A Tree Frog's Dream: the Sherman Epiphyte Tree

Craig M. Allen, Former Conservatory Manager
The new bromeliad tree in the Windows to the Tree Tops epiphyte exhibit

Now I can see it, too. A tree frog is watching me from the center of a water filled bromeliad growing on a branch above my head. All along this branch and down the trunk, more than a hundred other species of bromeliads are growing — just the kind of habitat that fills a tree frog’s dreams. For just a minute, I see far off into a rainforest canopy. Young David Lenchner, who first spotted the frog, brought his great-uncle, Henry Sherman, over to see it, too. Behind me, more people are admiring the forms and colors of these fascinating plants, and, of course, the tree frog, who probably wonders what we're doing here.

We have gathered for the dedication of the new epiphyte tree in the “Window to the Tree Tops” epiphyte display. This exciting exhibit was generously funded by donations from the family of Dr. Frank Sherman and dedicated in his memory on Sunday evening, October 31’st, 1999. The Sherman family was joined by Garden staff and Frank’s many friends from the Bromeliad Society of South Florida. A long time Garden member and supporter, Frank was an excellent grower and an avid collector of bromeliads and orchids. Many of the bromeliads growing in this display were from Frank’s private collection.

I was just thinking of the last time I visited Frank and enjoyed his huge collection of plants. It was almost overwhelming. Every conceivable inch of space, including the easement, was covered with a living mantle of epiphytes. They covered the ground and climbed the trees. The only spots that remained bare were the pathways and the roof of his house. He surrounded himself with the things he loved. Like the tree frog at the dedication, Frank would really enjoy our constructed epiphyte tree. As his daughter, Missy Hillman, reminded us in her dedication speech, Frank was always ready with a comment. He would see the cork visible between plants and might say, “Too much cork.” Soon enough, though, the bromeliads on the new Conservatory tree, like Frank’s, will spread to form a living mantle modeled after those found hundreds of feet up in the canopy of a tropical forest.

Epiphyte-laden canopies typical of tropical forests provided the inspiration for the Sherman epiphyte tree as well as for the canopy of the developing Fairchild rainforest display right outside. Though not at the two hundred level as epiphytes can be in actual rainforests, the outside epiphyte display is still too distant for up close viewing enjoyment. In the Conservatory, the plant community is right in your face, conveniently growing at eye level. The fascinating pool of water in a tank forming bromeliad is right there to inspect. Just above, branches are covered by tillandsia plants. These bromeliads,covered in white scales, are adapted to dry conditions, and can pull moisture right out of the air. All are growing happily together on branches that look real, but are, in fact, manmade.

Visitors to the Conservatory during the construction of the bromeliad tree were fascinated to see the “bones” of the manmade tree. The actual structure was constructed of various sizes of PVC pipe. This pipe structure was suspended from the roof beams with stainless steel cable. Then bark, harvested from Cork Oak plantations in Portugal (also the source of wine bottle cork), was wrapped around the pipe and attached with Liquid Nails construction adhesive and galvanized deck screws. The use of deck screws, a change from the way we constructed the other tree, saved time and created a much sturdier surface on which to grow the bromeliads. They were attached to the tree in several ways. Smaller plants were just glued on with the same Liquid Nails. Heavier plants were glued and tied down with aluminum wire and small screws, a luxury that would never be attempted on a living tree.

This project, like all other Conservatory projects, depended on the help of our volunteer staff. Art Chassman and Lisa Braden spent months on ladders attaching cork and mounting plants. Lisa, who maintains the epiphyte display, went home many, many times with her fingers literally covered in Liquid Nails and cork particles — not fun to remove, as she will tell you! Art, with a background in design and staging, placed most of the plants on the tree. Even Hurricane Irene didn’t slow the construction. I worked all that day, not realizing until the drive home that the hurricane’s path had changed to take her over Miami. It was a very involving project, one in which we took great pride.

Family members visit their memorial to Frank Sherman

A week after the dedication, Tom and Missy Hillman returned to view the tree a final time before returning home. Missy told me that she and her sister, Rose, almost expected to see Frank in his ever present straw hat pop from behind the bromeliad tree to tend his plants.

We spent a quiet time, remembering.

Garden Views, January 2000

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