Lush gardens provide respite from Miami’s glitzier attractions

The legacy of plant explorer David Fairchild lives on in city’s green spaces.
Palms reflect on Glade Lake along the iconic Baily Palm Glade Vista in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. (Courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Palms reflect on Glade Lake along the iconic Baily Palm Glade Vista in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. (Courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Miami thrums with a sense of vibrancy, whether it’s the bustling nightlife, eclectic public art, sumptuous culinary delicacies, stunning Art Deco architecture or the motley array of sandy beaches that range from trendy to tranquil. It’s no wonder visitors flock here, where the year-round, warm-to-hot temperatures beckon outdoor enthusiasts.

The soaring palm trees that dot the landscape from city streets to waterfront promenades are largely considered Miami’s signature foliage, but dozens of other plant species typically found in far-flung lands thrive in Miami’s subtropical-tropical environment. Specifically, beyond the city’s urban expanse are a medley of garden oases populated by colorful blooms and tangles of greenery that offer a respite from the city’s buzzier side.

It was Miami’s climate and botanical possibilities that attracted Dr. David Fairchild to the area around the turn of the 20th century. He became one of the country’s most distinguished botanists and plant explorers with a lasting influence on what Americans eat. His legacy lives on in many of Miami’s gardens, including two he helped create that are open to the public.

Renowned plant explorer

Perusing any major supermarket or farmers market in the U.S. today, you would expect to see a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of hues. But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the American dinner plate was quite lackluster in terms of its color palette, rich in meats and starches and meager in colorful produce. No wonder, considering farmers mostly grew wheat, corn and potatoes. You would find no avocados, mangoes, nectarines or many other fruits and vegetables that we take for granted today. Enter David Fairchild, who changed the produce that Americans find on their plates.

Fairchild was well acquainted with U.S. farming, having been raised in the Midwest. His father, George, was president of Kansas State College of Agriculture, and his uncle, Byron Halsted, was an esteemed biologist, who taught botany at Iowa State and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Growing up in this academic, science-loving family sparked his love of the natural world. Understandably, Fairchild became enamored with plants, studying at Kansas State College of Agriculture as well as Iowa State and Rutgers.

Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Fairchild became the first director of the newly established Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. The government was interested in diversifying agriculture so farms could grow crops that provided more year-round food, and were more resistant to disease, drought and pestilence. With this mandate in mind, Fairchild became a world plant explorer, visiting 50 countries and six of the seven continents to gather plants, cuttings and seeds from farms, roadside stands, markets and botanical gardens and bring them back to the U.S. to be studied, bred and introduced to farmers.

We can thank Fairchild for the variety of produce we regularly eat, including his beloved mangoes, as well as avocados, pistachios, dates, nectarines and so many more. His wide-ranging legacy includes tropical plant-laden botanic gardens in Miami, one of which is home to the estate where he spent his later years.

A view across Pandanus and Center lakes from the scenic Overlook Vista in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. 
(Courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Peppered with numerous lakes, ponds and other water features, this 83-acre property easily transports you to distant lands as you stroll under a dense canopy of foliage, past a riot of vines that climb up coral stone walls and towering palms with orchids clinging to the branches. Named in honor of Fairchild, who helped develop this botanic paradise, this garden is populated by tropical plants and flowers that resulted from his influence and writings, including orchids, bromeliads and the ancient cycads that have been around for millions of years. The garden is home to one of the world’s largest collections of mango trees, growing nearly 300 varieties. The diversity of plant sizes, shapes and textures is especially stunning in the lush tropical rainforest area.

All sorts of wondrous specimens, such the multi-armed octopus tree and the baobab tree that looks to be growing upside down, are found in the section called Spiny Forest of Madagascar, a garden that protects these rare specimens from extinction. An especially good place for mindful contemplation is the sun-dappled Moos Sunken Garden where you can listen to the trickling of a wee cascade. Wander over to the Sibley Victoria Pool, and you’ll be captivated by the water lilies from South America that can grow up to six feet wide. One section that shouldn’t be missed is the butterfly garden, Wings of the Tropics, where dozens of species from Central and South America, flutter about, like the owl butterflies with two huge eye spots and the iridescent blue morphos.

The garden holds myriad events and classes that will enhance your knowledge of plants, including the Mango Festival (July 13-14), where everything is mango-inspired, from tastings to cooking demos. At Jurassic Garden (through September 2), you’ll learn about ferns, cycads and other prehistoric plants as you roam past life-size dinosaur replicas.

The lawn behind the Fairchild-Sweeney hous at The Kampong, The National Tropical Botanical Garden. (Courtesy of Brian Sidoti)

Credit: Brian Sidoti

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Credit: Brian Sidoti

The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden

Along a narrow, 11-acre expanse fronting scenic Biscayne Bay, The Kampong became the winter home of Fairchild and his wife Marian Bell, daughter of the inventor of the telephone, and they eventually retired there. Given his extensive travels in Asia, Fairchild gave the property the name “kampong,” derived from the Indonesian word for village, and planted a variety of tropical specimens that he collected during his worldwide journeys. In time, the site grew into a tropical garden paradise with an abundance of vines, flowering trees and fruit orchards. Today, The Kampong is one of five gardens that make up the nonprofit National Tropical Garden, and the only one not found in Hawaii.

Whether you take a self-guided tour or the two-hour guided tour, you’ll come away with a thorough understanding of the unusual and attractive plants, their properties and why it’s important to preserve their rich biodiversity. Maintaining Fairchild’s legacy, The Kampong not only nurtures rare, tropical plants but it also cares for species native to Florida, including orchids and mangroves, as well as plants long relied on by the Miccosukee and other Florida indigenous tribes.

As you amble about, you’ll notice a mighty banyan tree draped with a frazzled curtain of aerial roots, as well as diverse palms, including the buccaneer palm that’s endangered in Florida. A mélange of aromatic and boldly hued blooms captivate humans and pollinators alike. For example, the cannonball tree, noted for its hefty dangling fruit, also bears fragrant flowers, as do the blossoms of the ylang-ylang tree, while the vivid blooms of the pink trumpet tree sometimes possess an intoxicating citrusy scent.

Among the events and classes offered this summer is the Botanical Bites Summer Camp for kids age 7 and up, Aug. 12-14, and an exhibition of works by Coconut Grove photographer Klara Farkas, on display through Aug. 17.


Miami is 660 miles south from Atlanta via I-75, or a two-hour flight from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. $11.95-$24.95. 10901 Old Cutler Road, Miami. 305-667-1651,

The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden. $7-$17 self-guided tour; $12-$27 guided tour. 4013 S. Douglas Road, Miami. 305-442-7169,

Where to Stay

Faena Hotel Miami Beach. $630 and up. Glamorous, waterfront property with extravagant Art Deco details. 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. 305-534-8800,

Mr. C Coconut Grove. $300 and up. Plush, boutique hotel bedecked with maritime influences. 2988 McFarlane Road, Miami. 305-800-6672,

Where to Eat

Cafe La Trova. Serving a contemporary take on Cuban cuisine. Entrees $26-$87. 971 SW 8th St., Miami. 786-615-4379,

Koko. Creative, wood-fired Mexican fare, including insect-based dishes. Entrees $18-$34. 2856 Tigertail Ave., Coconut Grove. 305-349-3909,

Tourist info

Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. 201 South Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 305-539-3000,

More Miami gardens

Coral stairs frame views of the Sutri Fountain in the historic Rose Garden at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 
(Courtesy of Robin Hill Photography)


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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Built by noted businessman James Deering as his winter estate, the mansion resembles an 18th century Italian villa. The surrounding gardens are elaborate, taking their inspiration mostly from a European Renaissance-style of landscaping. Set along Biscayne Bay, the property is divided by coral stone walls, shrubbery and parterres into distinct garden rooms such as one dedicated to both tropical and native orchids, and another showing off a verdant maze. A large assortment of specimens is planted here, from Madagascar palms to Southern magnolias.

$10-$25. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. 305-250-9133,

View of the palm-lined edge of Biscayne Bay and the boat basin at the Deering Estate.
(Courtesy of Deering Estate)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Deering Estate

The former home of Deering’s brother, Charles Deering, an environmentalist and philanthropist, is a 450-acre estate that preserves several native ecosystems such as those dense with slash pines. Deering brought in David Fairchild to help restore the estate’s nature-scape. Now, the estate collaborates with the conservation team at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, planting and monitoring numerous species, including rare ferns like the brown-hair comb fern, and native orchids such as the clamshell orchid. Other plants with showy flowers include firebush and locustberry.

$7-$15. 16701 SW 72nd Ave., Miami. 305-235-1668,

Pinecrest Gardens.  (Courtesy of Tony Tur Photography)

Credit: Antonio Tur

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Credit: Antonio Tur

Pinecrest Gardens

Curvy paths, some inlaid with brick inscribed with floral patterns, wind through this 11-acre property threaded with waterways, peppered with sculptures and other public art, and celebrated for its plant diversity. Beside a 200-foot-long, boldly hued mural advocating for mangrove reforestation, a trio of young mangrove species grow. (Mangroves are important for coastal storm surge protection.) The lipstick palm, so named for its crimson trunks, thrives in the garden’s fertile soil as do giant leatherleaf ferns with 12-foot-long fronds. Demonstrating plants that flourish in low rainfall, the Dry Gardens include a century-old European olive tree.

$3-$5. 11000 Red Road, Pinecrest. 305-669-6990,

Japanese Garden in the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. 
(Courtesy of Miami Beach Botanical Garden)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Miami Beach Botanical Garden

Lots of bird species, such as egrets and herons, as well as dragonflies are attracted to the wetlands and ponds speckling this botanical garden. It’s redolent with the intoxicating floral scents of frangipani and other flowering trees, and suffused with alluring hues, whether it’s the pink colors of the powderpuff tree or the yellow-orange of the Ashoka specimen. Jam-packed with local botanicals, the Native Garden is home to live oak trees with branches filled with air plants and orchids, as well as corkystem passionflowers that appeal to zebra longwing butterflies.

Free. 2000 Convention Center Drive, Miami. 305-673-7256,