In Sarasota, Florida, about an hour and a half south of Tampa, lies a rare jewel for people who love tropical plants. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens rests on a spit of land jutting into Sarasota Bay, surrounded by deep blue tropical waters. Winding trails take you to plant collections in 20 themed gardens, and a glass house displays one of the world's largest and finest collections of orchids and bromeliads. A twisting boardwalk also allows tourists to view seaside flora and fauna without disturbing their habitat.
The gardens are named for Marie Selby, an avid gardener and the wife of William Selby, an oil magnate and philanthropist. She bequeathed the property, which also includes their stucco bungalow built in the early 1920s, to the city of Sarasota in 1971. The city later purchased neighboring properties and expanded the gardens from the original 7 acres to 9 acres. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was opened to the public in 1975.
The winter weather in Florida is typically warm and sunny, which for many people in other areas of the country is reason enough to visit these gardens. But winter is an excellent time to visit whether you're a tourist or local because January through March is the peak bloom season at the gardens. You'll see orchids of all kinds, but particularly corsage orchid (Cattleya), butterfly orchid (Oncidium), lady's slipper (Paphiopedilum), and moth orchid (Phalaenopsis).
If you visit the gardens, plan to spend at least half a day to fully enjoy the many collections. In the Live Oak Grove, Spanish moss cascades like gray-green waterfalls from the oaks' gnarled and twisted limbs, and in the Bamboo Pavilion, stately stands of giant bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) chime in the wind. A cool waterfall shimmers down a mossy bank and into a koi-filled pond in the Waterfall Garden. South of the Banyan Grove, many varieties of hibiscus show off their large blossoms in an astonishing array of colors.
In the Palm Grove, date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) over 25 feet tall pierce the azure sky. At their feet grow triangle palms (Neolypsis decaryi) from Madagascar, fishtail palms (Caryota) from Southeast Asia, and other exotic species. Not to be outdone, the Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus) bears its white flowers in the sun of the Cactus Garden. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), aloes, and other arid-climate plants surround the apple cactus's swollen, thorny trunk.
Immense banyan trees, planted in 1939, dominate the manicured lawn in front of the stucco house. The huge limbs of these members of the Ficus clan stretch across the lawn, buttressed by aerial roots that plunge into the soil below. The large lawn is a perfect setting for the Selby Gardens' plant sales in March, July, and November. The trees' broad, spreading boughs provide welcome shade as well as a natural canopy for weddings, the annual Orchid Ball, and Shakespearean and other theatrical productions.
Plants (all well labeled) aren't the only attraction in these gardens. The Butterfly Garden, a mass of flowers, floral scents, and vivid colors, attracts not only the delicate winged visitors, but also many tourists, who stop to enjoy this garden's fluttering pleasures.
Edible plants grow in the Tropical Fruit garden. They range from tropical exotica like the unusual miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) that sweetens anything sour eaten with it to medicinal, ceremonial, and culinary herbs. A "hands-on" children's garden was completed in 1998.
For ecology-minded visitors and seashore lovers, the boardwalk in the Baywalk Sanctuary travels along the garden's mangrove-studded shoreline. Egrets, herons, pelicans, ibis and other tropical wading birds stand elegantly in the glistening water. The birds find habitat among the seaside plants in the Shoreline Restoration Project Garden.
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.
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 www.selby.org, 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