Discover Florida: A Day at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden
A Little History
Chances are that unless you're a lover of plants, botany, and research, or you live in the Sarasota, Florida vicinity, you've never heard of the Selby Gardens, let alone Marie and Bill Selby, the quiet, unassuming millionaires who bequeathed this glorious spot to us.
Marie was born in West Virginia in 1885, traveled to Marietta, Ohio with her father, who owned a business selling drilling equipment and parts to oil companies and met, was wooed by and in 1908 married her father's partner in his latest venture, The Selby Oil and Gas Company. Bill and Marie took part in the country's first cross-country auto race, even if just as tag-a-longs. All the same, this made Marie the first woman to cross the United States by car.
Bill had visited Sarasota, Florida many times before their marriage, and he always dreamed of returning to that city. He brought his wife there for a visit to see if she shared his passion for the place. She did. They purchased 7 acres along Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou to make their winter home. (In the summer, they lived on their cattle ranch in Montana. You see, the Selby Oil and Gas Company grew up to be Texaco, and our young couple became very, very wealthy.)
Yet, despite their riches, the Selby's lived an unassuming life, preferring the great outdoors to high-society and everyday dress to haute-couture. Marie could often be found working in her garden, wearing a simple cotton dress and sneakers.
In 1955, Bill and Marie established the William and Marie Selby Foundation which was to have a great impact of Sarasota through the generous endowments of education, the arts, youth and children, libraries, health services, and programs in support of elderly. Bill Selby died in 1956 and Marie continued to live quietly in the home she loved until her death in 1971. She bequeathed her property to the community as a botanical garden "for the enjoyment of the general public."
A board of directors was appointed and after consultation with the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Florida, it was decided that the garden should specialize in epiphytic plants, thereby making it unique among the more than 200 botanical gardens in the country. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was officially opened to the public on July 7, 1975.
Since the Gardens' debut, the property has doubled in size to 14 acres and maintains a plant collection numbering more than 20,000 greenhouse plants, plus thousands more in the outdoor gardens. Eight greenhouses include the stunning Tropical Conservatory housing s stunning display of tropical epiphytes. The Botany Department provides headquarters for the Bromeliad, Gesneriad, and Orchid Research Centers, and the Selby Gardens' Herbarium and Molecular Laboratory. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has,become a respected center for research and education, as well as a famous showplace that delights more than 180,000 visitors each year.
The Gardens host the largest collection of bromeliads in the world. They are everywhere: delicate tropicals from the rain forests in the conservatory, more robust species high up in the trees, desert bromeliads in full sun alongside cactii and yuccas and others comfortable in the marshy areas, some even in brackish waters. Amazing!
A place of beauty dedicated to real science; the best possible combination.
As you step out of the welcome area, the first door to your right leads to the conservatory. Be careful; you may not come out again. It took the combined will of my husband, daughter and grandchildren pulled me away from the beauty of this unique collection, or I'd be there yet.
(My family knows I suffer from "garden envy" when I go to such places and usually come out determined to redo my own garden.)
However, on a serious note, The Gardens not only educates the public about these fascinating plants, but is involved in a race against time to study, understand and possibly save for prosperity the threatened epiphytes of the tropical world.
It's important to note that many advances in pharmaceuticals have come from the bromeliads and other epiphytes of the rain forests. But it is no secret that this delicate ecosystem is fast disappearing and with it, scores of these potentially important species. The research staff of the Selby Gardens are dedicated to study and preservation whenever and wherever possible.
If a side effect of this important work is this incredible gallery open to the public that offers each of us the sense of what a rainforest might be all about -- well aren't we the lucky ones!
Come with me into the conservatory and visit the rainforest.
(These photos are all taken by me on April 5, 2012 during a visit to The Gardens with my family. Yes, the video is also made be me -- such as it is -- for your enjoyment. I highly recommend going to YouTube and maximizing to full screen. Some of these images are exquisite, if I do say so myself.)
A Quick Tour of the Conservatory
The Sho Fun Bonsai Exhibit
The art of bonsai has always intrigued me. These miniature trees are perfect in every detail, true reflections of the full sized specimens found in nature including the gnarled trunks and other tell-tale signs of age. They seem unreal, yet here they are, alive and functioning. I can't help but wonder how is this possible.
Imagine the patience involved in the cultivation and nurture of a seedling, the trimming and pruning, the careful fertilization, the daily watering (indeed, judging by the shallow root pans used, I'd think watering would be required several times a day, particularly in Florida's heat,) all the ongoing attention day in day out for decades. Some of these exhibits have been "in training" for forty years!
A Walk Around the Bonsai Patio
The Koi Pond and Bamboo Groves
My grandchildren, ages 5 and 7, like children everywhere were fascinated by the koi in the pond. These fish are so attuned to being a public spectacle; the moment humans arrive they cluster at the edge waiting to be fed, jostling each other for position, lifting their round mouths out of the water and making sucking motions.
My granddaughter announced, “They are like the seagulls” and asked her mother, “What do the seagulls say?” To which my daughter gave a remarkably authentic reproduction of a gull’s voice with a throaty, “Mine. Mine. Mine.”
The more I thought about it, they more I realized my young granddaughter had made an apt analogy. The koi demanded food with all the rapacity of a beach gull who had a child’s serving of French fries on his radar.
So gluttonous were these fish, that when sated, they regurgitated and came back for another helping. When two ducks floated over to try their luck with the tourists, the koi pushed them away so violently, the duck’s body left the water.
I know koi are considered a creature of beauty by many, but to me, they are nothing but a carp with a fancy paint job, a bottom feeder that dirties the water – a little disgusting. Give me a pond full of Chinese Mountain Minnows, fast, sleek, flashy with their silver bodies and red stripes -- and self-sufficient -- not these ravenous beggars.
Still, I was impressed to learn some of these koi were forty years old.
I was far more impressed with the beauty of the plantings and the works of art around the pond, particularly the serene Buddha and the sad, huddled little mermaid. Take a tour of the pond through this little video and decide for yourself.
After the feeding frenzy, the peaceful atmosphere of the bamboo groves made for a soothing stroll. Directly adjacent to the pond, the grove is home to five different types of bamboo: the Buddha belly with rounded segments between joints; black bamboo, very striking and my personal favorite; painted bamboo, yellow with streaks of green, black and red; green bamboo, the leafiest variety and timber bamboo, very fast growing, extremely tall and originally planted by Marie Selby to shelter her home from the development of condominiums in the neighborhood.
I’m not sure what it is about bamboo that gives that sense of serenity.
But it does.
Watch the video and see if you agree.
A Visit to the Koi Pond and a Stroll Through the Bamboo Groves
Bromeliads are a family of about 3,000 species in about 50 genera native to North, Central and South America, from as far north as Georgia down to the southern tip of Argentina and in diverse habitats: from rain forests to arid deserts and from sea level to mountain tops.
More than half the species are epiphytes and the rest are terrestrials (though normally shallow rooted ones) and a few are saxicoles (plants that grow on rocks.)
The root systems are normally small and serve to anchor the plants to tree branch, rock or soil. The functions of water and nutrient absorption have been taken over by the leaves, which in some species form a reservoir that collects and holds water. Other can survive in desert conditions by long spells of dormancy broken only by rainfall.
The inflorescences (flowers) flaunt dazzling color combinations as well as fantastic forms. The video shows a few. I was surprised to learn that most species of bromeliads will flower only once in their lifetime. After flowering, the plant will grow plantlets, known as pups on the stem. Once the pups are of a size to be self-sufficient, the mother plant eventually dies but often not until she has produced many such offspring. Some species will form huge colonies with several overlapping generations.
The most commonly found family of bromeliads is Tillandsia, or the air plant. Did you know that the common pineapple (Ananas comosus) that you love to eat is a bromeliad? It is and so is Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).
Marie Selby Gardens hosts one of the largest collection (I believe it is the largest) of bromeliads in the world.Please take the time to view this slide-show video for a small taste of these amazing plants.
The Walking Tour
The grounds are laid out for a figure eight tour, a walking trip easily taken by small children or the elderly requiring walkers or canes. Aside from the canopy walk, an elevated boardwalk that allows one to explore the upper reaches of the trees for a first-hand look at the world up there, the walk is entirely access friendly for the disabled.
It is a breath-taking, peaceful and lovely way to spend a day. But why read my words? Why not watch the short video slide-show I made of the walk.
After all, one picture is worth a thousand words. Right?
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