A Hurricane Named Irma visited Naples Botanical Garden

I felt a deep sadness, something akin to compassion, when we returned to Naples a month after Hurricane Irma ripped through. The damage to buildings wasn’t very evident except for blue tarps on roofs and furniture beside the road waiting for pickup. But there was so much evidence of foliage destruction with huge tree roots exposed and piles of dying branches lining many of the road. As we drove around the city I saw evidence of the beating the trees and plants withstood and I felt a deep sadness for them. This is such a lush and green environment and I know it won’t take long for everything to grow back but the heaviness of sorrow lingered for weeks.

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Going to the Naples Botanical Garden this season has also been painful – not in body but in spirit. The garden was hit very hard by Hurricane Irma and my first visit was when they reopened right after a massive three-week clean-up. I felt dazed as I walked around, frequently feeling disoriented in a garden I am very familiar with. I wasn’t able to identify what was missing but I knew things were very different.

As soon as the hurricane was predicted employees and volunteers started taking in the orchids and sculptures, the rare and special plants that could be moved. The damage to every part of the garden was extensive. More than 230 large trees were lost along with many shrubs and many shade loving plants that survived Irma but died in the harsh sun due to the loss of the large shade trees. Cleanup is still taking place 5 months after the storm. The debris pile covers more than 2 acres and is 6 ft. deep.

In the days following the storm, professional botanists from several large gardens came to help determine what could be saved and how to best respond, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, Missouri Botanical and the Atlanta Botanical. The regular volunteers and bus loads of volunteers from neighboring communities and states came to work on clean up and replanting. Over 100 fallen trees were saved by using props and pruning, bushes and plants were righted, plants that needed shade were transplanted.

In three weeks the garden was tidied up enough to open to visitors. But the work goes on.

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This is a young garden having opened in 2009 and I started my weekly Tuesday trek in November 2013. I remember thinking that the garden looked like a new garden and have enjoyed watching it mature, growing into a tropical lushness so different from the northern gardens I am familiar with. Last year I marveled at the maturity of the garden, the lushness of plants that were designed to compliment each other and create unique areas that were intimate and a feast for the eyes. Every trip included the excitement of going around curved paths to find new and unique blooming plants. Every trip to the garden, every image I attempted to capture was a learning experience.

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Hut within bamboo stands in Asian Garden

I watched the initial gardens grow and mature while seeing new gardens being added, like the Florida Garden and the Orchid Garden. Although none the hard structures were damaged, so much of what I saw in my initial visits after the storm were clearly attempts to return some beauty into the devastation while the hard work of rebuilding the soft-scapes takes place.

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Before Erma this small corner had been a lush tropical retreat for me. Now the replanting and regrowing begins.

The focus is now “replant and regrow,” recognizing that nature is resilient. The garden has a leadership team that is creative, knowledgeable, and has built collaborative relationships with other gardens. The strength and talent of the people associated with the garden is evident that the garden received the 2017 Award for Garden Excellence from the American Public Gardens Association, being the youngest garden to ever receive this award. They are keeping a focus on six core commitments that allowed them to go from ‘open for visitors’ to ‘winning a prestigious award’ in just eight years as they engage in their regrowing efforts.

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According to the Board President, they don’t know how long it will take to regrow or how much it will cost, but they know what they need to do. The plants they need can’t be purchased at the local garden center or big box store. An employee told me that they had cuttings and seeds from some of the plants that can be used. They will also be exchanging plant material and seeds from other gardens in the U.S. and the Caribbean, and traveling to obtain seeds from the wild. Then they need to regrow the material for future placement in the gardens.

Their goal is to increase the number of rare, unique, and endangered plants. We know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior so I am confident that visitors to the garden in the months and years ahead will be rewarded with new beauty. The garden leadership is also dedicated to helping local residents replant their landscapes, adding to the phenomenal beauty of this dot on the map.

I have been doing a lot of thinking since we returned to Naples after Irma. I was impacted by the devastation to my winter community but then I think of the devastation from hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico, the fires in California. I am humbled because my reaction to what Irma did to SW Florida must pale in comparison to what people experience when their homes are destroyed, basic infrastructure not repaired,  and loved ones are lost. I’ve been thinking of the takeaways, what values I think we need to hold on to as we face the natural and human disasters that seem to be happening more frequently.

Here are two basic takeaways for me:

  1. Nature, including both plant and human, is resilient. We can get beat up pretty badly and still come back to live a life of beauty.
  2. People play a huge role in how long it takes for healing to take place, and how successful the healing is. We need to do our part to help our planet to be healthy and to heal, and that includes the humans who inhabit the planet.

I have long believed what others before me have said in many different ways: We are only as healthy and happy and prosperous as those who are the least among us. We all have to reach out a helping hand to those in need, and sometimes we need to reach out our own hands to receive help from others. We are all in this together.

That means that we need to be concerned about what happens to the poorest and the smallest among us. Naples is a very wealthy community and had the resources necessary for a quick recovery – power was restored within two weeks. The community knew how to access resources from near and far. People appeared in Houston and California to give support and help. Workers came from far and near because they wanted to help, but also because they knew there was money to pay them, to cover expenses. That hasn’t happened in Puerto Rico. What happened there is a disgrace – especially as we hear of companies that went in to help but really ripped them off by taking money for services that weren’t provided. I feel the stain, the shame of what happens to those without a voice, without the power of money and prestige. I acknowledge and enjoy privileges that are mine, because I worked hard for them, because I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and through just plain dumb luck. But if I enjoy privilege without feeling a sense of responsibility to help others that are following behind me in life, I am nothing. I am a farce and lack moral integrity. I am a disgrace to those who paved the paths that I have been fortunate enough to travel.

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Another takeaway from Irma is a new-found sense of responsibility to the Naples Botanical Gardens. I have enjoyed capturing and sharing the beauty of the gardens during my winter stay but I think I will also be more sensitive to the growth of garden plants, watching to see how new designs are created with new plants. I feel a need to document the regrowth – maybe to let Irma know there is a human spirit here in Naples composed of an army of professionals and volunteers who are willing to work their hearts out. Fibromyalgia doesn’t allow me to volunteer for garden work but I can use my talent for seeing beauty and writing to document the “replant and regrow” facilitated by those who can do the physical labor. Stay tuned for many future posts and stories about my Tuesday morning observations.

11 Comments »

  1. Cuttings and seeds… Regrowing that way sounds like such a monumental task. It must take forever to get those plants started growing again… Very nice post, Pat. And you’re right, It is sad. They are living creatures, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Susan. I have been working for several years to capture this little area. On this day another photographer and I were chatting as we attempted to capture the lotus and there it was for me. Usually when I get to this part of the garden there is a stiff breeze and the reflection isn’t as nice.

      Liked by 1 person

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