Two worlds collide in South Florida, and they aren’t always complementary: natural habitats and landscaping. In the old science fiction novels they called it “terraforming” when someone was going to change a planet’s surface so humans could live on it. It used to be that homebuilders struck a harmonious balance with Florida’s habitats, tucking ranch homes under the oak canopy and putting houses on pilings in Florida. No more. The bulldoze, ditch, and fill mentality took over sometime in the past twenty years and with it, we’ve watched uncounted acres of natural habitats scraped off the earth. Permanently.
Strolling through Naples Botanical Garden, we found proof that buildings, landscaping, and nature can live in harmony. The LEED-certified structures are both indoors and outdoors at once, using wood that evokes the region: cypress planks salvaged from cypresses sunk long ago in Florida’s rivers.
Leaving this man-made space to launch into the carefully crafted gardens, we could see a ribbon of wetlands stretching off to the horizon, dividing the formal landscapes in two. They evoked the views you see along the Tamiami Trail farther east in the Big Cypress Swamp.
We were drawn to a tunnel formed from mature saw palmetto, much like we’d see on many trails. It led us into the first of the themed areas, a Children’s Garden, complete with a butterfly garden, Cracker house, and chickees between big trees. A native Florida trail wound its way to shell mounds, wetlands, and a cypress swamp, with plenty of places to play and get wet along the way.
Beyond: a choice. Brazil, or the Florida Uplands Preserve? Eventually we did both. Naples Botanical Garden has a clever theme, “Gardens with Latitude,” under which both fit: from 26* North (here) to 26* South (there). Focusing on tropicals within this zone means there is something in bloom all year. As we discovered as we wandered, the formal gardens are buffered with wild spaces, and yes, hiking trails through those native habitats.
In the Florida Uplands Preserve, a boardwalk over a pond apple forest forms the gateway to the pine flatwoods and beyond, the scrub. These well-drained sands are home to patches of Florida rosemary and sand spike moss, as well as gopher tortoises.
Trail’s end is with an intersection with a perimeter trail along a chain of wetlands including Lake Tupke, a tribute to a Seminole herbalist. The perimeter trail leads to another wild area: the South Wetland Preserve.
Active removal of melaleuca has been going on for some time through this vast open space. The birds certainly appreciate it, as do the birders who visit the boardwalk and birding overlook.
Wandering through the gardens, we found places to slip out of the hot sun and rest. Who couldn’t resist a hammock under the coconut palms in the Caribbean section?
John kicked back in the Enabling Garden while I visited the extensive plumeria plantings. When I returned, he pointed to the sign. “It says this all over the garden, and yet no one came over to me!”
I haven’t seen a Florida garden as extensive as this one other than at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables. But the twist here is one they didn’t have there: this is a young garden. I was here the year they opened, and there was only a tiny garden next to a mosaic wall. Most of their acreage was covered in a heartbreaking assortment of invasives. How did the Naples Botanical Garden grow so well since?
It doesn’t hurt to have kindly donors. And, just as importantly, individuals willing to part with mature tropical trees already established in the rich Everglades soil. The results speak for themselves.
Learn more about Naples Botanical Garden
Follow US 41 east from Naples to Bayshore Drive. Continue south on Bayshore Drive to the gardens entrance.