Allure of the Arboretum: ‘A Plan That is Unfolding’

Question: If there were a place on campus said to be mystical and sacred, where might one find it? Would it be the same place that halted new construction on campus in the 1980s? Could it truly inspire romance, intellectual discoveries and wonderful outdoor dinners-and-a-dance? The Friends of the John C. Gifford Arboretum, growing between the physics building and San Amaro Drive, invite you to see for yourself.

On a recent walk in the Arboretum, biology graduate student John Cozza showed me a banana tree and cocoa plant, featured in their Halloween tour “Sacred and Mystical Plants of the Arboretum.” He and First Aldridge Horticultural Assistant Rachel King, another Biology graduate student, curated the collection. Gently handling a glossy green leaf, he said, “Your skin is like a banana-leaf,” recounting what some societies take as high compliment. Some peoples believe the god of healing to be embodied in the banana plant.

Other cultures see gods manifested by trees too. Honored by Buddhist and Hindu religions, for example, is the “Truthing Tree,” or ficus. As the ultimate creator, Brahma is witnessed in the powerful roots; its branches personify Vishnu, the preserver; and the regenerated leaves are Shiva, the destroyer/renewer.

So powerful was this imagery that a suspected liar would be brought before the tree, and forced to speak honestly before the gods. Africa’s revered baobab, used to treat various ailments, is also in the Arboretum. In addition, tradition says that deceased village elders are sometimes interred in the hollowed centers of aged Baobabs.

Cultural aphrodisiacs, like the cocoa plant, are here as well. As in the movie Chocolat, Aztecs drank a cocoa seed, vanilla and chili-pepper compound. But due to the drier climate and different soil here– compared to that of its rainforest habitat– the Arboretum’s specimen may not produce great fruit.

Led by biology professor and Director Dr. Carol Horvitz, the Friends of the Gifford Arboretum plan several events. These include tours, the fall picnic and spring lecture. With various palms, shrubs, and other plants like ginger and heliconias -beauties that exemplify the tropics-the Arboretum is largely maintained by master gardeners and UNICCO, with support from UM and private donors.

Cozza and his colleagues are also planning a “Festival of Medicinal Trees,” where undergraduates will contribute to the garden’s ethnobotanical catalogue by researching ‘adopted’ trees.

Of the Arboretum’s cross-cultural ethnobotanical offerings, Cozza comments, “It’s vital for practical things, too, like conservation” and is not simply “quaint folk knowledge.” He cautions that “arboretum” and “park” are not synonymous. An arboretum is a specific kind of park, whose cullings weren’t chosen by physical form.

Michelle Schroeder (the “Jungle-Fungal Fiend”) was appointed second Aldridge Assistant. She is indexing the collection’s trees, which represent over 90% of Florida’s 130 native tree species. Michelle’s work advances the Arboretum’s stated goal “to promote knowledge about and enthusiasm for biodiversity and conservation of native and tropical trees” internationally.

In the 1980s, UM wanted to make parking spaces paving parts from the Arboretum. A small committee formed to counter this and all construction, headed by Kathy Gaubatz, a housewife whose husband taught at UM’s Law School. Gaubatz used a Dr. Seuss story for support: “`Don’t tear down the Truffula trees for things nobody needs!'”

Significantly, the Arboretum is now the symbolic focal point of a campus-wide botanical plan. Three satellite plant collections currently tended are the Merrick/LC Palmetum, the Stanford/Hecht Keys Arboretum, and flowering trees throughout campus. Perhaps no one would think that an outdoor garden is remarkable, but in some northern climates, a garden is green during winter only because it’s under glass – such as New York’s Barnard.

So wander into the Arboretum. Like a superior wine, some things on campus are to be quietly yet thoroughly enjoyed.

For more information, call the Arboretum at 284-5364. Or just pay them a visit.