An Education in the Tropics

During our coldest winter months in New Jersey, my wife feels it necessary to escape the doldrums of winter and feel the warmth of the sun on her face. Colder weather, shorter days and barren landscapes have her dialing our friend and travel agent Danny to escape to a warmer climate. Always a brief getaway, this year’s destination was Naples, Florida.

Sunny blue skies, warm weather, coastal views, and shopping are the prerequisites for my wife and daughter. For me, my escape revolves around some of that, but also includes the plant kingdom. Fascinated with all types of plants, traveling to a warmer climate opens a whole new world of plant material. Naples, Florida has a plant hardiness zone of 10a, vastly different from zone 6 in New Jersey. Simply put, houseplants that we keep in New Jersey are foundation plantings in Florida. Ficus trees that you may see in a corner office are towering evergreens in the tropics.

The Naples Botanical Garden™ was, in part, my nourishment during our brief holiday. Their mission is “to develop and conserve collections and habitats of the flora and cultures between the 26 latitudes.” This botanical garden sits on 170 acres and is a world-class garden paradise featuring plants from around the world. Founded in 1993, today the garden welcomes over 200,000 visitors a year “to experience themed-gardens that represent the culture and flora of the tropics.”
One of the first remarkable features I witnessed was not a tropical plant, rather a sculpture. STICKWORK, is the signature sculpture of environmental artist, Patrick Dougherty. A sculptor and artist I first became aware of, and enamored with, almost a decade ago. The Morris Arboretum University of Pennsylvania showcased his work in 2015. Dougherty’s creations are site-specific, interactive community sculptures that are instantly recognizable. Organic, twisted forms of sticks create whimsical silhouettes that are as playful as they are elegant. Pussy willow, Salix discolor, from Québec, Canada and Coastal plain willow, Salix caroliniana, harvested at Naples Botanical Garden™, create four individual, but interconnected circles. Dougherty, his son, and local volunteers “transformed 30,000 pounds of willow saplings into an immersive structure on the Kapnick Caribbean Garden lawn” in just 17 days. Google image Patrick Dougherty and you will be amazed by his organic creations and how they “reverberate with the space around it” as he states.

The amount of unique plant material in this tropical paradise is staggering. Traversing the property, there is the Lea Asian Garden, Kapnick Brazilian Garden, Water Garden, an idea garden, and my favorite; the succulent garden to name a few. Colorful, textured plant material, meticulously situated from around the world, left my mouth agape. The varieties of palm trees alone were amazing. Royal palm trees towering above the STICKWORK sculpture was impressive and captured what most envision when they think tropical. However, for me, the Palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer from Asia was the best. A grey, almost black trunk, this robust palm has fan-shaped leaves almost 10 feet long. Cross hatch, dark fibrous bark captured my attention standing inside a bed of pothos groundcover. Another standout was the skeletal structure of Plumeria ‘Naples Sixteen’ in its deciduous state. A genus of flowering plants native to Mexico, Central America, Brazil, and Florida, Plumeria flowers are probably best known for their use in a lei. Known for its wide selection of Plumeria, this botanical garden was propagating several types, in large tubs, planted within a stone dust medium. Interestingly, the limbs of larger Plumeria have an almost rubber, pliable consistency. The award for the most unique plant type was the Alluaudia collection. Flowering plants with spines arranged around its leaves as a defense against herbivores, this tree immediately reminded me of the hardier Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana. Native to Madagascar, lemurs rely on the Alluaudia plant for food. And while there were several types, Alluaudia procera was my favorite. An unusual upright succulent with paired rounded leaves and grey spines that sprout up along the length of its branches…quite lethal! Commonly called Madagascar Ocotillo, this is a plant I will never forget.

There were so many fascinating plants at Naples Botanical Garden™, most of which were identified. However, one plant, escaping description, I took a picture of and brought to a local garden center. Clerodendrum quadriloculare ‘Starburst or Shooting Star’, a member of the mint family, had the most remarkable flowers I have seen in quite some time. Delicate white stars shooting forth with lovely pink trails, not to mention green leaves with purple undersides. Native to New Guinea and the Philippines, I may need this one for a container by our pool this summer.

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