Mounts Botanical Garden: A name battle in full bloom

What’s in a name?

Sweet peppers, mango trees and a bushel of local history, says a group trying to preserve the name of Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach.

But what about identity and prestige, argue those who believe a new name — Palm Beach Botanical Garden at Mounts —will add cache to the latest effort to re-brand the county’s oldest and largest public garden.

The county-owned, 14-acre garden has been struggling to raise money for a $52 million master plan since 2004, the first time a name change was proposed. The effort was sidetracked when three major hurricanes in two years pounded the garden, which has finally recovered.

“It will give us a fresh start and reflect that it’s a garden for the whole community,” said Paton White, a vice-president on the Friends of The Mounts board of directors. The volunteer group partially funds the county-owned garden and enacts its policies.

On Tuesday, the board plans to ask the County Commission to vote to change the garden’s name.

The board believes the lustre of including “Palm Beach” in the garden’s name will make fundraising easier while giving the garden something members say it’s never had: a close identity with donor-rich Palm Beach and its landlord, Palm Beach County.

Said White, “The new name says what we are, where we are and what we do.”

At issue is whether the Mounts name, so closely associated with the county’s rural past, has any relevance in its urban present.

Area history buffs, garden supporters and the Friends’ board are going spade-to-spade over the proposal.

Opponents say the move is a last shovelful of dirt burying the county’s agricultural roots.

An ag pioneer

At his heart, Marvin “Red” Mounts was a teacher. Beginning in 1925, the county agricultural agent taught a smattering of small truck farmers how to grow crops on coastal sand and in the dense Everglades muck. He succeeded so well that by the time he retired in 1965, Palm Beach County was known as the nation’s salad bowl for its winter vegetable production.

In the post-World War II years, he urged malnourished residents to plant fruit trees, such as mango, canistel, guava and sapodilla to overcome chronic Vitamin A deficiencies, said Audrey Norman, the county’s agriculture extension director.

In the 1950s, he planted dozens of varieties of trees in what was a 4-H horse pasture behind the 1954 agriculture extension offices on north Military Trail, just south of Belvedere Road, which are named for Mounts. Those trees are the genesis of the garden that was also named for the agricultural pioneer.

Mounts hoped the trees would be the beginning of a demonstration garden, which wasn’t built until after he retired. At first, it was called “The Mounts: a Horticultural Learning Center.”

“They named it after him because it was his dream,” said Polly Mounts, Red’s daughter-in-law and the wife of his son, the late Circuit Court judge, Marvin Mounts, Jr.

In 1987, the Friends group changed the name to Mounts Botanical Garden.

Today, the land where Mounts helped farmers grow green beans and sweet peppers sprouts gated communities. New residents arrive attracted by the pleasures of development — golf courses, shopping malls and trendy restaurants — not the rigors of farming.

“Nobody knows what the Mounts name means. It doesn’t have the same recognition that it did years ago. We’re a different kind of county, with people that came here from all over the world,” said Mike Zimmerman, past president of the Mounts board.

To which Red Mounts’ grandson, Greg, a commercial fisherman, retorts, “We want them to understand that history didn’t start when they moved down here from out of state.”

Money vs. history

Changing the name of a cultural institution dilutes local history, say opponents.

“I’m everyday calling people and stirring them up,” said Gene Joyner, a retired agricultural extension agent and former “Palm Beach Post” gardening columnist, who lives on his own private botanical garden called “Unbelievable Acres.” Joyner was hired at the extension service about a decade after Mounts left, but said his legacy was everywhere.

“Once something is named for someone for so many years of dedicated service, it shouldn’t be changed,” said Joyner.

If the name change passes, Joyner has vowed to stop assisting with the garden’s events, such as the Tropical Fruit Festival in June.

Jane Sample, a volunteer who has conducted Sunday tours at the garden for 30 years, said, “Can you see Fairchild (Tropical Botanic Garden) changing its name to Miami-Dade Botanical Garden?”

Polly Mounts believes the “at Mounts” part of the new name is so awkward it will eventually be lost, taking Red Mounts’ legacy with it.

“I think it’s rather bold to take a name that’s been part of Palm Beach County for years and change it. There are many things named for people who made contributions here - McArthur, Flagler, Lytle, Morikami, Arthur Marshall. It isn’t right to rename anything,” she said.

But “Palm Beach” can raise money “Mounts” can not, according to the Friends’ board.

“These people on the board don’t appreciate the history of it all, ” said Larry Grosser, a long time garden volunteer whose grandparents started a hibiscus society at The Breakers with Red Mounts. “But if it does spur more donations, it would be a good thing.”

The garden’s ambitious master plan - with water features and a visitors’ center - will cost $26 million for construction and another $26 million for operation and maintenance.

Garden director Allen Sistrunk envisions a world-class institution along the lines of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

“That’s my gold standard for a botanical garden that also serves the community,” Sistrunk said.

Board members say they’re following the lead of other cultural institutions across the country which have changed names to reflect their locations, which in turn, helped with name recognition, fundraising and crucial online searchability.

“People buy into it because it’s a part of their community,” said White.

Zoo dropped name

A similar question faced the Palm Beach Zoo in 1997.

The former Dreher Park Zoo was named for West Palm Beach parks director Paul Dreher, known as the area’s “Johnny Appleseed” for his extensive tree plantings. As part of an expansion, the zoo became the “Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park,” before it dropped the Dreher name entirely.

“It helps to give the location in your name when you’re trying to brand yourself.” said Claudia Harden, the zoo’s marketing director. “Over the years, the name became too cumbersome, so we dropped the Dreher Park reference.”

According to Zimmerman, the public/private partnership between the garden and the Friends has never included the Mounts family.

“They have a $60 membership. It may be where it started but the dedication of the Friends made it what is it today, not the Mounts family,” Zimmerman said. “I hope people realize that this only for the good of the garden.”

On the garden’s website, there is a history page.

It reads, “Sorry, this page is under construction.”

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