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Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden is a Hidden Gem on St. Thomas

Patsy Breunlin’s love for tropical plants is so great that she’s spent the last 20 years of her spare time carving a garden into the mountainside near her home on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Spanning two terraced acres on a canopy-covered slope, Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden opened in early 2015. Winding earthen stairs lined with blooming tropical flowers and other exotic plants sit perched above turquoise blue Caribbean waters that peak through small gaps in the trees.

Full of energy and botanical knowledge, Breunlin’s eagerness to teach visitors about her many plants and flowers is self-evident as she reminds them to read the informational graphics she’s placed throughout the garden. By definition, a botanical garden has signs that identify plants and documented collections, she explains. To test their knowledge, Breunlin asks visitors what’s the only orchid that produces a commercially valuable foodstuff. (Those who have read the signs and can remember correctly answer: Vanilla.) Garden Collage recently visited the Phantasea garden in hopes of catching some of Breunlin’s tropical plant fever. Below, we discuss Breunlin’s love of botany, why she cultivates orchids in the trees, and learn why she believes St. Thomas needs a botanical garden now more than ever.

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GC: What made you decide to move to St. Thomas? Did the tropical flora have some pull?

PB: The weather and the beaches brought me here, because I grew up in that environment in Florida. My friends were living on St. Thomas in the late 1980s and told me there was a building boom here that I couldn’t miss given my construction background. And I came down, checked it out and thought, “Yes, this will work.” I love islands and tropical environments-– the ocean, warmth, tropical plants – the more exotic the better.

GC: Loving plants is one thing, but what inspired you to funnel that passion into opening a botanical garden?

PB: When I travel, I go to botanical gardens and dream about which ones I want to put in my garden. So it started as me just collecting plants for my own yard. From traveling and going to botanical gardens so much, I realized that St. Thomas didn’t have a real botanical garden. When I found that my property was zoned for gardens and arboretums, I decided to work on a garden I could open to the public. I figured the local government wasn’t going to do it and even if they did, they wouldn’t maintain it.

“When I found that my property was zoned for gardens and arboretums, I decided to work on a garden I could open to the public. I figured the local government wasn’t going to do it and even if they did, they wouldn’t maintain it.”

GC: You’ve kept the native trees on the property, but have brought in a number of plants from abroad. How’d you get them all here?

PB: When I first moved to here, I rented a 40 container to ship my belongings in – the front two-thirds was full of my household goods and the back third was refrigerated for my plant collection. Some of the plants I brought down are in this garden today. You can bring any plant you want into the Virgin Islands from the U.S. mainland. There are no restrictions on that, but when I bring back plants internationally I have to apply for a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They have to be inspected and treated for bugs.

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GC: You’ve spent much of your career in architecture and construction. How did that background help you design and build the garden?

PB: I did a lot of the labor myself and I put up all of the plants, like orchids and bromeliads, that grow in trees. As an architect, I’m able to understand what the layout and proportion of things should be, so I did all of the design for the buildings. But I’ve never counted the number of steps, since I don’t want to know [Laughs]. I go up and down them a lot.

GC: Why do you think it’s important for St. Thomas to have a botanical garden, from an education perspective?

PB: It’s more than just teaching people about plants. When people get a plot of land here and want to build on it, they usually take out every tree and plant – they just leave dirt. That’s destructive because most of this island is a hillside, and as soon as it starts to rain all that exposed soil rushes down to the sea and hurts corals and other marine life. My site still has all the native trees on it, so I try to teach people that you can build without removing trees. When I do the field trips here with the kids my hope is to show them some reasons to protect the environment.

“People always ask why I put all the orchids in trees and I say, ‘That’s where they live.’ I try to showcase to people who have never been to the tropics that this is how orchids grow in the wild here.

GC: You’ve mentioned that the island needs more attractions for visitors, since tourism is the main driver of the economy here. Why a botanical garden?

PB: There are very few land-based activities for people to do on St. Thomas. Almost everything centers on boats and beaches, which not all tourists want to do everyday, especially older ones. And many people that visit have never been to the tropics before, so they’re interested in learning about the flora.

GC: Having just opened early last year, what’s your biggest challenge so far?

PB: The largest hurdle is getting enough publicity that people want to come and visit. I try to get the word out locally through good signage, and Trip Advisor is also huge. About 95 percent of people who find me look me up on that site. Overall, I have to get in with the cruise ships with regular tours – that’s my main focus now.

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GC: What are your favorite plants to grow?

PB: As far as families go, orchids, bromeliads, and heliconia are my favorite. I’d say heliconia are the most difficult to grow, since they are really thirsty plants.

GC: What do you think most surprises people when they come to the garden?

PB: How big it is – people think it’s really small from the front, because they can’t see down the hill. And they also always ask why I put all the orchids in trees and I say, “That’s where they live.” I try to showcase to people who have never been to the tropics that this is how orchids grow in the wild here.

CG: Word on the island is that some crews have been filming at the garden recently. What was that for?

PB: House Hunters International and HGTV have filmed at the garden a few times since we opened. [Laughs] They usually use it as the setting for a dramatic decision about which gorgeous house to buy, since it’s quiet and beautiful here.

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