In a garden named for one of the most influential horticulturalists and plant collectors in the country, the late Dr. David Fairchild’s work with tropical plants continues to influence generations of scientists engaged in researching the physical properties, characteristics, and habits of the plant world.  Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is dedicated to the exploration and scientific study of the seemingly endless array of tropical plants, from cycads to orchids to palms and beyond. 

Dr. Fairchild was profoundly influenced by the writings of nineteenth century naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace. His book, The Malay Archipelago, was an account of his observations as he explored Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Wallace’s work on evolution led Fairchild to understand that there was a great diversity of life waiting to be discovered.  When Wallace was once a guest of Fairchild’s father, he later writes of the scientist’s visit on the eve of a lecture, “When Wallace came he stayed at our house and charmed us with his simplicity. At the same time, he overawed the audience at his lecture by his masterly presentation of the subject which was nearest to his heart, the theory of natural selection—known today as Darwinism.”

At Fairchild’s Herbarium and Center for Tropical Plant Conservation, Curator Dr. Brett Jestrow is responsible for the considerable archival plant materials that were first collected by Colonel Montgomery and Dr. Fairchild, and other specimen collections housed at the site. He is a scientist whose research is concerned with the biodiversity of plants, plant DNA, and the molecular anatomy of plants, and his field experience extends to the countries of China, Costa Rice, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.

Dr. Jestrow reflects on why it is important to collect plants and to understand their nature: not only do plants supply food; they are the motivation for agriculture upon which humans organized their societies and culture, and they are the basis of fossil fuels. Often, people don’t know what use a plant might have.

“Many people think it has all been done, that everything has been studied and there is no more to learn. There is a lot more to plants than most people realize,” said Dr. Jestrow.

Brett Jestrow and Jason Lopez researching in the Dominican Republic.

The Herbarium laboratory and archives are housed in a building opened in 1966 on property located about one mile from the Garden (this land belonged to the Garden’s founder, Colonel Robert Montgomery). The Herbarium, with about 150,000 accessioned species (including two collections with materials dating to the mid-nineteenth century), is best known for its collections of palms from around the world; plants of Florida and the Caribbean; and cultivated plants from the tropics.  It also houses specimens from FTBG’s field expeditions and Garden collections as well as specimens on loan from other institutions. Scholars from institutions such as the University of Miami, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University (their collection of about 40,000 species is also in the Herbarium) study the specimens here and engage in research at the DiMare Science Village at the Garden.

In 1999, the FTBG set out to put their entire Herbarium collection online. Currently, about 50 percent of the collection is in the database, along with digital images that are searchable online.  Most of the scanning and data entry for the virtual catalog has been done by Fairchild volunteers under Dr. Jestrow’s direction.

Scientists associated with the Garden, such as Dr. Brett Jestrow, Dr. Kenneth J. Feeley, Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega, among others continue to study plants in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Central and South America. Scientists from those regions come to the Garden to perform research, often relying on the specimens in the Herbarium’s collection. In addition to hosting college courses and the publication of scholarly books and articles, the Herbarium also holds a monthly plant identification workshop for the general public (information is available online). Experts are happy to inform you about whatever bit of plant life you can’t name, be it an exotic weed or a native flower. “We don’t turn people away,” said Dr. Jestrow.

Above: Students in the science lab.
Below: Orchid micropropagation display

The Garden’s state-of-the-art Paul and Swanee DiMare Science Village opened in December 2012. More than 25,000 square feet of land are devoted to the village, laboratories, classrooms, and the impressive butterfly conservatory. University students attend classes here to study genetic research, climate modeling, plant propagation, and animal life, among other related disciplines.

The laboratories of the Science Village are designed so that the visiting public is connected to the scientific experiments and accomplishments of the Garden’s science education initiatives. FTBG is supporting the work of 10 Ph.D. scientists, 20 Ph.D. students, and 40 undergraduate research students.  This new hub allows Fairchild’s team of scientists to work on-site and to interact with students, visitors, and the community. The labs are installed with computer screens, Wi-Fi, and live webcams to facilitate lectures, and allow visitors to experience the work taking place inside of the labs.

Much of the research work done at the Herbarium site since the 1960s now takes place at the Science Village.

The Dr. Jane Hsiao Laboratories are comprised of four educational labs including the Vollmer Butterfly Metamorphosis Lab for pupae hatching; a Micro Propagation Lab for growing rare orchids, palm, cycads, and other endangered tropical plants; a DNA Lab for biodiversity and conservation studies; and a Microscopy and Imaging Lab that allows scientists to study plants and butterflies in minute detail in collaboration with the North American Butterfly Association.

The Village’s Clinton Family Conservatory includes an outdoor 40-foot-high screened-in butterfly “Wings of the Tropics” exhibit with thousands of butterflies, a number of hummingbirds, palms, and trees adorned with Fairchild’s vast collection of rare orchids, and a stream that flows throughout the live exhibit. Attached to the conservatory is the Butterfly Metamorphosis Laboratory featuring a glass wall through which visitors can observe the butterfly chrysalis as it develops into an adult. Twice a day emerging butterflies are released into the lushly landscaped conservatory.

Exterior path leading to Paul & Swanee DiMare Science Village.

The Village also features the Windows to the Tropics Conservatory where highly-sensitive rare tropical plants abound and the Whitman Tropical Fruit Pavilion where visitors will encounter cacao, the source for chocolate, and one of Dr. Fairchild’s favorite fruit trees, the mangosteen, as well as many other varieties unknown to most Americans.

“The opening of the Butterfly Conservatory and Science Village brings together the fusion of nature’s magnificence and the enormous breadth of scientific research and technology available at our fingertips today,” said Dr. Carl Lewis, Director, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “Educating our children today about conservation science, the careers available to them, and the impact they can make, is absolutely critical in the 21st century and beyond.”

Below: Scientist working in lab.

The exploration and science upon which Dr. Fairchild embarked at the beginning of the twentieth century, continues today at the Garden. It is one of the premier conservation and education-based gardens in the world. It hosts field programs in over 20 countries around the world. The Garden’s collection of palms and cycads are considered to be the best in the world. In addition to their university-level educational programs, the Garden’s Fairchild Challenge is the largest science-based education program in the country, serving more than 150,000 school children.

Dr. Carl Lewis said, “The Gardens play a role in educating the South Florida community. There is a great need to be aware of the environment, and there is a great need for botanists to inspire future generations to become botanists.”


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