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Plant Whisperer Cliff Gawron

Plant Whisperer Cliff Gawron

Plant Whisperer Cliff Gawron

Jekyll’s longtime landscape director grows a green and leafy legacy

by Candice Dyer
Photography by Gabriel Hanway

Someone once said a society grows great when people plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

In that case, Jekyll Island can count on a hardy, vibrant future thanks to Cliff Gawron, the Jekyll Island Authority’s director of landscaping and planning. This year alone, his team has planted around 650 trees of various types, with many more scheduled. Their efforts are effectively reforesting the island after time, storms, and disease have taken their toll on its canopy.

Gawron’s overall goal? To serve as a responsible steward of Jekyll’s singular, natural mystique—and to safeguard the habitats of the creatures who live here. Live oaks play a key role in both missions; in his decades-long career, he has added hundreds of them to the landscape. “These trees can live 400 years,” he says. “Their acorns feed the deer and help them survive the winter.”

When he was growing up in Massachusetts, Gawron’s family operated a motel, where he became fascinated with curb appeal. “I knew at an early age that I wanted to work somehow in the field of natural resources,” he says.

Plant Whisperer Cliff Gawron

During the 1990s, Gawron studied environmental design at the University of Massachusetts, then earned his master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia. A professor suggested he check out the aesthetics of Jekyll Island, specifically those of its historic district, the storied stomping ground of Industrial Age tycoons. Inspired, Gawron took an internship with the Jekyll Island Authority. Luckily for the local botanicals, he never left.

More than twenty years later, his work today has its roots in his master’s thesis, which comprehensively catalogs all of the island’s plant life. “It has proved its worth as a living document that we still use today for guidance,” says Jones Hooks, the Jekyll Island Authority’s executive director.

Plant Whisperer Cliff Gawron

Gawron’s influence is pervasive. He loves to join his crew in pruning and planting whenever possible, manicuring the greens of the golf courses and the garden beds in the historic district. When not getting his hands dirty, he issues permits, participates in planning initiatives, and helps name streets. He led research to restore the Avenue of Palms, returning the historic display of hundreds of cabbage palms to its former glory. As an intern in the nineties, he planted the island’s official Christmas tree—a Southern red cedar that was eight years old and fourteen feet tall when he transplanted it from its original location at the causeway. Today, it stands forty-five feet tall and happily weathered recent hurricanes.

Gawron is especially proud of his work on the bike path and the two-and-a-half acres surrounding the Jekyll Island Club Beach Pavilion. The area was flood-prone until he raised its elevation. He created two large rain gardens to capture storm-water runoff and oversaw the planting of cabbage palms and dune grasses, stabilizing the land against erosion.

He does face certain challenges: ravenous deer, migratory birds dropping the seeds of invasive plants, residents who want to chop down trees. As the head horticulturist in a state park, he must sign off on any tree removals. “People in regulatory positions are generally not held in high esteem,” Hooks says, “but Cliff is effective in that role.”

Observing the public’s enjoyment of his work has proved gratifying. “Jekyll Island belongs to everybody,” Gawron says. “I just want to leave it a better place for everyone to enjoy.”

This article first appeared in Volume 2 Number 2 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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