Florida is synonymous with sunshine. And one of the many benefits of living in the Sunshine State is the spectacular year-round beauty that our semi-tropical climate produces. Something outstanding is blooming every month of the year. It’s no surprise, then, that Florida is home to some of the most breathtaking botanical gardens in the United States. Some are elegant and formal, others whimsical and amusing, still others aesthetically appealing with the addition of artistic elements and magnificent architectural components. Each one has a uniqueness all its own.
But have you ever thought about who planted those botanical beauties? Before they were drop-dead gorgeous gardens that delight you and I, they existed only in someone’s imagination. It’s interesting, to me, that the visionaries behind all that awesomeness were filthy rich businessmen. Yes, Florida’s most exquisite gardens have very, very rich roots! Buried deep within our sandy soil lies DNA from some of the wealthiest families in American history. I’ve chosen these 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots for you to add to your botanical bucket list.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — Miami Florida
When I say Miami, “Gardens” is not usually the first thing to pop into someone’s head. Or the second, or third for that matter. Miami is best known for points of interest like South Beach, Ocean Drive, Art Decor Tours, Little Havana, Lincoln Road Mall and Bayside. But if you’ve been to this Southern Florida City and haven’t visited Vizcaya Museum and Gardens somewhere between your Cafe con Leche and Tostada Cubana, you’ve missed a botanical masterpiece!
Vizcaya’s Rich Roots
Vizcaya is a stunningly beautiful American Villa inspired by the palaces of Europe — a subtropical interpretation of an 18th-century Italian countryside villa. It was built in the early 1900s as the winter home for northerner James Deering, a retired millionaire businessman, and one of America’s wealthiest families. Mr. Deering was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, so his doctor recommended sunshine and a warm climate to lessen the effects of his affliction. (Turns out his pain was our gain!) As an avid sailor who owned three yachts, he also had quite a passion for landscaping and plant conservation. All of these things combined to play a huge role in the location of his 180-acre winter estate.
Vizcaya’s old-world European-inspired gardens are among the most elaborate of any in the United States. The formal gardens of Florence, Venice, and Rome served as the inspiration for James Deering. I absolutely love the use of sculptures, elaborate fountains, and other architectural structures strategically placed throughout the garden landscape. There are statues, urns, busts, and vases reminiscent of the Renaissance, which I find remarkably romantic. Apparently I’m not the only one that gets romantic vibes here, as Vizcaya Gardens is a popular wedding destination for multitudes of brides looking to create an enchanting fairy-tale backdrop for their special day. There are tons of charming, picturesque spots to choose from.
The horticultural collections in Vizcaya’s Gardens are so extensive and diverse (it took almost eight years to create the Garden), they have to be catalogued in a plant database. The Gardens include a subtropical forest, a mangrove forest, an exotic 2,000-specimen orchid collection, massive live oaks, Royal Palms imported from Cuba by boat, unusual plants such as Peach Palm and Giant Elephant Ear, and many endangered plants. Some are so rare they only exist here and in one or two other places in the world!
Vizcaya still remains an outstanding garden oasis for the rich and famous. It’s not unusual for Hollywood to come here for film shoots. They’ve recognized what we Floridians have known all along: Vizcaya showcases the history of the Mediterranean, the glamour of the Jazz Age, and the heat of the tropics! For hours, admission, calendar of events, and frequently asked questions, visit the Vizcaya website.
Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate — Lake Wales Florida
Tranquil and serene. Bok Tower Gardens gets my vote for the most peaceful place in Central Florida. It’s the ultimate great escape from Orlando’s thrilling [and sometimes over-crowded] tourist attractions. Since it’s one of my favorite places, Hubby and I have an annual membership to the Gardens. One of the great perk’s of membership is that we receive reciprocal benefits (including free admission) to many other spectacular gardens in Florida and around the country — places like Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum in Orlando. Bok Tower Gardens is a mere 30-minutes from my home, so we visit frequently. There’s always something new blooming!
And with the recent addition of Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, an educational and fun children’s learning area, I can introduce my toddler grandson to the beauty of “natural” Florida. Part of the expansion project also included an Edible Garden & Outdoor Kitchen. The Bok Tower Gardens special event calendar now includes various chef demonstrations and other culinary activities. This area also hosts after-dark soirées perfect for intimate gatherings. A favorite of visitors to Bok Tower Gardens is the infamous 205-foot-tall Singing Tower which houses one of the world’s finest carillons. Concerts occur twice daily, with additional live performances during peak periods.
Pinewood Estate’s Rich Roots
Pinewood Estate is a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion from the 1930s. The Estate is open for self-guided tours throughout the year, with docents on hand to answer questions. The holidays are my favorite time to tour the mansion which features one of the best Christmas Home Tours in all of Florida. Each year, the local Garden Club creates a holiday “theme” and decorates each room of the mansion accordingly — truly spectacular! Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president was the original owner of this elaborate residence. And, like so many other historical homes in Florida, this was only a winter retreat. Can you imagine having a 20-room mansion that you occupied a mere 6-weeks out of the year? Mr. Buck was so wealthy that he brought 7 – 9 servants from his home in Pennsylvania with him each winter. He hired a manager to live in the house and take care of it the rest of the time.
For a glimpse of Pinewood Estates at Christmastime, read my article about Bok Tower Gardens during December.
TIP: Wear comfortable shoes… it’s easy to spend an entire day at this National Historic Landmark!
Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens — Winter Park Florida
The Albin Polasek Sculpture Garden is located just a short drive from Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, in beautiful Winter Park, Florida. I’ve always loved everything about Winter Park — the architecture, casually elegant restaurants, shopping on Park Avenue, the yummy Winter Park food tours, museums, art festivals, and relaxing Central Park with its inspirational Peacock Fountain. But of all my visits to this wonderful place, only recently did I discover the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Hubby and I spent several hours here, and had we packed a lunch we could have lingered longer.
Mr. Polasek was a world-renowned Czech sculptor. In 1950 he retired to Winter Park, at the age of 70. Prior to that, he headed the Department of Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly three decades. The Polasek Museum is the actual home and art studio where Albin Polasek lived and worked. Many original paintings, drawings and small clay sculptures are on display here. While touring the Museum, I learned about the history of this incredibly talented man. But no amount of reading could have prepared me for what I was about to see in the Polasek Sculpture Gardens located on the property behind the Museum, right along the edge of scenic and serene Lake Osceola.
My goodness, these sculptures are absolutely amazing! When intermingled with many native Florida and subtropical garden species, it becomes a botanical utopia; simply perfect! I was blown away by both the created and natural beauty represented in this three-acre Garden. Not withholding the fact that some of Albin Polasek’s greatest artistic achievements came as a severely disabled person. Wow… if only these sculptures could speak! (You may be interested in a more comprehensive article on the life and legacy of Albin Polasek here.) This is truly a “not to miss” attraction if you appreciate outstanding outdoor gardens and are ever in the Central Florida area.
Winter Park’s Rich Roots
The entire town of Winter Park was founded by wealthy Northern industrialists as a winter getaway. This classy place might be geographically close to Disney and other Central Florida tourist attractions, but it’s a world apart in almost every sense. Its got style and substance! Winter Park has never lost its late-19th-century charm — brick-paved streets, stately turn-of-the-last century historic homes, 200-year-old live oaks with Spanish moss, and meandering canals once used for logging. And because money begets money, Winter Park still attracts multimillionaires today. Don’t be surprised if you rub elbows with a member of the Orlando Magic or see a movie star at a Park Avenue sidewalk cafe…
Edison & Ford Winter Estates and Botanical Garden — Fort Myers Florida
Did you know Thomas Edison (the innovative inventor) and Henry Ford (the Ford Motors car mogul) were very good friends? Yes, indeed. Such great friends that they purchased adjoining properties in southwest Florida in the early 1900s as their winter estates. The 21-acre estate features the former homes of the two men, a research laboratory, museum, and botanical gardens.
It’s a lovely waterfront location right alongside the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers. Here, you’ll get a taste of what tropical, “old-Florida” used to be like. Whether you choose the guided or self-guided tour, you’ll receive so much historical information you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time. In the Gardens, it’s hard to believe that a few of the original trees planted during Edison’s time are still standing. Hint: check out that famous banyan tree! Good golly miss molly, wait till you see the size of that thing. I won’t give away all the fascinating facts, but you practically need a wide-angle lens to capture the whole thing. Additionally, there are 1700 plants representing 400 species from six continents on display. Hard to find a more diverse horticultural collection anywhere! To get a heads-up of what’s blooming in any given month, check out the Edison Ford Gardens “what’s blooming” page on their website.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates’ Rich Roots
Of course we’re talking about Henry Ford and Thomas Edison here. This popular Florida attraction represents some serious wealth. The net worth of these two men individually is massive, with a capital “M!” When combined, it’s mind-boggling. By the mid-1920s, Henry Ford’s net worth was estimated around $1.2 billion. That’s billion, with a “b!” At age 57 he was worth $188 billion, making him one of the 10 richest people of all time! When Thomas Edison was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1928 Congress valued his work at nearly $15.6 billion. Imagine the good times they had together on that property in Fort Myers that you and I get to visit…
Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum — Orlando Florida
Leu Gardens is vintage Florida at its best! It’s easy to imagine Florida the way it used to be while strolling this massive Garden comprising nearly 50 acres. It’s nicely divided into 14 distinctly different areas (you’ll need a map). A few of them are formal, like the Rose Garden, but most sections appear more “natural.” While meandering through the landscape that contained the Palms, Cycads & Bamboo, I envisioned old-Florida — the way the Sunshine State looked pre-Disney. I was waiting for a gator to emerge at any moment from the dense subtropical terrain. Stand still long enough on Lake Rowena Overlook and in your minds-eye you’ll see the logging of humongous cypress trees that were transported via steamboat through Florida’s chain of lakes and canals.
Yes, old-Florida is becoming extinct. Vanishing. Endangered as our beloved manatees. But there are remnants, if you know where to look. Thank goodness Harry P. Leu Gardens is doing their part to preserve Florida’s cultural identity, for many generations to come, I hope. You’ll notice Leu Gardens has a personality all her own; it’s old Florida today!
Make sure you save time to tour the Leu House Museum; it’s included in the entry fee. A restored 19th century Victorian-style home, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Central Florida. Some of the architectural details include a tin roof and pine floors. Before it opened to the public in 1961, four different families resided there. The stories told by our docent about these wealthy owners were captivating. If you want a sense of what turn-of-the-century Florida living was like for affluent landowners, take this guided tour!
Harry P. Leu House’s Rich Roots
From a cotton farmer (1st owner) to an actress (2nd owner) to a steel manufacturer (third owner) to the Leu Family (4th and final owner), this house-turned-Museum has had quite a rich history. The most intriguing of the occupants was Duncan Pell, a prominent New York businessman who divorced his first wife in order to marry actress Helen Gardner. Ms. Gardner went on to create her own film company (a first for a woman) and became very well known throughout Orlando. Joseph and Martha Woodward were the 3rd owners; wealthy industrialists who only used the home as a winter residence. Mr. Leu, the last resident, owned a very successful industrial supply company. He and his wife traveled the world and brought back seeds and plants for their gorgeous gardens.