New Zealand – The Fernery Nation

“A fernery”…. Doesn’t that sound enchanting? For me it conjures up damp air, the cool fragrance of earth and decomposition on a forest floor, lacy texture, dancing shadows, and a thousand shades of green. But as a word defining an actual place, I hadn’t run into ‘fernery’ until arriving at our first of three actual ferneries in New Zealand during our American Horticultural Society garden tour this January.  As a country with a warm subtropical climate at the top of the North Island and cool temperate rainforests in the extreme southwest of the South Island — and everything in between – and with 15,000 kilometres (9,300 miles) of humid coastline, it’s an ideal environment for ferns of all kinds, but especially the native tree ferns for which it is well known, like the one below growing with kauri trees at Bay of Islands.

Tree fern-Puketi forest-Bay of Islands

Before I begin, here is a little chart I made to try to remember the differences among New Zealand’s relatively small number of native tree ferns from the genera Cyathea and Dicksonia. (Which is a little like someone from New Zealand trying to understand the differences among Canada’s goldenrods…..) The most important things to remember are: Cyathea are scaly, Dicksonia are hairy. The three most common are mamaku or black tree fern (C. medullaris), ponga or silver fern (C. dealbata) and whekī or rough tree fern (D. squarrosa).  I think I photographed all of them, apart from C. cunninghamii.

New Zealand tree fern chart-Janet Davis

So, from the beginning of our tour, it was here at Domain Auckland, off to the left of the reflecting pool, below, in the Wintergardens complex…..


….. under the lichen-encrusted beams of the open-air Fernz Fernery, that I saw my very first king ferns (Ptisana salicina, formerly Marratia).  In New Zealand, where all the plants still bear their traditional Māori names, king fern is ‘para’; its starchy rootstock was used by the Māori as food. It is the country’s largest herbaceous fern; in perfect conditions its fronds can reach 5 metres (16 feet).

King fern-Ptisana salicina-Fernz Fernery-Auckland Domain

Built in 1929 as an unemployment work project, the fernery occupies an old scoria quarry carved from the flank of the extinct cone volcano Pukekawa (the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which we also visited, sits directly atop the crater’s tuff ring). During the Second World War, the fernery began to be neglected; specimens were stolen, common local ferns and weeds invaded, and the place was vandalized and used for parties. By 1992, the 1930s collection of some 80 native species from all over New Zealand had diminished to just fourteen. Two years later, the fernery was restored and its specimens – including whekī-ponga (Dicksonia fibrosa) with its persistent skirt of old fronds, below – were restocked.  My regret is that the sun was shining brightly on a record-heat Auckland afternoon, creating difficult light for photography. It would have been wonderful to return to this lovely spot in the cool of morning.

Fernz Fernery-Auckland-Domain

Over the next several days, we visited scores of private gardens, including Mincher, the Auckland area garden of Bruce and Angela Spooner, where we had our first delightful outdoor dinner. Here I caught Bruce showing the whitish back of a silver fern (Cyathea dealbata) – New Zealand’s national emblem – to one of our tour group. The root of the Latin epithet dealbata (whitened) is, of course, “alba” for white, referring to the silvery-white backs (abaxial surface) of the silver fern’s fronds.

Silver fern-Cyathea dealbata-underside-Mincher Garden

On our bush walk behind their manicured gardens, I saw my first black tree fern or ‘mamaku’ (Cyathea medullaris) with its dark stipes.

Cyathea-medullaris-black tree fern

In the Bay of Islands on the northeast coast of the north island, we visited the Puketi Kauri Rainforest near the seashore town of Paihia, Though I’ll expand on that in an upcoming blog on Māori culture, below is a taste of this spectacular ancient forest laced with tree ferns and towering kauri trees (Agathis australis) via the Manginangina Kauri Walk.  (Also the scene of the first photo in this blog).

Kauri & tree fern- Puketi Forest-Bay of Islands-Manginangina Walk

That evening, we visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds for a cultural show and dinner and I was fascinated by the use of a tree fern frond in this enactment of a traditional Māori pōwhiri or welcome. Here, one of the performers becomes the warrior issuing the wero or challenge to the visitor. By placing the fern frond on the diagonal, he offers a provisional welcome.

We would see scores of tree ferns in the private gardens we visited over the next few weeks, but through luck and very fast walking, a few of us also managed to visit a second proper fernery during a shopping stop in the city of Whangārei (pronounced Fangaray as the Māori “wh” is pronounced “f”) on the drive from the Bay of Islands back to Auckland.  What a treat to spend a few minutes wandering through the Marge Maddren Fernery at Botanica Whangārei, below.

Marge Maddren Fernery1-Botanica-Whangerai

Built in 1987, it honours local conservationist Marjorie Maddren, who was on hand to help with construction.  She was the founder of the Whangarei Native Forest and Bird Protection society, which donated the funds and volunteer hours to build this enchanting place.

Marge Maddren Fernery3-Botanica-Whangerai

Within its three connected shade houses, there was even a little mossy pond or two.

Marge Maddren Fernery2-Botanica-Whangerai

I had never heard the term “filmy fern”, but there was a purpose-built adobe brick house containing these ferns, which are native to tropical or temperate rainforests and require constant moisture; many enjoy proximity to waterfalls.

Marge Maddren Fernery4-Filmy Ferns-Botanica-Whan

Below is the filmy fern Hymenophyllum demissum, which reminded me a little of damp, weeping parsley.

Hymenophyllum demissum-Filmy fern

After flying to Queenstown on the South Island and exploring the city and area for a few days (more on that in a later blog), we headed towards Fiordland National Park to explore Doubtful Sound. After a boat ride over Lake Manipouri, we got on a bus to take us through Wilmot Pass in Fiordland, where I photographed the prickly shield fern (Polystichum vestitum)….

Polystichum vestitum-Wilmot Pass-Fiordland

….. and what I believe are crown ferns (Blechnum discolor), on our way to the boat dock in Doubtful Sound’s Deep Cove.

Blechnum discolor-Crown fern-Wilmot Pass

But it was in the spectacular reaches of Doubtful Sound itself (blog coming later), which we navigated on a memorable overnight voyage to the Tasman Sea and back, where tree ferns formed an essential component of the jutting peaks and hanging valleys of this beautiful fiord.

Fiordland Navigator-Doubtful Sound

Below are what I believe to be soft tree ferns or kātote (Cyathea smithii) growing beneath southern rātā trees (Metrosideros umbellata) with reddish flowers.

Cyathea smithii-Katote-Southern rātā-Metrosideros umbellata-Doubtful Sound

And here they are beside one of Fiordland’s countless waterfalls.  You can clearly see the persistent rachises or frond stalks of C. smithii, one of the identifying features of that species (along with their notation on Fiordland botanical lists.)

Cyathea smithii-katote-soft tree fern-Doubtful Sound-waterfall

After leaving Fiordland, we spent a few days touring in Dunedin before heading towards Mount Cook. At a shopping stop in the little town of Oamaru, some of us hurried to the Oamaru Public Garden where we discovered lovely gardens with tree ferns……

Oamaru Public Gardens-Tree ferns in garden

…. and another charming native fernery, among many other fine gardens. However, I think this structure must be a replacement for the one celebrated in a 1917 issue of the Oamaru Mail newspaper, of which it was written: “The fernery at the Gardens is now nearing its full beauty, and those who visit its cool emerald recesses will acclaim the originators of its inception who succeeded in having set apart for its erection part of the proceeds of two Garden Fetes.”

Fernery-Oamaru Public Garden

Christchurch became our base for visits to three spectacular Akaroa gardens, which I’ll write about in time. But the first, Ohinetahi, belonging to esteemed architect Sir Miles Warren featured a small wild garden with beautiful tree ferns.  Suspended over a creek was Heart of Oak, a stunning piece of sculpture from Virginia King, who also contributed to Connells Bay Sculpture Park in my last blog).

Ohinetahi-Virginia King-Heart of Oak

There were also ferns in this sphere by renowned New Zealand artist Neil Dawson.

Ohinetahi-sphere-artist Neil Dawson

We finished our tour in Wellington, where we visited what was my favourite New Zealand public garden, Otari-Wilton’s Bush & Native Botanic Garden. Here, within a vast expanse of native New Zealand plants, was the most ambitious native fernery, an outdoor collection planted in the 1970s.

Fernery sign-Otari-Wilton's Bush

I could easily have spent all day here….


…… finding new ferns like the lovely common maidenhair Adiantum cunninghamii……

Adiantum cunninghamii-Common maidenhair fern-Otari-Wilton's Bush

…… and spotting little vignettes like this, of epiphytic ferns and climbing maidenhair vine (Muelenbeckia complexa) – I think – colonizing a tree fern trunk.

Epiphytes on tree fern-Otari-Wilton's Bush

The scene below took me a while to identify, but it’s a lovely example of a plant community in the New Zealand bush.  The fern is a sub-canopy climber Blechnum filiforme, and the photo shows both its string-like juvenile form and its adult form.  The little orange flower is New Zealand gloxinia or taurepo (Rhabdothamnus solandri), a smallish shrub to 2 m (6 ft) and the country’s only gesneriad. Like several other native plants, it was named for Daniel Solander, the 18th century Swedish explorer who, along with Joseph Banks, sailed on Captain James Cook’s first voyage in 1769.

Otari-New Zealand-Gloxinia & Blechnum filiforme

Unfurling croziers like the one below on the wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa) at Otari-Wilton’s Bush are called ‘koru’ in Māori. The koru is a symbol of creation, according to Te Ara, the New Zealand encyclopedia, which “conveys the idea of perpetual movement, and its inward coil suggests a return to the point of origin. The koru therefore symbolises the way in which life both changes and stays the same.”

Koru-Dicksonia squarrosa-wheki

We saw the koru shape in the Kowhaiwhai motifs on the rafters of the Māori ‘marae’ or meeting house we visited in Bay of Islands…..

Koru motif-Maori-marae-Bay of Islands

…. and even in tattoos of some of the Māori performers at Waitangi.


Perhaps the most spectacular feature at Otari-Wilton’s Bush is the elevated boardwalk that lets visitors walk above the forest floor where silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata) spread their lacy fronds amidst native trees and understory shrubs.

Otari-Wilton's Bush-Silver fern from boardwalk-Cyathea dealbata

It’s not surprising that this fern with its silvery reverse that saw it used by the Māori as a trail marker, even at night,……

Cyathea dealbata-underside-abaxial surface-silver

….. this fern with perfect symmetry, large fronds held horizontally and soft feathery pinnae…..

Silver fern-Cyathea dealbata

….. should have become New Zealand’s national emblem. I saw it emblazoned on airplanes  …..

Air New Zealand-Silver Fern motif

……and glass dividers…..

Air New Zealand Flight Status-Silver fern motif





























…… and on the uniforms of employees of Air New Zealand. (I asked my cheerful flight attendant to model for me on the way back to Los Angeles).

Air New Zealand-uniform-Silver Fern motif

There were needlepoint silver ferns on the ‘city chairs’ at Government House in Wellington….

Chair-Silver Fern motif-Government-House-Wellington

…… and on the sign for the fabulous Te Papa Museum in that city……

Te Papa Museum-Wellington-Silver Fern motif on sign

…… where, inside, a stylized tree fern was part of the natural history display,

Te-Papa-Tree Fern Display

And, of course, the famous New Zealand All Blacks rugby team sports a dramatic silver fern on its black jerseys.

All Blacks-Silver Fern logo

It wasn’t just architecture and design where I was seeing tree ferns, though. I started to see their shadows on the road……

Tree fern shadows-Omaio

……. and their reflections under paddling ducks.  I had clearly fallen in love with tree ferns.

Duck on Tree Fern reflection

For me, it’s profound that a single plant so captivates a nation – its founding people and those who came hundreds of years later – that it becomes an iconic symbol of ‘place’. After all, I live in a country that discarded its colonial Red Ensign flag after a lengthy debate and adopted a stylized maple leaf for its flag in 1965. Now the maple leaf is featured not just on our flag but on corporate logos and sport uniforms, such as Air Canada and the Olympic men’s hockey team below.

Canada-Maple leaf motif

There has also been debate in New Zealand of replacing its current flag, the Blue Ensign and Southern Cross, with a design incorporating the silver fern. But a 2016 referendum defeated that motion by 57% to 43%. A shame, I think.  It would have made such a lovely ending to this blog…….

Silver Fern-Flag candidate-New Zealand-Kyle Lockwood design

Connells Bay Sculpture Park – Waiheke

Our third New Zealand touring day began at the Auckland waterfront where we boarded a passenger ferry for the 40-minute ride through the Hauraki Gulf to Waiheke Island.

Auckland Ferry Harbour

From the upper deck…..


…. the view of sailboats and little islands was a treat.


After docking in Waiheke’s small harbour, we drove to Cable Bay Vineyards (one of 30 boutique vineyards on the island) for a wine tasting and lunch.

Cable Bay Vineyard

Then we drove around the island, with its spectacular ocean views……

Waiheke Island

…. and pristine beaches (25 kilometres of them)….


….that seemed surprisingly empty in midsummer.

Sunbathers on beach-Waiheke

When we arrived at our garden destination, Connells Bay Sculpture Park, we were met by owners John and Jo Gow. For two decades, John was a principal investor in theatrical blockbusters such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables. The Gows are also ardent supporters of the arts in New Zealand. After buying the rolling, 60-acre property in 1993, they naturalized the former paddock by planting thousands of native trees and plants before turning it into a contemporary outdoor art gallery filled with site-specific works by some of New Zealand’s leading artists.

John and Jo Gow-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Pointing to Rotoroa Island a short distance across the water from their own property, below, John related how for almost a hundred years the 200-acre Island was the site of a men’s addiction treatment centre run by the Salvation Army. When the centre closed in 2005, he and a philanthropic friend negotiated a 99-year lease with the “Sallies”, as he affectionately calls them, to set up a trust to turn Rotaroa into a conservation park while preserving it from development and providing ongoing benefit to the Salvation Army. As well as opening a visitors’ centre, they have launched an ambitious native plant re-vegetation project.

Connells Bay & Rotaroa-Waiheke

But we were there to see the sculptures, and John and Jo and one of their employees loaded us into vehicles to take turns transporting us down the steep driveway. With New Zealand being such a hilly country, especially near its coastline, most of the seaside gardens we would visit over the next few weeks shared this steep entrance.

John Gow-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

We began in the Gowshed, their small visitors’ centre, where Jo Gow toured us past maquettes of some of the works we would see on the property. This one is titled Tenantennae, a model of Phil Dadson’s massive sound sculpture.

Jo Gow-Tenantennae-Phil Dadson-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Below is the maquette and audio-visual presentation for Vanish, Gregor Kregar’s ambitious work (which is shown on site in the video I’ve added, below).  On screen, we see the artist making one of the 160 glazed stoneware figures, left, each a mirror image of himself. In 16 sets of ten, each set painted with a different colour, they range from 140 cm (4-7 inches) to 30 cm (1 foot) and their diminishing height on the site is a great illustration of forced perspective in sculpture.  As well, the arrangement of the colours creates an almost Escher-like optical illusion, and depends on the visitor’s viewing point.

Vanish-maquette-Gregor Kregar-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Before starting our walking tour, I excused myself to find the washroom. As I entered, I had a little shock — but it was merely Mangu (“black” in Māori), Michael Parekowhai’s artful security guard, keeping an eye on things. Patterned on the artist’s brother, the figure has been a familiar component in many of his works and is described by his gallery as a “stereotype of the Māori male (who) can be linked to after-dark bars, clubs and large events that need crowd control. In the gallery context this work suggests that Pakaka has the power to deny or offer protection… but against what and whom?”

Mangu-Michael Parekowhai-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Continuing outdoors, we listened to John speak about Keelstone, a magnificent ‘gateway’ crafted from Brazilian azul marble and white Carrera marble by Denis O’Connor.

Keelstone-Denis O'Connor-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Opening onto a path of native nīkau palms (Rhopalostylis sapida) and into the valley where the other artworks begin, the materials are a nod to the horizontal banding of sand and sea, while honouring the 19th-century marine history of Waiheke, when the island’s ancient kauri trees were being felled as masts for schooners. Inscribed onto the threshold is a poem titled The Ballad of Connells Bay:

The serif is to an alphabet
what language is to a landscape
A keel is to a boat
what a valley is to a hillside
The open sea is to the shore
what surrender is to a gateway

We passed Phil Price’s kinetic sculpture The Dancer, which celebrates John Gow’s connection with musical theatre.  In springtime, daffodils grow here.

The Dancer-Phil Price-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Cathryn Monro’s Rise in concrete and bronze gives both the illusion of cliffside waterfalls from Ancient Mayan ruins…..

Rise-Cathryn Monro-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

….and drainage of the beautiful pond just beyond ‘the rise’.

Pond-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

John explained the meaning of the bronze sculpture Between Two Islands by Paul Dibble – the islands being European and Māori culture.

Between Two Islands-Paul Dibble-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

I loved Virginia King’s Oioi Bridge, meant to echo in its form and subtle stripes and sound the banded stems of native aquatic jointed wire rush (Apodasmia similis).

Oioi bridge-Virginia King-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

We stood for a while beside the monumental Vanish, comparing Gregor Esgar’s finished sculpture…..

Vanish-Gregor Kregar-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

….. to the presentation inside the Gowshed earlier.

Vanish2-Grego Kregar-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Tomo, by Peter Nicholls, below, is a sinuous ribbon of red in a manuka grove that honours four farming families who owned the Gows’ property (and whose names are inscribed in the sculpture). Hugging the slope, it also references the meaning of the Māori word ‘tomo’: a shaft in limestone or volcanic rock formed by the action of flowing water.

Tomo-Peter Nicholls-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Neil Dawson’s towering Other People’s Houses references the jumbled 19th-century cottages on Connells Bay, but also asks why we complain about ‘other people’ marring the landscape, yet neglect our own impact on it.

Other People's Houses-Neil Dawson-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Crossed Wires (2016) is by artist Sharonagh Montrose & composer Helen Bowater. According to the composer’s website, it “features a set of wooden structures (resembling the tops of buried telephone poles, suggesting string instrument bridges) with white wires running across them, from which sound emanates.”  You can hear a little of that – and the wind of Connells Bay – in my video below.

Crossed Wires-Montrose & Bowater-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

My favourite sculpture was the majestic Guardian of the Planting by Fatu Feu’u. Carved from a lightning-burned macrocarpa stump (Monterey cypress – Cupressus macrocarpa) and rooted, literally, on the property, it features two faces, one from Greek mythology, one from Māori culture.  I loved that this hulking remnant of a California native – criticially endangered on the Monterey peninsula where it’s endemic, but an opportunistic invasive in New Zealand – will eventually biodegrade into the native tree ferns that surround it.

Guardian of the Planting-Fatu Feu'u-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

With a nod to Waiheke’s grape-growing and wine-making industry, Chris Booth’s Kinetic Fungi Tower (2016) is sculpted from 16 cubic metres of grapevine trimmings and took three weeks and six volunteers helping the artist to assemble. Long after the Gows are gone – some 70 years from now, according to the artist – it will have decomposed into the property that surrounds it so picturesquely today.

Kinetic Fungi Tower-Chris Booth-Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Back at the Gowshed, we gathered around to thank the Gows and say farewell, our words pierced by the sharp electronic beeps of a cellphone tower disguised as a Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) tree in Dane Mitchell’s temporary installation Stealth Transmission Tower (2017,aka Hiding in Plain Sight), which you can hear at the end of my video. The sound seemed appropriately discordant in this beautiful place, as is the nod to a highly invasive North American “tree”, which is a species that the Gows – and New Zealand itself – are attempting to eradicate, both here on the property and throughout the country. The layered meaning fits perfectly with our ecological focus on parts of this garden tour, and is a suitable finale to our visit to the outdoor gallery of these lovers of art…. and nature.

Totara Waters – A Tropical Treat to Launch our New Zealand Tour

It was the first touring day of our 3-week garden tour of New Zealand with the American Horticultural Society and our Kiwi-born guide (and Pennsylvania-based landscape architect) Richard Lyon of Garden Adventures, Ltd.  We headed away from Auckland on the north island, stop #1 on the itinerary map below…

Garden Touring Map-New Zealand

… leaving its beautiful skyline behind us.

Auckland Skyline

Before long, we arrived at Totara Waters, Peter and Jocelyn Coyle’s specialist bromeliad nursery and subtropical garden in Auckland’s Whenuapai suburb.  If you can imagine a garden as the love-child of Roberto Burle Marx’s tropical tapestries and the spiky succulents of the American southwest, this one might be it. On a lush hillside overlooking a sound within Waitematā Harbour, we were met with beds of bromeliads under palm trees.

Bromeliad bed-Totara Waters

Peter and Jocelyn related the history of their garden, begun in 1999.

Jocelyn and Peter Coyle-Totara Waters

There were collections of cycads around the house, some adorned with the Coyles’ vintage planters and chimney pots.

Containers and cycads-Totara Waters

I loved photographing the cones of cycads, including this male cone of the sago palm cycad (C. revoluta).

Cycas revoluta-Sago palm-male cone

And as a honey bee photographer, I was fascinated to see them avidly harvesting pollen from that cycad’s cone.

Honey bees-Cycas revoluta-cycad-pollen-male cone

Near the house was Dasylirion acrotrichum or green sotol.

Dasylirion acrotrichum-Green sotol

On the hillside overlooking the water was an impressive collection of succulents.

Succulents-Totara Waters

It’s always lovely to see a well-grown spiral aloe (A. polyphylla)….

Aloe polyphylla-spiral aloe

….and a perfect agave…..

Agave-Totara Waters

…. including agaves in flower as well.

Agaves-Totara Waters

What a stunning Aloe bainesii.

Aloe bainesii-Totara Waters

At the bottom of the two-acre garden, there was an unusual water feature: the rusted hulk of a decommissioned navy ship, the Hawera.  The Hoyles added their own rusty art to echo the wreck.

Rusting Hawera & iron garden sculpture-Totara Waters

A small nursery onsite attracts bromeliad-lovers…..

Bromeliad nursery-Totara Waters

…. and also provides an outlet for Totara’s named introductions, like Neoreglia ‘Totara War Paint’, below.

Neoregelia 'Totara War Paint'-Totara Waters

Bromeliads, of course, featured large at Totara Waters, including a stunning Alcantarea imperialis in flower near the garden’s parrot cage…..

Alcantarea imperialis flower

….and a beautiful Vriesea splendens.

Vriesea splendens

There was a good collection of bonsai plants…..

Bonsai-Totara Waters

….carnivorous plants….

Carnivorous plants-Totara Waters

…and what is said to be the largest staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) in all New Zealand.

Platycerium bifurcatum-elkhorn fern-Totara Waters

In the garage driveway was a restored Chevy truck, appropriate for Peter Coyle, who made his career as a ‘panel beater’, which is Kiwi slang for a collision repair specialist.

Totara Waters-truck

It was a delight to be there; then we were in the bus and heading inland to another beautiful garden and our first communal New Zealand dinner.

Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

My last blog of the year is a botanical taste of early winter in a warm climate, specifically the climate of southwest Florida.  Come with me on a tour of the beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (MSBG) on Sarasota Bay, a garden I’ve been privileged to visit in December twice in the past few years. Ready? Let’s start on the Flower Walk outside the garden. That’s right, “outside the garden”. In the spirit of generosity and community-mindedness, there are beautiful plants and great design ideas everywhere on South Palm Avenue, including the parking lot exits – like this firespike (Odontonema sp.)….

Flower Walk-Odontonema-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….and a brilliant Aechmea representing Selby’s deep collection of bromeliads…..

FlowerWalk-Aechmea-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….and on the fence ouside the garden are a spectacular garlic vine (Cydista aequinoctialis)……..

Flower Walk-Cydista aequinoctialis-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….which deserves its own closeup….

Flower Walk-Cydista aequinoctialis (2)-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

…. and luscious chalice vine (Solandra longiflora)…..

Flower Walk-Chalice Vine-Solandra longiflora-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….and butterfly vine (Stigmaphyllon ciliatum) with a visiting hover fly.

Flower Walk-Stigmaphyllon ciliatum-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

I’m surprised on the flower walk to see so many honey bees nectaring on blossoms, including these ones on Bulbine frutescens, left, and nectar-robbing on Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), right.

Flower walk-Honey bees-Bulbine frutescens & Tecomaria capensis

But later, when I return to my car, I spot the feral beehive up in a live oak tree. Though it shows signs of having been plugged in the past, the clever bees have clearly overcome that obstacle.

Live oak-Feral beehive-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Marie Selby’s entrance is overhung by these native live oaks (Quercus virginiana) draped with epiphytic Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) – which is not a moss, but a flowering plant, a bromeliad. This familiar relationship of tree and epiphytic bromeliad is also emblematic of the botanical garden’s mandate to conserve, collect and display epiphytic plants, not just from Florida, but throughout the tropics.

Entrance-Live Oak-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The courtyard outside the entrance, with its traveller’s palms and little fountains, offers a lovely spot to rest – and a true enticement to enter.  For it’s on the wall near the entrance where a display of plants hints at the garden’s origins.

Entrance courtyard-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

All the plants mounted on the wall, below are epiphytes or “air plants”, for which the garden has enjoyed worldwide renown for more than 40 years.

Epiphyte Display-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

It isn’t long before visitors discover a little about Marie Selby (1885-1971), the Sarasota garden club member and widow of oilman Bill Selby (Selby Oil & Gas) who, through the family foundation, deeded her home and grounds as well as adjacent properties bounded by Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou to create a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.”  The dilemma for those charged with determining a theme for the garden back in the early 1970s was what kind of garden it should be. Fortunately, they were advised to specialize in a class of plants that no other public garden had focused on: epiphytes from the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Also known as “air plants” these species — mostly orchids, bromeliads and ferns — grow on a host, usually a tree, but occasionally a wall or fence or rooftop which affords them support and more sunlight than would be available to them at ground level in the rainforest.

Marie Selby Botanical Garden-Epiphyte Mandate

The part of the garden that hosts the lion’s share of epiphytes is just a stone’s throw from the entrance: the Tropical Conservatory. Here, visitors are treated to rarities collected by MSBG’s botanists since the garden’s inception.  Let’s go past the serene Buddha…..

Buddha-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

and take a stroll inside.

Tropical Conservatory-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

There is so much to see here, all to the soundtrack of jungle birds and dripping water. Below is the pendulous orchid Coelogyne rochussennii from Singapore and other parts of southeast Asia.


Orchids and bromeliads are put on display as they come into bloom, then moved into the garden’s greenhouses to rest. Below is Miltassia Shelob ‘Tolkien’.

Conservatory-Miltassia Shelob 'Tolkien'-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

There are rare carnivorous plants, like Nepenthes truncata, below….

Conservatory-Nepenthes truncata-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

…and more ordinary plants, like Cryptanthus ‘Pink Star’, below.

Conservatory-Cryptanthus 'Pink Star'-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

I loved this “São Paulo air plant”, Tillandsia araujei, named for the Arauje River in Brazil.

Tropical Conservatory-Tillandsia araujei-São Paulo Air plant-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the jewels of the conservatory is by taking a virtual tour via my little musical video, below.

Ready to head outside? Let’s go through the little bonsai exhibit.

Bonsai Garden-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

MSBG isn’t just about conserving and displaying epiphytes; there are several other groups of plants represented in strong collections here, such as cycads from all over the world. Apart from Florida’s common, native coontie (Zamia floridana), there are rare cycads like this endangered Microcycas calocoma from a small area in west Cuba…

Cycads-Microcycas calocoma-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

…..and a young Lepidozamia peroffskyana from eastern Australia. In time, this cycad will reach a height of 12 feet (4 metres) or more.

Cycads-Lepidozamia peroffskyana-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

If you have questions about plants in the garden, there are strategically-placed, knowledgeable volunteers to help answer them.

Volunteer-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The Fern Garden is a cool, shady oasis on a warm December day.

Fern garden-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

It contains majestic ferns, like Cyathea cooperi from New Zealand, above, and ferns that don’t really look like ferns, such as Doryopteris ludens from peninsular Malaysia.

Fern Garden-Doryopteris ludens-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

In the shadows of the fernery is bridal veil (Clerodendrum wallichii) from India.

Fern Garden-Clerodendrum wallichii-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

Moving clockwise through the garden, we come to the Bamboo Pavilion with its impressive, towering giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus), at right below – planted by Marie Selby herself.

Bamboo Pavilion-Dendrocalamus giganteus-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

Many other bamboos grow here, like the still uncommon Chinese Bambusa emeiensis ‘Flavidorivens”.

Bamboo Pavilion-Bambusa emeiensis 'Flavidorivens'-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

In December, the Koi Pond with its waterfall is decorated for the holidays.Overhanging the pool are trees draped with epiphytes.

Koi Pond-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

If you want to grab a snack before touring the rest of the garden, it’s a good time to visit the nearby Selby House Cafe. I love the decor, which features photos of the Selby Collection and antique botanical prints of rare orchids.

Selby House Cafe-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden aims to educate as it entertains young visitors.

Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforest Garden-Marie Selby BG

The Children’s Garden forms part of the Banyan Grove. Here kids are literally up in the treetops learning about the rainforest….

Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforest Garden

….playing on wonderful structures….

Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforests Garden-Play Structure-Marie Selby BG

….and being occupied with fun activities related to the environment.

Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforest Garden-Stamps-Marie Selby BG

If you visit in December, the Great Lawn will likely be dressed up for the Christmas Lights show with Florida reindeer (this year it’s December 21-30 from 6-9 pm).

Florida reindeer-Marie Selby Boatanical Gardens

The Cactus and Succulent Garden is not terribly big….

Cacti & Succulent Garden-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….but it features a few interesting Florida species, like Consolea corallicola.

Cacti & Succulent Garden-Consolea corallicola-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

As you walk south on the pathway through the garden towards Sarasota Bay, you can see the Hudson Bayou off to your left.

Hudson Bayou-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

When I was at MSBG three years ago, I photographed a large, native gumbo-limbo tree (Bursera simaruba).

Bursera simaruba-Gumbo limbo-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Sadly, for the tree, but luckily, for Marie Selby, it was the only casualty of Hurricane Irma this September.

Bursera simaruba-Hurricane Irma-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

The Steinwachs Famiy Mangrove Walkway brings visitors close to what makes Marie Selby Botanical Gardens so special: its location overlooking Sarasota Bay. That bridge is the John Ringling Causeway, named for Sarasota resident and Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus founder John Ringling (John and his wife Mable were as wealthy as their contemporaries, the Selbys) and it connects Sarasotans to the barrier islands St. Armand’s Key (with its high end shops) and Lido Key.

Mangrove Walk-Sarasota Bay & John Ringling Causeway-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

From the boardwalk, visitors walk through the natural mangrove swamps that form a vital ecosystem at Selby and along coastal areas in Florida. This is red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), with its distinctive prop roots; it is one of three species native to the area. Sadly, in many parts of Florida, mangrove swamps have been removed to make way for resorts.

Steinwachs Mangrove Walkway-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Walking under the Florida strangler fig (Ficus aurea) near the mangroves, we can look up and see spectacular, epiphytic birds nest ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum).

Platycerius bifurcatus-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The Palm Garden (Arecaceae) features another of Marie Selby BG’s deep collections….

Palms-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

…with palms from many parts of the world, but especially Florida palms like Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, which is native to the tip of Florida and the Everglades.

Palms-Acoelorrhaphe wrightii-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

For the most part, the garden’s collections are well labelled, and the warmth of the labels often attracts brown anoles (Anolis sagrei); this one lost its tail in a fight.  Cherry palm is in the MSBG’s Coastal Palm collection.

Palms-Anolis sagrei-no tail-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

As you continue along the path, you find many native plant in the next part of the garden, appropriately called Native Florida, including the lignum-vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) tree. Though I photographed the colourful fruit, its wood (lignum-vitae means wood of life) is considered the most dense of any species, and its hardness made it ideal historically for mortars-and-pestles and clock bearings.

Guaiacum sanctum-Lignum vitae-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Heading northwest, we come to the native shore plants along Sarasota Bay. Here we find shell mound or erect pricklypear (Opuntia stricta), which gets its name from its propensity to grow atop shell-laden dunes of coastal areas in the southeast U.S.

Coastal Natives-Opuntia stricta-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Planting saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) was a vital part of the 1997 shoreline restoration that occurred after MSBG acquired the Payne mansion, with its turfgrass lawn and exotic palm trees.  The idea is that the cordgrass gradually traps debris and silt, forming hummocks that become land that supports the spread of the cordgrass and shore outwards.

Spartina alterniflora-Saltmarsh cordgrass-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The Tidal Lagoon at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is where the salty Atlantic ocean interacts with the shore.

Tidal Lagoon Sign-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Amongst the natives here is gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).

Muhlenbergia capillaris-Gulf muhly-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The brackish water of the lagoon has yielded a surprising colony of dotleaf waterlily (Nymphaea ampla), whose native territory seems to have migrated from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Tidal lagoon-Nymphaea ampla-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Here is an individual blossom.  If I magnify this, I can just see the black spots on the sepals that gives this species its common name.

Tidal Lagoon-Nymphaea ampla-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

Nearby is a representative sample of “Florida subtropical hardwood hammock”. For ecologically-minded visitors, this section and the adjacent lagoon will be the most interesting part of MSBG, for they represent the natural ecosystem of wild Florida, at a time when it was still untouched by rampaging land-clearing, agriculture and urban development of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Florida Hammock-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Circling back towards the entrance, we come to the Christy Payne Mansion, featuring the Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition Series. Though the guide tells me I’ve just missed a wonderful autumn orchid show, I’m delighted to see the display in the little gallery…..

Payne Mansion-Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition Series-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

……for it contains a few vials from MCBG’s large spirit collection, the second largest in the world after Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London. Here are orchids looking eerily beautiful in a window.

Spirit Collection-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

And as I’ve just finished reading Andrew Wulf’s fabulous biography The Invention of Nature – Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, I’m excited to see on the gallery wall an antique print of his Naturgemälde, the painting he made of volcanic Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, which he climbed in 1802 and whose vegetation he mapped according to elevation. He was the first to understand the topographic and geographic nature of plant communities, and his books were the basis of our understanding of ecology.

Alexander von Humboldt-Mount Chimborazo

Bromeliads, of course, are a huge focus at MSBG….

Bromeliad Garden-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

…..and this ‘plant fountain’ filled with them is enchanting.

Fountain & Bromeliads-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The big leaves of this neoregelia are a favourite haunt for the anoles….

Bromeliads-Anolis sagrei-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….as are the bright-coloured flowers. This anole seems camouflaged in the aechmea.

Aechmea & Anolis sagrei-red-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

This is Portea alatisepala ‘Wally Berg’, named for the Sarasota collector who was renowned for passion for collecting bromeliads.

Bromeliads-Portea alatisepala 'Wally Berg'-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

This is Billbergia amoena.

Bromeliads-Billbergia amoena-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

We’ll take a fast run through the flower-filled Butterfly Garden…..

Butterfly Garden-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

….. where a monarch rests on native dayflower (Commelina erecta).

Monarch-Commelina erecta-Butterfly garden-Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

And, finally, the Tropical Fruit Garden gives Sarasotans creative ideas about which fruit trees and vines they can grow outdoors.  Here are just a few of the fruits & plant parts I photographed.


#1 is banana; #2 is kumquat; #3 is starfruit; #4 is coffee; #5 is loquat; #6 is sugar cane; and #7 is ‘Purple Possum’ passion fruit.

My last stop on the way back to the parking lot is to knock on the door of the botanist’s office to say hello to my Facebook friend, MSBG botanist and ecologist Shawn McCourt. Originally from Northern Ireland, he is fortunate to be working at the garden as it launches a 10-year, $67-million upgrade that will move plants out of the flood zone, reorganize the 15-acre garden for better flow, transform the sprawling parking lot into green technology buildings and a 5-story parking garage featuring a living wall.

Shawn McCourt & Janet Davis-Marie Selby Botanical Garden

It is an exciting prospect for this wonderful tropical garden, and I hope to return some winter soon to see how things are proceeding!  In the meantime, may your Christmas be a merry one, and your new year filled with all things green!


If you want to read more of my blogs on tropical and sub-tropical gardens, you might want to take a look at Lotusland in Montecito,California, Seaside Gardens in Carpinteria, CA and some wonderful gardens in South Africa: renowned Kirstenbosch, Durban Botanic Garden, lush Makaranga, the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, and fabulous Babylonstoren.

A Plant-Lover’s Delight: The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

Way back in mid-June, before the annual Bloggers’ Fling (with its wonderful garden tours) had begun in the DC region, my husband and I toured Washington’s beautiful Dumbarton Oaks as well as the National Mall, before driving south to see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville VA.  The National Mall on a steamingly hot Sunday was impressive for first-time visitors, all 1.9 miles (3 kilometres) of it. We walked from the spectacular Lincoln Memorial at its west end….

Lincoln Memorial

…to the sobering Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall nearby….

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

…and the World War II Memorial a little further on…..

World War II Memorial

…past the towering Washington Monument….

Washington Monument

….and the White House northwest of the Mall at this point….

White House

…all the way to the Capitol Building at the east end.

United States Capitol

In the last half of the Mall you find the Smithsonian Institution, which owns eleven museums and galleries on the National Mall, including many gardens, but my favourite by far was the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden nestled between the historic Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshorn Museum.  You can see it below in the context of the entire mall: my little red arrow points it out. (Click to open for the best view.)

National Mall-Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

As the Smithsonian explains on its website:  “The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden was the inspiration of Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley, lifelong plant scholar-collector, active gardener, and wife of the Smithsonian Institution’s eighth Secretary. (They are shown together in the photo below, while on a trip to India.) Mrs. Ripley conceived the idea for a “fragrant garden” on the eastern border of the Arts and Industries Building – a location that was designated to become a parking lot. In 1978 Mrs. Ripley persuaded the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Associates, which she had founded in 1966, to support the garden. In 1988 the Women’s Committee recognized their founder and friend by naming the garden after her. In 1994, Mrs. John Clifford Folger of Washington, DC, and Palm Beach, Florida, initiated an endowment fund for the support and care of the garden in order that it might be preserved as it was first conceived by Mrs. Ripley. This thoughtful gift was given with the hope that others might add to the fund so that visitors would be able to enjoy the garden into the 21st century.”

Mary Livingston Ripley & Dillon Ripley

So let’s take a tour of the Ripley. First of all, if I’d completed this blog back in the summer, as I intended to, I could not have introduced you to the new president of the Perennial Plant Association – and the woman who has been the Ripley Garden’s enthusiastic and education-focused gardener for almost 2 decades, Janet Draper. (And though I didn’t intentionally give her that poppy seedhead tiara, she is definitely royalty in the plant world of the northeast.)

Janet Draper-Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

That Janet is an obsessed plant geek becomes clear as soon as you enter the garden. Let’s start at the north entrance. See that elegant finial behind the orange flame flowers (Jacobinia chrystostephana), below? It reminded me of the Washington Monument down the mall, but Janet explained its provenance in  the Smithsonian blog, and it has to do with the recently-completed renovation of the Smithsonian’s historic 1881 Arts and Industries Building.

Jacobinia chrysostephana & finial- Ripley Garden

The garden with its curvilinear walkways was designed in 1988 by architect Hugh Newell Jacobson. It was originally intended to be a sensory garden that would be accessible even to people in wheelchairs, so there are several raised, brick beds that put the captivating plant combinations at eye level.  Behind, you can see the delightful Arts and Industries Building. Though its 12-year, $55 million renovation was completed in 2016, funding was not there to open it to the general public and it is currently only open for special events.

Raised bed north-Ripley Garden

I loved Janet’s creative plant combinations, from this bronze carex with annual red gomphrena…

Carex & Gomphrena-Ripley Garden

….to the pink poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) peeking out through a cloud of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)….

Perovskia & Callirhoe-Ripley Garden

….to a luscious combination of alstroemerias with catmint (Nepeta x faassenii ‘Junior Walker) and ornamental grass.

Nepeta 'Junior Walker' & Alstroemeria-Ripley Garden

Janet mixes desert species like spikey Yucca rostrata with tropicals, such as the big-leafed banana near the wall, and all grow happily in Washington’s long hot summer.

Yucca rostrata-Ripley Garden

She uses old-fashioned combinations, such as fragrant lavender with anthemis ‘Susanna Mitchell’, below….

Anthemis 'Susanna Mitchell' & Lavender-Ripley Garden

…. but also includes oddities like annual Dianthus ‘Green Ball’…..

Dianthus 'Green Ball'

……and unusual plants like scarlet tasseflower (Emilia coccinea), below.

Emilia coccinea

By the way, unlike a lot of beautiful display gardens, Janet makes sure her visitors are not only wowed by the plants, but have the opportunity to learn their names as well.

Plant labels-Ripley Garden

Fittingly, as the new PPA president, she grows the Perennial Plant Association’s 2018 Plant of the Year, below, Allium ‘Millenium’. I grow this little onion (hybridized by my Facebook pal and allium breeder Mark McDonough) in my pollinator garden, and can testify to its hardiness and rugged nature.

Allium 'Millenium'-Ripley Garden

There are little surprises like the Tuscan kale popping up in a sea of chartreuse anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’)…..

Tuscan kale & Anise hyssop-Ripley Garden

….and conversation starters like Solanum quitoense, or naranjilla, which definitely discourages sensory contact!

Solanum quitoense-Naranjilla-Ripley Garden

One of the showiest plants in the Ripley garden is the tropical pipevine from Brazil (Aristolochia gigantea) with its big carrion-scented blossoms. Janet loves this plant and enjoys talking to visitors about it. If you read her blog about it, you’ll understand its relationship to the American native pipevine (A. macrophylla), which is a massive vine – too big for the Ripley – but a larval plant of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (the giant Brazilian plant is not).

Aristolochia gigantea

But after doing some sleuthing, Janet discovered another small pipevine, Aristolochia fimbriata, that does feed the larval butterflies, and she grows it now. Thus I was delighted to see a rather tattered, elderly pipevine swallowtail taking a break from egg-laying to nectar on zinnias in an orange-themed raised bed.

Pipevine swallowtail on Zinnia-Ripley Garden

Speaking of insects – and as a bumble bee photographer, – I was overjoyed to spot a local bee I’d never seen before, the black-and-gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomis) nectaring on anise hyssop (Agastache)…

Bombus auricomus-Black and Gold bumblebee on Agastache

….and cedarglade St. Johnswort (Hypericum frondosum).

Bombus auricomus-Black and Gold bumblebee- on Hypericum frondosum

Bumble bees make their own nests, of course, but there was also a lovely hotel for native bees in the garden.

Bee hotel-Ripley Garden

Incidentally, that bed in front of the bee structure perfectly illustrates Janet’s deft touch, not merely with plant collecting, but with lovely design, too. Look how all that pink Achillea ‘Oertel’s Rose’ draws the eye through the scene.

Achillea 'Oertel's Rose'-Ripley Garden

Though the garden has its share of hot, sunny sites perfect for succulents (and drowsy visitors)….

Urn of succulents-Ripley Garden

…it also has beautiful shady spots, too. That’s ‘Alice’ oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) way up on top.

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Alice'-Ripley Garden

Look at the subtle way the brick retaining wall becomes lower at this point, and how the use of the same bricks for path and wall creates a seamless journey.

Brick retaining wall & Path-Ripley Garden

Walking toward the shady end of the garden….

Border & Path-Ripley Garden

….you pass the beautifully textural living wall on the right. A miniature version of some of the building-sized living walls that have become popular in recent years, it is composed of plants whose texture and colours create a living painting. In this blog, Janet explains the nuts and bolts of her first attempt, and in a second blog three years later, she expands on the process with succulents and talks about other fun ideas with topiary.

Living Wall-Ripley Garden

If other visitors are anything like me, they’ll want to take a rest in the shade after walking the mall on a hot summer day. And how lovely is this resting spot, with its chartreuse obelisk-decked planters flanking it?

Benches & Obelisks- Ripley Garden

Once again, we see Janet’s plant combination skills, with this ‘Frosted Curls’ carex punctuating a bed of luscious Asarum splendens.

Carex comans-'Frosted Curls' & Asarum splendens-Ripley Garden

Look at this spectacular border: who said there aren’t a lot of plants for shady areas?

Shade border-Ripley Garden

Gazing back under the old American elms (they had been there for decades when Hugh Jacobson designed the raised beds around them), I felt that I could have spent hours in the Ripley Garden, marvelling at plant combinations and chatting with Janet Draper. But the United States Botanic Garden beckoned and it was still a good walk east towards the Capitol building. Reluctantly, I headed out into the heat and crowds of the National Mall.

American elms &-path-Ripley Garden