As places in the garden landscape here at Kona Kai open up due to either a plant's death or removal, it is good to have an idea as to what one would like to plant when an opening becomes available. On the other hand, sometimes you come across a plant that you simply must have, so you make space for it. Either way, attending good plant sales or visiting quality nurseries are good ways to scope out new plants. Last weekend, I had the privilege of venturing up to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for their annual Spring Plant Sale to see what they were offering and also tour the grounds themselves.
Conducting research both before a visit to a plant sale or nursery is advisable. Researching before your visit can help you determine what is actually for sale and what will fit your needs/wants best. For example, as Kona Kai's focus is on plants with ethnobotanical interest, I checked out Fairchild's plant sale offerings listed on their website and studied to find out which plants, if any, were of ethnobotanical interest. Research is also advisable, especially when working for a botanic institution, because many times we are trying to acquire a specific plant and we want to make sure what is being offered is truly that specific plant. Most nursery employees are not taxonomists and their plant identification can be incorrect or often not specific enough; plants may only be listed by a general common name. For instance, a nursery may call a plant "thatch palm," but that name can be applied to numerous species and even genera of plants. When it comes to botanic gardens and arboreta, even the best will have plants identified incorrectly, so even though I can have confidence that Fairchild probably has the plants they are selling ID'd correctly, it never hurts to double-check to make sure the plant you are looking to buy matches the description of the plant you want, especially if it is a rare plant or one that will be very important for your collection.
Fairchild BG is in Coral Gables on Old Cutler Road, which is a real treat to drive from the south, with plenty of sections lined with mature trees and beautiful properties. This was my first visit to Fairchild and throughout the day, I enjoyed reading the display or record labels on plants that caught my eye - there were many excellent specimens to see. Upon entering the Garden, I was greeted by live music well-suited to the event and setting. A very good variety of food stands from local vendors was to be found on the Garden House Lawn, while the plant sale took place in the Palmetum. Fairchild offered an impressive selection of plants, although you have to arrive early if you want to get your hands on the most sought-after offerings; even arriving an hour after opening was too late for some plants. The number of vendors allowed to showcase plants at the event was not very large, but it was ok because I think that Fairchild's plants are the real highlight, given their reliability in naming and also the potential to find plants with unique histories, such as a palm grown from a seed that came from a palm David Fairchild collected in the wild, brought back and planted on the grounds. It is always ideal to have provenance (a plant's origin and propagation history) information for plants in a botanical collection, and this is more likely to be available with plants that have been propagated at a botanic institution, although I have also come across nurseries that keep records of this and place higher value on plants with interesting, traceable provenance.
During the day, I fortuitously ran into Dr. Carl Lewis, Fairchild's Director, and we spent some time walking the grounds, talking plants, and also talking Connecticut College, since he is also an alum from the Botany department! I was very excited to learn this since the College graduates only about 350 students per year, with only a handful of students from the small but very well-staffed Botany department.
Since our need for new plants was not great and I did not find any plants with significant ethnobotanical interest that we did not already have, I did not make any purchases, although I can see how bringing a credit card to one of these events could be quite dangerous; I think the expression "gardener at a Fairchild plant sale" makes a great alternative to "kid in a candy store." This expression could also turn out to be of great value for anyone trying to creatively, wittily and effectively describe kids in candy stores, which has always been a conundrum for those unfortunate souls who begin a sentence with "These kids in the candy store are like..." leading to either an awkward silence or an attempted analogy that precipitates the former.