeding visitors at a botanic garden, but not in this case. "It's Fairchild," she remarks. "I can't imagine they would put a plant at risk."