Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nature's Museum at the Ringling

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota presents a wonderful blend of art and story. From its birth in the "roaring twenties", the dream child of John Ringling - circus magnate, art collector, investor, financier - through the Florida land boom and the Great Depression, to Ringling’s bequest of the property to the State of Florida on his death in 1936; the history of this place contains enough drama, romance, and intrigue to fill an epic novel.

The fruits of John Ringling’s passion as a collector are evident here – the fine collection of Old Master paintings in the Museum of Art include a world-renowned display of Peter Paul Rubens paintings. The whole collection has grown impressively over the years and spans the globe in terms of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs, and decorative arts - from ancient through contemporary periods. It is valued among the top 20 museum collections in this country.

Then there is the Venetian-styled "Ca d'Zan" Mansion, winter home of the Ringlings, which, together with the Circus Museum and its “Largest Miniature Circus in the World,” as well as the jewel-box Asolo Repertory Theatre, adorns the 60+ waterfront acres of the Ringling complex.

But those are not the only wonders to be seen here - there's a living museum on display, free of charge. Built and stocked by nature, the Ringling's sumptuous collection of trees - particularly the Banyans - is well worth a separate visit…

The first Banyan tree in America was planted in 1925 by Thomas Alva Edison at his home in Fort Myers, Florida. The tree was a gift from Harvey Firestone - who brought it from India. Edison and his friend and neighbor Henry Ford were experimenting with alternative plants to produce latex for making rubber in the US. (A story for another day!) Edison gave thirteen Banyan tree specimens as a gift to John Ringling, for his Sarasota estate…

A Banyan tree is a species of fig often referred to as “strangler fig”. These Banyans are mostly of the “Ficus benghalensis” variety. In their natural habitat, Banyans start their lives high up on the trunks of host trees - palms, or oaks (or even on buildings), where birds drop the seeds. The seeds send out tiny aerial roots which gradually envelop the host tree trunks, eventually strangling them. The Banyans grow wide-spreading branches that send roots down - at first they look like strands of spaghetti stretching to the ground…

Once they reach the ground they burrow deep and become like trunks, propping up the branches…

The tree widens and covers a larger and larger area – one famous Banyan was so large that it was said that 20,000 people could stand at once in its shade. A forest can be made up of one of these trees…

The Banyan is native to south India, the home of the largest Banyan in the world - the Great Banyan of Calcutta, which is spread out over about 4 acres. There’s an amazing Banyan in Lahaina, Hawaii, that covers almost an acre, and the largest Banyan in the continental US is at Edison’s estate in Fort Myers. It was 4 feet tall when he planted it and now it spreads over 400 feet. Its cousins are thriving here at the Ringling...

Robinson Crusoe made his home in a Banyan, though that would be frowned upon here…

Buddha sat in meditation under a sacred Banyan, and Buddha himself said:

"A tree is a wonderful living organism which gives shelter, food, warmth and protection to all living things. It even gives shade to those who wield an axe to cut it down"

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is owned, essentially, by the people of Florida - thanks to the generosity of John and Mable Ringling. I'll be back to enjoy the man-made and the natural creations alike!


  1. How nice to see another post about Sarasota and all its riches (particularly as we are inundated with rain, sleet, and snow up here)! I was vaguely aware of Banyan trees, but hadn't any idea of their story or how they grow. The pictures are a terrific accompaniment, illustrating beautifully what you describe in the piece.

  2. It was a real pleasure to revisit this post today, after our spate of severe winter storms. I heard from a former colleague recently who has lived his whole adult life in the Albany, New York, area, that he recently purchased a place in Sarasota. His plan now is to retire there--sooner rather than later. I passed this post on to him. He reported how much he enjoyed it and couldn't help but add that he was headed to Sarasota next week!

    Thank you for another glimpse of the riches of Sarasota.

  3. I have always wondered why people went on about the banyan tree. The Indian author R.K. Narayan being one of them (Under the Banyan Tree). And now I know why. What a true curiosity of nature. Thank you.
    - Josie

  4. Oh, were those photos taken recently? It is wonderful to see greenery and sunlight.

    Thanks for the postcard from sunny Fl and it's interesting museum!

  5. Yes, I took all of the photos last weekend. It's been the coldest winter for many years here in Florida but we've still been blessed with sunny days, for the most part.

    Now I know our "cold" is nothing compared to how bad you've had it up north this year.

    Roll on Summer!


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