During the summer, the kudzu and air potato vines came creeping back, threatening to reclaim the ground that dozens of volunteers had cleared only months earlier.
By October, the vines were snaking up oak and magnolia trees, some more than a century old, that had once been the subject of federal research programs but had been overgrown by invaders. The volunteers launched a late-fall counter offensive, cut back the new runners, then set to work uncovering more trees. They sawed through the sturdy vines, slowly peeled them back like a carpet from the trees they had taken over, used crowbars to pry their roots from the soil. Then they planned more workdays to fight the invaders.
In the midst of all this greenery, the tangle of desirable and the undesirable, stands the former home of Henry Nehrling, a botanist who nearly a century ago tested and introduced to Florida some of the plants that are now staples in landscaping throughout the state. The historic Central Florida property is on the National Register of Historic Sites and has been certified as a Florida Historic Landmark. It is the headquarters of the nonprofit Nehrling Garden Society, which is rescuing and restoring the home and grounds.
But whether it is the invasive vines that keep returning, financing that vanishes just as it is on the verge of landing in the bank, or a compromise with the wary neighbors, the society’s efforts often sound more like a battle than simple conservation.
“We are doing it foot by foot, yard by yard,” said Theresa Schretzmann-Myers, the society’s vice president and volunteer coordinator.
On the grounds is a sago palm that was already more than 100 years old when Nehrling planted it a century ago. Enormous magnolias he hybridized. A tall eucalyptus that Nehrling planted and that has been dead for 30 years but is home to giant pileated woodpeckers. A huge golden bamboo with lime green trunks and gold leaves, masses of amaryllis and caladium, towering bunya pine and bay laurel.
“It’s just such a treasure,” said Angela Withers, the society’s president. “It’s rare to find a place with such a combination of elements … the history, the science, the beauty — a site where a man who was really quite extraordinary did his work. It was an amazing passion and he grew these amazing plants. There are plants here that are over 100 years old. It’s a living laboratory.”
The property is a house of dreams. In an architectural rendering, the run-amok greenery has been curbed and neatly organized into a palm collection, a bromeliad collection, demonstration gardens. Walk the grounds with Withers and Schretzmann-Myers and they will point out the Nehrling Society’s ambitious vision. In addition to reclaiming the garden and the house, they want to turn the garage — added in the 1980s — into an education wing, build a gazebo, plant a palm allee, build a lakeside observation boardwalk and add Henry’s Bookshed, a small library.
“For me it’s been an unbelievable journey,” said Richard Nehrling, Henry’s great-grandson and a volunteer and advocate for the garden. “It’s really sad for me, knowing how important this garden was. David Fairchild was on plant collecting trips all over the world and he was sending samples back to my great-grandfather to test. He tested over 3,000 species.