Dr. Monroe Birdsey
Miami, Florida USA

by Kit Knotts
with a lot of help from Jim Thiele
Click images to enlarge


I met Monroe in the middle of a horrendous thunderstorm. I arrived at his low-slung, somewhat run-down, 1950s style Florida bungalow with an appointment which he obviously didn't expect me to keep. Classical music echoed and a sleepy, grumpy man answered the door. When he saw big (gift) waterlilies dripping from both my hands, he invited me to the back stoop. With umbrellas, we started toward the back of his property where the large pond was located.

Monroe's garden, located in South Miami, Florida, was a not-quite-2-acre long narrow transplanted Amazon rain forest. After two hours of walking and talking, I confessed to Monroe that I needed to leave because my brain was blistered - it was more than I could absorb - but I asked to return the following day. And the day after that. 

This was the beginning of a special friendship, not just with Monroe but with Jim and Greta Thiele in Homestead. Ben and I got together with Monroe, Jim and Greta at his place, their place, plant shows and our place. Monroe didn't drive but loved to be driven, insisting on back roads instead of expressways, and was a terrible side-seat driver.

Monroe was rumored to be difficult and we saw that side of him when someone didn't get his jokes (one-line zinging puns) or didn't appreciate his amazing knowledge of tropical plants. To us, he was extraordinarily generous with his expertise but we had a deal. We worked in his ponds in exchange for lessons in subjects we wanted to learn more about. He was an astounding teacher.

Born in of Middletown, CN, in 1923, Monroe received his Bachelor's degree from the University of Miami, Masters from Columbia University and PhD from the University of California. He returned to Miami to teach botany at Miami-Dade Community College. He retired in the mid-1980s but continued to lecture widely.

N. 'Albert Greenberg'
 Perhaps best known in water gardening as the originator of Nymphaea 'Albert Greenberg', a chance seedling named for his long-time friend, Monroe was a renowned collector of tropical plants. He began his collection in 1965, when he was awarded a fellowship to travel to 11 different European countries to study plants in the Philodendron family. His garden contained thousands of specimens from his travels and exchanges with other collectors. He was an expert on aroids (Araceae), publishing Cultivated Aroids in 1952. He also had one of the largest private cycad collections in the world.

It's hard to describe the garden and even more difficult to explain why there are no pictures of it. Maybe we all thought it would be there forever, to photograph later. It was lush beyond words, with intricate pathways winding through the jungle. Around very turn was a marvelous new sight, filled with plants even botanic gardens would have envied.

Monroe knew the botanical name of every plant in the garden and would rattle them off faster than anyone could comprehend. During guests' visits to the garden, Monroe would name more plants in the first 10 steps than visitors could absorb visually. His catalog was in his head, with no detail missing. He did begin placing labels here and there in the garden and began a written record. Oddly, he didn't like white - there were few white flowered plants in the garden, though an Iris named for him is white.

Monroe and Walter Pagels in the garden >

In Monroe's last years, he was assisted and energized by Matthew Ross, who brought the astonishing garden to full glory, dragged Monroe into the electronic age, and charmed all of us. We thank him for that friendship. He made those years a joy for Monroe.

After Monroe's death in 2000, specimen plants went to botanic gardens and others were sold to collectors. The amazing rain forest is no more - except in our hearts. 

Read about Monroe Birdsey's Nelumbo nucifera 'Bali Red' in
WGI ONLINE Journal 1.4

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