The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Gainesville, Florida, is best-known as the home of the University of Florida, and in keeping with its educational and research focus the independent Kanapaha Botanical Gardens adds a great educational and entertainment attraction to the college town. The gardens, founded in 1978, are owned and maintained by the North Florida Botanical Society and now include sixty-two acres total. The gardens, although founded in the late 1970’s, were not opened to the public until 1986. The primary mission of the gardens was always research and conservation. Now, decades later, Kanapaha has the largest herb garden in the southeast and the largest bamboo garden in Florida. Given the strong emphasis at the University of Florida on agriculture and life sciences, Kanapaha is very appropriate to be located in Gainesville, a fine example of a specialist community group creating the perfect addition to its extended community. The University itself doesn’t have a botanical garden like this in terms of scope and size, probably because since 1978 Kanapaha has provided such a superb garden, yet these days the role of Kanapaha as a tourist attraction is as crucial as its roles in conservation, stewardship, and research: for anyone interested in botany, the beauty of gardens, or Florida’s natural history, it’s certainly worth visiting if near Gainesville.
One of the joys of Kanapaha is that it has such a diversity of types of gardens, and their botanical content covers a pretty wide spectrum. Also, as it was a project that came together in varied stages, there is an honest and very obvious aspect of chance and whimsy involved. In the Children’s Garden a dragon sculpture and a crazy invention for irrigation watch over an assortment of colorful plants while a wall studded with colorful tiles forms a curtain in the rear—as if all these other wonders are actors on a stage. The emphasis on native Floridian plants is also powerful and educational, displaying these species in habitats as close as possible to the ones where they would be encountered in nature throughout the state. The gardens take their name from Lake Kanapaha which they surround, allowing aquatic aspects of botanical life to be showcased as well.
Kanapaha Gardens also seems to understand that many visitors will be fans of gardening, as well as of the plants themselves, and there is plenty for the avid gardener to see here. The display of grown succulents is impressive, and normally there is some type of activity underway as far as tending to plants in various areas of the gardens that those interested in gardening as a pastime may enjoy watching. Coming in the early afternoon on weekdays better ensures seeing the staff engaged in such chores, if one wishes to witness this. Kanapaha also hosts various special events throughout the year, including nighttime events when their gardens seem especially magical and alluring.
Wilmot Gardens at the University of Florida
In the 1940’s near what was then the edge of the UF campus a horticulturist at the university, Royal James Wilmot, planted what eventually grew into the largest collection of camellias in the United States. The soil and environmental conditions were ideal for the camellias, and the garden grew throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Nearby, the young College of Medicine and Shands Hospital were also growing, and by the 1970’s, this portion of the campus was dedicated to a vast health sciences complex. Although Wilmot had passed away in 1952, others carried on his work for years. But by the early 1980’s, the gardens were fairly neglected and few people—even faculty and staff of the university—were even aware they existed. Despite their prime location, they had few visitors and the UF physical plant crews treated them mostly as they did the many undeveloped natural areas across campus, leaving them untended.
One person who was keenly aware of this unique resource, however, was Dr. C. Craig Tisher, a College of Medicine professor and later dean of that school. When Dr. Tisher retired, he dedicated a great deal of effort to the restoration of Wilmot Gardens, which continues today. New greenhouses were constructed offering state-of-the-art conditions for the nurturing of plants prior to setting these plantings out into the gardens. Volunteers work to restore these gardens to the state they were in during Wilmot’s time, with the goal being a place where patients, visitors, faculty, and staff of the hospital and medical campus can come and seek some peace away from the busy lives they have in UF’s sprawling health sciences complex. While the greenhouses themselves are rarely open to the public, they can be walked around and it is easily possibly to see inside, offering those interested in gardening a rather unique look into how such a garden restoration project functions. Within the gardens themselves, the work is also evident: much of the gardens now reflect the beauty and diversity that their creator had in mind decades ago.