Phillips’ original plan of winding paths and ponds remains today in this lush and lovely garden set on 18 acres of the original site.
“We want people who just moved here to see what’s available and get an idea of what can be grown at home,” says docent Suzan Phillips, who wrote The Miracle of McKee,(McKee Botanical Garden, 2007) about the history of these gardens.
Enter under the graceful curve of the iron archway that originally was made of wood. Pelican Plant reaches up to cover it.
This strange plant has green and white flowers with purple veins that look like a pelican standing on his feet. But don’t get too close because when it blooms, this vine smells like rotting meat to attract the flies it needs for pollination. A hole in each flower is the door to a trap for the flies that enter. They can’t leave until their work is done.
Elsewhere, children can’t resist climbing on what’s been dubbed the Sleeping Tree. It’s a toog tree from Malaysia and can grow to 50 feet in Florida. This one got its nickname after a hurricane toppled it in 1978. Some of its roots remained in the ground to nourish limbs that now grow vertically from the reclining trunk.
Adults will enjoy the Old Man of the Jungle. It’s an aging oak stump leftover from the 1930s. Today it’s covered with pink, red, green and yellow bromeliads that are right at home attached to the decaying wood. “Set up this way, that old stump looks just right,” says Phillips.
And be sure to have your camera ready as you wander towards the main pond with its scenic stone bridge. Here and in the streams that meander throughout the garden, you’ll see the blue, purple and yellow blooms of tropical water lilies. They put on a show year round. But in warmer months the pink and peach blooms of the hearty varieties are added to the cast.
“In April and May, this place is just heaven with all the water lilies,” says Phillips.
PORT ST. LUCIE BOTANIC GARDENS
A visit to this 20-acre garden starts in the parking lot, where a white picket fence and wood pergola are covered with color. This garden that opened in 2010 is planted and maintained by 140 active volunteers who do all the work and do it well.
“Compared to other gardens, we are little and young, but what we’ve done in the three years we have been open is pretty incredible,” says Stephanie Giaraffa, the garden’s president.
Starting with only the “bare necessities,” the garden was shaped by different garden clubs and plant societies that took responsibility for creating and maintaining the garden’s “rooms.”
For example, the Port St. Lucie Orchid Society is responsible for the orchid room where the showy plants with their purple, pink, white and yellow blooms hang in baskets or are mounted on limbs of the slash pines and live oaks.
In another part of the garden, that white picket fence by the parking lot contains a Butterfly Garden. The massive doses of color from plants such as purple verbena, yellow bush daisy, red fire bush and purple penta attract butterflies and dragonflies.
Past the podacarpus hedges is the Rose Garden, with pink, white and apricot blooms. The Louis Philippe or Cracker Roses, as they are known in Florida, are the most consistently easy to grow, says Joleen King, who has served on the garden’s Board of Directors.
In the Secret Garden, take a break on the green metal bench set beneath a 75-year-old live oak. Its limbs, swagged with Spanish moss, bend and twist into what looks like a natural sculpture.
“People up north have drifts of snow but we have drifts of Spanish moss,” says Giaraffa with a smile.
Stands of yellow, striped, black and soft green bamboo grow in another area. Buddha belly, oldhamii, yin yang and silvery angel mist grow in this bamboo bower. Some of the specimens are 40 feet tall and growing.
A Succulent Garden, a budding Hibiscus Garden and bromeliads set on an “island” in a manmade lake are some of the other attractions.
Take a turn on the mile-long path that meanders through native scrub along the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. Take your time and stroll quietly. You just may get to share your appreciation of this garden with a tortoise resting in the shade of a saw palmetto.
“There’s a lot of Old Florida left here,” Giaraffa says.