I had become a volunteer at the Naples Botanical Garden from the first month that we moved to Florida full-time, which was in the summer of 2005. I already knew from our previous visits to the area that there was a lot I still had to learn about growing in this climate, so volunteering there seemed a natural thing to do.
And having just planted my first plumeria, and having fallen hard…. I started to communicate online with the various plumeria groups. I was learning more, and acquiring more of course!
Then, one day in the spring of 2008 the buzz was going around that Elizabeth Thornton’s personal collection was going to be sold by her daughter.
Since I had meanwhile been invited to be a member of the Collections Committee at the Garden, and was feeling strongly about keeping Elizabeth’s collection together, I brought this fact up in one of the meetings.
Fortunately the Committee was open to the idea of trying to get the trees, but it proved too impractical and costly. But we were lucky that Bette Gips (Elizabeth’s daughter) consented to taking cuttings from all of her mother’s trees. As a matter of fact she was so excited that someone at least felt that these should stay together, that she donated them.
Around that same time a lady whose late husband had been on the board of the original Botanical Garden decided to donate all his plumeria trees to the Garden. Many had lost their tags after hurricane Wilma, but fortunately she gave us all the invoices from their purchases and over the years we have been able to identify most of them.
So now we suddenly had almost 100 plumeria trees!
A major expansion of the Botanical Garden was in the works. Instead of the original 12 acres built in the early nineties, there were plans for a huge garden – the second largest in the state – encompassing 170 acres. And a big chunk of land, rolling hills along one of the lakes was being set aside for the plumeria collection, which received another huge boost that following year when a great local plumeria aficionado, who had gotten a little carried away buying plants – sound familiar? – decided to donate a lot of them to include in our growing collection.
Then the Plumeria Society of America made a surprising and serendipitous decision.
The PSA had actively been looking for locations and partner-organizations that would be able to support the entire registered collection of over 400 Plumeria trees. Many locations were considered, and I know they hoped that someone would build a Garden specifically for this purpose in Houston, but after I had coincidentally mentioned the new expansion project at the Naples Botanical Garden, they decided that they had found the ideal location. Not only does Naples provide a secure, subtropical climate, but there are also people there who know and love Plumeria, know how to take care of Plumeria and most important of all, the organization had the space and resources necessary to house a large collection.
From then on, the plants and cuttings started arriving, gradually, sometimes in big batches and sometimes just one or two at a time. And yes, some people were ‘gently’ – or sometimes not so gently – persuaded by me to give up parts of their treasured plants…. We got plants from Hawai’i, from Sicily, from Thailand and several other parts of the globe.
Together with the plants we already had from the Thornton Collection and the two local collectors, we now have over 80% of all registered varieties on the premises. Many are still small plants of course, and after the first winter when we had a very rare prolonged cold spell during which we lost some of the smaller plants that had been put on ‘The Hills’, we now grow all plants on until they are of a sufficient size that a chilly night might cost a tip or two, but never the whole plant.
It’s still getting better.
Fortunately our General Director, Brian Holley, is a plumeria fan, and he felt that as a young garden it would look great if we had a ‘National Plant Collection’, so he convinced my boss and me (well, he didn’t have to convince ME) that we should apply for national status of our Plumeria collection with the NAPCC (North American Plant Collections Consortium).
This is not an easy process. It entails a LOT of paperwork, and we had to make the collection ship-shape, not just ‘out there’ but also ‘behind the scenes’: in order to become a national collection you don’t just show you have a lot of plants… you have to show proper recordkeeping procedures, plans for sharing the germplasm with other organizations, and contingencies for duplication, propagation and care. It is a very stringent process, and one of their officers came down for two days and grilled every member of the horticulture team plus inspected all our files…. but we were eventually granted the National Status in November of 2011, which is a great feather in the cap of a very young garden like ours.
We are also creating ‘backup’ locations, including at the Botanic Garden in Belize, and at some local communities. There are already several dozen trees on the grounds of a big church in Naples.
Now any of you are welcome to come and visit the Collection, and when you do I hope you’ll let me know so I can give you a tour. But clippers are to be checked at the gate….