Inside the John C. Gifford Arboretum

UM’s John C. Gifford Arboretum Provides a Refuge for Trees – and Humans

Created in 1947, the University of Miami’s arboretum was designed as a living laboratory for the study and conservation of tropical plants collected from all around the world. Currently, the leafy, three-acre botanical garden on the northwest corner of campus is home to more than 500 species of trees and palms. 

In the past year, as the Covid-19 pandemic has upended routines and ratcheted up stress levels, the arboretum has emerged as a welcoming community refuge, a flowering green glade of tranquility that invites repose and reflection. 

“More than ever humans realize we need nature,” says Mauro Galetti, a professor of biology and director of the John C. Gifford Arboretum, which honors an American forester. “I go there almost every day to check on the plants, to relax, and I have noticed the increasing number of visitors. I see people praying, doing yoga, taking Zoom classes, reading books. It is one of the beautiful places in Coral Gables.” 

Among those who have come to appreciate the garden this past year are Martha and Christopher Harrison, who almost daily spend two hours of the afternoon under the blooming boughs of a dwarf apple tree, taking in the birdsongs, the air perfumed by the flowers of the Ylang Ylang tree, which produces the essential oil in Chanel No. 5. A licensed masseuse, Martha likes to sit in the shade and through earbuds listen to classes on massage. Christopher, a retired professor of geophysics at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, prefers a little sunshine while reading science magazines and The Guardian“Spending time out in nature is very healing, and it’s so beautiful,” says Martha. “I am respectful of the energy of trees and greenery. It’s restorative. We are the luckiest.” 

John C. Gifford Arboretum
Martha and Christopher Harrison enjoying the solitude of the arboretum to read and listen to podcasts. 

Over the year, the arboretum has survived threats from the university’s insatiable hunger for building space and parking lots – and from storms. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 wiped out about half the trees in the collection and led to a major renovation. 

Galetti says the future of the arboretum seems secure, with minor improvements now underway. These include the installation of new benches, tables and a water fountain, and a paved walkway to allow wheelchair access. Thanks to a gift from the City of Coral Gables and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 95 orchids are also being added to the grounds. 

Apple Blossom Tree 

Tours of the arboretum are self-guided. Each tree is identified with a tag bearing its name and country of origin. The main entryway is from San Amaro Drive, just south of the small San Amaro/Campo Sano traffic circle. The arboretum is open to the public free of charge seven days a week. Visitors are asked to use metered parking.