By Peter A. Balaskas
When envisioning Miami, the mind almost immediately conjures up images of sandy shores and aquamarine waters. It’s a beautiful picture—although incomplete. In addition to its signature coastal vistas, the Miami area is also home to an entirely different kind of landscape. Secret gardens, hidden throughout the region, offer a tranquil place for those who desire natural beauty and simple serenity to calm the soul.
These green spaces, some in the most unexpected places, allow visitors and residents alike to escape from their busy lives as they revel in the delicate splendor of these exquisite gardens. From the koi ponds at Bal Harbour Shops to the renowned Kampong just a short drive from Miami Beach, explore what each of these picturesque sanctuaries has to offer.
Bal Harbour Shops Koi Ponds and Water Gardens
Creatively designed by the Biscayne Group—under the guidance of Randy Whitman, the son of Bal Harbour Shops’ owner and developer Stanley Whitman—the Bal Harbour Koi Ponds and Water Gardens combine Eastern influences with the cosmopolitan surroundings of one of the most high-end shopping centers in the country. All three ponds are crafted in hard-edged, square-like geometric patterns and are home to turtles and Japanese koi fish whose warm colors vary from a hot white to cherry red.
Whitman points out that only one pond was originally installed in the courtyard, but its popularity resulted in creating two more ponds: one on the opposite side of Bal Harbour Shops and the other in the main plaza, which has a glass cover that allows visitors to walk on the surface and watch the koi beneath them.
“I suggested turning these areas into a fish pond to create a warm and pleasant feel, similar to what residential communities have,” Whitman says. “We had no idea how popular the ponds would be, especially among families and children. People enjoy taking pictures of the turtles and fish.”
Special “low-light” areas inside the mall are home to spiky bromeliad plants, dark Chinese evergreens, lady palms and the phalaenopsis orchids known for lavender colors that set them apart from their green surroundings. Other tropical vegetation includes special aquatic plants like umbrella papyrus palms from Madagascar and violet Egyptian irises. Palm trees and water fountains of different sizes and shapes border the ponds and water gardens. Providing a full visual display, one of the water fountains is T-shaped and two-tiered, with waterspouts erupting from the upper level and cascading down to the fountain’s body.
Whitman knows that visitors will enjoy the visually dynamic environment that the koi ponds and water gardens offer, whether they are walking, shopping or dining. “People like the outdoor garden atmosphere that we have at the Bal Harbour Shops,” he says. “They eat outdoors year-round, even when it’s hot outside in the summer months, because of the shade provided by the landscaped walkways and tropical plants.”
Miami Beach Botanical Garden
Only 7 miles south from Bal Harbour Shops, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden sits snugly between the Holocaust Memorial and the Miami Beach Convention Center. When walking through the entrance on the corner of 19th Street and Convention Center Drive, visitors will first breathe in the scent of the ylang-ylang tree, which has golden flowers featuring oils often used for aromatherapy. Other fragrant flowers that are common in the garden come from the plumeria plants.
Each month brings different featured plants and flowers, such as June’s peach-colored pagoda flower and July’s nettleleaf velvetberry. As fall approaches, August brings in the mercurial bellflower, resplendent with diverse colors ranging from silky white to bright navy blue to a deep, dark violet. September’s celebrated flower is the water lily, which populates the Japanese Garden pond.
As guests pass the Wetland Garden, they will bear witness to 60 species of palms, including the iconic royal palm, the fan-like Bailey palm and the fishtail palm that is used to concoct palm wine. Different species of vines grow and intertwine along all the garden walls and fences, like the dazzling orange-colored flame vine, the dark jade vine and the Dutchman’s pipe, which has flowers that look like slender violet smoking pipes. Prehistoric cycads, one of the most endangered botanic families, also flourish here.
After circling around the great lawn, guests can enter two different gardens. The Native Garden is home to the tropical milkweed and the crimson firebush, as well as live oak and Spanish moss that cascade from tree branches. Then, the Japanese Garden offers a red lacquered bridge that crosses a pond and is meticulously decorated with stone lanterns, following the principles of feng shui. Other Eastern plant life includes the red powder puff shrub, golden trumpet tree and tropical bamboo, ending the experience in total peace and contentment for visitors.
Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden
Nestled at the end of the MacArthur Causeway on Watson Island is a garden founded by Kiyoshi Ichimura of the Ricoh Corp. Ichimura, who was so overwhelmed by the beauty of Miami Beach, donated 300 orchid trees to the city in 1957 to be planted on and around an unused plot of land. He also sent a crew of Japanese carpenters and gardeners to build a teahouse and other structures in order to create an authentic Japanese garden.
Although initially completed in 1961, the garden fell victim to abuse after years of disrepair, neglect and damages caused by Hurricane Andrew. But after a move to Watson Island, Ichimura’s dream of a permanent garden became a reality in 2004 and the Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden was established. Thanks to the Miami Friends of the Japanese Garden, this valued legacy has been treated with the utmost care. Rick DelVecchio, spokesperson for the organization, says its overall mission is “to work with the city of Miami to help maintain the garden and produce events … that promote both the garden and the Japanese culture.”
Today’s visitors to the garden enter a world that not only symbolizes Japanese culture, but also offers a subtle hint of botanical diversity. One primary example includes the gumbo limbo tree, also known as the tourist tree; its red, peeling bark gives the impression of a sunburned tourist. Also present are the oversized cypress trees and the black calabash trees, which have a black pulp used for healing respiratory ailments.
The fire-red flowers and fernlike leaves of the royal poinciana flame tree from Madagascar as well as the Japanese privet leave visitors in awe. Still, one of the most popular trees at the garden is the allspice. The multipurpose fruit from this tree has been used in exotic cuisines by many cultures. Countries from the Middle East use the fruit as a spice for stews and meat dishes, while the West Indies artisans include allspice to produce a liqueur pimento dram. And in Germany, allspice is a valued ingredient for the country’s commercial sausages, proving that horticulture can not only please the eyes and relax the soul, it can also satisfy the taste buds.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Known for its Mediterranean revival architecture and a collection of 15th- to early 19th-century European art and furniture, Vizcaya in Coral Gables also offers 10 acres of Italian Renaissance formal gardens and 40 acres of native jungle forest. The garden is separated into a series of “outer rooms”: the Secret Garden, the Theater Garden, the Maze Garden and the Fountain Garden, each containing plant life that is environmentally and aesthetically suitable for the respective setting.
The horticultural collection includes endangered plants such as the redberry stopper, the Australian bitterbush and the brittle maidenhair fern from the Andes. Eight types of champion trees as well as royal palms inhabit the estate, including the Florida challenger, which is the fourth largest royal palm in the world.
Outside of the formal gardens in the forest are planting beds and shrub borders that contain the succulent peach palm, whose edible fruit can be harvested for the heart of palm vegetable. Adding a touch of intrigue is the wide-leaved giant elephant ear plant and the colorful Regina’s disco lounge, a tropical flower with white petals that contain a pink stripe down the center. Also dominating the formal gardens are greenhouses that contain more than 2,000 plants; most notable among those structures is the David A. Klein Orchidarium, where Vizcaya’s prized orchids bloom and prosper.
Enhancing the cultured setting of the gardens are the statues, busts, urns and vases that adorn the entire estate. By merging the elements of the Renaissance with contemporary artwork alongside the diverse horticultural selection, Paul Chalfin, the original architect and designer of Villa Vizcaya (its former name), and owner James Deering succeeded in creating an enchanted world that appeases both nature lovers and art aficionados alike.
Ending the southern coastal garden tour is the Kampong, which is Malay for “a cluster of dwellings for an extended family.” For horticulturist David Fairchild, his extended “family” was his living plant collection. Purchased originally as a winter home in 1916, the Kampong became his permanent residence in 1928. Throughout his career, Fairchild traveled to exotic locations around the world in his quest for new botanical discoveries, reportedly introducing approximately 30,000 varieties and species of plants to the United States.
The Kampong estate not only includes Fairchild’s home, but also contains one of the largest mangrove preserves in Florida. Near the main house is the Schokman Education Center, a special campus that teaches a course in tropical botany as well as a physician’s course that emphasizes herbal remedies. It also serves as a “living classroom” for local universities and colleges.
Members of the ficus species greet guests as they drive through the entrance. Subsequently, visitors travel underneath the ropey roots of a giant banyan fig tree, which has grown to 357 feet in circumference. When they reach the main house, they will see creeping fig vines clinging to its walls, with fruit shaped like wedding bells. There is also a “wedding” tree—a giant ficus subcordata that offers a canopy for brides and grooms to stand under as they recite their vows. The Kampong’s collection of fruit trees is renowned for its variety, especially the 23 cultivars of avocado and 65 types of mangoes. There is also the jackfruit, which can grow up to 75 pounds, making it the largest tree fruit in the world. During the fall season, visitors can watch the colorful Barbados cherry and green monkey orange trees bloom.
But the Kampong tour wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the heavenly aroma of the flowering trees, most notably the Michelia champaca of the magnolia family. Completing this fragrant collection are the sweet jasmine trees, as well as the citrus-scented Murraya trees.
As visitors reach the end of this southern garden tour, they achieve a state of rejuvenation and contentment achieved by exploring some of Miami’s best-kept secrets.