Southern Florida is the only place in the continental US with a truly tropical climate. If “tropical” to you means lush, exotic plants and flowers, you may be a bit disappointed by urban Miami's sparse palm trees. Fortunately, plant-lovers can visit an impressive tropical botanical garden just south of Miami in Coconut Grove.
Located on Biscayne Bay, “The Kampong” contains a fascinating array of tropical fruit cultivars and flowering trees. Named for the Malay or Javanese word for a village or cluster of houses, The Kampong is the former estate of Dr. David Fairchild, a botanical explorer who traveled throughout Southeast Asia and other tropical regions collecting exotic plants he introduced to the U.S. It’s now the mainland headquarters of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which includes four additional gardens in Hawaii.
Kampong Planting Heritage collections from Southeast Asia, Central and South Americas, the Caribbean, and other tropical locales create a cornucopia of exotic fruit, including candle fruit, peanut butter fruit, egg fruit, cocoplums, and over 50 varieties of mango. Numerous species of palms, cycads, and flowering trees are studied by scientists from the world over.
Greeted by a mythical goddess whose head hauntingly appears from the roots of a banyan tree, your visit begins at the entrance gate. Stroll with your guide through legacy plantings as you hear the story of David Fairchild, why he made this spot his home, and how his plant collections influenced the diets of the American people. Make your way to the museum which once served as Fairchild’s study and laboratory. Enter the Fairchild-Sweeney House and learn how Kay Sweeney saved the property from development after Fairchild’s death. View the historical documents and photographs that led to the creation of the Florida Everglades as a national park. After your guided tour, feel free to meander on your own to The Point on Biscayne Bay and explore the garden further.
Stand dwarfed by an 80-year old baobab tree from Tanzania that weighs almost 50 tons! Delight in the intoxicating fragrance of flowering plants prized by the perfume industry. Marvel at the fascinating fruits and flowering trees from the tropics. Your tour begins when you check-in at the estate’s main house; an informational guide with a map will be provided. Take your time strolling from the main house to the bay to other notable sites on the property. Picnics welcome.
Fruit trees include numerous cultivars of avocados, citrus, and mangoes. The first tree that Dr. Fairchild planted at The Kampong was Strychnos vomica, or kaffir orange (in the Loganiaceae, or Logania family), a native of Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and the East Indies. Aegle marmelos, bael fruit, is considered sacred by Hindus. It is also purported to have medicinal properties. This tree was planted in 1923 by Dr. Fairchild. The genus Artocarpus (in the Moraceae, or Mulberry family) is an important food source in the “kampongs” of Southeast Asia.
Artocarpus heterophyllus (jackfruit) produces the largest tree fruit in the world -- up to 75 pounds per fruit. These fruits are edible from the time they are immature (as a curry) until they are ripe. Roasted seeds resemble roasted chestnuts. Antidesma bunius, bignay (in the Phyllanthaceae), from the Philippines, has juicy, edible berries. About 5 percent of people have a single recessive gene that causes them to perceive this fruit as bitter, rather than sweet. Cnidoscolus chayamansa, Maya spinach (in the Euphorbiaceae, or Spurge family) is a native of Mexico. When lightly sautéed, the leaves make a spinach-like vegetable. The Kampong plant was brought from the Yucatan in 1918. Synsepalum dulcificum, miracle fruit (in the Sapotaceae, or Sapote family) is a native of West Africa. The berry is not sweet, but it contains a protein that masks the tongue's bitter taste buds, causing tart foods to taste sweet. This fruit has been used to sweeten bitter medicines.
Most of the specimens of the Palm family (Arecaceae) at The Kampong were collected by Dr. Fairchild or sent to him by colleagues. One of the palms that first attracted him to the property was the Royal Palm (Roystoniea regia), which is native to South Florida. With its feathery leaves and silvery trunk, this lovely palm is today emblematic of South Florida. A number of palms in the collection come from Southeast Asia. Both the Talipot (Corypha umbraculifera) and the betel nut (Areca catechu) are Southeast Asian species. The Talipot is known for its magnificent inflorescence, which consists of several million small flowers. People in Southeast Asia chew betel nut, with betel leaf (Piper betle) and lime (calcium oxide), as a mild narcotic. In the Philippines, the fruit of the Sagisi palm (Heterospathe elata) is sometimes chewed as a substitute. The multi-stemmed peach palm or Pejibaye, Bactris gasipaes, is from the Central and South American tropics. Its common name results from the color of the fruit, which is rich in Vitamin A and has a high protein and starch value. The Arikury palm, Syagrus schizophylla, is native to the sandy coastal areas of Brazil. Its ripe fruits are orange in color. The Everglades palm, Acoelorrhape wrightii or Paurotis, is native to South Florida, the West Indies, and Central America. This clumping palm has fan-like leaves.
Flowering trees from the tropics and warm subtropics are numerous in the garden, and many are now part of the South Florida horticultural landscape. Among them is Triplaris cummingiana (in the Polygonaceae, or Knotweed family), also known as long John or ant tree. A native of Amazonia, it is tall with a relatively small canopy and spectacular inflorescence. The royal poinciana or flamboyante, Delonix regia, from Madagascar, a tropical legume in the Fabaceae (Pea family), is the official flowering tree of Miami-Dade County. It was planted by Marian Fairchild in 1917. Colvillea racemosa, Colville’s glory, as its name implies, is another spectacular tree in the Fabaceae from Madagascar. A popular “kampong” tree from Southeast Asia is Saraca indica, Ashok or sorrowless tree in the Pea family. The flowers are unlike most legumes because they have no petals. Brightly colored sepals change from yellow to orange and red and grow in fragrant sessile clusters. Other trees in this genus include Saraca taipengensis and Saraca declinata, which complement this extravagance of nature. Among many highly perfumed flowers are Cananga odorata, ylang-ylang (in the Annonaceae, or Soursop family), the aroma of which inspired Chanel No. 5, and Michelia champaca and Michelia x alba (both in the Magnoliaceae, or Magnolia family), which influenced the creation of Joy perfume. The collections also include other fragrant-flowered trees, such as Jasminum, Murraya, Plumeria, and Tabernaemontana.
At the entrance, visitors drive through and under the rope-like prop roots of a giant banyan fig, Ficus benghalensis (in the Moraceae, or Mulberry family), which is 357 feet in circumference at eye level. Nearby is Ficus religiosa, the most sacred tree in Buddhism. An ivy-like vine that clings to the wall of the main house and produces figs that look like wedding bells is Ficus pumila. A giant Ficus subcordatais called the “Wedding Tree” because of the numerous ceremonies performed under its magnificent canopy. One of the reasons that so many members of the Mulberry family are growing at The Kampong was the search by Henry Firestone, a Fairchild friend and Kampong neighbor, for a latex with a viscosity similar to that produced by the Para rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis (also in the collection), the source of natural rubber.
Over the past few years, The Kampong has expanded its collections in the Araceae, or Arum family. An assemblage of plants of Philodendron (sub-genus Meconostigma) forms a “study garden” that enables students to see many of this non-climbing species in one location. Ten of the 17 species are now in the collection.
The genus Bambusa (in the Poaceae, or Grass family) is the fastest growing and most versatile “woody” plant in the world. The tensile strength of the fibers in a vascular bundle is almost twice that of steel. There are 18 “clumping bamboos” in this collection. This family is considered a “gift of the gods” in the “kampongs” of Southeast Asia because of the versatility of its uses -- from construction to art, to fishing poles.
Text and cover image courtesy of The Kampong / NTBG.