THE TREASURE IN SARASOTA
By Ruby Weinberg
Many gardeners may find it difficult to believe that some of the world's most beautiful plants live piggy-back. That is, in nature, they attach themselves to tree trunks, branches, leaves or even rocks. There, they flourish and bloom without any gardener feeding them even a little Miracle Grow! Instead, they obtain their nourishment from bark or decaying leaves around them.
Botanists call them epiphytes – also known as air plants. Epiphytes originate in the world's rain/cloud forests. At Sarasota Florida's Marie Selby Botanical Garden, botanists have been collecting and studying them for years; it is their mission to identify and display as many as possible. They especially seek out air plant orchids plus epiphytic bromeliads, gesneriads, ferns, begonias and cacti. Selby is probably the only botanical garden in the world with a major interest in these plants.
It all started in 1921 when Marie and William Selby bought land adjacent to Sarasota Bay on which they built and lived in a small house. The idea of establishing a great public botanical garden here might have been present from the very beginning, but it was not until 1971 that Marie established a trust to do just that. They had purchased a large mansion on the east side of the property which was converted into a museum of botanical art. Slowly, the gardens, themselves, as well as a glass conservatory and many other facilities were developed to their full potential.
On a frigid January day in most of our country, my husband and I had the good fortune of finding ourselves in warm and sunny Sarasota on Florida's west coast. As in previous winters, we gravitated toward Selby's 15 acres adjacent to the bay with its beautiful skyline view of the city. They are filled with living collections, a "museum" of more than 12,000 plant accessions in 214 families. Some of its botanists traveled to the world's rain forests on over 200 expeditions and discovered 2,000 plant species new to science. Among this profusion, many epiphytes, originally brought here for identification, are especially cherished.
If you love orchids, this is the place to see them growing and blooming as there seem like countless numbers of specimens in the garden's living collections. However, the entire property of tropical and subtropical flora is also of great diversity and beauty.
Quite a few orchids were in full bloom during our visit amidst magnificent specimen foliage plants in Selby's glass conservatory. The plants in this tropical space are kept humid with a backdrop wall of rushing water. Many orchids, as well as bromeliads and other epiphytic plants, were also in full bloom in the garden itself; yet the heart of Selby-its most flowering at the moment-is probably displayed here in the conservatory. Seven other greenhouses contain even more specimens.
A recitation of numbers does not capture the beauty of the garden. But frequent guided tours help newcomers to orient themselves to its many features. The visitors stop first just outside the conservatory where there is an exhibit of bonsai plants contributed by the Sho Fu Bonsai Society. Its many specimens are interesting examples of this aged art. All bonsai require extreme diligence to maintain for long periods of time.
Not far from there is a display of cycads, primitive species with woody trunks and evergreen leaves. Oddly, some kinds are not really unusual in Florida gardens although few gardeners realize that cycads might have been on the earth for as long as 250 million years! The latest information, however, dates them back only 10 million years---mere babies!
Around a bend, we came upon a delightful small pond, a favorite spot for most Selby visitors because of its enormous koi fish. Some here might be over 2 feet in length. Amazingly, we learned that on occasion, scientists have found that some koi can live to be as old as a century! No one seemed able to tell us the age of Selby's koi, but they ALWAYS appeared anxious for the next feed!
At another bend in the road, we came upon what no one can miss-a grove of enormous banyan (fig) trees planted by Marie Selby and her husband in 1930. Native to India, the word "banyan" means "merchant." These trees are often used in that country by street merchants who sell their wares under banyan shade. Plantings of these trees are found throughout Florida. Admittedly, Selby’s are especially gigantic.
It was at this point in our visit that we hurried thru other areas fully enjoyed by us during years gone by...the palm grove, canopy walk, bamboo garden, etc., etc. Here and there, some of Selby's subtropical shrubs and vines were already in luxurious bloom, a little earlier, it seemed to me, than in other seasons. The large number that can be grown in Florida is something to celebrate.
Also, of special interest to me were the many flower beds of winter annuals. It was like a preview of coming attractions for northern gardeners who might use some of these same plants in their summer gardens. Especially beautiful was a bed of blue flowering plants: salvias, ajugas, gerberas, and plectranthus, but it takes experts to grow and arrange them as nicely as at Selby.
A map of the garden given to visitors is a great help in identifying each garden space. We did, however, as in years gone by, take a long look at flowering vine and annual displays along Selby’s entrance walkway. It was designed with great artistry. The plants this year were not harmed (as yet!) by a sudden frost as in some other seasons.
Mid-visit is a great time to stop for refreshments. Visitors can either bring their own lunch or enjoy sandwiches at the historic Selby House cafe, Marie's former home.
Another area that I found of special interest was the tropical fruit garden near the research greenhouse on Selby’s southern end. Here is a small tree that I have grown, potted, in my greenhouse up north. It is a 6-foot specimen of the kumquat, Fortunella 'Meiwa'. This citrus relative has lovely white flowers followed by a profusion of delicious small, sweet fruits with a rind that is also sweet. Another beautiful fruit tree here is the litchi, Litchi chinensis, a beautiful species with leathery leaves and delicious fruit that grows far too large for culture in a pot. Selby’s did not yet have fruit because even in Florida it is rather slow growing.
There is so much to see in the garden that my husband and I bemoaned our aging legs. We are no longer able to sprite along for uncountable hours, and found that two is about the limit of our energy when four would have been better. This causes a bit of a problem since Selby’s admission price, $17 per person, is a little steep for a short visit. Hopefully, on another day, we hope to study in detail Selby's succulent and wild flower gardens.
I cannot help but relate here a sad, but interesting, episode that occurred at Selby and caused a great sensation eleven years ago. At the time, it resulted in a large change of staff and considerable bad publicity to this honorable institution. It seems as though an avid plant collector, Michael Kovachi, while traveling in Peru, purchased from a street peddler a yet unknown beautiful slipper orchid, a phragmipedium. Excitedly, he then brought the plant to Selby, but without proper governmental authorization...a no no in horticulture. Kovachi named it after himself, P. kovachii. A 2012 published book about this incident is "The Scent of Scandal" by Craig Pittman. It relates the story that became a huge scandal for Selby, causing great harm to its reputation. Happily, this tragic event has long ago been overcome and now merely adds to the mystique of plant collecting.
The Kovachi episode is a reminder that botany has its own distinct rules for new admissions that must be obeyed. Proof of Selby's recovery is its healthy number of staff members plus an incredible 600 or more volunteer guides and other helpers.
On February 23 and 24, the botanical garden will hold its 38th Annual Plant and Garden Festival from 10-5. This year, the title is: "The Art of Plants." For a fee of $12/person, visitors will find 40 vendors selling house plants, some rare botanical species, music, a barbeque, master gardeners who will be able to answer horticultural questions. Out-of-state visitors, especially, will find the festival to be an excellent introduction to subtropical flora including its use in ikebana and bonsai plantings.
Selby is surely a feast for the soul, especially when most areas of the U.S. are experiencing frigid temperatures. The winter season is a great time for a visit; summers in Florida are often beastly hot!
Contact Ruby Weinberg here. Ruby is the author of The Garden Reborn.
Marie Selby Botanical Garden: www.selby.org/
Ruby was presented with the Watnong Lifetime Achievement Award by the Watnong, NJ Chapter, North American Rock Garden Society
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published February 02, 2013