Phipps Ocean Park
by Jan Sjostrom
There aren’t many reasons to visit Phipps Ocean Park unless you frequent the beach or play tennis. Youngsters might go there for the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach’s fourth-grade program re-creating a school day in the 1886 Little Red Schoolhouse, which was southeast Florida’s first schoolhouse. But the park might soon become a destination for a far wider audience if a $140,000 master plan spearheaded by the Foundation and crafted by Miami- based landscape architect Raymond Jungles comes to fruition.
Envision the 18-acre park, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway, as an oasis, threaded with hiking trails traversing stands of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Instead of a flat lawn stretching up to the dune, imagine hillocks and hollows and vistas taking in the ocean, schoolhouse and mangrove islands. Think of birds singing and butterflies fluttering among the wildflowers. “The goal is to create something that people would really use,” said Amanda Skier, the Foundation’s Executive Director. “Palm Beach has everything, but there are few places where you can go and connect with nature.” Planted entirely with native species, the project, which will be undertaken in phases, will reinforce the town’s green initiative and be an example of how native plants can be used to create beautiful and ecologically sustainable gardens.
The land, which was donated by the Phipps family in 1948, is owned by the Town of Palm Beach. The Foundation has leased the schoolhouse for its living history program since 1990. By far the biggest project the Foundation has undertaken, the revamped park will expand on the organization’s work in its recently revitalized all-native Pan’s Garden. Plans call for outdoor areas that can be used for events and new programs for children and adults, such as dune restoration classes and a plant propagation workspace.
“Florida at one time was all native,” said Jungles whose plant lists for his landscape designs are at least half native. “It was a balanced ecosystem that was developed with bulldozers and really no regard for trying to preserve any ecosystem.” Native plants and the wildlife that depended on them disappeared as land was replanted with tropical exotics and other non-native plants. Town Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay, one of the forces behind the town’s green initiative, remembers hearing many songbirds when she was growing up in Palm Beach. When she and her husband moved back years later, the birds were gone.
Educational signage will be installed throughout the park, but the strongest message will come from the pleasure of simply being inside it. “I think that’s really important because we want people to feel what it feels like to be in a native zone,” said Susan Lerner, the Foundation’s horticulturalist. “I’m convinced that the visceral experience is different.” The experience will start on State Road A1A, where a corridor of native landscaping will announce that visitors have arrived at a place unlike the manicured condominiums that surround it. The schoolhouse, which Jungles calls the heart of the park, will be relocated to a central position, visible from the road and a new main entrance.
The park sits on a valuable and rare slice of undeveloped coastline. It features a dune up to 25 feet tall and a variety of habitats, ranging from the beach, where only the hardiest vegetation survives, to the dune’s maritime forest, home to the greatest number of plants and animals. Habitats for moisture-loving plants will be created by directing rainfall into shallow retention areas. “There are 69 native species there now, including trees, shrubs, groundcovers and grasses,” Jungles said. “There may be as many as a hundred when we’re done.”
The Foundation doesn’t expect everyone to rip up their non-native gardens and create a Phipps Ocean Park of their own. But introducing even some native plants will help bring back native wildlife, decrease water demand, create more storm and frost-resistant landscapes and lessen the impact of harmful pesticides and herbicides on the environment, Jungles said. Embracing native plants brings other rewards as well, said Betsy Shiverick, chairwoman of the Foundation’s board. “I’ve talked to people in town who have put a lot of natives in, and their gardens are filled with butterflies and the beautiful sounds of great birds that haven’t been around for a while. People love to feel that they have initiated that, that they’ve been part of restoring the natural cycle.”