During the 1950s, my husband traveled from New York to Miami Beach for winter vacation long before there was an I-95. He recalls seeing the McKee Jungle Garden, hailed as a “mecca for visitors,” set along Route 1 in Vero Beach. Attractions at the 80-acre “manmade jungle” included a wide variety of palms, spider and rhesus monkeys, a bear named Dr. Dolittle and fly-eating flowers.
So when we recently visited the Treasure Coast, we were happy to discover that this roadside attraction has lost its kitsch and been given a new lease on life as the McKee Botanical Garden.
In fact, it’s one of three botanical gardens in the area that are worth visiting. The others are Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens.
Although these gardens are relatively small, each has its own special appeal whether it’s a showy rose garden, an array of water lilies or a bonsai display. You’ll easily spend an hour or two or three wandering their paths.
We took our time to tour these gardens during a relaxed long weekend. We visited one a day and then had time to enjoy the beach and other area attractions. To help you plan your itinerary, here’s what the gardens have to offer when you head north:
HEATHCOTE BOTANICAL GARDENS
The vivid flowers on a small pink bougainvillea first catch my eye. Now when I say small, I mean about 1 1/2 feet tall. Yet it was perfectly formed into a spreading tree with colorful canopy.
This is one of the more than 100 carefully tended bonsai trees inside the Asian-style wooden gate of the James J. Smith Bonsai Gallery at Heathcote. It’s the biggest display of tropical bonsai in America, says Patrick Giacobbe who oversees their care.
Here in 10,000-square feet of space, the living works of art are displayed on stone pedestals set along curving gravel pathways. You’ll discover something new at every turn as the sound of spilling water sets the tone.
But don’t stop here. This is just the beginning of what you’ll discover at this five-acre botanical garden of which 2 1/2 acres have been planted and opened to the public.
Checking the map you get from the visitor’s center plus other information you can pick up as you ramble, you can see the garden is divided into interest areas. You might start by strolling the Palm Walk, where you’ll find 50 different varieties.
In the Children’s Garden you can see fairy houses that visitors have made from acorns and leaves nestled in the roots of trees. And kids shouldn’t miss the root beer tree. Scrunch a leaf, take a whiff and enjoy the aroma of this favorite drink.
The Succulent Garden is designed to look the view of a reef from under water. And a manmade rainforest gets color from bromeliads and bamboo.
As you wander across the main lawn, don’t miss the 140-year-old sabal palmetto. Either freezes and/or lightning split its head into three, explains master gardener Miriam Charles, who has volunteered here for 25 years.
Over the years this horticultural oddity has been removed and returned to the garden. Now it’s here to stay.
MCKEE BOTANICAL GARDEN
Known for its lush water lilies, this garden was originally a roadside attraction that opened in 1932. It was created by entrepreneur Waldo Sexton and industrialist Arthur McKee. They got help from landscape designer William Lyman Phillips, who worked for the firm that laid out Manhattan’s Central Park.