Palms and dinosaurs at McKee Botanical Garden

Two weeks ago, in mid-March, the family and I drove to Orlando for spring break. Before heading home, we stopped in Vero Beach, Florida, for a day at the shore and to visit McKee Botanical Garden. Yes, those are dinosaurs in the garden. Roar of the Dinosaur, featuring the life-sized creations of Guy Darrough, are displayed throughout the garden through May 1. Fun for the kids, no doubt, but I found them distracting. Still, I’d just enjoyed Orlando’s theme parks, so why not?

Happily, there’s plenty to see other than dinosaurs. This small public garden is a resurrected fragment of an 80-acre garden park that attracted droves of tourists from the 1930s through the 1960s. Operated by Waldo Sexton, an eccentric builder and nurseryman, and Arthur McKee, a Cleveland industrialist, McKee Jungle Gardens was famous for a “cathedral” of 300 royal palms, an extensive orchid collection, waterlilies, monkeys, and an alligator, Ole Mac. (The dinosaurs would likely have fit right in.) Disney World stole away its tourism base, however, and the garden was closed in 1976. Developers tore out most of the garden to build condos and a golf course.

Today, thanks to the efforts of locals and a land trust, 18 acres of the garden have been restored, showcasing palms, bromeliads, waterlilies, and other native subtropical and tropical plants.

The place does look a bit Jurassic, doesn’t it?

Richly colored bromeliads glowed in the sunlight during our late-morning visit. In the background, Spanish moss hangs from a tall, spreading oak.

A fallen tree trunk, arched at the edge of a pond, hosted an artful display of bromeliads and other plants.

Powdery blue culms of a beautiful Bambusa chungi

The silky plumes of this tall, grass-like plant caught my eye as well. Anyone know what it is? It’s tiger grass (Thysanolaena maxima). Thanks, Max!

Or this long-stemmed cluster of pink flowers — some sort of begonia?

Another temporary exhibit on display in the garden is a large-scale “stickwork” by artist Patrick Dougherty. Dubbed The Royals and sited amid the remaining royal palms, it’s like an oversized playhouse made of pliable willow branches, many of which showed signs of green-leaved regrowth. Dougherty’s fantastical stick structures last only until weather and time bring them down.

One of Waldo Sexton’s creations is The Hall of Giants, a 2-story wooden clubhouse that resembles something the Swiss Family Robinson would have constructed. A ruin after 20 years of abandonment when the garden shut down, it’s been restored to man-cave glory thanks to a grant from Florida’s Division of Historic Resources.

Sexton’s old bell collection is displayed along the porch eaves.

Inside it’s all elk-lodge timbers and iron lanterns. The crowning feature is a gleaming, 38-foot banquet table made from a single slab of Philippine mahogany. What a tree it must have come from!

Just outside, Sexton’s enormous Spanish Kitchen has also been restored, with room to grill 100 steaks at a time, according to garden lore. Those guys must have had some kind of parties here back in the day. Today the hall and outdoor kitchen are rented out for weddings and other events.

McKee Garden is small enough to see in about an hour, and even though I’m not especially into tropical plants, I enjoyed our visit.

It gave me a sense of Florida’s history, the costs of its rapid development, and the commitment of today’s residents to restoring some of what was lost.

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10 Responses

  1. Diana Studer says:

    some kind of tuberous Begonia – also in my garden, but mine was a nameless pot plant from my mother.

  2. Renee says:

    What a cool thing to do, restoring at least a part of such a historic garden. I guess there weren’t any alligators in today’s version?

  3. Oh, I like the “Stickwork” display! And all the amazing orchids and bromeliads! Thanks for the information. Since my parents live in Florida during the winter, it’s nice to have ideas for new gardens to visit.

  4. Max P. says:

    The grass is Thysanolaena maxima, tiger grass. Love the tropical garden, don’t love the heat and humidity so much. Those bromeliads!!

  5. All of those tropical plants make it seem like another world. Fun to see.