ST. PETERSBURG — In 10 years, the Wish Tree has heard 20,000 dreams.
Its scraggly branches, spread over the Salvador Dali Museum’s Avant-garden, have absorbed hopes “to find true love.” “To cure cancer.” “To stay sober.” Some visitors asked the Florida ficus for wealth, fame or acceptance.
For a mother’s touch.
For a McDonald’s happy meal.
“The tree — it’s not a painting. It’s not a work of art,” said Kathy White, the museum’s deputy director. “It’s a piece of nature you can only find here and a symbol of community.”
Starting Aug. 18, 2011, museum goers have scribbled wishes onto colorful admission bands and fastened them to the tree. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster asked for “an undivided city” at the inaugural ceremony. In return, the ficus helps make dreams a reality — a tradition borrowed from Hindu and Scottish rites, according to the sign in the garden.
A decade of wishes is a testament to humanity’s hope and resilience, White said.
“Making wishes, throwing pennies in fountains and blowing out birthday candles — it’s a natural instinct,” White said. “And people who come here are already in a state of mind of thinking, of contemplation. So the wish tree is a perfect connection to that experience.”
Over the years, the Dali Museum compiled the wishes in a computer database.
Horticulturists routinely remove the bands and deliver them to a small team of visitor experience staff. More than 150 wishes appeared each week before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that number is down to 10.
Many slips remain blank with the weight of unwritten dreams.
They are sorted “by feel,” said Kayla Dorsey, the associate director for visitor experience, into groups. Provocative, positive or heartbreaking.
Volunteers with nimble fingers help transcribe. “I wish to hug my dad one more time.” “To meet Enrique Iglesias.” “To remember this always.”
Vidya Goyal, a volunteer and museum docent for 18 years, first typed out wishes “simply because it had to be done,” she wrote in an email. “But later on, it was to know how the human mind can go in so many different directions.”
In her four years working at the museum, Dorsey noticed the majority of wishes hope for peace, love and happiness — the tenets of the “human experience,” she said.
Others serve as a time capsule for their era of origin. Visitors ask for the safety of homes and families when hurricanes plow toward Tampa Bay. During election seasons, the wishes lean into politics. The first documented dream for March 2020, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, reads “I wish for a healthy life for me, my friends, and my family.”
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Goyal loves wishes akin to prayers to God. Dorsey prefers longer writings focused on tolerance and embrace. White rarely reads the database — emotionally, “it’s too much,” she said.
Ten years after its inception, the origins of the wish tree remain unclear.
White watches the ficus billow in the wind from the glass panes of her second floor office. But she cannot remember who thought to officially dedicate the St. Petersburg landmark. “You can’t always remember things like that,” she said. “It’s like it appeared in everyone’s head at the same time.”
“The tree fell over multiple times,” White said. “Maybe that’s what gave us the idea to do this. It could partly be wishes for the tree itself.”
The ficus blew down at least five times after arriving at the Dali. Conservationists originally rescued the tree during a 2010 storm in South Florida and brought it to the garden overlooking St. Petersburg’s bayfront. There, it tipped over until workers shored it up with stronger cables. It toppled again during Hurricane Irma.
But the Wish Tree is here to stay. Perhaps, for another decade.
White believes Dali would love the tree. He was always one for nature, incorporating landscapes and life into his work, she said. And the ficus has many more wishes to hold — and fulfill.
Dorsey remembers an email from a German visitor who asked the tree to find her “the one” in December 2012. In 2018, an email landed in her inbox: “Next month, I’m getting married to a wonderful man,” it read. “He’s from Tampa, and we met in Germany. I can only think it was up to the Wish Tree.”
For White, her current wish is evergreen: a nation undivided by politics and controversy. She is also shooing away the coronavirus and its devastating toll. “You have to ask for that to go away,” White said.
Mayor Rick Kriseman dreams for St. Pete. “I wish for a city of opportunity that continues to grow and thrive. May we always be worthy of the name Sunshine City,” he wrote in an email. “May St. Petersburg forever be Florida’s best city, where the sun will continue to shine on us all.”
But in the end, Dorsey said, the tree is for the people who meander into the museum, bursting with ambition and aspirations.
“To win the lottery.”
“To have a wedding.”
“To adopt a puppy.”
One said, “I wish to be as famous as Dali.”