March 18, 2009

Volunteer Appreciation Brunch 2009

volunteer brunch at fairchild
On Wednesday, March 18, I attended my first Volunteer Appreciation Brunch at Fairchild. The Garden House was packed with over 100 volunteers and many more staff. Food was provided by staff -- their chance to do something for us -- featuring lots of delicious homemade platters, salads and desserts.

Sculptor Mark di Suvero, who is one of the featured artists this season, stopped by to say hello. Apparently, he made a special trip just to see us volunteers.

Last year, over 500 volunteers dedicated 67,000 hours of work to the garden. Board of Trustees director Bruce Greer said in no uncertain terms that the organization would not be able to survive without us. He also told us about how they've managed to stay afloat in these economic uncertain times by being fiscally conservative. While other non-profits are struggling, Fairchild is doing relatively well.

He also talked about the new scientific research facility to be built near the Garden Cafe. This is exciting because the laboratories will be in full view of the public and the scientists will give brief talks to kids everyday. The hope is that more kids will be inspired to study plants or become scientists instead of investment bankers. (I'm paraphrasing, but that's what he said, and as you can well imagine, it got a good laugh from the house.) By the way, Fairchild's education program serves over 50,000 school kids a year.

Pins were given to volunteers who were celebrating 30, 25, 20, 15, 10 and 5 years in the garden. Yes, some people have been volunteering for 30 years! That's a career for some. Most of the volunteers I have met are retired folk, but that doesn't mean there aren't younger, working professionals like myself getting involved.

On a personal note, I bumped into my junior and high school French teachers, whom I hadn't seen in over 20 years! I had no idea they were involved. They are devoted to the education program.

I cannot emphasize how rewarding it is to volunteer for this organization. Five-hundred plus people who have devoted years -- if not decades -- to volunteering can't be wrong.

Orchid Festival 2009

orchid festival fairchildA spectacular, cascading dendrobrium.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with my "good" camera and so I only have a couple of crappy photos from my mobile phone. But let me tell you -- the Orchid Festival at Fairchild, as always, was a feast for the eyes. Dozens upon dozens of vendors, lined up on the westernmost stretch of the garden, were selling blooms as small as a dime or as big as a dinner plate.

The real treat was the orchid exhibit indoors at the Garden House. Imagine an Oscars ceremony with the A-list stars showing off their hot bods, gowns and baubles on the red carpet. Well, at the festival, these prize-winning blooms stole the show. My friend commented that the orchids were so gorgeous, they almost didn't look real! And it was true -- festooned with their award ribbons, these orchids would've have upstaged even the biggest Hollywood diva.

orchid festival fairchildA prize-winning cattleya.

There's a reason for all this pageantry, of course, and it's all in the name of sex. Each orchid is especially adapted to attract particular pollinators according to shape, scent and color. The variety is daunting. From tiny to titanic, unassuming to gaudy -- each orchid seems to have its own personality for the sake of adaptation.

The festival is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to the world of orchids, even if you have no experience growing them. Fairchild offered classes all day Saturday and vendors were eagerly answering questions.

I'll paraphrase what's said in one my orchid books -- they aren't impossible to grow, and as a matter of fact, can be downright easy, compared to other plants. There's no need to be intimidated. You can, however, make the whole process as complicated as you like.

On the one hand, there are amazing orchids growing off trees with little, if any, human involvement whatsoever. They live off the air and when not in bloom, they look like plain leaves or dead twigs. For example, here's an enormous one that blooms yearly in South Miami:

This orchid blooms in someone's yard every year in a low-maintenance manner. Near the intersection of SW 80th street and 57th avenue.

On the other hand, if you're a hardcore enthusiast, you can spend every day of your life caring for your orchids, working with exotic varieties and hybrids, attending orchid society meetings, reading books and so on. For some, it's a full-time hobby.

Either way, novice or professional, you can enjoy growing orchids here in South Florida as we are blessed with optimal weather patterns and specific pollinators for certain kinds of orchids. They don't bloom as often as other flowering plants but when they do, it's a special treat. To get started, visit the South Florida Orchid Society and the American Orchid Society, which has a great beginner's FAQ.

The festival wasn't all about orchids. Musicians played on the main lawn, food vendors served up some great options -- including traditional Bahamian and Jamaican fare. There were also plenty of activities for kids.

I had volunteered all day Saturday at the fruit pavilion, cleaning up leaves, making smoothies, assisting with fruit tastings and talking to people about the garden. We were quite busy so I barely got to see any orchids on that day!

It was a great pleasure to attend as a "visitor" on Sunday with a friend who hadn't been to the garden in 20 years. Steve Roitstein of PALO! is not only a great musician but also an avid gardener. He got to take a "Maria" tour, which we finished off at Matheson Hammock Park, enjoying the bay breezes and great view of the Miami skyline just before sunset.

Thankfully, I was able to get a video on Qik of the prize-winning orchids, but use your imagination. My camera can barely do these beauties any justice!

March 16, 2009

Exploring and Conserving: Fairchild Expedition Blog

Plant exploration in Jamaica. Photo at

I recently learned that some Fairchild staff is keeping a blog about their plant exploration in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica at This is in true keeping with the spirit of David Fairchild, the great plant explorer and namesake of the garden, of course!

The Cockpit Country is known for its rock formation and challenging -- if not forbidding -- access. Historically, this place was home to the Maroons, a group of slaves that escaped into this mountain region and evaded capture. An island of biodiversity within an island, the area holds much promise for plant exploration.

Plant exploration and collecting of specimens is pretty hard work. When I interviewed Noris Ledesma, Fruit Curator at Williams Grove (now known as Fairchild Farm, by the way), she told me that it's non-stop collecting, documenting and traveling -- rather like an Indiana Jones approach but without any of the big screen glamor. You don't get a lot of sleep, that's for sure. It's no tropical vacation, especially when you have to deal with a long flight from Miami over to Asia. 24/7, all you care about is those tree grafting and seed specimens you need to conserve in order to make for viable growing and study here in our own backyard.

While Noris works with the fruit program, the staff in Jamaica has a similar goal. Melissa Abdo writes about a Saturday -- first the market, then getting the laundry off the clothesline before it rains and then ...
I managed to run some preliminary analyses while stuck indoors, and am thrilled to report that we have already collected, documented, and prepared at least 640 scientific plant specimens- in addition to numerous propagules already representing a healthy, robust horticultural collection. Astoundingly, our hard work has already yielded critically important collections of plants- including many endemics- and provided growing evidence of the importance of biodiversity conservation of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country.
When you visit Fairchild here in Miami, keep this in mind: nearly every plant you see is a result of some kind of exploration that aimed at conserving and studying the plant for a universal benefit. That plant didn't just get here on a first class plane ticket. A lot of work went into this amazing display of tropical flora. But it's not just about looks: botany affects us all -- from the first cup of coffee in the morning, to the natural fibers in our clothes, to the pills we take for illness.

This blog also features some exploration notes from the garden's expeditions in Palau, written by Dr. Carl Lewis, who is now Fairchild's new director.

Check it out!

March 12, 2009

Orchid Festival and Other News

Things have been a little quiet around here lately because I had to go on a hiatus. One of my parents had surgery and the other was sick. I've also not been to well and so have had to take it easy.

In addition, some management changes at Fairchild have put my work with the fruit program on hold, though I anticipate helping out on random special occasions or at Williams Grove on some weekends. I'll probably resume my consistent involvement with the fruit program around May as we prepare for the big mango festival in the summer.

In the meantime, I'll be working with the Keys Coastal Habitat, starting next week. It'll be a great opportunity to learn more about native vegetation and to support a wonderful conservation effort.

Don't miss this weekend's Orchid Festival! I'll be at the fruit pavilion on Saturday handing out fruit samples. Stop by and say hello.