A Gardener's Travels:
The Marie Selby Botanical Garden

Shirley Lindsey
Adams County Master Gardener

When traveling, we gardeners do not always prize fine restaurants or first class seats to events, as much as the opportunity to see the loveliest local flora. Before visiting a new area, I always check the web for any public gardens.

On a February visit to southwest Florida, I was delighted to find the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota. The brochure promises 'a tropical oasis in downtown Sarasota,' and indeed it is. We found the gardens to be no disappointment. It is very easy to find. Interstate 75 goes down the west coast of Florida. There are signs all along the way from I-75 to the Garden.

This garden was given for the public's enjoyment by Marie Selby, who lived there and developed it with her husband. After her death in 1971 the gardens were opened to the public in 1975. The cost is a modest $11 for adults and $6 for children 6 to 11 years. The garden is open from 10 am to 5 pm every day except Christmas.

This garden of almost 13 acres, lies between the Hudson Bayou and Sarasota Bay. The coastline is well stabilized by red, white, and black mangrove trees growing out into the water. These trees provide ideal habitat for many species of birds as well as other wildlife. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the mangroves is to stabilize the coastline against erosion from the relentless force of hurricanes and the Gulf itself. Unfortunately Florida is losing much of this natural protection to development.

Walkways and blacktopped paths allow easy access to all parts of the garden for walking or wheelchairs. There is even a wooden walk taking you through the forest canopy.

A main attraction of this garden is the orchid display. They have many varieties growing in the open as well as a large orchid house, which displays a great many more. Of the 20,000 plants in the garden, there are 6,000 orchids. The sensuous lift given by these exotic and fragile flowers is incredible, especially in the middle of winter. These plants are collected from tropical forests all around the world. Not only do we see the dendrobiums and cattleyas, but also the unique pumpkin-scented epidendrum ilense from Ecuador and the fragrant vanilla orchid from central America. There are approximately 30,000 species of orchid, sixty percent of which are epiphytes. These are air-plants, which grow on other plants but are not parasites - they do not destroy the host plant.

Trees include the banyan, an unusual tropical tree originally from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This tree belongs to the fig genus and usually starts from seeds dropped in another tree. The banyan has the unusual characteristic of adventitious roots. The roots drop down and root in the ground. Eventually the host tree dies. The banyan at Marie Selby Garden is very large and these strange 'roots from above' are evident all around the perimeter of the tree. It was planted in 1939. The banyan at Lahaina's Courthouse Square on the Island of Maui is reported to be the largest, now covering almost two-thirds acre.

We were thrilled to see a brugmansia versicolor, or angel's trumpet. It was not the summer container plant that we grow in Pennsylvania, but a tree. It was exciting to stand under these huge trumpet-shaped blossoms, too numerous to count. And to enjoy the lovely peachy-yellow color of the blossoms. Of course our cameras were clicking with great regularity.

Another very unusual tree was the Bo tree or ficus religioso. Also called the sacred fig, there is a specimen of the bo tree at the end of the little peninsula which makes up this garden. The leaves of the bo tree are heart shaped. This is a very large tree. The Buddha is thought to have been sitting under a bo tree when he was 'awakened.' One can imagine the quote from the Buddha as he sat there: "Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it." Other religions also hold this tree in high regard. The tree at Marie Selby's has had an interesting life. In 2001 hurricane Gabrielle uprooted this tree. With a major effort from staff and volunteers, the tree was saved. A 50 ton crane was brought in and the tree was gently returned to its upright position, where it continues to flourish today. There is a pavilion nearby where many weddings are held

Featured in the garden is a pavilion of Oldham bamboo, a koi pond, and a succulent garden. Banana trees in full production were an awesome sight. Other notable plants include the vast array of ferns, from the bold staghorn to the finest and most delicate of ferns. We passed through a beautiful butterfly garden. At this, the coolest time of year for the Sarasota area, there was little activity. However, the butterfly friendly flowers were flourishing, and I am sure the butterflies would be in evidence on warmer days. Cycads are found growing throughout the garden. These are fascinating tropical plants that are not ferns or palms, but are evergreen plants with similarities to both. They often produce cones and have beautiful compound leaves.

If you love trees and flowers and happen to be traveling to Florida's west coast, I recommend the Marie Selby Botanical Garden at Sarasota.

Read other articles by Shirley Lindsey