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.
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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.
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.