Gardens of Miami No. 1 – The Kampong

First of all, thank you for your patience whilst I have been away on holiday and taking a short break from blogging. It’s been many years since I’ve had a whole fortnight away from work, and I can heartily recommend it. It’s been almost as long since I’ve travelled long-haul for a holiday, and I can recommend that also. Environmental issues aside, foreign travel can’t be beaten for expanding one’s horizons, provoking ideas and developing a greater appreciation of other cultures …. and yes, that does include the USA, a country us Brits assume we know enough about already, but really we don’t. My batteries are already recharged and I still have a week left ahead of me plus some time to spend with The Beau. Happy days. In the meantime I hope you’ve managed to keep up with my adventures via my Facebook page and Instagram which I’ve kept regularly updated throughout ….. a bit too regularly some might say!

A particularly beautiful hybrid of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Chinese hibiscus) enjoying dappled shade at The Kampong.

One does not have to spend much time in Florida to appreciate that plants love to grow there. The benign fecundity of a generally subtropical climate is diminished only by the occasional hurricane; even then the natural environment recovers at a remarkable rate thanks to high temperatures and ample rainfall. Miami, located in the southernmost part of Florida, is classified as having a tropical monsoon climate. The city and its environs experience hot, wet, humid summers from May to mid October, followed by warm, dry winters from November onwards. April, when I visited Miami, is considered to be one of the most pleasant months of the year, for human beings at least.

With its richly variegated leaves, the shell ginger, Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’ is one of the few plants shared in common between The Kampong and The Watch House.

Southeastern Florida falls into USDA zone 10b to 11b for plant hardiness (my garden, for reference, would be considered to be in 9a or 9b, which is a lot cooler, although the Scilly Isles and South West of Cornwall are in zone 10a, so much closer to Miami climatically). Annual extreme low temperatures range from −1 to 4 °C, although such low readings are extremely rare. A combination of global warming, the urban heat-island effect and the warm waters of Biscayne Bay (on which The Kampong is situated) means that the waterside downtown area and barrier islands, including Miami Beach, make it into hardiness zone 11a.

A gorgeous butter-yellow frangipani (Plumeria spp.) basks in the tropical sunshine next to the modern education centre.

Plants from all over the tropical and subtropical world find the growing conditions in Miami well suited to their needs. Over the last century the city’s inhabitants have taken advantage of the climate, embracing Latin American and European styles to create some extraordinary gardens and landscapes. I managed to visit three of these, and begin my report with a garden of enormous significance in US history – The Kampong.

The rocks flanking the sign at the entrance to the garden are typical chunks of oolitic limestone, formed from coral and often used for building in this part of Florida.

David Grandison Fairchild, Head of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction between 1897 and 1928, travelled the world on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture. He was given a mission to enrich the diets of millions of Americans who thus far had existed on a limited and somewhat bland palette of fruit, vegetables, grains and pulses. In his lifetime David Fairchild and his team introduced some 30,000 varieties and species of plants to the USA (some sources suggest significantly more), earning himself a reputation as the ‘Columbus of America horticulture’. Among his discoveries were soybeans, pistachios, nectarines, dates, bamboos and flowering cherries. David Fairchild was especially interested in the introduction of Asian tropical fruits, in particular mangoes.

This fully-laden mango tree might well have been planted by David Fairchild himself. There are 65 different varieties growing at The Kampong.

In 1916 he purchased a long sliver of land running back from Biscayne Bay, in an area known as Coconut Grove. The property had previously belonged to Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons, Miami’s first female physician. Dr Galt Simmons was something of pioneer during the days when Miami was a frontier town plagued by alligators, panthers, rattlesnakes and swarms of mosquitos. It cannot have been an easy life.

Keep in mind that in 1896, when Miami officially became a city, the population numbered a mere 300 citizens. It was not the glamorous, glitzy destination we know today.

David Fairchild named his property ‘The Kampong’ after the Malay word for a small village. He set about planting the garden with many of the species he had collected during his travels around the globe. When he retired in 1928, he and his wife Marian, the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, made The Kampong their permanent home. They commissioned a well-known architect named Edward Clarence Dean to design a new house in an unusual oriental-cum-Spanish style. Dean chose local oolitic limestone as the main building material, accenting it with red-toned oriental woods. An imposing rosewood staircase was made for The Kampong in Hong Kong and shipped to Miami.

We were delighted to get a little glimpse of the staircase and the carved Indonesian Garuda guarding it, as we passed through the courtyard.

From his airy living room Fairchild organised support for the establishment of the Everglades National Park. The house became an important gathering place for the intellectuals of Miami, including Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Alexander Graham Bell visited his daughter and son-in-law during the winter when he would continue working on his many inventions, including a solar water still designed to turn salt water into drinking water. An education centre built in 2007 now obscures what must have been an attractive yet modest facade set among the palms of Coconut Grove.

Although the property’s original facade is masked by a modern extension, the building is still recessive within the landscape.
A sideways view across the terrace shows a little more of the original, rather quirky architectural style.
This beautiful Balinese front door was installed by Katherine ‘Kay’ Hauberg Sweeney, who purchased and restored The Kampong in 1963. Mrs Sweeney handed the property over to the nation for research and education in 1984.

The Fairchild’s fledgling garden must have developed quickly under the tropical sun, and many of their original plantings remain despite a series of seriously destructive hurricanes over the intervening years. A long approach to the house cuts through what one might describe as a very posh orchard, scattered with exotic fruits such as avocado (Persea americana), mango (Mangifera indica), sapodilla (Manilkara zamora – the original source of chewing gum) and pomelo (Citrus maxima), as well as semi-ornamental trees including banyan (Ficus benghalensis), Baobab (Adansonia digitata), royal poinciana (Delonix regia) and the fabulous cannonball tree (Couroupita guinanensis).

Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball tree.

Couroupita guianensis is a tree that reaches heights of up to 110 ft at maturity. The leaves, which occur in clusters at the ends of branches, are usually 3 to 12 inches long, but can reach lengths of up to 22 inches. Fragrant flowers are borne in long racemes. Some trees, like the one pictured above, flower so profusely that the entire trunk is covered with interwoven racemes. One tree can produce as many as 1000 flowers per day. The flowers are strongly scented and are especially fragrant at night and in the early morning. Each has six petals, and is typically brightly-coloured, with the petals ranging from shades of pink and red near the base, to yellowish toward the tips. There are two areas of stamens: a ring of stamens at the centre, and an arrangement of stamens that have been modified into a ‘hood’. The fruits (not visible in my photographs) are spherical with a woody shell and reach diameters of up to 10 inches, giving rise to the common name – cannonball tree.

A close-up of the cannonball tree’s flowers. This particular tree has especially pale, peachy flowers. Other trees might produce flowers which are much redder in colour.

Closer to the house there is a small lotus pond, planted with a lotus variety called ‘Bali Red’, considered to flower well in cooler climates; not that this is a problem in Miami. Across the driveway is a lush, shaded area called the Aroid Garden, which is packed with philodendrons, monsteras and their relatives. After a while one starts to become quite blasé about the preponderance of such plants in Miami, but they really are very impressive indeed. Having grown a couple of philodendrons outside in pots at The Watch House last summer, I am inspired to take this a step further and see if I can attach them to one of my trees this year. Of course they’ll have to come back inside during winter, but it will be a fun experiment.

I am under no illusion that this kind of display will be possible in the English climate.
An especially impressive philodendron in a shaded part of the garden … alas not mine.

Views out to Biscayne Bay and the island of Key Biscayne beyond are tightly focussed by the dense Mangrove Preserve. This small inlet and boat dock is one of the only remnants of salt-water mangrove forest left along this stretch of the Miami coastline. The preserve contains all four mangrove species native to Florida, as well as one introduced by David Fairchild from the Philippines – the red-flowered mangrove, Bruguiera gymnorhiza. (Try pronouncing that after a few sherries!) We were hopeful of spotting the manatees and saltwater crocodiles that sometimes frequent this spot, but we were out of luck. We made do with a posse of iguanas sunning themselves on the grass where the garden met the sea.

Fruits of the sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota) have a sweet, malty flavour when fully ripened.

The Kampong does not, like many English gardens, rely on flowers for interest, although there are plenty to see. Generous stands of ginger, brugmansia and clerodendron shelter beneath flowering trees such as the pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia rosea) from Mexico, the wood shaving flower (Strophanthus boivinii) from Madagascar and the unmistakable ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) which hails from the East and Australia.

The wood shaving flower (Strophanthus boivinii) resembles a witch hazel with its curly brown ‘petals’.
A large and colourful clump of Clerodendrum speciosissimum from Java
An equally large stand of lobster claw plant, Heliconia rostrata, also pictured at the top of this post.

Whilst essentially The Kampong is now a botanical garden, one of five sites that form the National Tropical Botanical Garden of the USA, it still retains much of the personality that the Fairchilds, and later the Sweeneys, brought to their Miami home. The plants are exceptionally well cared for and clearly labelled, even if it does require some scrambling about to find them: every plantaholic is adept at the ducking and diving manoeuvres required to correctly identify subjects of interest. Unlike the UK, where a garden of this calibre would be mobbed by visitors, we were one of only three couples meandering around at the time of our self-guided tour. The guide leaflet is devoid of photographs but highly informative, with a useful map in the middle. Guided tours are available on Thursdays and Saturdays. There is no cafe so it’s wise to take a large bottle of water with you as it can be hot, even in the shade.

You may not recognise the flowers, but you’d certainly know the fragrance as ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

To visit The Kampong it is necessary to make an advance reservation. I had not anticipated this, but found it quick and easy to get in touch with the manager to book a time during my stay in Miami. Visit the garden’s website for details and don’t let this little chore put you off. You’ll get to experience The Kampong as previous owners and their guests might have done, whilst discovering a little-known part of America’s intriguing horticultural history. TFG.

For further reading about David Fairchild and his remarkable legacy, you should seek out a book entitled ‘Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters’ by Amanda Harris, a copy of which now sits in my library awaiting time to read it from cover to cover.

Approach to the main house build by David and Marian Fairchild in 1928