Does it make sense to start talking about Florida through its flowers? Or is it too trite a cliche?
The modern state of Florida, all 66 000 square miles of it, has an inextricable link with flowers. The name, of course, means “flowery” or “full of flowers”, based on the first impressions of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon when he “discovered” the place in 1513.
And in a less smallpox-and-colonialism way, I’m here now on my own voyage of discovery, looking for the cultural, the historic and the beautiful. The real Florida, in some ways, I suppose, as part of #thinktheusa (more about that in the box below.
But driving along the oft-overlooked gulf coast of Florida, one thing becomes clear.
Whatever else we may think about Ponce de Leon through our modern day history glasses, he did have a knack for naming things.
Florida is beautiful. And it does have plenty of flowers.
From Crystal River, through Clearwater, Bradenton and St Pete, bright pops of pink and impossible scarlet flames peek out through the palms. Canopies cover the boardwalks to the sandy coastal paths and pelicans swoop through blue skies, playing chicken, it would seem, with car wing mirrors.
But there’s also some hard-hitting science behind all this floaty, flowery stuff: the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.
And while we went around halfway through the trip, I think it makes sense to start talking about Florida here. Surrounded by art, science, history – and flowers.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are the only gardens in the world to study and research epiphytes or air plants.
What on earth does that mean?
It means orchids, ferns, bromeliads and gesneriads.
Orchids, yes, lovely. Ferns, OK. Bromeliads?! The most famous bromeliad would be the pineapple, and when it comes to gesneriads (they have their own Gesneriad Society )you either know them or you don’t.
The most famous would be the African Violet (but I couldn’t have told you that before I visited the Selby Gardens.)
In reality, though, all this air plant research takes place behind the scenes.
And the scenes themselves involve bayfront views of Sarasota, the delicious shade of a Banyan Tree and a carefully constructed rainforest playground with swinging bridges, musical instruments, dress up huts and an edible garden.
For the younger children (like mine) there’s a lovely air-conditioned playroom with plant toys, puzzles and craft kits and for the hipster-wannabes among us, there’s a cafe serving coffee and all kinds of superfoods in a bowl.
All in, more than 20 000 plants spread over 15 acres to create 10 key zones. There’s the bonsai exhibit, bamboo garden and banyan grove. A tropical conservatory, desert succulent garden, butterfly garden and a tidal lagoon. And that’s not even the half of it.
But the razzle-dazzle display amid this cool and calming escape, was the ripe and utterly spectacular Andy Warhol Exhibition: Flowers in the Factory.
Best known for his Marilyn Monroe squares and hedonistic New York lifestyle, Warhol, it turns out, had a floral fancy too.
On more than 10 000 occasions, he sat down (or stood) and created an image of a flower.
What’s even more interesting than that is how the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens have decided to showcase his work. In Payne Mansion, the Museum of Botany and the Arts, standard pictures and photographs line up on the cool air-conditioned walls.
But elsewhere, the plants do the talking as bright pops of colour and geometric designs bring an unmistakable sense of Warhol to the gardens.
This does sound like the kind of vapid fluff that writers like myself will say about anything. But really, truly, the effect of these flowers is stunning. Check out the video if you don’t believe my words!
And finally we come to the final mystery in the puzzle of the gardens and the symbol for the rest of my time in Florida.
Marie Selby herself.
Again, this wasn’t a name that meant that much to me at first. When I read that she had loved gardening and lived in a modest house (today’s garden cafe) the story reminded me of my grandmother, as much as anything else. She had a dream of creating a botanical paradise in the heart of Sarasota (Selby, not my Nana Dymp, who turned her eyes from Northern Ireland to southern England and a more modest garden plot instead. Perhaps because that’s all her money would allow.)
For Marie Selby, it turns out, was the hometown sweetheart of William Selby, whose father founded Selby Oil and Gas. That name sounds suggestive of wealth but the fact that the company merged with Texaco in 1948 illustrates it beyond a doubt.
And so there is the Florida paradox.
Not everything is as it first appears. Despite the state’s fame, its rich culture remains hidden, albeit in plain sight.
Plus, it really does have some truly beautiful flowers.
Disclosure – I visited the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens as a guest of Visit Florida as part of the #thinktheusa project. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, well, what on earth is the point?! There are easier ways to earn a living ;-)
The calming views across Sarasota Bay
The humid sensory overload of the orchid conservatory
The superfoods of the low key cafe
The art exhibitions in the former mansion
Is it wrong to say the gift shop? With eco-minded merchandise, it’s fab!
The rainforest playground, no matter your age.
The indoor play area for younger children, complete with pretend plant pots, if you have a smaller child
The deep reach of the banyan grove
The fact that plants have become art
The cheeky blue frog hiding beneath the orchids. Ask for a volunteer to help point him out…
Check the opening times here. They’re open almost all year but you don’t want to get caught out.
Bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat to stay sun safe in the unshaded sections. (Though it’s pretty easy to pop back into the air-conditioned parts.)
Bring a book! Or buy one in the giftshop. This is a place in which to take your time and sit and chill.
Bring a camera to capture all that floral art. Or is it arty flowers?!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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