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How a Miami Adventure-Botanist Helped Build America

May 6th, 2020

What does The U.S.’s national supply of mangoes, Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossom trees and international customs declaration forms have in common with the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables? 

Answer: All of them are here today because of a revolutionary explorer named David Grandison Fairchild.

If you live in our Dadeland apartments, then you’re just minutes away from the very place where America’s favorite fruits, vegetables, plants and trees were introduced to the country by a real-life food explorer!

It’s also near one of the most extensive collections of rare and endangered tropical plants in the area. The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is a museum, garden, learning center, laboratory and a major conservation center that is dedicated to preserving biodiversity. The gardens are also a testament to the hard and successful work of the botanist who brought a wide variety of plants to the United States.

Here’s why botanist David Fairchild is one of the most interesting people you’ve never heard of.

David Grandison Fairchild

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Like Lemons? Quinoa? Thank This Food Explorer For Bringing Them To Your Plate #FACTS FEB. 21, 2018. #Botanist #DavidFairchild grew up in #Kansas at the end of the 19th century. He loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the #USDA and for the next 37 years, he traveled the world in search of useful plants to bring back to America. He visited every continent except Antarctica and brought back mangos, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo and the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring, as well as hundreds of other plants. He could steal things, as he did in #Corsica searching for new types of citron, or lemons. He got arrested and had to leave very quickly. But he eventually develops a strategy of talking with people, going to markets, observing what people are eating and what they're growing. And he sends back seeds and cuttings to try in America. In the late 19th century, American #beer was not very good. #Germany had been brewing beer for centuries. Fairchild went to #Bavaria to find better hops to brew better beer. Now, Germany knew it had great #hops and had dogs guarding the hops fields at night. Fairchild could have stolen some of the hops, but he sees this as an opportunity for diplomacy. He befriends the growers, drinks with them in the beer hall, and eventually one of them says, 'I'll give you some hops but you can't tell anyone and you have to leave tomorrow.' #Apple come from Kahzakstan, bananas come from New Guinea, #pineapple from Brazil, and the oranges and #lemon that have fueled the economies of Florida and California? They originated in China ... Almost every food we eat is an immigrant. #NINFONETWORK #FOODNINFO #VEHICLENINFO #STYLENINFO #FOODANDWINE #EATER #TRUECOOKS #FOODIE #EEEEEATS #CHEFSTALK #LONDON #BONAPPETIT #LEFOODING #FOODANDWINE #FOODNETWORK #NATGEO #VINTAGE #HISTORY

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As previously mentioned, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens is named after botanist and explorer David Fairchild, a friend of the garden’s first owner, Robert H. Montgomery. 

Born in Lansing, Michigan in 1869, David Fairchild grew to become a well-known botanist and scientist. His family later moved and Fairchild grew up in Kansas among fields, plains and farms. Soon, David grew interested in the economic and culinary potential American farms held. After studying at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) and Rutgers, Fairchild began working at the United States Department of Agriculture where he was an official plant explorer. He spent his later life in Miami, where he was instrumental in developing botanic gardens.

Life as an official plant explorer

Yes, that is a real job title David Fairchild held: a United States plant explorer. Or, to sound even cooler, one could say he was an adventure-botanist

Fairchild worked for the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction within the Department of Agriculture. He landed the job after he met a wealthy philanthropist named Barbour Lathrop on a ship from Washington D.C. to Naples, Italy. Lathrop, after hearing about Fairchild’s interest in foreign crops and how agriculture could contribute to a nation’s economy, decided to fund Fairchild’s travels and explorations.

As this private escapade grew and expanded, which was about five years into Fairchild’s travels, the United States government decided to pick up the sponsorship. Soon, Fairchild was exploring the world as a U.S. government employee and as director of the brand-new Office of Seed and Plant Introduction.

The Smithsonian Magazine puts it perfectly here: “Fairchild went from kind of an independent agent to a government employee and became very much a government food spy in his role.”r

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Can you imagine your life without avocados? We owe it to adventure botanist David Fairchild, employed by the US Department of Agriculture, traveling, developing relationships and bringing home exotic fruits and vegetables. Love kale? Thank David Fairchild. He’s also responsible for the magical beer hops we have in the US, brought home from Bavaria in a time where the fields were guarded! His all time favorite? Mangosteen. But US climates didn’t quite cut it for growing these tropical fruits. 🌴 Check out the link from Smithsonian Institute on our Facebook page! And like us if you haven’t already. Campbell’s is pretty awesome. 😎#bestjobever #davidfairchild #originofavocados #campbellsnutrition

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Fairchild’s job was to explore the world and bring back plants and crops to grow in the United States. This job, as placid as it sounds, was much more strategic and tactful in many cases. 

How could plant exploration be tactful, you ask? Well, at the time of Fairchild’s travels, the United States’ biggest industry was farming. American farmers grew corn, potatoes, wheat and cotton, and there wasn’t much else. The world at that time ran on exporting crops to other countries and making money from it, so a wider variety of exports meant a larger and stronger economy. Fairchild’s job, then, was to find new and exotic fruits, vegetables and crops to produce and export in the United States. This meant that he had to convince his foreign friends to let him bring samples, saplings and seeds back to the United States. 

Fairchild’s travels brought over 200,000 new types of edible plants to the U.S., among which are:

  • Avocados (from Central America)
  • Kale (from Austria-Hungary)
  • Quinoa (from Peru)
  • Soybeans
  • Nectarines
  • Mangoes
  • Dates (from Iraq)
  • Pistachios
  • Apples (from Kazakhstan)
  • Bananas (from New Guinea)
  • Oranges (from China)
  • And many, many more!

Life in Miami

Fairchild planted many of his experimental plants, fruits and vegetables in an introduction garden in Miami which he established in 1898. This was the first plant introduction garden belonging to the U.S. government, and its current location in Pinecrest, Florida is known today as the Subtropical Horticulture Research Station

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David Fairchild was an American botanist and explorer who built The Kampong, a botanical garden of tropical, exotic delights in Miami, FL in the early 1900s. He and his wife lived on this site, and Fairchild built a laboratory and library there that he used for his research. While most of the original contents of this space have been lost, artist Mark Dion is rebuilding the laboratory as accurately as possible. I got a sneak peek of his process this morning. It's going to be a huge undertaking and a fantastic permanent exhibition. So good to see how it's going @markdionstudio! I can't wait to see the finished space! . . #markdion #davidfairchild #kampong #tropical #botany #history #explorers #botanist #miami #Florida

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In 1905, Fairchild married Marian Bell, the youngest daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. The two of them bought a property in Coconut Grove just south of Miami in 1916, and they filled the property with exotic plants and trees of all kinds. The Fairchilds named the property “The Kampong,” which referred to the typical Indonesian homesteads where David had spent much of his travels. Today it has a place on the list of the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public for tours. 

The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

After Fairchild retired to his Coconut Grove tropical paradise in 1934, he got involved with a group of fellow plant collectors and enthusiasts in the area. This group included environmentalist and women’s rights activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a prominent figure in the fight for preservation and conservation of the Florida Everglades. Her book, "The Everglades: River of Grass" is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature concerning the preservation of the Everglades’ delicate ecosystem.

Also part of this environmentalist group was a retired accountant named Robert Montgomery, a wealthy and prominent figure in the finance and accountancy world. He, along with Douglas, Fairchild and an architect named William Lyman Phillips, funded and built an 83-acre botanical garden in Coral Gables filled with exotic tropical plants, flowers and trees. This garden, funded by Mongomery and filled with Fairchild’s plants, opened to the public on March 23, 1938. Montgomery named the garden after his dear friend and fellow plant enthusiast: Dr. David Fairchild.

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Happy Birthday to Miami's top environmentalists! Very cool they were born on the same date years apart. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Grande Dame of the Everglades: April 7, 1890 - May 14, 1998 David Fairchild, horticulturalist, botanist, and plant explorer: April 7, 1896 - August 6, 1954 From the exhibit Trailblazers: The Perilous Story of the Tamiami Trail at the Keys History & Discovery Center on loan from @CoralGablesMuseum: "In the 1920s and 30s many prominent environmentalists were seeking to create a National Park to protect and preserve the Everglades for future generations. They and other environmentalists wanted to build on the work by the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs, which had succeeded in establishing Royal Palm State Park... In the 1930s, Fairchild, along with Douglas and Country Commissioner Charles Crandon (for whom Crandon Park on Key Biscayne is named), all avid environmentalists, worked together to bring a one of a kind botanic garden to life. In 1938, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens opened their doors to the public on 83 acres in what is now Coral Gables." . . . #miami #pioneers #environmentalists #happybirthday #davidfairchild #marjorystonemandouglas #douglas #fairchild #fairchildgardens #gardens #miamians #history #importantpeople #icons #everglades #conservation #savingplaces #botanist #plants #tropical #trees #exoticplants #nature #florida #floridahistory #miamihistory #horticulture #coralgables

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David Fairchild’s legacy

David Fairchild pioneered the introduction of foreign plants into the United States. For 37 years Fairchild traveled the world collecting plants, seeds and saplings from over 50 countries and six continents. 

His position running the USDA program ended in 1917 with the breakout of World War I and the heavy tide of nationalism that followed it. Suddenly, no one wanted to have new crops, fungi, seeds or foods from other countries, and David Fairchild’s explorations through the USDA came to a permanent halt. This aversion to foreign plants and crops is what spurred the decision to quarantine and search any incoming flora being brought from overseas. This rule is why international travelers to the U.S. today must sign documents stating that they aren’t bringing any foreign soils, plants or farm products with them. 

David Fairchild’s botanical adventures brought the orange to Florida, cherry blossom trees to Washington D.C. and avocado to our toast. We may not have half the foods we have readily available today if David Fairchild hadn’t spent his life being America’s greatest food spy, and we have him alone to thank for many of the crops, farms and industries the United States has today.

And, just to think, he lived and worked just minutes away from our luxury Dadeland apartments! You’re practically living in history!

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Featured photo "Fairchild Gardens" by bunnygoth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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