Gifford Arboretum grows despite setbacks

The John C. Gifford Arboretum is located on the northern edge of campus and holds over 500 species representing plant native to every continent except Antarctica. The canopy is sparser than it used to be after Hurricane Irma damaged many trees in September. Photo credit: Hunter Crenian

Hurricane Irma was just one of a slew of obstacles to pummel the John C. Gifford Arboretum over the past year. However, the setbacks haven’t stopped the small but tenacious group of faculty and students who contribute to make sure the collection of more than 500 plants can flourish.

The arboretum was one of the most severely affected areas of campus by Hurricane Irma. In an interview with The Miami Hurricane in October 2017, Arboretum director Steve Pearson said that about 15 species were killed and many others were damaged. The irrigation system was also knocked out by the storm, leaving the arboretum without water for more than five months.

“Steve and I had to go in manually and water a lot of the trees ourselves with just gallons, filling up gallons of water and going out there,” said Christine Pardo, the Aldridge curator at the Gifford Arboretum and graduate student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.

Adding to the damage, hurricane recovery crews, who sought to quickly clear out the area of debris, slashed plants that may have been able to survive with better care.

“They just would see a plant that could have been salvaged and they’d just bulldoze over it, throw it away,” said Talula Thibault, a student ambassador for the arboretum and sophomore majoring in ecosystem science and policy. “But a lot of the plants that we lost were rare and exotic species … so that was difficult.”

To help recover, biology professors Michelle Afkhami and Carol Horvitz took their classes to the arboretum after the storm to help in restoration efforts. Other students got involved through the university-wide Magic of Service Day in October.

Pearson also said there is going to be a workshop in late April for facilities employees to learn strategies for storm recovery specific to the arboretum.

Nearly seven months after the storm hit, the wave of student volunteers has all but died out, and Pearson, Pardo and Thibault are still dealing with stressors. While the irrigation system just got back up and running, many replanted species did not survive without consistent watering.

Miami is now in the midst of a severe drought. The city received less than half as much rain as it should have over the past month as of April 14.

The future is even more uncertain as Pearson, a retired attorney who took on directing the arboretum as a second career about six years ago, is leaving the position. Pearson, 65, said he plans to retire this summer as the work has placed an increasing physical strain on him.

“That’s going to be very troublesome when the arboretum loses him because he is so knowledgeable and so passionate,” Thibault said. “I really hope that we get someone who’s certified and suits what the arboretum needs.”

Pearson’s replacement remains a big question going into the summer as he has not heard of any search for a replacement. The university did not respond to a request for comment on if they were looking to hire a new arboretum director.

However, the arboretum continues facing new projects.

As part of a compromise reached in 2016, an internal service road was built through the arboretum in 2017 in exchange for an expansion of the land reserved for the arboretum to a plot behind the Knight Physics building. Construction of a new greenhouse is planned for that plot.

Afkhami, who studies microbes in the Florida scrub ecosystem, will be using part of the greenhouse for her research activities.

“It’s part of building that critical mass of knowledge and resources that allows us to start to build a stronger program for students who might be interested in plants and the broader community that cares about the arboretum,” Afkhami said. “It’s really exciting.”

While the arboretum has struggled this year and nonetheless survived and expanded, many students still know very little about the arboretum. Thibault said her biggest struggle is “getting people’s attention and then getting them to care” about the arboretum.

“The arboretum can be used for everything from culinary interests to spiritual to even architectural,” Pardo said. “There’s a lot of different things that could be applied to a collection of trees from the tropics.”

In celebration of Arbor Day, Pearson will be giving a tour of the arboretum’s edible pants at 4:30 p.m. April 18, followed by a performance by contemporary singer/songwriter and UM senior Nina Guerrero.