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.
“As I look at that in 2012, I think how sad that nobody even knows about this garden, that it doesn’t have a place in our history. That story got lost for 70 years.”
Like the other society members, Nehrling wants his great-grandfather’s story known, his homestead to be a public garden again, a place for plant research.
But the society’s dreams are tempered by the cost. It needs to raise money to pay off the mortgage — right now, there’s only income to cover the interest — as well as to hire staff, renovate parts of the house, launch an educational program. Right now, all the work is being done by volunteers; the only person being paid is a fund-raising consultant.
It’s all part of the legacy of a man whose passion for tropical plants made a mark throughout Florida.
Late in the 19th Century, Nehrling, a Wisconsin schoolteacher and naturalist, bought 40 acres in the German-American settlement of Gotha — about 12 miles east of what is now downtown Orlando — to grow tropical and subtropical plants. His land evolved into Florida’s first experimental botanic garden, which he named Palm Cottage Gardens.
Nehrling grew more than 3,000 species of plants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. He wrote books and articles about horticulture. His expertise included palms, bamboo, bromeliads, amaryllis, gloriosa lilies, orchids and caladium. He is considered the father of Florida’s multimillion-dollar caladium industry.
Some of his work was for David Fairchild — the famous plant explorer and one of the founders of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami — when Fairchild worked for the USDA.
In the archives at Fairchild gardens is this comment by Fairchild about Nehrling:
“I have known many with a passion for plants. I have met many who were keen to collect and dry their fragments. I have known others who lived to make gardens, but none who quite so fully combined their passion for observation with their skill in the propagation and cultivation of a variety of species, keeping them under their constant attention so that they were able to accumulate through many years’ observation clear pictures of their characteristics.”
Another visitor to Palm Cottage Gardens was Thomas Edison; Nehrling would later create an orchid garden at Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. Some of the orchids he attached to trees are still there.
After Nehrling lost thousands of plants to a freeze in 1917, he bought acreage in Naples for his most tender tropical plants. That garden is now known as Caribbean Gardens, home to the Naples Zoo.
Nehrling died in 1929, and the Gotha property changed hands several times. Pieces of it were sold off. There were periods when the house was unoccupied and vines poked through the walls. Many of his plants died; others were taken by neighbors who assumed the land was about to be bulldozed.
The nonprofit Nehrling Garden Society was established in 1999 by people who wanted to save the property and Nehrling’s legacy. The group tried for more than 10 years to buy the property, but each time a grant or other financing seemed about to come together, a new obstacle would crop up. Neighbors worried about noise and traffic had to be sold on the plan as well. Barbara Bochiardy, who owned the property, was willing to sell it to the society for significantly less than the asking price if they would save it.
Finally, in 2009, a local entrepreneur loaned the society $350,000. With that and $100,000 it had raised, the society bought what was left of Palm Cottage Garden: 5.9 acres; a house more than 100 years old; and a neglected greenhouse from a later era, with many of its glass panels broken or missing.
But buying the property did not solve the financial problems. Withers said the group’s biggest challenge is raising money to pay off that $350,000 loan, which doesn’t carry the cachet of donating money for a specific project — like converting the unfinished garage into an education wing — that the donor’s name could be attached to. The society is already doing other things or has plans to: offer classes for a fee; rent out the property for events; sell plant sponsorships; partner with a nursery to develop and sell Nehrling-branded seeds and plants.
The society took possession in May 2010 and began organizing volunteers — Boy Scouts; Girl Scouts; garden clubs; service clubs; arborists; middle and high school students; plumbers and roofers; Disney employees; church groups; even German studies students from Rollins College, where Nehrling taught.
“We have had unbelievable help from the community,” said Schretzmann-Myers.
They worked almost year-round, taking a break in the summer. For protection, they wore long pants and long sleeves, the kind of clothing that is unbearable after a few minutes working outdoors in Florida’s heat and humidity. They ripped up invasive plants — kudzu, dog fennel, cat’s claw, Brazilian pepper and air potato, the latter the very species Nehrling had warned in his writings not to bring into Florida. They pruned desirable plants and planted Florida native species in the newly cleared ground by Lake Nally at the back of the property.
As they did, they discovered some of Nehrling’s original plants, mostly trees and bamboos, still living. “These are plants that have survived with benign neglect for a long, long time,” Withers said.
And they found junk. In one spot, long ago overrun by plants, they found an old still used to make moonshine from orange juice. Cleaned up, it sits in the garage now.
“It’s exciting. Every time we do a clean-up, we find something else,” Schretzmann-Myers said. “There’s living history here on the property.”
As the restoration continued, neighbors came forward with cuttings or seeds from plants that originated in Nehrling’s garden. The group replanted Nehrling’s amaryllis garden at the front of the house with bulbs rescued from a nearby abandoned garden, almost 700 bulbs that were descendants of plants Nehrling had introduced. They planted a big bed of caladiums, too.
Right behind the house, they created a “pollinator garden” with thyme, blue sage, coreopsis, passion vine, milkweed and other plants to attract bees, butterflies and moths.
While most volunteers worked on the grounds, others worked on the house. They spent the first two years making the property safe, rebuilding stairs that had rotted through, building supports under the sagging back porch, replacing railings and screens. The society uses part of the house as an office, part for exhibits and part to sell Nehrling’s and other garden books.
The property is zoned for agricultural use. Unless it is rezoned, the society can give only private tours by appointment; it cannot set regular hours that the gardens are open. That is one of the society’s goals, which they hope to achieve in the next 12 to 18 months, but with the property set in the middle of a residential neighborhood, they must win over the neighbors.
So the Nehrling Society continues to work on that bridge between past and present, between the research that Nehrling did and the plants that go into Florida gardens today. They have done much but still have work to do — the constant battle against invasive plants, cataloging the plants they uncover, digging, cutting, clearing, planting, pruning. And perhaps most important, educating.
“The beauty of a place like this is it’s a place where you can get your hands dirty,” Withers said. “You go to these immaculate gardens and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely.’ We want to show people how they get that way. Very rarely do people understand the joy that comes from growing a plant from start to finish.”