Saturday, July 18, 2009
Rediscovering Mead Gardens
Near Orlando on my 1956 Standard Oil map of attractions is a drawing of an orchid blossom under which a caption reads "Orchid Garden." It is my guess the map refers to Mead Botanical Gardens, a Winter Park landmark that was dedicated in 1940. According to a sign on the property, the Gardens were established when Rollins College Vice President Dr. Edwin Grover and Rollins student John Connery discovered the site in 1937 and convinced the owners of the property to donate the land to create the gardens. One of the landowners was developer Walter Rose, a Florida State Senator who was responsible for the creation of much of the College Park and Orwin Manor developments in Orlando and Winter Park.
Grover and Connery desired the site to host the vast orchid collection of renowned botanist Theodore Mead, who passed away in 1936. With the donation of the land and the help of a grant from the WPA, New Deal workers "erected a surrounding palm fence, two gatehouses, greenhouses, a superintendent's building, and developed beautiful floral displays and three miles of nature trails..." In 1953, the Gardens were taken over by the City of Winter Park.
Among the "things to see and enjoy" in the gardens, according to a vintage brochure, are 5,000 orchids, rare plants including the Nepenthe or "Meat Rating plant", trees including the "Fossil Tree" from China and the Sausage Tree, ferns, club mosses, cycads, palms, trails and gardens. The brochure boasts that the gardens has "large plantings of Azaleas, Gardenias, Camellias, Hermerocallis, Caladiums and Roses" and "half mile of winding jungle trail bordering a lovely brook with tiny waterfalls.
Today many of the exotic plants are no longer in existence as the garden fell into disrepair in the late '80s. The highly acclaimed orchids are no where to be found and this time of year the "jungle trail" is mostly underwater. Lake Lillian, a small water body on the property, is almost entirely covered by an invasive plant called primrose willow, but efforts are underway to reclaim the lake's natural beauty. There are new plantings of native species and they seem to be thriving and attracting beautiful butterflies and hummingbirds. On my visit the I saw a bird watching group, photographers and dog walkers all enjoying the gardens. Gardening in the subtropical weather of Florida can be challenging; controlling rapid growth by desirable and undesirable plants require constant attention. Despite severe damage from the hurricanes of 2004, Mead Gardens appears to be on its way back to being the spot that has been revered by Central Floridians for decades.