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Phipps' 'Tropical Forest Cuba' captures look, feel of the island

| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 12:30 p.m.
More than 70 percent of the plants in Phipps’ Tropical Forest Conservatory are replaced by tropical flowers such as this 'Brownea grandiceps', ferns and palm trees representing Cuba for the new exhibit.
paul g wiegman
More than 70 percent of the plants in Phipps’ Tropical Forest Conservatory are replaced by tropical flowers such as this 'Brownea grandiceps', ferns and palm trees representing Cuba for the new exhibit.
Palms, orchids and other tropical plants native to Cuba were added to Phipps’ Tropical Forest Conservatory for “Tropical Forest Cuba,” opening Feb. 10.
Paul g. Wiegman
Palms, orchids and other tropical plants native to Cuba were added to Phipps’ Tropical Forest Conservatory for “Tropical Forest Cuba,” opening Feb. 10.
One of the colorful detailed replicas of Cuban birds in the “Tropical Forest Cuba” exhibit.
paul g wiegman
One of the colorful detailed replicas of Cuban birds in the “Tropical Forest Cuba” exhibit.
A young visitor checks out the fish aquarium in “Tropical Forest Cuba,” which opens Feb. 10 at Phipps Conservatory.
paul g wiegman
A young visitor checks out the fish aquarium in “Tropical Forest Cuba,” which opens Feb. 10 at Phipps Conservatory.

Lush tropical plants, cascading waterfalls and classic 1940s and '50s American cars are part of the landscape and culture of Cuba that come to life at Phipps' Tropical Forest Conservatory beginning Feb. 10.

"Tropical Forest Cuba" is the result of an extensive planning process that included a research trip to Cuba in 2016 for Phipps exhibit coordinator Jordyn Melino and a few other staff members.

Since its construction in 2006, the tropical forest area has undergone major changes every three years to highlight the ecology of regions around the world.

Melino, who designed the new show, says the time was right to focus on the island country in the Caribbean Sea.

"Cuba was very politically relevant then and now and culturally relevant as well. We wanted to capture that momentum," she says.

She spent two weeks exploring the region, meeting the people and learning about their customs and taking photos of tropical plants, which include the country's national tree, the majestic Royal Palm, and unique species of Cuban orchids (below), ferns and rare cycads.

She visited the home and studio of a local artist, Nils Navarro, who has dedicated his life to the study and conservation of the biodiversity of his homeland. He wrote and illustrated a comprehensive field guide, "Endemic Birds of Cuba." She incorporated a birding station into the design of the Phipps exhibit that features Navarro's illustrations and life-size replicas of various types of Cuban birds.

A replica of a traditional Cuban pharmacy focuses on the country's medicinal plants, including aloe, used to treat skin infections and stomach ulcers; Cuban oregano, used to promote digestion and treat coughing; and San Felipe mango, which is ingested as an aid in digestion and to treat diseases such as diabetes, asthma, dermatitis and even cancer.

There's also a reproduction of a paladar — private restaurants in family homes where meals are made with produce grown in their own edible gardens. Recordings of traditional Cuban music add to the ambiance of the display.

Melino also managed to incorporate a vintage car into the exhibit — at least the front half of a 1949 Chevrolet Fleetline that was disassembled, cut down and reassembled by a local body shop to accommodate the conservatory space.

Melino says one of the major challenges with the exhibit was in obtaining the rare plants from a country that has little trade with the United States. Both Cuba and the U.S. require extensive documentation and permits to bring live plant materials across borders.

Jennifer Davit, Phipps curator of horticulture, traveled to south Florida after Melino's Cuban trip and visited 15 different specialty nurseries and growers in order to procure the rare plants for the collection. Using only the designer's photos, Davit was able to secure more than 100 different varieties to add to the exhibit.

Davit says the plant collection in "Tropical Forest Cuba" is unlike any other ever displayed at Phipps.

"I think it's really special that people will be able to see so many beautiful, rare Cuban plants here," the curator says. "There are only a few other botanic gardens in the United States where people can see these special plants."

"Cuba is 90 miles off the coast of the U.S. and yet U.S. citizens cannot visit there unless under strict circumstances," Melino says. "This exhibit is an exciting opportunity not only to share some of the unique endemic plants of this landscape, but also how plants are woven into daily life in such a lively, colorful melting pot of cultures in Cuba."

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, a Tropical Forest Cuba Festival featuring family-friendly activities, entertainment and food will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 10. Those attending can enjoy live Cuban music and a mini salsa dancing lesson from five-piece band Flor de Luna and Cuban choral group Coro Latino Americano-Pittsburgh.

A presentation about Cuban cuisine by Josh Ross, executive chef of Pirata, will take place from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., and Cuban food samples from Café Phipps will be available during the festival.

The festival is included with admission, no registration is necessary.

Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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