During our annual spring trip to Florida, Sue and I always seek out new places to visit: Old Florida attractions, state parks and other nature preserves, and, lately, botanical gardens. Over the past few years, we’ve visited or revisited quite a few throughout Florida. We haven’t explored together most of the southern third of the state, so we still have many more to see. Here are some we’ve visited within the last couple of years.
Tucked away just southwest of Gainesville and the University of Florida, Kanapaha is an almost hidden gem. We always stop to visit when we’re passing through. Arrive early in the morning and you’ll have the lush gardens pretty much to yourself.
A serpent and other creatures in the Children’s Garden.
After entering the botanical gardens at the Summer House, we usually head left and wander through the cluster of small gardens set along a meandering stream, including an oriental garden, a rose garden, and a whimsical children’s garden, a highlight you shouldn’t miss.
Then we make our way to the other side of the Summer House. There a loop trail threads through a palm hammock, a native woodland, and spectacular stands of bamboo, the largest public display of the woody grasses in Florida. In all there are two dozen separate gardens throughout the property linked by a mile and a half of paved paths.
South of St. Augustine
20 acres of formal gardens
Washington Oaks doesn’t appear on lists I’ve seen of Florida gardens, but it should. It’s one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been to in the state. Less than 20 miles south of St. Augustine, it was once the winter retreat of Owen and Louise Young, who acquired the property in the 1930s. Just before her death, Louise donated Washington Oaks to the state, stipulating that its formal gardens be maintained for the public to enjoy. Washington Oaks is now a state park. The gardens are part of the Washington Oaks Historic District, which includes the Youngs’ modest cottage beside the Matanzas River.
As you wander along the river, down the nature trails, under the live oaks, and through the manicured grounds surrounding a lovely pond, you may find yourself wishing you could live here. I know I did.
Coquina rock and tide pools on the beach.
Be sure to visit the other section of the state park across Route A1A from the gardens area. A short drive takes you down to a beach of coarse, orange-brown sand, where you can climb around on extensive outcroppings of coquina, a rock made of sand and shells that was used to build many structures in Florida, including the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens is another place you likely won’t find on lists of Florida gardens. Snuggled in a suburb just south of Daytona, it is maintained by a local volunteer group and is open to the public for free (donations appreciated). I first visited it on one of my Bike Florida tours and again on a second bike tour. I finally brought Sue here this spring.
Part of a former plantation, Dunlawton contains the ruins of a sugar mill. Exhibit panels explain the sugar mill operation and interpret the preserved ruins you can explore here. Along the wooded and shady garden paths, you will find ruins of a very different sort: concrete dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the remains of Bongoland, a kitschy tourist attraction that existed here into the 1960s.
Part of the sugar mill ruins.
Old Florida ruins.
I wouldn’t consider this a “destination garden,” but if you pass this way it is well worth a detour. With its campy concrete dinos, interesting sugar mill ruins, and rustic but well maintained gardens along quiet wooded paths, Dunlawton is not far but worlds away from the famous sands and screaming speedway of Daytona Beach.
The first time we tried to visit Leu Gardens, Google Maps directed us to a locked gate rather than a public entrance. Then we discovered that this particular Sunday was a free-admission day with a plant sale taking place. The parking lot was full and the neighborhood streets were jammed. We gave up and left.
We returned on Monday, and the gardens were wonderfully quiet and peaceful. Leu Gardens focuses on plants that can be cultivated locally (USDA Zone 9B to be exact). The gardens are centered on the Leu House Museum, a 19th-century home last lived in by Harry P. Leu and his wife Mary Jane, who donated the property to the city of Orlando. The house was closed when we visited due to ongoing repairs from Hurricane Irma.
While we enjoyed wandering along the extensive system of walkways through the Tropical Stream Garden, Idea Garden, Rose Garden, Arid Garden, and more, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Florida gardens. Maybe it’s the suburban setting or that I prefer the less formal design of a place like Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to Leu Gardens’ more neatly manicured grounds. But don’t let that discourage you from visiting.
50 acres of gardens
Bok Tower Gardens has been an iconic Florida attraction since 1929. The “Singing Tower” with its 60-bell carillon, featured on many a vintage postcard, stands atop one of the highest hills on the Florida peninsula (elevation about 295 feet). Edward W. Bok fell in love with the property near his Florida winter retreat and bought it in the 1920s to create a bird sanctuary here. He enlisted the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to design and develop the grounds.
You can spot the tower from miles away; finding the entrance to the gardens is a little trickier. The entrance is not on the main highway, where you might expect to find it (your map app may misdirect you). But Bok Tower is worth seeking out; this is one of Florida’s great gardens.
You can spend a lot of time here meandering along the lushly wooded informal gardens, examining the exterior details of the magnificent tower, visiting the estate house, and enjoying the exhibits in the visitor center on the tower, the carillon, and the history of the gardens. And you’ll probably want to relax for a while in one of the lawn chairs near the tower and enjoy its ringing bells and that Florida rarity: an expansive hilltop view.
Like Bok Tower Gardens, McKee Gardens also has an Old Florida backstory. It opened in 1932 as the much larger McKee Jungle Gardens. The 80-acre park was created from a subtropical hammock (a Florida forest) and featured tropical flora on grounds laid out by the Olmstead landscape design firm, which had also designed Bok Tower Gardens. A few resident monkeys and an alligator completed the jungle theme. McKee soon became one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions.
But like many Florida tourist draws popular before Disney World, McKee Jungle Gardens fell into decline and closed in 1976. More than three-fourths of the property was sold off and developed. Decades later, an effort was launched to preserve the remainder of the property, and the reincarnated McKee Gardens reopened in the early 2000s.
The 38-foot-long, single-piece mahagony table in the Hall of Giants.
A relaxing spot.
The royal palm grove.
If you love botanical gardens, McKee Gardens is one you don’t want to miss. Walkways loop past streams and ponds, through lovely wooded settings, and among thousands of native and tropical plants. The history of the property is recounted in exhibits in the Hall of Giants, itself a historic building from the original park. It still features “the world’s largest single-piece mahogany table”—38 feet long.
“Inner World, Outer World.”
“Grabbing Some Peace.”
“Embracing Peace,” the only monumental-size sculpture on display in the garden.
An added attraction on our visit were the 21 bronze sculptures of people engaged in everyday activities, created by artist Seward Johnson and placed throughout the park. They were so uncannily lifelike that we sometimes wondered, when we saw someone sitting still on a bench, whether that person was real or a sculpture. We were fortunate to catch the exhibition before it ended. A consolation: An elaborate Children’s Garden opens this summer.
Heathcote Gardens is only about 14 miles south of McKee Gardens via US Route 1, so it’s easy to visit both in one trip. Heathcote is much smaller and more intimate than McKee Gardens; it has its own kind of charm. You can easily explore the place in an hour, but the serenity of the gardens on a quiet morning might make you want to linger longer.
A relaxing spot.
My favorite bonsai: a Brazilian Raintree, in training since 1979.
The bonsai gallery.
The informally laid out grounds consist of a number of small “pocket gardens,” including the Reflection Garden, Japanese Garden, Children’s Garden, Rain Forest, and Palm and Cycad Walk. The most surprising feature is the outstanding collection of bonsai trees, displayed in an outdoor gallery. The garden brochure states that the hundred trees on display comprise the largest tropical bonsai collection in the United States. The only place I have ever seen a more impressive bonsai collection is at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
This is another small but charming garden hidden away in a suburban neighborhood about 25 miles or so north of Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast. Lovingly maintained by the volunteers of the Spring Hill Garden Club, it is free to the public (donations appreciated). Like Heathcote Gardens, it consists of a collection of small themed gardens, nineteen in all. Some of the more interesting and unusual ones include the Fantasy Garden, Memorial Garden, Florida Native Plant Garden, Poinsettia Garden, Secret Garden, and the Waterfall Garden, which features an outdoor model railroad.
The Asian Garden.
The outdoor model railroad.
You’ll probably have to rely on a map app to find this garden. But beware! When I first began researching gardens, I thought Nature Coast Botanical Gardens was located a hundred miles farther north—because there is another community named Spring Hill just northwest of Gainesville and not far from the similarly named Nature Coast State Trail, a well-known bicycle trail!
Other Gardens We’ve Visited
Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo, just north of St. Petersburg, has 30 acres of cultivated gardens along with other natural areas. It is part of a larger park that includes Heritage Village, a 21-acre Pinellas County living history museum. If you are biking along the popular Pinellas Trail, which connects St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs, you will pass right by it, but it’s easy to miss. When we biked this way several years ago, we didn’t see signs directing us to the park. We found it using Google Maps. I don’t have decent photos from that day to prod my memory, but do I recall that both sites were well worth a visit.
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens north of Tallahassee is another garden we visited several years ago but don’t have good photos of. Part of a much larger state park of the same name, it features 28 acres of ornamental gardens begun in 1923 by Alfred and Louise Maclay, who purchased the property for their winter home. The gardens are especially known for their camellias and azaleas. The park contains several miles of walking and biking trails. This was another place where Google Maps directed us to a non-public entrance.
But Wait . . . There’re More!
I found about many of these gardens through the lists on these two blog posts. I look forward to visiting more of them on future trips to Florida.
“The 15 Best Botanical Gardens in Florida”
“Florida Botanical Gardens”
David Romanowski, 2019