At Spanish Point, scents hang heavy in the morning air: a moonflower in the act of closing for the day, the sweetness of citrus blossoms, the purple morning-glory clambering over mangroves, the brush of salt breezes.
Crunching along a trail atop a tall midden on Little Sarasota Bay, I watch paddlers in their bright kayaks, color in motion against the wall of mangroves beyond them. The breeze ruffles the tops of the cedars, makes the leaves of gumbo-limbo and mahogany twitch.
A layer cake of Florida’s past, both human and floral, Historic Spanish Point fascinates. In Florida’s pioneer days, the Webb family chose this prominent peninsula as their home, growing oranges and running a packing house.
Bertha Honore Palmer took a liking to the landscape, settling into a winter home, The Oaks, here in the early 1900s while wheeling and dealing real estate across the county.
With a staff that included an army of gardeners, formal garden spaces became a part of the peninsula. In 1961, archaeologists unearthed nearly 500 people from 500 A.D. in a midden topped with alligator bones and necklaces.
It’s the sensory immersion, however, that has a stronger siren call than history: the expansive views of mangrove-fringed waters, the ruffle of ripples across the oyster bed along Cock’s Footbridge, the wave and bounce of giant leather ferns along the Jungle Walk, where a 1915 aqueduct carries water across a grotto-like garden.
Throughout the property, well-shaded footpaths meander through spaces carved into a tropical hammock, one of the northernmost found on the Gulf Coast.
While Historic Spanish Point is presented as a historic site, the natural setting upstages the stories of humans on the land, including my own. Four years ago, this was the last garden I enjoyed with both my parents, the last place I photographed them together. Dad died a few days after our visit.
The beauty of the gardens will outlive us all, and that’s testimony to the value of private conservation foundations and the hundreds of volunteers that work here.