Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
Agri Leader

A tropical treasure in the heart of St. Petersburg


Published:

Central Florida's Agri-Leader

In 1903, a plumber by the name of George Turner, Sr. purchased six acres of property in St. Petersburg. On the property was an ancient pond, then known as Curlew Pond, that Turner emptied using drainage tiling and swales to drain the pond to the city's storm water system.

On the bottom of the pond laid a rich, black loam, while the perimeter areas were typically sandy, which allowed for the growth of a wider variety of plants. Turner's favorite hobby was gardening and so the many plantings began in his personal paradise.

Before Turner knew it, his garden was gaining so much recognition by neighbors and tourists that he started charging a nickel for tours. The Turner family, who owned the property for three generations, later implemented the World's Largest Gift Shop and the King of Kings Wax Museum, which were later closed.

This old roadside attraction is now owned by the city of St. Petersburg, which works to preserve the historic botanic gardens and provide cultural and educational opportunities. Sunken Gardens also offers horticultural workshops (often Saturday mornings), tours, special events and more. It's also home to Great Explorations, a children's science museum.

Some of the same plants that Turner originally planted are still standing tall. "We have royal palms, which were planted in 1903; a ponytail palm planted in 1935; and lots of bougainvillea and travelers' trees planted in the '40s," said Bill O'Grady, Sunken Gardens' supervisor who added that some of the garden's oldest royal palms are more than 75 feet tall.

The now four-acre gardens offers a meandering stone pathway for guests to enjoy a cascading waterfall, a Japanese garden, a butterfly garden and a wedding lawn. There are also Koi fish ponds filled with bright fish, a selection of birds, such as Laughing Kookaburras, colorful macaws and pink Chilean flamingos.

There are also more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers that range from mature screw pines, to an impressive rainbow eucalyptus, to tree ferns and a variety of tropical fruit trees.

"We have lychee, jaboticaba, papaya, mango, sapodilla, ceriman, acerola, pomegranate, sugar apple, carambola, bananas, figs, avocado, and various citrus," said O'Grady, whose background also includes work in veterinary medicine. His background is a perfect mix being that the gardens also has a selection of birds, fish and other aquatic animals, like turtles.

Although the flamingo colony is down to two, the two remaining have been at the gardens since 1956, when they were part of a colony of 17. Considering the fact that flamingos generally live 50-60 years in captivity, they are getting up there in years. Sunken Gardens is working to purchase additional flamingos through their Flamingos Forever Fund a 501(c)3 via St. Petersburg Preservation, as the flamingos help maintain the historic character of the gardens.

"Flamingos are extremely gregarious birds, and are happiest living in a large colony," said O'Grady, who said he would like to add a minimum of a dozen in the colony. More information is available on Sunken Gardens' Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SunkenGardens

Back in 1903, the gardens drew enough interest for George Turner, Sr., to create what could be considered the state's first roadside attraction. These days the interest remains strong, as the yearly attendance is an impressive 80,000 visitors.

Sunken Gardens offers the unique experience of tranquility and tropical beauty, just moments from a large prospering downtown. The gardens are quiet and tranquil partly due to the fact that they are as low as 15 feet below the surrounding street level. "The sounds of tropical bird calls, along with waterfalls and the wind whistling through the palms offers a uniquely calming experience," said O'Grady.

If you go:

Sunken Gardens

1825 4th St. N.

St. Petersburg

(727) 551-3102

http://www.stpete.org/sunken/

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