The Montgomery Botanical Center is A Monument to Love, Friendship, Botany and a Collector’s Passion
If you look up Robert Heister Montgomery on Wikipedia, you will see that he’s best known for his work as an accountant. Not only did Montgomery write the bestselling “Auditing Theory and Practice” in 1912, he also started the “American Journal of Accounting” and was a founding partner of Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery. That partnership grew into the world’s largest accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers.
I thought about this as I drove down Old Cutler Road to find Montgomery Botanical Center, the amazing collection of palms and cycads on the estate where he once lived, down past Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens (which he launched in 1938). Montgomery – or Colonel Montgomery, as he is referred to at the Center – didn’t move to Coral Gables until 1932, when he was already 60-years-old and a nationally recognized accounting wizard. But that was just the beginning of his new life as the world’s greatest collector of palms.
The entrance to Montgomery Botanical Center is not immediately easy to find. “We are just off the road, right after the fire station,” says Executive Director Dr. M. Patrick Griffith. “But you have to look for it. You will see a wrought iron gate, but most miss it.” Sure enough, I passed Coral Gables Fire Department Station #3 just in time to realize I had also passed the entry gate to the largest botanic center in Florida.
After a questionably legal U-turn, I was met at the gate by a worker who arrived in a golf cart. I followed him down a long road lined with foliage to the former estate home of Col. Montgomery, now research and admin offices for the center’s sprawling 120 acres with more than 14,000 plants, hidden in the midst of Coral Gables.
Dr. Griffith, who has a Ph.D. in botany, gave me a tour by golf cart into the maze that is Montgomery. Unlike the orderly, prim gardens of Fairchild down the road, Montgomery feels more like a jungle, a place where nature rules. Palms and cycads and hundreds of other species are allowed to propagate in a more natural way. The grounds also contain a string of small lakes (a nine-foot crocodile, sort of a Montgomery mascot, lives in one) and rough, rocky outcrops, part of the original “Sliver Bluff ” ridge of limestone that runs along Miami-Dade’s coastline.
As the story goes, it was Col. Montgomery’s friend George Brett, the owner of Macmillan Press, who challenged him to move from Connecticut to South Florida and start a palm collection. It was a gentleman’s bet between two competitive businessmen to see who could collect the most palms. Montgomery, who already had a sizeable collection of conifer trees at his New England home, was game. He and Brett both moved to the Gables in 1932, to properties about a mile apart on Old Cutler Road.
We don’t know exactly when the bet was settled, but Col. Montgomery – who had served in the Spanish American War in 1898 – clearly won. In 1933 his property contained over 1,000 mature palm specimens and soon became the world’s largest private collection of living palms. Brett died three years later.
By this time, Col. Montgomery had met Dr. David Fairchild, the world famous botanist responsible for introducing thousands of plant species to the United States, including soybeans, pistachios, mangos, nectarines, and dates. The two men became fast friends, and that year Fairchild helped Col. Montgomery collect more than 700 species of palms. “Fairchild helped Montgomery travel all around Florida in the summers starting in 1932, buying every species of palms known to the area,” says Dr. Griffith.
Then came the colonel’s life changing romance with Eleanor “Nell” Foster, who he married in 1934. Pretty, smart, and decades his junior, she shared his passion for plant collecting and travel. Together they would go by ship and plane on expeditions around the world, to places like Belize, Panama, Cuba, Jamaica, Malaysia, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, Vanuatu and Madagascar, to name a few. And let’s not forget Bangladesh – then India – which led to the preservation of the Corypha taliera that is now extinct in the wild.
Besides palms, the Montgomery’s became fascinated by cycads. These ancient plants (they go back 160 million years to the Mesozoic era when dinosaurs ruled) are considered to be “living fossils,” Dr. Griffith explained. By 1939, the colonel’s “Palmetum” already held 432 different species of cycads (to me they looked like plants from another planet, or at least from a Dr. Seuss book). All the while, “The Montgomerys became best friends with the Fairchilds,” often going on plant collecting expeditions together, says Dr. Griffith.
It was because of their friendship that, when it came to creating a public botanical park on 83 acres of Montgomery’s land in 1937, the colonel decided to name it Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “He [Montgomery] didn’t feel he had the right credentials, so he preferred Dr. David Fairchild’s name, as he was an American botanist and plant explorer,” says Dr. Griffith. On both properties, and with Fairchild’s help, Montgomery and Nell continued to expand the palm collection until the colonel died in 1953 at the age of 80. Fairchild died the following year at age 85.
I was swept away by this story of friendship and love in the tropics, which continued literally to the day of Col. Montgomery’s passing in 1953. He died while taking a nap, following the daily stroll he took with Nell in the gardens.
Six years after his death, in memory of her husband, Nell established the Montgomery Foundation and the botanical center as a place for scientific research. Today it contains research labs, a library, an herbarium, and nursery facilities – along with 5,563 cycads, 9,066 palms, and the photos and furniture of their perfectly preserved home. It is regularly visited by botanical researchers from across the globe. “When the colonel, Robert H. Montgomery, built this place in 1932, the whole purpose of this facility was – and is – palms and cycads,” says Dr. Griffith. “Eighty-eight years later it’s still here.”
If you would like to visit Montgomery Botanical Center you can do so by appointment, on Saturdays, in groups of 10 or less. Tours are conducted on foot unless golf cart assistance is needed. Visit montgomerybotanicalcenter.org.
Montgomery Botanical Center Facts at A Glance:
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