Leu Gardens — Vintage Florida!
As a 16-year Florida resident, I’m always searching for little hidden gems off-the-beaten-path from the hustle and bustle of Central Florida theme parks and other tourist-driven attractions. Amazingly, I’ve found one in the most unexpected place… 2 miles from downtown Orlando! So close to ‘the Mouse’ and his house at Walt Disney World, yet a million miles away (at least that’s what it seemed like to me). Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of Mickey’s fondest fans, but every now and then I crave some of God’s handiwork more than man-made Disney magic. The Harry P. Leu Gardens satisfied my appetite for an authentic “Old Florida” respite. They have perfectly preserved the beauty, culture, history, and environment of vintage Florida.
Harry P. Leu Gardens — Celebrating 55 Years!
In 1961, 55 years ago, the City of Orlando was given a grandiose gift. Harry Leu and his wife Mary Jane donated their home and gardens to the “City Beautiful.” The restored 19th century home has become the historic Leu House Museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The botanical gardens contain nearly 50 acres of cultivated tropical and semi-tropical plant collections from around the world, thanks to the extensive international travels of Mr. and Mrs. Leu. [Of course, that was prior to governmental regulations that restrict bringing certain agricultural products into the United States.] Their passion for horticulture is what transformed their estate into the botanical oasis that we enjoy today.
Leu Gardens — 14 Dedicated Areas
Leu Gardens is strategically divided into 14 different areas to better appreciate the offerings. Interpretive signs, QR Codes, and plant labels can be found throughout the gardens. I did, however, think the signage could have been better. Even with a map, my hubby and I found the navigational aides to be sparse for such a vast property. Although, we did encounter several staff members in golf carts who were more than willing to help with directions and any questions we had.
Following is a listing of the 14 dedicated areas within Leu gardens:
- Garden House Welcome Center
- Tropical Stream Garden
- Idea Garden
- Herb Garden
- Butterfly Garden
- Vegetable Garden
- Rose Garden
- Color Garden
- Leu House Museum
- Palms, Cycads & Bamboo
- Floral Clock
- White Garden
- Arid Garden
Leu Gardens — Free Admission The First Monday Of Every Month
My husband and I visited Leu Gardens in early October. We happened to be there on the first Monday of the month, and received free entry, as is their policy every month (excludes special events). Although adult admission is a modest $10 (parking included), the “freebie” was greatly appreciated. Additionally, if you have a Membership in any of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) Gardens throughout the country, you can take advantage of the reciprocal admission program and receive free admission to Leu Gardens simply by showing your Membership Card and photo ID. Florida has some outstanding botanical gardens and museums that participate such as Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, and Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden in Winter Park. With nearly 50 reciprocal partners in the Sunshine State, the cost of Membership will certainly pay for itself many times over! Here’s a link with additional information on a Leu Gardens Membership, including pricing and benefits.
Leu Gardens Self-Guided Walking Tour
Our tour at Leu Gardens began at the Garden House Welcome Center where we picked up a map for our self-guided walking tour. This building also provides space for business meetings, receptions, retreats, art exhibits, and plant groups. Classes are offered year-round for gardening, landscaping, history, wildlife, art, photography, and cooking.
For the plant enthusiast, be sure to stop by the botanic library. The Gift Shop was small but had some unique items to memorialize your visit or suitable for gift giving. A practical purchase would be the all natural botanical herbal insect repellent for your leisurely stroll amidst the gardens.
Leu Gardens In The Fall
As previously mentioned, I visited Leu Gardens in early October. Since the climate of Central Florida is conducive for year-round plantings, I was expecting much more color. There were a few pockets of gorgeous autumn hues in the Color Garden, but generally speaking, flowering plants were not plentiful. This was my greatest disappointment. I enjoyed the gardens enough to return, but will choose a different season when I do.
Leu House Museum — National Register Of Historic Places
The Leu House Museum is included in the entry fee, and should not be missed. I truly enjoyed my guided tour through this restored 19th century home. It was fascinating to see and hear about turn-of-the-century Florida living. Four families owned the property before it opened to the public in 1961, and each story was captivating. Our docent was extremely knowledgeable and answered questions without hesitation. Many of the furnishings in this historic home were originals left by Mrs. Leu; others are period reproductions.
Tours last about 25 minutes and are available on the hour and half hour. From November 13 – January 2 you can see the Leu House Museum decorated for the holidays. Creative juices flow as 9 local interior designers work their magic in each of the 11 rooms of this estate — everything from Christmas trees, tablescapes, wreaths, vintage ornaments, and much more. You’ll go home with a few decorating tips, for sure!
Leu House Museum Photo Tour
The Majestic Rose Garden — In Memory Of Mary Jane Leu
The Rose Garden at Harry P. Leu Gardens is nothing short of spectacular! The fact that Mary Jane Leu loved roses is quite evident here. She created it as a place of beauty and education for future generations. It contains some very old garden roses; those existing prior to 1867, as well as more modern varieties. This is the largest formal rose garden in the state of Florida! No wonder Leu Gardens is a favorite wedding destination that hosts over 300 weddings every year. It has been voted as one of the best wedding venues in Orlando.
The Floral Clock At Leu Gardens
There are certain not-to-be-missed sections of Leu Gardens, and the Floral Clock is one of them. This feature was inspired by the famous floral clock of Edinburgh, Scotland. The Scottish version was commissioned in 1903, and was the first of its kind in the world. This one was donated by the Kiwanis Club of Orlando in 1975. The unique and stunning display is an actual working clock and the floral designs that fill the face of the clock are changed seasonally. Although not as intricate and well-groomed as I had expected (it appeared somewhat overgrown and the hands of the clock were difficult to see), it is worth a few minutes of your time.
Palms, Cycads, And Bamboo
This specialty garden is sometimes referred to as “the dinosaur garden” because it contains many plants dating back to the prehistoric age. For example, Cycads are primitive plants that existed for nearly 200 million years. During the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs ruled the Earth they were the main plant life. Even though they are palm-like in appearance, they are cone bearing plants and have no relation to palms.
The Palms in this collection rank among the most extensive in the United States. It is vast with nearly 400 species that are well suited for our Central Florida climate. Palms are useful for providing food, furniture, and even wax for surfboards (Carnauba Wax Palm). While strolling the Palm Garden, take a moment to read the plant labels that identify the common name, botanical name, plant family, and origin of each specie. They’re quite interesting.
If you’re a lover of Bamboo like I am, you will be fascinated with nearly 50 varieties in this garden. Bamboo is a woody-stemmed plant in the grass family. Some grow only a few inches tall, while others reach over 70 feet with canes 5 inches in diameter. If you’re considering planting Bamboo in your Central Florida backyard (or even in a controlled indoor environment) I highly recommend visiting Leu Gardens first, where you can check out tons of different species. Some of them have been growing for more than 30 years. When you’re ready to buy, Beautiful Bamboo in Groveland, Florida is a nursery that specializes in Bamboo, about 30 minutes from Orlando.
The Butterfly Garden
Always a favorite of mine is the Butterfly Garden. I’ve been to many in Florida; some were pretty awesome, other’s not so much! The one at Leu Gardens is worth a few minutes of your time. There’s just something about this flying insect that puts a smile on my face every time I see one. To me, this gentle creature that floats in the wind is the epitome of beauty and grace. In this specialty garden, a wide variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees are planted to attract different types of butterflies. Some of them are nectar plants, others are larval plants that caterpillars eat. Many also attract hummingbirds and night-flying moths.
While in the Butterfly Garden, another visitor pointed out the presence of a snake that was trying hard to go un-noticed. Obviously, he got busted! I didn’t stick around long enough to see what kind it was, for even the harmless ones freak me out. Because of my speedy departure from this area, I didn’t spend any time looking at the Herb Garden which displays both culinary and medicinal herbs. The fragrant aroma, however, was proof enough that it existed! The Vegetable Garden area seemed barren. The fenced-in plot of land didn’t have any visible crops. Perhaps they were in-between the summer and fall plantings.
*TIP… Although Leu Gardens is impeccably manicured and maintained, be aware that it is a vast, open area with dense, lush plantings that may be desirable to wandering animals and critters like the one mentioned above. I highly recommend staying on the dedicated walkways. Be vigilant and keep your adventurous spirit in check!
Lake Rowena Overlook
The Tropical Stream Garden is appropriately named. There’s a variety of tropical and subtropical plants throughout this garden that create the atmosphere of a tropical rainforest. This is where you’ll see bird-of-paradise, bananas, bromeliads, heliconias, and other tropical beauties. If you’re looking to momentarily escape the Florida heat you’ll want to linger the peaceful paths here. There’s an abundance of shade in this garden. There’s also a sparkling little stream that winds its way into Lake Rowena.
The Lake Rowena overlook was beautiful and relaxing. The boardwalk and gazebo are named for John Wyckoff, one of Leu Gardens original board members. This is one of the newer additions to the Gardens. Take a walking break and enjoy the stunning vistas here. An aquatic wetland garden contains mostly native plants. And… have your camera ready — I’d be surprised if you don’t see heron, turtles, and an occasional alligator!
Peak Season Pops — A Refreshing Respite
Although Leu Gardens does not currently have a cafe on site, frequently there are visiting approved vendors that offer sandwiches or snacks. Hubby was hoping for a hot dog stand, but got to try some popular popsicles instead. Peak Season Pops are gourmet ice pops that are all-natural and handmade with local seasonal ingredients. We met the owners who are an awesome husband and wife team. Honestly… they were the best ice pops I’ve ever had! I’m not usually a popsicle person, but it was very hot and they looked so refreshing. I had the Autumn Roasted Peach and hubby had the Pineapple Lemongrass. Both were outstanding. If you’re in the Orlando area, check out Peak Season Pops for delivery options, special events, birthdays, etc. I highly recommend them. Brooke Chen (owner) was telling us they just did a wedding wherein the bride and groom opted to serve gourmet popsicles instead of traditional wedding cake! Apparently this trend is catching on here in the Sunshine State. For additional information visit the Peak Season Pops website.
*TIP… If you’re planning to be at Leu Gardens for a while, small bag lunches are allowed on the patio of the Garden House Welcome Center. Beverage vending machines are also available in the lobby of the Welcome Center.
Beyond The Gardens — Educational Classes And Workshops
It’s very difficult to see the entire 50-acre botanical Garden in less than 2 hours. We did a leisurely stroll for more than that, yet still managed to miss a few key points of interest. We did not view the Mizell Cemetery or the Idea Garden. The world famous Camellias (largest documented collection in Eastern North America) were not in bloom so we didn’t spend much time in those areas. A 2 hour window is recommended for adequate viewing of the Gardens. We’re planning a return trip, but possibly in the spring, hoping for significantly more color.
Visit the Leu Gardens website for a calendar showing what plants are in bloom in any given month. There’s also information on upcoming events and classes — things like monthly outdoor movie night, monthly storytelling for young children, seasonal concerts, annual plant sale, seed swaps, gardening for honey bees, aroma therapy for intestinal health, bats of Florida, the Leu House holiday lecture, wreath making, mini gardening and fairy gardens, casual Tuscan cooking, and on and on and on! The diverse educational offerings are impressive at Leu Gardens.
*TIP… Bring (or purchase) bottled water, apply insect repellant, and wear comfortable shoes!
UPCOMING SPECIAL EVENT:
Dinosaur Invasion — January 13 – April 30
A one-of-a-kind, outdoor exhibit featuring life-size prehistoric creatures throughout the 50-acre botanical gardens
Price: Included in the daytime Garden admission of $10 (adult)
Leu Gardens is an urban display of botanical beauty just a short drive from the “happiest place on earth!” It’s not nearly as magical, mind-blowing, or mesmerizing as ‘the Mouse,’ yet memorable in many ways. You’ll experience a sense of serenity that is instantly calming as you intentionally distance yourself from the insanity that sometimes exists in Central Florida tourist areas. Wildly tropical with formal gardens. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, but at Leu Gardens they co-exist in perfect harmony. So go ahead and do your crazy theme park thing, then swing by here for a perfect portrait of what Florida used to be!