With the Northeast under a blanket of snow, and icy winds shaking the branches of bare trees, our bodies and our spirits crave respite. It’s one of the reasons we try each winter to visit Sarasota, Florida, and the earthly paradise known as the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. This lush oasis is the former home of Bill and Marie Selby, who purchased 7 acres of bay-front property in the 1920s. They built a modest, Spanish-style home amid a grove of banyan and laurel trees. Marie Selby, an accomplished pianist who counted nature and the outdoors among her passions, soon began gardening. It was later observed that she preferred garden clothes to the fancy dresses and ball gowns favored by Sarasota’s social set, and if she was seen around town, she stood out as the woman in a simple cotton dress and sneakers.
In more than five decades, Selby created a series of gardens around her home: a formal rose garden, flowering borders, and groves of palms, banyans, mangroves, and bamboo. (The latter was installed to screen out the view of condominiums and hotels that began crowding the shoreline on the other side of the bay.)
Selby died in 1971, and she bequeathed her home and gardens to Sarasota with the hope that the site be maintained as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” In 1975, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens opened officially, and in the ensuing years, her dreams have only been enhanced. Marie Selby’s private oasis has expanded to 15 acres and 12 buildings. It hosts more than 150,000 visitors each year and has developed a reputation as a world leader in the conservation and study of plants, particularly epiphytes (those that are adapted to living in the tree canopy), including orchids, ferns, bromeliads and gesneriads.
The Selby collection includes more than 20,000 living plants, which are showcased in the gardens that surround the house. Visitors generally begin their tour in the Tropical Conservatory. One of nine greenhouses on the property, it’s the only one that’s open to the general public. Inside, visitors will find a lush re-creation of a rainforest filled with blossoming orchids, bromeliads, palms, ferns and other tropical plants. The display is refreshed on a regular basis to make the most of the plants in the Selby’s extensive collection. Visitors tend to stroll slowly through the conservatory, stopping to take photographs or to study the extraordinary detail on the various orchid blossoms.
Visitors exit the conservatory and step outdoors, free to wander pathways punctuated with various species of palm trees (including the beautiful grey-leaved Bismarck Palm) and to explore Selby’s other attractions. The Fern Garden and Koi Pond offer a cooling, shady spot with a decidedly Asian-influenced design. Next, it’s a short walk to the Banyan Grove.
Banyan is a broad genus that includes the Morton Bay Fig, specimens of which can be seen on the Selby property. This stately tree forms a massive trunk with roots that grow partly above ground and resemble the tentacles of a giant octopus. Adventurous young visitors to Selby have been seen climbing amid the roots, which also can be seen from above. Over the years, Selby Gardens has installed a series of suspended wooden bridges and aerial platforms that invite visitors to climb up under the shade canopy. Each platform perch affords a bird’s eye view of the root systems and the gardens beyond.
Another type of banyan that can be seen on Selby property is the “strangler fig,” a fascinating specimen that begins life as an epiphyte. When strangler seeds are dropped by birds, a lucky one might land in the crevice of a tree or atop a piece of garden statuary. The seed germinates, and as it grows, it sends down aerial roots to the ground. The aerial roots take hold, and the strangler fig tree is now independently anchored. As its trunk begins to widen, the strangler sends down more aerial roots, and those, too, take hold. The tree is now spreading laterally, its pattern of growth resembling an expanding group of columns. The growth continues, and oftentimes, the host is enveloped and destroyed.
More fascinations await across the Great Lawn, scene of many a Sarasota wedding. Here, there is an opening that affords a panoramic view of Sarasota Bay. As a warm breeze blows in off the water and the waves glisten in the sun, visitors can take a bench seat and sit for a bit. The view presents a stunning contrast: Selby’s verdant surrounds find their opposite in the stacks of condo, apartment and hotel towers crowding every square inch of the waterfront across the bay. The presence of some of these buildings inspired Marie Selby to install a fast-growing Bamboo Garden, which serves as a green screen blocking a view she found offensive.
From the breezy point, visitors can follow the shady wooden path of the Mangrove Baywalk. With the waves lapping on one side, you enter what feels like a green tunnel amid the mangroves. These remarkable plants sink their roots dug securely into the sand in shallow water. Their salt-tolerant roots house complicated salt filtration systems, and they function as a natural defense system in the battle against erosion and tidal surge.
Emerge from the Mangrove Baywalk, and it’s on to open areas that feature the Selby’s lovely Butterfly Garden, Fragrance Garden, and Edible Garden. These more formal spaces verge on the house.
In addition to the gardens, the Selby offers other attractions as well. Each year brings a variety of educational events including classes, workshops and academic lectures. Additionally, there are botanical art exhibits, and fundraisers including the Orchid Ball and Spring and Fall Concert Series. The latest exhibition, “Marc Chagall, Flowers, and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams,” explores the connection between Selby’s gardens and the flowers and plants that inspired some of Chagall’s paintings. The show opened to the public on Feb. 12, and runs through July 2017.
While the Selby has obvious appeal to gardeners and horticultural experts, it’s also welcoming to children of all ages. Its array of exotic tropical plants, and the thoughtfully designed, kid-friendly exhibit spaces give it the feel of Nature’s Disneyland.
Open 364 days a year, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are at 900 South Palm Ave., Sarasota, FLA. For more information, visit www.selby.org.