The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a tropical oasis in the midst of downtown Sarasota, Florida. Located on Sarasota Bay, the beautiful 8.5 acres of display gardens focus on orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytic plants. Epiphytes, or air plants, live on other plants or structures, but are not parasitic on their hosts.
Orchids are just one of many types of epiphytic plants at the Gardens.The Gardens were created more than 25 years ago by a gift of Marie Selby, a long-time Sarasota resident and philanthropist, “to serve the people of Sarasota as a beautiful and peaceful garden where one may enjoy the splendor of the plant world in one of the most lovely settings in Florida.” She and her husband Bill were frugal millionaires that made huge contributions to their community through numerous local nonprofit organizations. Marie was a founding member of the Sarasota Garden Club, which was formed in 1927 to beautify the community. At the time of her death (at the age of 81) in 1971 her estate’s executor announced that she had left her seven-acre property and an endowment for the establishment of a botanical garden, for use by local clubs for meetings and social events.
Dr. Carlyle Luer, one of the members of estate’s board of trustees and an orchid enthusiast, convinced the other board members – who were generally unenthusiastic about the whole idea – to establish the Gardens with a focus on epiphytic plants. He would become the director during the development of the Gardens and founding editor of its research journal, Selbyana (which publishes original research by staff and leading epiphyte and canopy scientists from around the world). In 1973, the first Executive Director, Dr. Calaway Dodson, was hired and began the task of transforming the residential property into a botanical garden. Two years later the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was officially opened to the public.
The Gardens have evolved into a internationally recognized center for research, conservation and educational programs about tropical plants and their habitats. The epiphytic plants collections originated from donations from the private collections of the early members of the scientific staff, and have been augmented through the years with plants from other donations and research expeditions.
The quaint, shaded, red-brick avenue that leads to the Gardens Entrance takes the visitor from the bustling, modern city to a tranquil garden reminiscent of a more peaceful time. The Visitor Center is the starting point for learning about tropical rainforest plants and the Gardens.
But the real tour begins when you enter the Tropical Display House, a showcase for a spectacular living collection of rare orchids and bromeliads. This is the most concentrated collection of both native and exotic epiphytes and other tropical plants in the U.S. Some of the spectacular flora includes torch ginger from Indonesia, colorful bromeliads from the Amazon, carnivorous Bornean pitcher plants, heliconias from Ecuador, and Mexican vanilla orchids. Many of the plants were collected in the wild by the Gardens’ scientists on more than 150 expeditions to tropical forests.
Just outside the Visitor Center, the Sho Fu Bonsai Exhibit is a small collection of specimens showcasing the ancient Asian art of bonsai, or dwarfing trees in pots, using sub-tropical species maintained by the local bonsai society.
Adjacent to the Tropical Display House, the Cycad Display showcases these slow-growing, ancient plants remotely related to conifers that have flourished in tropical and subtropical areas since the age of dinosaurs. The Gardens’ collection includes representative cycads from tropical Asia, Mexico, Japan, Africa, and Central America, as well as native species from Florida.
The Fern Garden displays only a select few of the 10,000 species of ferns that occur worldwide. More than one third of all ferns live as epiphytes, and the ones exhibited are exclusively epiphytic. There are several species of staghorn ferns on display. No staghorn ferns are native to North America, and only one is from South America. The others grow in tropical Africa, Madagascar and the islands of the Indian Ocean to China, the Philippines and eastern Australia. Selby Gardens has examples of all.
The pathways from the Visitor Center lead among specialized gardens focusing on specific plants to various parts of the garden. Bromeliads, including Spanish moss, adorn the high branches and understory trees of the Epiphyte Garden, and the live oak grove behind the historic Selby House. These magnificent trees graced the property when Marie Selby lived in the historic, Mediterranean Revival-style Selby House built by William and Marie Selby in the early 1920’s. Lacy Australian tree ferns now grow under the oak canopy, and Selby House now houses the Selby House Café that serves light food daily.
The Banyan Grove in front of Selby House was planted in 1937. These members of the fig family, native to Africa and tropical Asia that are widely cultivated in south Florida, are distinguished by their spreading aerial roots. A banyan begins its life as an epiphyte when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree. As mature trees, they develop aerial roots that strengthen into prop roots to support heavy limbs. A barred owl was nesting in the staghorn fern on one large tree when we were there.
Banyan trees are the centerpiece of the Children’s Rainforest Garden, a new interactive garden for children of all ages to promote conservation of the world’s dwindling rainforests. This elevated garden takes guests up towards the canopy to provide a unique perspective from within the trees. It includes a shaded deck and seating areas under the huge trees, a waterfall cascading down a rock face covered with plantings, a canopy walk and rope bridge, thatched roof huts housing the “Research Station” for exploratory learning, a multi-level climbing structure “Tree House” and more to engage children as they explore and play in the area.
Between the Epiphyte Garden and the Banyan Grove is the Koi Pond, which features tropical water-loving plants such as elephant’s ear, native bald cypress, spiral ginger, and angels trumpet. The tranquil pond has eight Japanese Koi fish. The Koi Pond is surrouned by tropical plants, including a huge angel trumpet tree, with its large, drooping flowers, and has a bench to enjoy the tranquil area.
Across the path from the pond is the Bamboo Garden, filled with a selection of species of these woody members of the grass family. The giant timber bamboo from China can grow to a height of 60 feet with stems more than 3” in diameter. Bamboos are extremely fast growing — some species can grow as much as four feet in a single day — and a few can reach their mature height in just two months. A dense grove formed by over a dozen different species of tropical clumping bamboos.
Beyond the Banyan Grove the specialized plantings become less concentrated around the perimeter of the extensive Schimmel Wedding Lawn that stretches from Selby House to the vine-covered Pavillion at far end of the property. The Hibiscus Garden, located on the winding path to the Gazebo, contains numerous tropical species and hybrids that flower throughout the year, in a range of colors from brown and lavender to the more familiar red, pink and yellow. The Gazebo, under a massive red silk cotton tree, was relocated to this spot several years ago prior to its intended demolition. A small Wildflower Garden located next to Hudson Bayou at the far end of the lawn sports primarily native Floridian plants, such as echinacea, goldenrod and beach sunflower.
The diverse species in the Succulent Garden are a sharp contrast to the lush vegetation in other parts of the Gardens. This small, but quality collection of succulent plants (those that store water in fleshy leaves, stems, or other structures) includes types from around the world.
At the far end of the lawn the stately Pavilion is a popular site for weddings.
The Baywalk takes visitors along the furthest reaches of the property, on the edge of Sarasota Bay. The skyline of the city is visible above the mangroves lining the water. Mangroves grow in flooded saltwater areas and are found in Florida from St. Augustine around the peninsula. These plants protect shorelines and provide habitat for birds and small marine animals. Red mangroves are distinguished by their dense tangle of arching prop roots. Black mangroves have black trunks and short, pencil-like root appendages called pneumatophores. The related buttonwoods that grow in the drier zone behind the mangroves have rough bark and button-like flowers and fruit, while the related sea grapes that border both the mangrove and dune areas have large, rounded leaves.
Along the trail opposite the water and west of Selby House is a small Palm Grove that includes date, fishtail, talipot, and triangle palms, as well as the native Florida cabbage palm and saw palmetto. Bromeliads are used as bedding plants under the trees in many places along this walkway. The path continues along past the Great Room and an area along the water planted with salt-tolerant species, eventually connecting with the Tidal Lagoon. Native plants surround a small lagoon that attracts wading birds, such as white heron, that hunt for aquatic creatures along the shore. This area is located behind the stately, colonial style Christy Payne Mansion, a neighboring residence built in the mid-1930s and acquired early in the Gardens’ development, which now houses the Selby Museum of Botany and the Arts.
The Bromeliad Garden displays a diversity of epiphytic and terrestrial members of the pineapple family. Crowned by a tiered fountain dripping with bromeliads, this garden displays a colorful diversity of epiphytic and terrestrial members of the pineapple family.
On one side of the Mansion is the Tropical Fruit Garden, with a variety of edible tropical plants including Malabar spinach from Ceylon, white Cuban sweet potato, a giant-leaf edible hibiscus from Asia, and black sapote, a fruit from Central America with a licorice-like taste. Pineapples, mangoes, papayas, bananas, coffee, sugar cane, and star fruit are among the many tropical fruits and vegetables grown here.
In front of the Mansion the Butterfly Garden is a semicircular area filled with caterpillar food and nectar-producing flowering plants for the adults. The colorful flowers in this cottage garden attract a wide range of butterflies. Various milkweeds are eaten by monarch butterfly caterpillars, but there are also lantana, cassias, passion vine and salvia plants as food for other types of caterpillars, including swallowtails, monarch, fritillaries, buckeyes and Florida’s zebra longwing butterfly.
The small Fragrance Garden which showcases plants used to create perfumes and flavor food is adjacent to the Carriage House where daily tea tasting is offered daily.
Behind the scenes, the Gardens undertakes serious scientific research into epiphytic plants and their canopy ecosystems. The Gardens’ Stark Botanical Research Center, which is not open to the public, is home to the Orchid Identification Center and the Mulford B. Foster Bromeliad Identification Center,
which together provide more than 800 plant identifications annually for institutions and individuals. Scientists and students from around the world utilize the Research Center’s herbarium, which contains over 85,000 dried plants and 24,000 plant specimens preserved in alcohol.
The Gardens are open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily (except Christmas), and several special events, such as plant sales, are held throughout the year. The Garden Shop adjacent to the Visitor Center sells colorful orchids, bromeliads and other plants and supplies.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
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