“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.