Plant Huggers

"What's an arboretum?" the small boy asked Zeke Landis, who was leading a group of schoolchildren through the Deerfield Beach Arboretum. "Hmmm," murmured Landis, thinking hard and fast. "You know when a lot of different animals are all together in one place and that place is called a zoo?" The boy nodded. "Well, here we have a lot of different trees all together in one place, so maybe we should call it a tree zoo." That, friends, is how the TreeZoo got its name.

The brainchild of Landis, who at the time was the city forester in Deerfield Beach, the arboretum opened in December of 1995 with 22 trees and palms. (The first thing you'll learn is that palms are not trees. Explains Landis: They don't have branches.) Only eight years later, the nine-acre site is a tranquil beauty spot, bursting with 325 species of palms, tropical fruit trees, exotic flowering trees, canopy trees, bamboos, and exotics from five continents.

Learning the ropes here is pretty painless. You can pick up valuable information just by strolling through the gardens, which are organized in clusters of types, such as palms, tropical fruit trees, bamboos, natives, wetlands, and a butterfly garden. Everything is well-marked, and each cluster contains a list of the species you'll encounter.

For the educationally motivated, though, there's a Friday-morning guided tour, run by Friends of the Deerfield Beach Arboretum, to ease you into the concept of botanical gardens. Here's where you start getting into the nitty-gritty, addressing five timeless horticultural questions.

First, what's an original or "native" species? After all, the entire area at one time was nothing but sugar sand. So what are all these trees, palms, and shrubs doing here, and at what point do they stop being exotic and start being native? Second, why aren't palms trees? (You remember.) Then, the TreeZoo docents get into how to select trees for different purposes. (What, for example, is a good South Florida shade tree?) Then they talk about the multifarious medical uses of trees and, the flip side, their poisonous aspects. Finally, the guides talk about the proper care of trees, with specific emphasis on the oft-misunderstood science of pruning. You may not think pruning is such a fascinating subject, but that's because you've probably not heard the antihatrackers in full cry.

In addition to maintaining the TreeZoo and conducting tours every Friday and every first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m., the Friends also sponsor monthly seminars. On Thursday, April 10, Reggie Whitehead, president of the Tropical Fern & Exotic Plant Society, brings in ferns for the garden. On Saturday, April 12, the TreeZoo holds its third-annual plant sale, featuring flora from its own nurseries. And on Thursday, May 8, Tom Naylor of Dania Beach Water Gardens offers a slide show on water gardens and plants for the home.

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Tomi Curtis