The focus of LeafGardens is to harmonize nature, technology, and people. To encourage conservation through practical education. To help save a planet.
LeafGardens was the name I settled on in 2008 for one of a few projects I was putting together though what that specifically entailed continued to change and grow as much as I did until things felt right. It was this day three years ago that I decided to pursue this passion in full... and was promptly met with hurdles most unexpected. If you've followed along my path since the beginning you may be aware of some of those circumstances. I had a very different idea in mind for this milestone (today was originally earmarked to reveal initial version of the Botanical Encyclopedia) but after all that's happened I decided to use today as a proper reintroduction of myself, provide some history into the creation of LeafGardens as it stands today, and lay out what you can expect in the future. Simply put: it's a soft reset and I'm pretending it's Day One.
OriginsAs with almost anything everything has a start no matter how small and my first notable introduction to plants was a Dieffenbachia that we kept on our balcony many years ago. I was probably around seven years old when my visiting godmother decided to cut the plant half, making me assume the worst and I was left in shock that she did it intentionally! Imagine my surprise when the stumps she left began to grow (which at first also confused me because if you killed the plant, why would you then put it in dirt and not throw it out?). As mesmerized as I was by this discovery (remember, still seven years old) it was promptly forgotten soon after.
A few years later my mom read an article in the newspaper about a rare plant getting ready to bloom at the local botanic garden. It was described as smelling horrible and wouldn't last very long. While a lot of other people would find that as reason to not be there, we were of opposite mind and waited for the big day, which ended up being inconvenient as it was during the start of the school week. The obvious choice was to play hooky so after my mom called me out for "not feeling well", we went off to go see this special plant.
The area where these plants were kept has been walled off and converted into the Wings of the Tropics butterfly exhibit several years ago but was originally accessible going left when you immediately entered the Tropical Plant Conservatory and Rare Plant House. The path here had wonderful plants on either side—very much like what you see today—and at the end was a wall of orchids in frequent bloom. At this point your only option was to go right and finally it was here that the gentle giants could be found.
On a normal day the air of this place was humid, thick, and unmistakably tropical. The moment I had entered the conservatory there was definitely something else in the air. I think most of the heavy stinking had already passed the night before but what was left was not to be ignored. I was not prepared to turn that last corner and have to look up at a flower. At just over seven feet tall from the top of its pot, Mr. Stinky, the Amorphophallus titanum, was a rather intimidating figure.
It was here that I first met the conservatory manager, Craig Allen; he was the one who took the top-down view of Mr. Stinky from a ladder using the disposable camera we brought. I don't recall much that particular day after he gave me two species from within the same genus (Amorphophallus carneus and an Amorphophallus bulbifer along with a small bag of bone meal) as I was not mentally prepared for that gift. The A. carneus would go on to bloom soon after at home much to my mom's displeasure and my delight. In addition to the fact that Fairchild had live-streamed Mr. Stinky's bloom on their website, the collective experience would be used as a primary reference point to build upon years later.
While I pursued interests away from nature and into technology for a bit I still maintained a small collection of Amorphophallus, continuing to add to it slowly over the years but it was far from a primary focus. LeafGardens continued to be this growing amorphous idea in my mind but still lacked serious direction and vision. By chance I ended up reconnecting with Craig and as luck would have it, he had another flower coming into bloom. On July 17, 2016, standing poolside of Craig and Dean's home near Orlando I got to see another Amorphophallus titanum in bloom. Unfortunately a storm had moved in the day before making the spathe was a little worse for wear and the smell was faded but that didn't take away from the moment. Words will never properly describe the feelings of seeing such a flower again after thirteen years. Upon returning home I reexamined old plans and set new things into motion.
Bad Boy, closeup view of spathe and spadix of an Amorphophallus titanum. Photographed July 17, 2016.Florida Master Gardener Program which at the time was taught by Dr. John J. Pipoly in early 2017. Unfortunately I wasn't able to complete the remaining volunteer hours required to earn the official title of "Master Gardener" but I walked way with additional inspiration and some needed answers. I couldn't get enough and it was very clear that this was the right direction.
My thoughts and actions were entirely consumed by plants viewed in new light and a lot of the things I had been kicking around in my mind for so long started to fit together. I starting to bring a different plant each day into my old full-time job as a personal beacon of light in that dreary office and point of focus, volunteered with the Friends of Oleta River State Park assisting with the establishment of a corner lot by removing invasive species and planting native flora, and finally started to form LeafGardens into something more than a pipe dream. I figured it would be fitting to have my first show be at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for the International Aroid Society's (IAS) annual Show & Sale but there was a slight complication to that plan.
Screenshot from when Hurricane Irma began to impact South Florida, September 7, 2017.
Even though my area wasn't impacted too badly by Hurricane Irma—especially compared to the west coast of Florida—it still did a number on almost everyone. On a personal level the plants I was preparing for prime time did not react kindly to be shoved into a bedroom for a couple of days.
Plant-related or not, shows and events across South Florida were cancelled or postponed. I wasn't sure if I was even going to attend anything and if I did, the plants I would need were starting to fall into early dormancy; it's very hard to display colors and textures of the petioles if they're all withered and brown, and photographs don't compare to the real thing. Still, I was determined to not have the year end without doing at least one show and with some luck, Mounts Botanical Garden had cleaned up their location enough to have their Exotic Plant and Orchid Sale in October and I was able to get a slot! Not only that I was also be able attend the show they had in November, ending the year with two shows instead of none.
LeafGardens booth for the Exotic Plant and Orchid Sale, October 2017.
LeafGardens booth for Plant-A-Palooza, November, 2017.
Meanwhile the original event by the IAS had been moved to the first weekend in February the following year. The event was smaller than usual for obvious reasons and by now all my plants had tucked themselves into a deep slumber making me appear as a random potato farmer in a room with otherwise lush, green and even blooming plants. Nonetheless it was great to check it off as a fantastic personal achievement.
Shortly after this event I gave my first talk at Nerd Nite Miami, "Amorphophallus: A smelly step into nature" [thanks Andrew!], my schedule of events to attend was filling up, and I continued to help out at Oleta River State Park (in fact, after setup for the IAS show I went down to the park that same evening for another event there). I was working on another Nerd Nite talk focusing on Rafflesia (these talks were meant to be part of a series). Despite the stumble late in 2017 it looked like I found my rhythm. Then my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I left work early that Thursday and took the following day off as well to process things. One of my plants, Amorphophallus konjac, came into full bloom Friday morning. I was happy to have something draw my attention away for a little while but still felt stuck at home as I couldn't think of what else to do (if i was thinking at all anyway, I think it was mostly listless staring). For some reason it also made me sad to realize that no one would see this bloom as I didn't have a show that weekend. But... what if I brought it to them? Having a vector to release pent up anxious energy, I made a couple of phone calls, each to a local botanical institution, telling them what I had and if I could bring it for their guests to see. The second location responded positively.
Keith Clark, the Executive Director of Flamingo Gardens, returned my call and after a brief conversation I was granted permission to enter the garden, plant in hand. This was also the same weekend that they were setting up for an orchid show, and I was invited back the following day to show the plant off some more when the garden was more crowded. It was a much-needed reprieve and my highlight of that weekend is this photograph with the Easter Bunny (for the record, they called me over for this photo; I don't always recommend following random rabbits into the woods but this one seemed safe). Generally those two days were enough to calm most of my nerves to the point that I felt confident to tease the development of the Botanical Encyclopedia and regained emotional bandwidth to be present for my mom.
Spring in the fallWithout a doubt the biggest moment of that year was leaving the International Aroid Society Show & Sale in September 2018 with two awards, one for my Amorphophallus muelleri 'Diamondback' and the other for Best in Show. I had also been fired from my main job out of retaliation the Monday preceding that weekend. On the inside, that entire weekend was spent feeling like broken glass that hadn't shattered yet. I don't remember much but a few things from that weekend and a few months later I would completely break down. Suffice to say everything came to a screeching halt by the end of that year.
During the following recovery period one of the good things that quickly became apparent was that I was able to spend even more time outside and visit new places like the Edison and Ford Winter Estates and Harry P. Leu Gardens. One of the must unexpected and notable moment was at the end of 2018 when I met botanical legend John Banta and explored his shade houses.
Eventually as the chaos of everything in my personal life settled down, enabling me reflect on LeafGardens again without stressors and negative influences, I realized it had become quite a mess. I spent some picking out the best course of action but as in gardening, sometimes it's best to dig up the whole yard and start again. Thankfully this second start comes with extra experience.
There are moments in life that make you hit rock bottom. It turns out that it also makes a really good foundation upon which to build something amazing. I glossed over a lot of the darker parts but none of this was easy (some days are difficult as my mom suffers from chronic pain and other physical issues but it's somewhat manageable). It's important to celebrate the personal victories too.
With that out of the way, today is LeafGarden's third birthday and there are definitely things to look forward to from here on out!
Botanical Encyclopedia and online ordersAs I've focused on getting various aspects of LeafGardens going again, the first of these was the Botanical Encyclopedia. For the initial version I'm focusing on the following genera: Amorphophallus, Gonatopus, Synandrospadix, Anchomanes, and Dracontium. This is mostly so I can get general layout, features, and tone worked out in such a way that when collaborative features are enabled, there's solid examples to base future work from. You will not need an account to access the encyclopedia but if you wish to be a contributing author, an account on this site is required.
There's other little features such as the color palette, allowing users to help identify plants by their coloration (where possible) or artists wanting to get some inspiration, that will be found throughout the encyclopedia. As previously mentioned, this is a rather large project and as such there will be a much beefier update disecting the ins and outs this project and its goals either late this year or early next year.
Also like the above, the online shop is still under the works. Aside from the obvious nature of online ordering, it's also the logistics of mail delivery that must be paid attention to. As has been the way of things for me before this year even started I'm hesitant to give specific dates until I trust I'm ready. It is a focus to get it up as soon as possible but also ensuring I will not burn myself out again among other things.
When the online shop is ready to go will also need to create an account on this site (you may start to see a pattern here).
Looking aheadAs you can imagine there's a lot I want to get back to doing but I'm taking these first steps nice and gentle. It has been a very tough road just to be able to sit here and write all this. For a while I wasn't even sure I would still be doing this. Frankly it has been cathartic. By continuing to stick with nature I have learned a lot and gained so much more. To everyone in the plant community, thank you so much for the support.
Progress may be slow to start again, but you'll notice things starting to change around the site as things get settled and restarted. Among a few things, LeafGardens is meant be a place—as cliché as it sounds—by plant people for plant people, so we can work together for a greener, healthier planet. It is our only home, after all.
In the meantime please excuse the mess as backlog items get the appropriate attention they need. I'll pick up the pace soon enough.