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Selby Gardens (page 2 of 2)

by Amanda Jarrett

A Tropical Rain Forest Under Glass

My favorite place in the Selby Gardens is the Display House, and walking in this 6,000-square-foot greenhouse is like a leisurely trek through a small rain forest. I've spent many hours there viewing the rare and exotic species, especially the renowned Marie Selby orchid and bromeliad collection.

One side boasts a 10-foot wall of volcanic rock, sculpted to look like a mountainside. The wall is lush with moss, ferns, orchids, and an eclectic array of epiphytes (plants that are nurtured by rainwater, organic matter collected in their crevices, and other airborne material). Waterfalls tumble down the rocks and moss, and the humid air is heavy with the scents of the orchids, gingers, ferns, heliconias, and other exotic plants. If you look up toward the glass roof, you'll see orchids tucked into the overhead beams.

On the ground, unusual gingers emerge, and other rain forest plants weave themselves into a tapestry of color and shapes. Every corner holds a treasure. As flowers fade, staff gardeners move plants to one of the seven greenhouses and substitute blooming specimens.

Research and Ecology

Of the approximately 200 botanical gardens in the nation, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is the only one that specializes in the study and propagation of epiphytic plants, often called air plants, because they usually don't grow in the ground. They prefer to perch in branches or on tree trunks, and even on rocks. Bromeliads, orchids, and Spanish moss are among the most familiar epiphytes. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens boasts 14,000 plants of about 5,000 species, with over 5,000 orchids. Most of the orchids and bromeliads are located in the Display House in a natural arrangement.

The gardens' botanists and horticulturists have global reputations for preserving, cataloging, and collecting endangered epiphytic species from the world's rain forests. In addition, international symposia highlight the staff's dedication to the preservation of all rain forests. Major international conferences on epiphyte conservation were held here in the 1990s.

After I've strolled through the different gardens, I visit the old southern mansion previously owned by the Selbys' neighbors. It's located next door to the Selbys' own modest Florida-style bungalow, which houses a museum of botanical art and photography. In the book and gift shop, also located in the Selby house, you'll find one of the most extensive collections of authoritative horticultural books around.

Each time I visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, I find new surprises. Bromeliads rest in the branches of huge trees; orchids balance precariously in their perches, and ferns, pentas, and other tropical exotica grow amid lush foliage.

Tourist information. Admission costs, members free, adults $17, $6 for children ages 6 through 11. Special rates are available for groups of 20 or more persons, and wheelchairs are available. Ask at the front desk for a free guided tour. A small cafeteria offers light fare.

The Gardens are at 811 S. Palm Avenue, Sarasota, near the Palm Avenue intersection with U.S. Highway 41. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas. During the holiday season, the gardens open at night to show off the spectacular Christmas light displays.

For further information, write or call The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, FL 34236; (941) 366-5731, fax: (941) 366-9807.

Or visit the gardens' Web site at, which offers a calendar of events and explanations of the conservation, education, and research programs at Selby Gardens.

Amanda Jarrett is a horticulturist, lecturer, and writer based in Cape Coral, Florida.

Photography by Michael MacCaskey

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