Letters From The Executive Director

Each year, on the anniversary of our opening day (March 21, 2011) I send a letter reviewing our accomplishments, successes and disappointments of the previous year to those who have visited our Garden. I have done this each year since 2011 - if you haven't received these in your e-mail, or you wish to re-read them, they are posted below.

March 21, 2021

It's been a few years but, WE STILL HAVE THAT DREAM...

It was 2008 when the dream of creating a tropical ethnobotanic garden at our small Key Largo resort was first conceived. The Garden officially opened to the public on March 21, 2011. Shortly thereafter we began offering our unique TYUP™ tours to our guests and to Florida Keys visitors.

TYUP™ stands for "Transforming Your Understanding of Plants" or, more simply, "Why Plants Matter," which today becomes the new name for our now-virtual ethnobotanic garden. Our dream of transforming humanity's understanding of plants remains unchanged. The first transformation is from seeing plants as just pretty things to seeing them as essential things that make all other forms of life on earth possible. Plants are essential for the survival and well-being of humans and many other species on our planet. The second transformation is your understanding plants as the incredibly complex life-forms they actually are; plants share and even surpass some abilities of animals and humans in ways optimized for their "rooted"life rather than our "mobile" life. Finally, transforming your understanding plants results in transformations of our lifestyles bringing about positive impacts on the preservation of not just plants, but entire ecosystems. So, Transforming humanitY's Understanding of Plants is crucial for the healthy regulation of our planets climate as well as for the future generations of all living things if we wish to continue to reap the benefits plants provide!

After 5 years of trying to build interest in expanding our 90-minute ethnobotanical TYUP™ tours to other botanic gardens around the world, Ronnie and I reluctantly accepted an opportunity to sell our resort and thus The Garden grounds upon which our in-person TYUP™ tours were held. We just weren't raising the money necessary to sustain the property as a true botanic garden and so, when an unsolicited offer to buy was presented, it was decided that with my 70th birthday approaching, it was time to move on to other things. However, we held onto The Gardens website (kkbg.org), our Facebook page, the name, "Why Plants Matter," and our membership in the APGA (American Public Gardens Association).

Then in late 2020, Rick, our knowledgeable ethnobotanist [who had moved on to life as a monk after working closely with us to establish The Garden and its educational programs from 2011 - 2014], suggested we update the website we had initially designed in 2013. Since the digital platform on which kkbg.org was built was going to be phased out of existence and replaced with a new platform, we had no choice.

So, today, made possible with the help of some of our remaining donor funds, we are premiering "whyplantsmatter.org," which will replace kkbg.org. The mission of this site remains the same as the mission of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort [kkbg.org]: to "Transform Your Understanding of Plants."

We've saved all the best parts of kkbg.org and will continue contributing to this site and our Facebook page, both of which are open to the public and to other botanic gardens. Our continued hope is that at least a few botanic gardens will adopt our TYUP™ tour. By doing so, humanity's understanding of plants and the importance of plants to our lives and the health of our planet will continue to grow. As that happens, transformed understanding will lead to impactful action and our mission will be ever more fully accomplished.

Please enjoy our revised, mobile-friendly, website and follow our Facebook page for updates when they are published.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director,Why Plants Matter"without plants there is no life...."whyplantsmatter@gmail.com

March 21, 2016

Today marks the completion of our fifth year as a public botanic garden. But, it is with great sadness, that I also note today marks the first day of our hiatus as a public botanic garden.

Since opening The Gardens to the public on March 21, 2011, we've searched for a sizeable endowment that would enable The Gardens to operate independently, in perpetuity. Despite your generous donations, our effort was not succeeding. Thus, in June of 2015, when approached by a group of individuals wanting to buy our resort property (on which The Gardens operates) we faced a quandary: to sell, or to continue our struggle to develop, manage and fund The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, while also funding and managing Kona Kai Resort.

On July 22, 2015 Ronnie and I sold Kona Kai Resort. We've retained our 100% ownership of the AEFFK, Inc., the 501c3 non-profit that operates The Garden. The new Resort owners initially supported The Gardens by funding the botanist's salary and Ronnie and I committed to continuing our volunteer efforts. However, things haven't worked out as hoped, so as of this writing, when we wrap up the 2016 UKFC in-school environmental education program this May, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai will continue only virtually at www.kkbg.org.

Along with our passion for explaining the importance of "Why Plants Matter," we will continue to grow our "virtual" on-line botanic garden. Someday, perhaps, we'll encounter a philanthropic partner who will provide the necessary funding to continue our public and our in-school educational efforts while securing a new physical location for our public garden and exposition gallery. Until then, "stay-tuned" at kkbg.org and on our new Facebook page as we'll continue to post information and links about "Why Plants Matter."

Remember: 'without plants, there is no life.' With almost 4 billion years experience, plants have successfully adapted to every part of the planet and to every climate. So every time you see a plant, think of a reason why plants matter and visit kkbg.org for more on that subject. If you wish, you can aid our efforts by "smiling!" Every time you shop on-line, type "smile" into your browser and shop at smile.amazon.com. Visit www.kkbg.org/uber-home/support-us for details on this simple and easy way to support our mission.

As always, thank you for your continued support..

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org

March 21, 2015

Today marks the beginning of year five in our quest to create a permanent tropical botanic garden in The Florida Keys. Perhaps it's a bit of a peculiar dream, but without our dreams where would we be?

So far we've done some pretty incredible things at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Our core mission of "education, restoration and transformation" is realized each day with our Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge[UKFC] student environmental education program, our unique TYUP™ garden tour and our website, kkbg.org, loaded with information on "Why Plants Matter."

Creating a permanent botanic garden with our limited resources is quite untraditional - but Kona Kai has always been somewhat untraditional. Most botanic gardens begin with one person's dream and someone else's endowment. We're still missing the endowment, yet our dream lives on, embodied in the hearts of our staff, visitors, local school students, parents and teachers.

In the past year, the number of visitors and guests taking our exclusive TYUP™ tour designed to "Transform Your Understanding of Plants," has almost doubled while our UKFC student education program increased enrollment by some 35%, reflecting renewed participation from all Upper Keys schools and the addition of our high schools. Furthermore, we're delighted to report more and more guests, after being "TYUP'd," are making a supporting donation, helping ensure a future for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

The departure of our ethno-botanist, Rick Hederstrom, in the summer of 2014, could have negatively impacted The Garden, but we quickly brought aboard botanist Emily Magnaghi whose skills and focus have proven to be just what we needed. Under Emily's influence, the focus of our TYUP™ has sharpened and our UKFC programs have expanded, improving both our educational and public outreach. Furthermore, Emily's love of the outdoors is bringing subtle, yet significant, changes to our Garden landscapes.

So, what's missing? Funding — the bane of all gardens. There's much more we could do to expand our educational and transformative outreach, but each idea leads to needing more staff and staff requires reliable funding. Perhaps, in time, it will come. With our four year record of accomplishments we can now apply for a small grant for 2016. If awarded, perhaps we'll be able to add a staffer to meet our growing educational, outreach and technical needs in mid 2016.

In the meantime, your tax-deductible donations and TYUP™ contributions really do make a difference, so please continue to support our efforts. All funds go directly to meeting the financial operating needs of our Garden programs. Nothing you donate goes to resort operations, landscaping, or to any other organization — every dollar remains within our 501c3 non-profit, directly supporting our educational and outreach programs.

You can support us in other ways as well: come judge one of our UKFC challenges, a three hour committment; purchase something from our evolving botanic art gallery; simply staying at Kona Kai helps us pay our staff botanist and purchase plants. And, don't forget to tell everyone about us, in person and through the web. Share our Facebook posts and a link to our website, kkbg.org, especially with friends who are coming to the Keys, so they too can be "TYUP'd."

Finally, you (and all your friends) can shop at smile.amazon.com, selecting us* as your non-profit of choice — simply register once and your every purchase results in a donation. Taking any, or all, of these steps helps secure a strong future for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

"Plants are as close to biological miracles as a scientist could dare admit ... you might think we gardeners would value plants for what they do. Instead, we value them for what they look like," writes author and entomology professor, Douglas W. Tallamy.

Here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, with every TYUP™ and every UKFC student, we aim to increase one's understanding and appreciation of 'what plants do.' It is an exciting challenge. "Transforming Your Understanding of Plants," as many of you know, results in a better understanding of why and how our biosphere works, assuring all a better, healthier and happier future.

Thanks in advance for your support.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org

March 21, 2014

Recently, environmental scientist Kiki Mutis told me: "If you study plants, you study the whole world." Her statement struck me as something I had never really considered; yet if you think about it, Kiki's statement rings true and is especially important to us today.

We practically take it for granted that people have "made our world." Yet, it's a fact that, along with us, plants have been both protagonist and partners as we've "made our world." Therefore, shouldn't we think of plants as "partners"as we continue creating our world?

Here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, we think so. We think "Plants as Partners" is a significant message for the 21st Century. As we enter our 4th year, our Gardens have evolved into a non-profit educational tropical botanic garden with a unique message. Like many new entities, we are daring to be different, with our message of "Plants as Partners."

In these first three years our unique, "Transforming your understanding of Plants," tour, our educational partnership with The Fairchild Challenge and our expanded ethnobotanic website at kkbg.org have all begun to have an evolutionary impact. Also evolutionary, twenty-first century technologies offer humankind unique new opportunities to learn even more from plants. Thanks to your help, the first step, in transforming humankind's view of plants, has taken root here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

As we move into our fourth year, your continuing financial support and encouragement is ever more important. Along with financial support from Kona Kai Resort, your donations water our current efforts. But, additional funding is needed for an educational coordinator, a fundraiser, a horticulturist and a marketing specialist.

As noted in past annual letters, our Gardens were not born from a generous endowment, as are most botanic gardens. Without such an endowment, our efforts and public message will remain limited. Thus, this year, we'll be seeking endowments to assure perpetuity for our long-term goal of a twenty-first century world where people have taken "Plants as Partners." Continuing to share your passion about our garden mission, opening your wallets and, lastly, spreading the word that The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort are transforming people's understanding of plants, are the best ways to help us secure the larger funding it will take to continue growing The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

Remember, all generations need to understand that plants are both partners and protagonists in our lives. That is the role The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort has assumed. We look forward to your continuing support.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org

March 21, 2013

Plants are our best industrialists and our most environmentally conscious citizens. Plants 'manufacture' the air we breathe, the food we eat, the raw materials for many of the things we make and for the energy we consume; while cleansing and recycling what they [and we] use. Plants do all this using only sunlight, air, soil nutrients and water. Each living, breathing plant has a name, a story to tell, a complexity and beauty all its own, and a value to us. We have a lot to learn from these living things that have been around for millennia, since without them we would not be here at all.

This year, and in the years to come, we hope to tell that story, evermore effectively, to many more people. But we need your help. In two years we've enlightened over 1000 visitors and as a Satellite Partner of The Fairchild Challenge, we've shared our message with over 300 local students. This year we aim to show at least 1000 more people through our ethnobotanic Gardens and expect to double student and teacher participation this fall through our Fairchild Challenge Satellite programs. Yes, it's a small number, but we're making a big impression! While our Gardens are only a tiny speck in the botanic world, we aim to become a virtual worldwide ethnobotanic teaching garden by the close of 2013, promoting the crucially relevant role that plants have in our own survival.

Because The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort is a nonprofit botanical garden operating upon the grounds of a small for-profit resort, we are, in the nonprofit world, both unique and potentially misconstrued. The Gardens was born not from a generous endowment, but of my personal vision of a world in which we all understand that plants are like people.

Until now the AEFFK*, our nonprofit, has subsisted on funds donated mainly by my wife and me. However, the level of resources required to sustain and expand our educational outreach far outstrips our capacity to continue funding The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. We now need your financial assistance.

With your generous tax-deductible contributions, we'll continue growing our successful school and public educational efforts. We'll expand our message through kkbg.org and mount museum quality ethnobotanic exhibits for public enlightenment. For the longer view, with your assistance, we'll fund the acquisition of the property upon which we operate.

When I first began to learn about fundraising last year, I quickly realized how many worthy causes seek your financial assistance. Thus, I constantly remind myself that our Gardens are simply a "speck" in the universe; "a seed seeking germination." However, here in the 21st century, both our mission and our vision are of the utmost importance; we're germinating a new ethnobotany, a "21st Century ethnobotany" that will enrich our lives by increasing the awareness of the importance of plants in our lives, helping preserve our lives here on earth. Please consider keeping us alive and growing by donating what you can and becoming a garden member or patron.

Thanks again for your time, attention and support. Your donation can be made at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/6R0Xa, at kkbg.org or by mailing a check payable to: AEFFK-KKBG.ORG. As always, you can contact me directly at: gardens@konakairesort.com.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org

August 21, 2012

After years of planning and planting, our gardens opened to the public eighteen months ago. Surrounded by Everglades National Park, the US National Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort is located in one of the most unique ecosystems in the continental USA. And, with some 3 million visitors passing through the Florida Keys annually, we are beginning to be noticed. We simply couldn’t have chosen a better location for a new botanic garden. We’re thrilled that in our first eighteen months we’ve accomplished most of our 2011 and 2012 goals:

• We completed and published those most important of botanic garden documents – our “Collections and Management Policies” as well as our extensive Five Year Plan;

• We’ve placed some 100 informative ethnobotanical plant display labels throughout the gardens along with over 550 accession labels;

• Our resident ethnobotanist, Rick Hederstrom, has brought our scientific database, BG-Base completely up to date, added over 850 plant images, and continues to update our data and images;

• We’re conducting well-attended daily ethnobotanic tours, explaining the importance of plants and ethnobotany to our visitors whose comments have been very positive;

• Through the dedicated efforts of our Director of Grounds, Veronika Milar, we opened our first “themed” garden zone in July 2012;

• Our Director of Grounds established our plant nursery and launched our propagation program;

• Ethnobotanist & Associate Director, Rick Hederstrom, started a successful on-line blog where he shares his daily experiences at The Gardens with over 300 followers on Blogger and Twitter;

• We launched release 1.0 of our portable public web “app” enabling you to “take” our gardens with you wherever you happen to be; release 2.0 is expected by year’s end;

• Working through Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden we assisted Monroe County school students in successfully participating in the 2012 BGCI/Fairchild Challenge Olympic Wreath Competition;

• Along with Monroe County school teachers we’ve begun our 2012–2013 Fairchild Challenge Satellite Partnership benefiting all the students here in the Upper Keys;

• We’ve completed our small meetings center; held our very first conference and begun planning our 2013 – 2014 symposia program;

• And, perhaps most important to our continued success, we’ve begun efforts to raise funds, secure patrons and acquire sponsors, thus assuring our continued survival and growth as a 501c3 nonprofit entity operating in conjunction with a for-profit resort and affording our garden visitors the unique experience of enjoying The Gardens 24/7/365.

All in all, I’d say it’s a pretty impressive record for our first eighteen months; one that we are very proud of and thrilled to be building upon each day.

In the coming months, along with our on-going goal of continuous improvement and expansion of our 42 garden zones, we’re striving to secure a donor or sponsor to facilitate bringing our first “museum” exhibit to The Gardens; find a sponsor to fund the costs of implementing a tropical ethnobotanic living wall; and launch a 24 month effort to raise funds for a conservatory-exhibition space with expanded parking and a tropical roof garden. Pretty ambitious goals. But, in order to succeed, we believe it’s necessary to set the mark high.

As you might conclude, we’re striving to make The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort an indispensable part of the Key Largo community and tourist economy. Remember, the idea for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort was born out of the scientific theory that “Nearly every organism on this planet depends on plants for their survival.”* It is with this awareness that The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort invites you to grow your appreciation and understanding of plants and their relevance to humanity along with us!

We invite your comments, suggestions and, of course, financial assistance. Don’t hesitate to contact me at my e-mail address below or by calling us at: 305-852-9766.

* March 2011, The American Journal of Botany, University of Michigan ecologist Bradley Cardinale, and other prominent researchers.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org

March 21, 2011

We are thrilled to be opening a new tropical botanic garden on one of the most unique islands in the USA. Key Largo is surrounded by Everglades National Park, the US National Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – making Key Largo one of, if not the, most unique ecosystem in the continental USA. Could there be a better location for a new botanic garden?

We hope you will not only visit us, but will choose to stay with us as well – for there are few, if any, other botanic gardens in the world that one can experience 24 hours a day.

The living collections grown in botanic gardens, in addition to exhibiting the fundamental beauty of plants, are intentionally designed to serve research, conservation and educational needs. In this way, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai are no different. However, our focus on ethnobotany – which we define as the study of the relationship between people and plants – is somewhat unusual. Ethnobotany, primarily viewed as the study of the medicinal/economic value of plants to indigenous human cultures, has more recently been attracting people with a wide variety of academic backgrounds and interests. While many still study plants for their pharmacological, economic and/or conservation values, here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai, we are further suggesting plants should be considered people too and should be cherished and respected in the same ways!

Like people, there are many different plants. Like people, different plants like different things. Like people, plants prefer to live in different places and thrive in different places for different reasons. Like people, plants of the same species [race] don’t necessarily look the same, behave the same, or thrive the same. Like people, many plants are sexual and start from a fertilized seed. Like people, plants change as they mature and like people, plants communicate with one another. Like people, plants die from disease, accidents or just plain old age and upon their death plants leave behind resources we require for our daily lives. Like our fellow peoples, throughout their lifecycle, plants enrich and support our lives in countless ways, while simultaneously enhancing all six of our senses. Finally, just like people, plants divide and share their labor: Swedish researcher Lars Gamfeldt: "Plant communities are like a soccer team. To win championships, you need a star striker that can score goals, but you also need a cast of supporting players that can pass, defend, and goal tend. Together, the star players and supporting cast make a highly efficient team."

We humans would and could not be here without plants. If you are a plant lover, perhaps you already accept this. In the March 2011 issue of The American Journal of Botany, University of Michigan ecologist Bradley Cardinale, along with other prominent researchers, concluded: “Nearly every organism on this planet depends on plants for their survival. If species extinction compromises the process by which plants grow, then it degrades one of the key features required to sustain life on Earth.”

The idea for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai was born with this vision in mind and it is with this awareness that The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai invites you to grow in your appreciation and understanding of plants and their relevance to our lives. Please join us for a most memorable tropical vacation. But, if you can't do that, give us just under 90 minutes of your time and join one of our guided tours - it will change the way you experience the plants on your street or in your backyard.

Joe C. Harris, Jr.,

Executive Director, The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort"without plants there is no life...."joe@kkbg.org