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.

Conservatory-1

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.

Fruit-Marie-Selby

#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.

In a Fern Valley at Makaranga

It’s Day 6 of our South Africa Garden Tour and we drive from our Durban beachfront hotel about 30 miles to the Outer West region and the town of Kloof.  We’re here to spend the morning and have lunch at Makaranga Lodge.  Once the property of a wealthy and passionate plantsman, the late Leslie Riggall, who called it Fern Valley Botanical Garden, he developed it over 26 years, building a vast collection of camellias, magnolias, bromeliads and orchids, among other plants.  He was especially knowledgeable about vireya rhododendrons, contributing to the Vireya Vine journal and growing them from seed.  Many of the plants grow around a series of ornamental ponds fed by a stream running through the valley.

Bench overlooking pond-Makaranga

When Leslie and Gladys Riggall  moved to Panama in 2002, their neighbours Danna and Chick Flack bought the 25-acre property and merged it with their own five acres. They renamed it Makaranga after the indigenous wild poplars (Macaranga capensis) growing by the stream in the valley and the Makaranga people of Inyanga, Zimbabwe, where Danna was born.  While Chick Flack developed a 22-room five-star boutique hotel, conference centre and spa, Danna, took on the garden, which is now available for weddings and also simply for the enjoyment of guests.  With the help of landscaper Phil Page and a gardening staff of 18, she designed a series of lush, flowing gardens around Leslie Riggall’s original plant collection, adding indigenous South African plants in evocative naturalistic settings, such as this small rocky koppie in front of the hotel.

Indigenous Plants-Makaranga

As I start my tour, I pause, quite awe-struck to see such a large collection of cycads – one man’s passion donated to this garden.  As a stock photographer, I can’t help but be a little excited, and stop to photograph the species, shown here in a mosaic array.  Who was George Walters?  I cannot find any background on him, but I hope someone sees his lovely collection online and thinks of him. (* Note in the comments below that George himself found his lovely collection here and commented!)

Cycad Collection of George Walters-Makaranga

I walk down the hill and — peering over the bromeliads — see what has become quite a familiar sight in botanical gardens in North America: beautiful Zimbabwean sculpture, which seems so well suited to the leafy surroundings of this garden.

Sculpture-garden-Makaranga

The collection is by renowned carver Joseph Ndandrika (1941-2002). This piece is titled Father & Son.

Father & Son-Joseph-Ndandarika-Makaranga

On the way to the valley gardens, I pass a giant rainbow gum (Eucalpytus degluptus), its multicolored trunk being caressed by another cycad, this one the Australian Macrozamia miquelii, known as “burrowang” down under.

Macrozamia miquellii & Eucalpytus deglupta

I peer into the Japanese Garden built by Leslie Riggall. There are no blossoms on the trees, but we certainly saw Japanese cherries in full bloom in Johannesburg.

Japanese Garden-Makaranga

Here’s a familiar Japanese torii gate.

Tori Gate-Japanese Garden-Makaranga

I get a little lost, but finally head down to Leslie Riggall’s original showplace: the lush Fern Valley filled with ponds, where giant South African tree ferns (Cyathea sp.) see their elegant fronds reflected in the water.

Tree fern-Cyathea sp

I veer off the road through the valley and take a path through manicured but jungle-like plantings……

Path to waterfall-Makaranga

….to arrive at the small waterfall that feeds the ponds.

Waterfall-Makaranga

Returning to the pond edge, I’m transfixed by this striking bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), its purplish-black, crane-like flowers so similar yet so different from the orange-flowered birds (S. reginae) I’m used to seeing in conservatories in the northeast.  Called the Natal wild banana, it is like a small tree and is one of the indigenous plants introduced to the valley to grow side by side with the camellias and tropical rhododendrons.

Strelitzia nicolai

Speaking of rhododendrons, here is one of Leslie Riggall’s beloved Vireyas exhibiting its somewhat typical legginess.  Native to southeast Asia, Vireyas provide an option for gardeners living in tropical and subtropical regions.

Vireya rhododendron-Makaranga

Seen close-up, the flowers are beautiful and its easier to see their resemblance to the rhodos I’m familiar with from gardens in the northern hemisphere.

Vireya rhododendron flower-Makaranga

This pond, surrounded by water-loving irises, is overseen by voluptuous statues imported from Italy.

Italianate pool-Makaranga

But beauty doesn’t matter much to a white-breasted cormorant waiting for the visitors to leave so he can return to fishing. Look at the lush Gunnera manicata in the background.

White-breasted cormorant-Makaranga

Another view of this pond.

Pond & Italian statue-Makaranga

The calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) are spectacular here, and of course they’re native to damp places throughout South Africa. As a bee photographer, I’m fascinated by the numerous African honey bees patiently gathering pollen from the yellow spadix of the callas.

Honey bee on Zantedeschia aethiopica

The bromeliad collection is lovely and I see staghorn ferns (Platycerium sp.) in this spot too.

Bromeliads & ferns -Makaranga

The matchstick bromeliad (Aechmea gamosepala) is always eye-catching, especially when it’s in perfect flower like this one.

Aechmea gamosepala-Matchstick plant

There are a few heliconias, like this attractive cultivar called ‘Red Christmas’.

Heliconia-Makaranga

This beautiful Streptocarpus floribundus is on the South African endangered list.

Streptocarpus floribundus

Lots of epiphytic orchids grow down here, carefully trained on tree trunks. I think this tree might be the eponymous wild poplar (Macaranga capensis) that gives the garden its name!

Ephiphytic orchid-Makaranga

A closer look at the orchid. How beautiful.

Orchid-Makaranga

And some nice specimens of Epiphyllum cacti are growing epiphytically on trees here as well.

Epiphyllum-Makaranga

I’ve seen kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos) in California, and love their crazy flowers.

Anigozanthos-Kangaroo paws

Peering down paths here and there, I think how wonderful it is to see the plants we know as “tropical houseplants” deployed in this setting.  Here are thickets of Brazilian Ctenanthe setosa flanking the path into the other side of the Japanese garden.

Ctenanthe setosa-Makaranga

A little rainshower begins (hilly Kloof is in KwaZulu-Natal’s mist belt, where precipitation is frequent) and I try to keep my camera and notebook dry, while gazing at this pond, its surface spangled with tropical waterlilies.

Pond and waterlilies-Makaranga

Here is a familiar sight: beautiful yellow Iris pseudacorus looking as aggressive here in South Africa as it looks in North America.   It does have a large native range, including Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa, but not down here. The bees do love it, however.

Iris pseudacorus-Makaranga

The rain is increasing and it’s time for lunch up at the lodge in any case. I return passing some of the indigenous gardens, so different from the plantings we saw down in the valley. There are various succulent flowers and a sprinkling of wild garlic (Tulbaghia violacea).

Indigenous-garden-Makaranga

Here’s a fabulous and quite small watsonia, possibly the endangered Watsonia canaliculata.

Watsonia

And large aloes (Aloe ferox, I think) growing in the familiar grassland setting in which it thrives in nature.

Aloe ferox-Makaranga

I pass the swimming pool with raindrops splashing on the water surface. No one’s swimming today, but it’s a nice spot for the hotel guests to escape the summer heat of KwaZulu-Natal. And now it’s time to sit down, dry off a little and have some lunch.  We have to keep up our strength, after all, for another garden this afternoon.

Makaranga-swimming-pool