James Ponce: Fertile soil for learning

James Ponce in his garden

Many of us know James A. Ponce, 90, proclaimed Palm Beach’s only “Two-Legged Historical Landmark” by the Town Council in 1996. He is the official historian at The Breakers and leads tours about Henry M. Flagler and the history of Palm Beach (click here for Ponce story on street names). But what is he doing when not enlightening visitors about the rich local history?

He’s in his garden, sprucing up his landscape and building hardscape. “I did this terrace for my 80th birthday,” he said, pointing to a lovely seating area by his front door. He also built the bridge that spans his lily pond next to the guest cottage. “I love working with rocks. And I like hooking things together with cement.”

Mr. Ponce enjoys building bridges.

Ponce has owned this property for 40 years. It wasn’t much to look at four decades ago, he explained: “It was almost naked. The magnolia and one other tree, a Norfolk pine — that’s all that was here on the west side.” Now, though, there’s plenty to see. “All of it I grew, planted, or raised from a seed.”

Mr. Ponce learned about gardening from his parents.

Ponce acquired his love of gardening from his parents. His father grew roses and fruit trees. His mother raised sweet peas. By the time he was 9, he had his own garden of petunias. He hasn’t spent a lot of time planning this garden, he confessed: “When I found things I didn’t have, I got them and kept setting them in vacant spaces. I call it ‘collage gardening’ — I have such a mixture of plants.” They include a variegated Christmas palm. “These are very rare, but I have one.”

His Bismarkia palm has bromeliads under it. Something that he calls a Vesuvius palm has “stems that are so long that the leaves are split all the way down. I’m not sure what it is. I purchased it at a Mounts plant sale,” he noted.

Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach holds periodic plant sales and events. On Mother’s Day weekend, Ponce’s garden will be one of 10 on Mounts’ Connoisseur’s Garden Tour.

Ponce had only a couple of trees in his yard 40 years ago.

He loves his gumbo limbos because the trunks are interesting. He has 34 varieties of palms, some that he raised from seed. His bromeliads are legion and “keep on multiplying,” Ponce quipped. His horticulture education comes from the school of life. “I just learned from mistakes and successes,” he admitted. “Sometimes I preach more than I listen.”

Despite the wide variety of plants, Ponce doesn’t spend all his time maintaining them. Take his bromeliads, for example: “You put them in the ground and forget them. Some of these beds around these trees have been here for five or 10 years. They are minimum care plants.”

About palms, he espoused: “When they are young, they like to be in the shade. I’ve planted many from seeds, and once they get a little size on them, then you can put them out in the sun.”

Here’s how he preached on orchids: “Most of mine are hand-me- downs from ladies who didn’t know what to do with them after they stopped blooming. The ones I’ve put on tree trunks seem to flower longer. Use peat moss, wet it and put it on the trunk. Then put the roots, add more peat moss, and strap it on with green wiring. Orchids like trees with crevices.”

Here’s one sermon he regrets not listening to: “I wish I hadn’t planted that star fruit. It bears so much, fruit is all over the ground.” Well, live and learn.

For Ponce’s history lesson on Street Names, go here.

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