Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style magazine, May 2012.
Photos by Mary Ann & Tony DeSantis.
Florida’s public botanical gardens are rich in history as well as with beauty. From rare orchids and delicate roses to rugged terrain and adventure courses, these five botanical gardens make great day trips from Central Florida.
Florida is truly the “land of flowers” as Ponce de Leon dubbed us in 1513 when he came ashore near present-day St. Augustine. Public botanical gardens are scattered throughout the state, and for the past year I’ve wandered through more than a dozen botanical gardens, many of them part of the American Horticulture Society’s Reciprocal Admissions program. I discovered every garden is unique with diverse plants, different terrains, and even unusual attractions for visitors.
I’m not the first, however, to discover Florida’s botanical riches. After Ponce conquered the land for Spain, a host of famous botanists and plant enthusiasts made treks through the Sunshine State. American naturalist William Bartram was the first to catalog what he saw during a four-year journey that began in 1773.
“Florida’s temperate climate has been appealing to researchers and botanists for centuries,” says Sandra Friend, author of Exploring Florida’s Botanical Wonders and 23 other books about Florida’s natural habitats. “They came here specifically to learn about new varieties of plants that weren’t found elsewhere. Even Thomas Edison was experimenting with plants in Florida to replace rubber.”
The goal of Sandra’s book is to encourage people to visit and to be inspired by Florida’s botanical wonders. The next step, she says, is to help protect these incredible natural habitats that make our state unique.
And there is no better place to begin than right in our own neck of the woods with these five gardens — all within a couple-of-hour’s drive time from Lake and Sumter counties.
Ravine Gardens State Park • Palatka
The 146-acre park began as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project during the Great Depression as a botanical garden and became one of Florida’s early tourist attractions after it received national recognition for its more than 95,000 azalea plantings.
The trails are extensive and precipitous, but they are the best way to see the beautiful combinations of tropical and subtropical plantings, ferns, blue flag Iris, and of course, azaleas. Don’t worry if you are not a hiker. A 1.8-mile loop, known as Ravine Drive, has several observation decks where you can pull over and look down into the natural ravine that is also covered with cypress, sweet gum and hickory trees.
A formal garden at the entrance offers a lovely spot for photos. The stone structures and terraces are remnants of the American Rustic architectural style popular during the mid-20th century and include an obelisk dedicated to President Franklin Roosevelt. An historic marker also reminds visitors that botanist William Bartram began his 1773 journey through Florida near here.
Make sure to spend some time inside the community building at the entrance where a display of old photos shows a manicured and terraced Ravine Gardens n the 1930s. Today’s gardens are much more natural but are just as beautiful.
Harry P. Leu Gardens • Orlando
Most visitors to Orlando head straight for the theme parks and miss one of the most exquisite attractions the city has to offer: Harry P. Leu Gardens.
Deeded to the city by Harry and Mary Jane Leu in 1961, the 50-acre property has so many plant collections that it’s hard to see them all in just one visit. The solution is to visit several times to see the different collections at their peaks. Planning a late spring visit? Don’t miss Mary Jane’s Rose Garden, named after Mrs. Leu who planted her first roses by Lake Rowena. With more than 215 varieties and 650 roses, Leu Gardens has the largest formal rose garden in Florida.
Be sure to walk through the Rose Garden toward the western edge of the property to see the unique floral clock. Late spring and early summer are the best times to see the annuals in the clock face in full bloom.
Mr. Leu was as dedicated to his camellias as his wife was to her roses. The camellia collection is one of the largest in the U.S., and it all began with the Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua originally planted by the Orlando businessman. Today, the gardens feature more than 2,000 camellia plants and 230 cultivars, including displays of the Tea Camellia. The best time of the year to catch the Leu Camellias in bloom is November through January.
Take time to enjoy the Leu House Museum, a restored 19th century home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens • Sarasota
If you love orchids, then a visit to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardensin downtown Sarasota is a must with its living collection of more than 6,000 orchids. Research, plant science and conservation continue to be important activities at Selby Gardens just as they were when the Gardens opened to the public in 1975.
Selby botanists have discovered or described more than 2,000 plant species new to science.The small entrance belies what’s beyond its doors.
The greenhouse area just beyond the admissions desk is filled with orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytes. The 14 acres of outdoor gardens overlooking Sarasota Bay offer a quiet serenity that led West Virginia native Marie Selby to make this her home… and her legacy.
To soak up the garden’s splendor, pause for a moment under the massive Morton Bay Fig Tree with its 15-foot roots sprawling out from the base or enjoy the man-made waterfall and Koi pond for quiet reflection.
Bok Tower Gardens • Lake Wales
If you love magazines, you probably know that Edward W. Bok was editor of Ladies Home Journal for 30 years. He retired in 1919 and spent more time at his winter home on one of the highest hills of Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge where the sunsets are dramatic. In 1921, Bok commissioned landscape architect Frederick L. Olmsted Jr. to change his arid sand hill into a “spot of beauty second to none in the country.”
Even with all its beauty, Bok still felt something was missing in the gardens. In 1927, he commissioned Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary, to create a majestic “Singing Tower.” The Gothic towers of Europe inspired Medary and Bok, who missed the glorious sound of carillons in his native Netherlands. Two years later, the iconic landmark was completed, and Bok Tower and Gardens have since become a National Historic Landmark.
The tower is not open to the public on a daily basis, but you can enjoy the picturesque gardens 365 days a year. Bok Tower Gardens also features a “what’s in bloom now” page on its web site that is quite helpful when planning a visit.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens • Sanford
Occasionally — or maybe often — it’s just plain hard to get little kids excited about strolling through a botanical garden. Reading the Latin names on signs near the shrubs will not interest them for long, if at all, but a trip to Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford will keep nature-loving parents and their children entertained for an entire day.
As I walked to the admissions gate, I noticed people in trees. At first, I thought I had stumbled into an audition for the television show “Survivor.” Adults, teenagers, even small children were swinging like monkeys, zipping from tree-to-tree, and balancing themselves on single ropes or swinging bridges. It was all part of the Zoom Air Adventure Park that is surrounds the entrance. The eco-adventure courses are a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the zoo and gardens, but Zoom Air is separately priced from the zoo’s admission.
Central Florida’s animal habitats are smaller than those at Tampa’s Lowry Park or the Miami Zoo, but are just as family friendly. Open at its present location since 1975, the facility’s mission is to provide a refuge for animal species that are threatened in the wild and to provide an educational experience for visitors. “Keeper Chats” are held on Saturdays and Sundays in areas small enough to allow everyone to see and hear. With more than 400 animals on view, it could be easy to forget your are inside one of Florida’s most lush botanical gardens. Take time to enjoy the boardwalks that meander through the park over wetlands and enjoy the special garden areas.
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