Here in South Florida, we are used to lush tropical blooms and towering royal palms. But in Central Florida you’ll see colorful camellias and azaleas as well as live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
That’s what we discovered at the botanical garden at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park, and Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens in Orlando.
On a three-day excursion, our first surprise comes when we pull into a designated parking space at the Florida Institute of Technology. Here we discover you don’t have to take a theme park cruise to enjoy a jungle.
To enter this botanical garden, you cross a 250-foot covered wooden bridge that passes through a dense thicket of towering palms, Spanish-moss draped live oaks and lush underbrush. The school’s more than 5,000 students have rightfully dubbed this area “the jungle.”
On the other side, though, you’ll find nature that’s gently and lovingly tamed by horticulturist Holly Chichester, manager of grounds and facilities operations.
The 15 acres of cultivated garden were initiated by Jerome Keuper, who was the president of the institute in the 1960s. With the help of Dent Smith, founder of the Palm Society, he turned this natural hammock into what might be considered a theme park for plants.
They began by installing a row of royal palms because anyone coming to Florida expects to see their towering silhouettes. But the first winter, the palms were wiped out by the cold. Today only three survive.
But don’t worry. You’ll still find more than 200 other varieties of palms, bamboos and other botanical specimens, both rare and common. You can follow the Dent Smith Trail through the heart of the garden to a butterfly garden, a fern garden and a bamboo trail.
If you have youngsters, don’t miss the teddy bear palm with its fuzzy brown crown shaft or the monkey puzzle tree. It got its name from its sharp, scale-like leaves that make it difficult for even a monkey to climb.
Melbourne’s first wooden school house was moved to the property in the 1980s. And check out the turtle patio, which has a pool that’s home to red bellied cooters with their orange and black shells and prehistoric-looking Florida alligator snapping turtles.
From this stop, we drive about 1 1/4 hours to Winter Park, where we plan to stay for two nights. Only about 30 minutes from Disney World, this town has as much charm as the Magic Kingdom. But here you’ll also discover six-acre Central Park, which boasts not only a gingerbread-trimmed train station but, at its south end, a bountiful rose garden that’s well worth a visit.
After a good night’s rest, we head for Mead Botanical Garden, well-loved by locals but only now being discovered by tourists.
The almost 50-acre park was created in the 1930s and ’40s to honor Theodore Mead, a local horticulturist who grew orchids and developed new varieties of caladiums, rare ferns, bromeliads and other plants.
Over the years, the garden has had its ups and downs but today a dedicated and inspired board of trustees and group of volunteers is bringing it back to its former glory.
In the Legacy Garden and reconstructed greenhouse, you’ll find plenty of azaleas, begonias and caladiums, some of which are descendants of Mead’s original plants.
From here you can follow a path past the clay pits that are rumored to be where gangster Al Capone, on his way from Chicago to Miami, dropped his enemies who made the trip in his trunk.
On your garden stroll, you pass uplands, a wetlands restoration project around Lake Lillian (a boardwalk here was damaged in the hurricanes of 2004 but it’s walkable), a flowing creek and an idyllic pond.
This is Alice’s Pond, named for Alice Mikkleson, a volunteer and emeritus trustee who was the impetus for the most recent incarnation of the park. Tables at water’s edge are perfect for picnics.
When you’ve finished, find your way to your car through the remnant stand of longleaf pines, most taller than 50 feet.
From there, the drive to the 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando is mere minutes; it’s 30 minutes from the theme parks.
Under the direction of Robert Bowden since 1994, annual garden attendance has risen from about 30,000 people to more than 150,000. You’ll understand why when you visit.
“It’s a bit of Old Florida,” Bowden says.
The property was first settled in the late 1800s and has been home to four families. Harry P. Leu, an Orlando native who sold industrial supplies and enjoyed traveling with his wife Mary Jane, bought it in 1936. It was on these trips that he gathered many of the specimens that grow here today.
The land is on the shore of Lake Rowena, one of five interconnected lakes. It’s an attractive natural setting but there’s more.
The garden is home to the largest collection of banana plants in North America, including the Rhino Horn with each finger growing two feet long. The collection also features 300 different palms and 50 clumping bamboos.
There’s even what Bowden calls a Mickey Mouse plant. He shows us how to hold a bloom in our hands and move it just right, so it looks like a red mouse face with big purple ears. It’s no wonder that Disney World and Leu Gardens often share unique plants from around the world.
Although the garden features an international collection, part of its mission is to show people what they can do in their own yards. In the Idea Garden are a dozen residentially scaled areas, each designed to inspire your landscape.
For example, there’s a wildflower garden, an evening garden where the blooms and foliage reflect the moonlight, 300 plants in the bog garden that like their feet wet, a shade garden under a dense canopy and a garden to attract birds. It was Bowden who built the six bird houses in his garage. Each is designed to attract a different species.
Even the paths demonstrate different patterns for laying pavers and bricks as well as ways to texture concrete. And each section of pickets in the white fence around the courtyard garden is cut into a different pattern so you can decide which you like best.
In the more historic areas, you’ll find a butterfly garden, an herb garden and a vegetable garden as well as a collection of over 50 different citrus plants that demonstrate what Leu had in his own citrus grove.
It’s here too that you can tour the original house that offers insight into life in Florida at the turn of the century. Docent-led tours are available every half hour.
During this tour you’ll learn that Harry’s favorite flower was the camellia and Mary Jane loved roses. That’s why the garden’s collection includes 2,000 different camellia plants representing 200 varieties and, of course, roses. The 750 plants come in 150 different varieties that include English roses, floribundas, drift roses, hybrid teas and grandifloras.
Although high season is over for many of these blooms, there are enough remaining on the plants for us to enjoy and make us feel like we are away from home.