Quite often, we hear people say “If you want to see OLD Florida, you have to see…” Old Florida is really ‘pre-Disney’ Florida; a time when attractions like Weeki Wachee, Silver Springs and Cypress Gardens were the place to be. Interstate highways didn’t exist, and the Sunshine State was about as laid back as a Jimmy Buffett song.
Well, as luck would have it, we stumbled on a bit of Old Florida last week: McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach.
Back in 1932, two gentlemen named Waldo Sexton and Arthur McKee developed 80 acres into what was then known as McKee Jungle Gardens. A giant 2000 year old cypress stump was brought in from West Florida to mark the entrance on US-1.
Many native and unusual tropical plants were brought in, along with monkeys, an alligator and a black bear. A graceful stone bridge was constructed over this pond, home to an exotic collection of lily pads. In its heyday during the 1940’s, McKee Jungle Gardens was attracting 100,000 visitors a year. But with the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 1971, the beginning of the end for the gardens was in place. By 1976, McKee Jungle Gardens was closed, and the land was sold to a condo developer. Most of the land was developed into condos and a golf course, but the 18 acres fronting US-1 sat dormant. The next 18 years saw vandals and homeless individuals on the property, and the gardens became overgrown. In 1994, the Indian River Land Trust purchased the property and set out on a campaign to raise funds and restore the remaining land to its former grandeur. In 2001, the McKee Botanical Garden opened its doors.
Our membership with the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Michigan is what initially attracted us here. That membership includes a reciprocal agreement with similar gardens and museums across the U.S. We also saw that landscape artist Patrick Dougherty was going to be there. We first saw his Stickwork structures on CBS Sunday Morning, and we missed out on seeing him in Niles, Michigan when we were near there. We couldn’t let that happen twice.
Out in the parking lot along US-1, the cypress stump is still there…
…as is the stone bridge inside the garden.
Upon entering through the arched trellis, this green space opens up. We followed around to the right to view the Stickwork installation.
High up on the scaffolding, Patrick Dougherty and a volunteer were weaving willow saplings together to form the structure. Once completed, the buildings will open to roam through, and they also become a haven for birds. He does nine of these installations a year throughout the world, and he has been doing it for thirty years! Each installation lasts an average of two years before deteriorating.
After checking out Mr. Dougherty’s work, we ventured out on the trails to see what else McKee had to offer.
Here is an American Waterlily that we found to be interesting. There were several varieties on the various ponds around the park.
One thing we thought they could have done a better job of doing was labeling the flora. So not knowing what these are, we are just going to let you chime in on the next five photos. Edits in italics as answers come in. Thank you Betsy for suggesting the plant identification app on our phones! We settled on Like That Garden, which is a huge help!
#1. Any idea? It appears to be an orchid.
#2. How about this? Joan from FOSJ maybe this and the next photo was a bromeliad. We are still trying to confirm.
#3. Any guesses?
#4. Care to fathom a guess? Kelly from bkamericanodyssey identified this as a banana tree. We confirmed that with our app that Betsy suggested. Official name : Plantains or Wild Banana Tree.
#5. Perhaps an orchid? Bonnie from HappiLeeRVing identified this as a Moth Orchid.
This pavilion was interesting in that it is constructed entirely of bamboo, and is unique in the fact it is the first engineered bamboo building in the U.S. to have been issued a building permit. That occurred in 2002.
There were several stands of bamboo in the gardens.
They also had interspersed a number of sculptures throughout the grounds. We overheard someone mention that she thought this didn’t fit in it’s surroundings. Your thoughts?
The Hall of Giants was constructed to house this 35′ Mahogany table, which was billed as the world’s largest from a single piece of wood. This building and table are both original features from McKee Jungle Gardens. Many events have been held here over the years. They had a video playing of an old MovieTone feature that promoted McKee Jungle Gardens from the 1930’s. It was amusing to see how they advertised back then. 🙂
Off the one end of the Hall of Giants is this huge Spanish kitchen. Talk about a great place for a cookout!
So, despite the fact we had trouble identifying a good portion of the flora, we enjoyed our afternoon touring this little slice of history. And we can be safe to say that if you want to see Old Florida..you have to see McKee!
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