At a historic Coral Gables home, a white garden blooms


Special to The Miami Herald

Driving between two limestone pillars you come to a metal gate that swings open as you approach. On the access road, you pass under a flaming Royal Poinciana. You are on your way to an historic Art Moderne home with Art Deco touches that’s comfortably nestled under sweeping live oaks.

Besides the flame tree, other splashes add color to the three acres on which this house stands including dozens of green, yellow and red heliconia blooms. “They are superb this year,” says Sallye Jude, who lives with her husband, Dr. James Jude, in this Coral Gables home.

The colorful blooms hang from the tropical plants set along an alley that has a fountain down the center with 40 jets shooting water into the air.

But it’s not these colorful plantings we’ve come to see. Instead, it’s Sallye’s White Garden that takes up about a half-acre and draws our attention.

No matter what time of day or what season you visit, there’s sure to be something white and bright in bloom. “The trick to creating this garden is finding plants that bloom at different times of year,” Sallye says.

Come in the evening and the garden will look — and smell — entirely different. Instead of dappled sunlight, the moon reflects off the flowers as well as the white and green variegated foliage that fills this area of the garden.

Now think of the exotic aroma of sweet almond, the sweetness of white magnolia, the heady scent of night blooming jasmine and the gentle accent of white frangipani. The combination of fragrances is heady.

When this home was originally built by Charles Baker Jr. in 1936, it sat on 11 acres. Baker became known for traveling and writing about food and drink after he married Pauline Elizabeth Paulsen, an heiress to the Paulsen mining fortune.

Returning home from their travels to Indonesian islands, he and his bride bought this site and built the home they dubbed Java Head.

When the couple put the house up for sale, the property was divided for development. In 1964, the Judes purchased about 1 ½ acres including the original house.

At first, they didn’t do much gardening. James was a noted thoracic surgeon. “And I spent my time and energy on raising seven children,” Sallye says.

But after Hurricane Andrew tore through the area in 1992, most of the landscaping on the southeast side of the property was destroyed except for a few live oaks they could rescue and two banyan trees.

The property had a number of coconut palms but they had succumbed to lethal yellowing.

“What didn’t go by hurricane death went by natural death,” Sallye says. That left them with a fairly open space with which to work.

They purchased an adjoining 1 ½ acres where the original pool house, pool and tennis courts still stood. And they went to work redesigning the landscape.

James wanted water features including a central pineapple fountain surrounded by neatly trimmed podocarpus. And to this day, that fountain still fills the garden with the gentle sound of flowing water.

When you come to the fountain, you can turn to your right in order to enter the alley, proceed ahead toward the pool and banyan tree or follow the limestone path to your left past the oversized white begonias.

They are your introduction to Sallye’s White Garden. “I’ve always loved green and white as a color scheme, so that’s what I wanted in my garden,” she says.

Creating a white garden in the early ’90s was a particular challenge. “There just weren’t that many different varieties of plants available back then,” says Sallye. Not to mention white ones.

But she was up to the challenge. She first learned to garden as a child growing up in Baltimore, Md., where her family had a Victory Garden. But moving here to the subtropics took some adjustment.

“I’d go out and put in my snapdragons and all the other plants from my temperate life,” she says. “But something would come along at night and mow them down. I thought, ‘Gee, I have to learn what I can grow here.’ ”

That’s when she started visiting Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and joining plant groups such as the Tropical Flowering Tree Society and the Coral Gables Garden Club.

Over the years, she learned about different varieties of white blooming plants that the groups introduced to their members and made available through plant sales.

“The number of different types of plants in my garden has really increased,” says Sallye.

Today her white blooms include the white plumeria or bridal bouquet standing tall and proud. Closer to the earth, a scorpion tail displays its curling flowers in a natural arrangement that resembles its namesake. “It will grow just about any place,” Sallye says.

The cleft leaves of the bauhinia divericata are accented here and there with intricate clusters of white flowers that attract butterflies. And although blue plumbago is a common butterfly plant, Sallye has the white variety.

You also may be familiar with the orange geiger tree. But Sallye’s is a white geiger, as is her clerodendron — shooting star — that has blooms resembling bursts of fireworks.

A round pool in the center of the White Garden is populated with papyrus and water lilies. “I got the whitest ones I could find,” says Sallye speaking of the cream and yellow blooms that laze in the water on this hot and steamy day.

One of our favorites among her many showy, snowy blooms is aptly named musical notes. Its unopened flowers resemble notes of a musical score. And after opening into white flowers with red stamens, they last only a day, making them as ephemeral as a song.

In her White Garden, Sallye not only uses plants with white blooms but also those with variegated and frosted leaves. For example, her tropical variegated ilex or holly has green and cream or white leaves as do the variegated lariope and spider lilies.

Lift one of the large fans on the white elephant palm and you’ll discover a frosted underside that adds a shimmer of white to the foliage when the breeze disturbs them. This time of year, however, the breezes are few but the mosquitoes are many. That’s when it’s time to take advantage of the uvodia.

It’s a New Guinea native with shiny green leaves and flat clusters of tiny white flowers. Sallye says that the natives discovered that if they crumpled the leaves and rubbed them on their skin, the bugs would stay away.

We take a moment to try this primitive bug repellant and hope it works.

As we ramble the garden, Sallye explains that because of her husband’s health, they have put their home up for sale. They will soon be moving to the French Normandy Village developed by George Merrick. Their “new” home dates back to 1926.

To Sallye’s relief, her new yard will be much smaller and easier to tend. And she tells us that although she’s enjoyed working on it, she has no plans to re-create her White Garden.

Instead, she’ll lay paths using bricks recycled from the original Miami High School. And then she’ll fill each section of her yard with plants blooming in a different hue.

In keeping with the scheme, she will call it her Rainbow Garden. And, after all these years, she’ll get a chance to explore the many colorful exotics now on the market.

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