Seeding Is Believing: How the Naples Botanical Garden Flourished After Irma
We followed the garden's recovery for a year after the hurricane's devastation.
The blossoms of "The Dancing Tree"
Naples Botanical Garden
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It had been known as “The Dancing Tree,” and for years it had greeted Naples Botanical Garden guests as they descended the gentle slope from the plaza honoring legendary Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
The tree, in the Ceiba genus of South American origin, sprouts thorns on its bark, spiky and thumb-tack sharp. Barbs aside, this tree’s branches were willowy and bore white, lily-shaped blossoms with mulberry-colored streaks, giving it an entirely friendly effect—a favorite of staff and guests. It had been grown from a seed Burle Marx had gifted his protégé, Raymond Jungles of Miami, who in turn had given it to Naples Botanical Garden when he designed its Brazil Garden. In the tree, Jungles saw a “sculpture in motion,” and named it accordingly.
Hurricane Irma roared through the garden last Sept. 10, shredding foliage, decapitating palms, ripping limbs—and felling the lovely wooden dancer.
“Heartbreaking,” CEO and President Donna McGinnis said a few days later—of favorites lost, of the entirety of the mess.
All told, winds uprooted or severely damaged some 500 trees. Staff and volunteer horticulturalists from around the country saved about 200 of them. Even so, the wood from unsalvageable trees and other plant matter amounted to nearly 4 acres worth of debris. A third of the canopy was gone; sunlight scorched the ground plants, seared walkways, intensified cleanup.
But Naples’ love for its garden runs deep. Staff, community volunteers and guest horticulturalists labored incessantly. Three weeks to the day after Irma’s landfall, the garden flung open its gates. For that Oct. 1 reopening, staff members arranged colorful snippets of uprooted flowers and greenery in a giant mandala—the horticultural equivalent of shaking a fist and vowing resilience.
McGinnis and her team faced years of regrowth and replanting. But they decided against merely replicating the pre-hurricane garden. Rather than curse Irma for taking The Dancing Tree and other botanical heirlooms, they would instead regard her as a catalyst for expediting existing plans and initiating new ones. In the year that followed, the staff began taking the garden into its next era, one marked by a targeted focus on conservation, biodiversity and broadening the role that Naples plays in the larger botanical world.
“The garden won’t ever look exactly the same as it did before the hurricane,” McGinnis wrote in a blog posting shortly after the storm. “It will be different, but just as spectacular.”
The Idea Garden after the storm—and today
Hot, dead air settled upon Southwest Florida in the storm’s aftermath, prolonging summer and post-storm stress. By late October, though, anxieties quelled, breezes cooled, and mornings turned perfect for garden strolling. Which is what I am doing on a quiet Friday with Chad Washburn, the vice president of conservation. I do not know the garden well, having visited just once before the storm, and Washburn indulges my many before- and after-themed questions.
We pause in Brazil, the most seriously damaged garden.
“Is it beautiful? Yes,” he says of a newly replanted patch on Brazil’s fringe. But by botanical garden standards, the bed is unremarkable, he says. There are rows of begonias—a nice-enough plant but rather run-of-the-mill in Southwest Florida. The area we’re examining used to house more than 30 different species; the begonias are merely placeholders until Washburn and other key leaders including Vice President of Horticulture Brian Galligan can acquire something, or multiple “somethings,” more spectacular.
Plant selection is where the botanical garden’s great opportunity lies.
CEO Donna McGinnis listens to Vice President of Conservation Chad Washburn.
Earlier, Washburn had explained the role botanical gardens play—aside from offering a serene spot for morning strolls—and outlined the leadership team’s aspirations for deepening the garden’s mission.
“A garden is very much a museum of plants,” he says. And just like a museum, it wants to house spectacular, eye-catching flora. In industry lingo, they are known as “charismatic plants”—things with spikes or cones or intricately patterned shapes, awe-inspiring color or stop-you-in-your-tracks fragrances. The Dancing Tree had been a good example.
But the display is only one part of the mission. The others are conservation, research and education.
Washburn pulls out a spreadsheet that tallies specimens endemic to Caribbean and Latin American countries and highlights the species not protected in any botanical garden. Mexico alone has 438 such trees, Cuba, 299. As he looks for new plants, he’ll target the most vulnerable of species from here and abroad.
A botanical garden, Washburn notes, is a little bit like the Biblical ark—a safeguard against extinction on a planet that increasingly unleashes hurricanes and floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions.
Conservation had always been part of Naples’ mission, but the windy purge offered the opportunity to reposition that goal from the periphery to the center.
“The hurricane was a gentle reminder that conservation is important,” Washburn says. “Those kinds of events are a wake-up call. We really need to be out and leading the conservation efforts.”
Over the coming months, he and Galligan and McGinnis and other senior staff would court botanical garden administrators from Cuba, Puerto Rico, California and other climatic cousins, laying the groundwork for the exchange of plant material, resources and ideas. They wanted, in particular, plants with known “provenance,” or data on their history and places of origin. Plants are like art—the better you can trace their lineage, the more valuable they become.