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Have you ever noticed the bursts of colorful flowers embedded in the trees that shade Miami Design District? They were brought to our neighborhood by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and The Million Orchid Project, the largest orchid conservation outreach program in the world. Their mission is to re-incorporate South Florida’s native orchids into urban landscapes—and the Miami Design District is their most urban location to date. In addition to rare native orchids, you can also find other beautiful tropical orchids, like Vanda hybrid (below), growing in the trees that beautify the area. 

OrchidsVanda hybrid

Dr. Jason L. Downing, an Orchid Biologist at Fairchild Tropical Gardens who leads the project, explored how the neighborhood played a vital role in his efforts. “The Miami Design District—an urban core of Miami—is the most contemporary development we have brought our orchids into. With their help, we’ve brought back the first flowering orchids in Downtown Miami in 60 years, a huge feat for conservation. Through this project, we’ve demonstrated that Orchids can live and that they will flower in urban locations.”

The story of the Million Orchid Project bends back to the 1800s when natural orchids “covered every branch of every oak and mahogany tree in the seaside hardwood hammocks of Biscayne Bay.” When farmers and developers began altering Florida’s natural landscape, they also aggressively harvested native orchids until the endemic botanical beauties became scarce. 

Orchid Project

In 2017, Nathan Browning, Principal of Island Planning Corporation, and Jason L. Downing, Ph. D., began nesting Florida butterfly orchids (Encyclia tampensis) and other tropical species in the nooks and crannies of both native and landscaped trees.

Planting OrchidsOrchids being planted in the trees, 2017

Now, three years later, our seedlings had their first bloom between the months of April and June. Excitingly, if there are pollinators in the area—the flowers have the potential to be pollinated and produce seed capsules each containing millions of seeds. “The idea for this conservation project is that these plants will begin repopulating naturally and create a permanent and sustainable population. We are excited this year to return to see if there are any seed pods, ” says Dr. Jason L. Downing

Another special guest accompanied the opening day: The STEMlab Bus, a regular school bus transformed into a state-of-the-art mobile botanical micropropagation laboratory created by FairChild, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and the University of Miami School of Architecture, Design-Build Program. 

The bus hosts students from more than 80% of the schools in Miami Dade, and its students are able to use the labs to explore how the orchids are created from start to finish—inspiring further interest in the subjects of botany and zoology. The bus makes more than 75 schools visits a year—but moreover, the bus allows 20,000-30,000 orchids to be brought to life by the hands of 6th graders! 

Once we can, the Miami Design District will be hosting another ICA Family Day in partnership with STEMLab, so be on the lookout for its return. 

As of today—three years later—the Miami Design District’s orchids bring forward an element of wonder to the neighborhood and symbolize monumental improvements in the conservation effort of orchids. The next time you are around, look for them embedded along Paseo Pointi, in the trees of Jade Alley, and many other unexpected corners.  

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