The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
An Arboretum for the Ages PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
December 2017

University of Miami steps up with new protections and resources

TPix_GoingGreen_12-17he John C. Gifford Arboretum at the University of Miami could easily be overlooked as just another swath of lush landscaping. But you have to see past the forest to the trees to appreciate this 70-year-old botanical garden.

In a city that prides itself on being a global hotspot, the hundreds of fruiting and flowering specimens from around the world that grow here are the true ambassadors, with stories lodged deep in their DNA of exotic lands and cultures.

“This one is endemic to the Socotra Archipelago,” says arboretum director Steve Pearson, proudly pointing to a new addition, Euphorbia arbuscular, a green stick-like shrub native to Yemen. “This plant is important for animals to browse in the dry season,” he adds. “They eat the stuff.”

Like many of the specimens in the arboretum, it is endangered and, for that reason, treasured. “That’s one of the purposes we have here, to be a repository of endangered things,” says Pearson.

On this day, he’s making the rounds with two botanists. We’re all eager to see how the arboretum has weathered Hurricane Irma.

“I just added these two cycads.” Pearson says. This Mexico native, Zamia vazquesiil, was called amigo del maiz by the Spanish, he explains, “friend of the corn.” Was it so named because it grew near the corn stalks? Or is there a scientific explanation, as Pearson suggests -- that it has “some nitrogen-fixing properties,” a boost to corn plants?

We move on to a tree from the West Indies, Cedrela odorata, the cigar box cedar. The name is no mystery; its odorous bark is well known to cigar connoisseurs.

Then follows a curious discussion about the secret tactics of a shrub with large fern-like leaves that may or may not trap insects to lure birds that stir up pollen to fertilize flowers. No one can say whether all this is really true, but it’s an interesting possibility.

And so the stories go as we walk through the woods. The Indian bael tree, Aegle marmelos, which was so fecund a year ago, now stands fruitless and leafless in the dusky light, a victim of the hurricane. This is a huge loss for the arboretum. The bael nut also plays an important role in parts of Nepal for young women. If they can keep the hard-shelled, sacred bael nut in their care safe and uncracked throughout marriage, they will be spared the stigma of widowhood. For the sake of the arboretum, as well as new brides, Pearson hopes to find a replacement tree soon.

In the 1990s, when the university floated a plan to put a roadway through the arboretum, the late Kathy Gaubatz, a longtime protector of the grounds, called on Pearson to help. They had worked on tree projects when Pearson chaired the City of Miami Committee on Beautification and Environment. Gaubatz, known as “the Lorax of Coral Gables” (because she spoke for the trees) had saved the arboretum once before, when it had become a weed-infested jumble. Thanks to their advocacy, the roadway idea was shelved.

“The arboretum has a neglected, uneven history,” says Pearson, a retired Miami attorney. “At that time, the university just saw the garden as a cheap piece of land.”

In 2011, when another road and parking lot proposal surfaced, Pearson stepped in again. He stopped the project and was offered the director’s position, to boot.

“The future looks good,” Pearson believes, with university officials now promising permanent protection and greater resources, including a greenhouse.

As director, Pearson nurtures the arboretum like his own, even growing new specimens in his back yard. He has broadened the education programs, bringing in acclaimed botanists for monthly lectures. And he’s found novel ways for the community to enjoy the grounds with musical performances and picnics.

“Public gardens can play an important role in increasing people’s awareness of the natural world, and the threats,” Pearson says, referring to the impact of climate change, deforestation, and extinction of species worldwide. “We need to teach people what needs to be done to make our world better.”

Last year volunteers with TREEmendous Miami planted more than 150 specimen plants and 600 native plants, including willow-bustic, red ironwood, and West Indian lilac, and a border of butterfly-attracting pineland lantana, blood sage, and beach verbena.

“With the addition of natives, we now have the opportunity to teach people the benefits of an entire ecosystem,” Pearson says. “This shows how things are interrelated.” And interdependent.

On this small parcel, at least, the trees have been saved, giving us the opportunity to continue to listen to the stories of survival in the natural world to which we also belong.

The University of Miami John C. Gifford Arboretum and botanical garden is located at the northwest corner of campus off San Amaro Court, next to the Cox Science Building. It is free and open to the public.


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