You don’t need to go to Italy to experience the magic of Naples - that is: Naples in South Florida.
A different kind of paradise full of exotic, tropical plants and botanical adoration that ranges from water lily fanatics to bromeliad lovers > to the dark side: obsessive ghost orchid thieves, as portrayed in the film loosely based on a true story: Adaptation, with Nicholas Cage & Meryl Streep.
One of my favorite botanical gardens in the world - the Naples Botanical Garden - is a wonderland of precious botanical treasures. Seven years ago, it was a swamp infested with invasive melaleuca trees. Under the innovative direction of Canadian-born director Brian Holley, it quickly evolved to what it is now: a luscious garden exploding with flowers, a staff that deeply cares about conservation and a fiercely loyal membership that regularly attends yoga, tai chi and meditation classes in the garden.
A weekly destination for locals, the garden is a nature-based wellness center, offering sensory tours, a butterfly garden, hammocks to lie around in, a children’s garden, a labyrinth, and four geo-gardens dedicated to different areas of the tropics between 26 latitude north and 26 latitude south: Asia, the Caribbean, Brazil and native Florida. Listen to the wind chimes, bury your face in aromatic flowers, lie on the grass under exotic trees, play bocce ball and enjoy a flower petal salad at the outdoor cafe. Take a long, meditative walk around the preserve, through native Pine forests, sandy pathways with wildflowers and boardwalks amidst the occasional alligator or water snake.
Aside from offering regular classes in art, gardening, wellness and nature, NBG offers programming for kids and adults with developmental disabilities and the aging population with Alzheimers/dementia focusing on botanical interactivity and reflection-based exercises. They also offer opportunities for culinary students to work with the tropical fruits that grow in their garden, like mangoes, avocados and bananas - a favorite condiment of the students being the ‘Banana Peel Ketchup’.
Every time I visit the garden it’s more lush and luscious, evolving plant, programming and staff-wise. Their leadership is constantly pushing the envelope, i.e. their newest addition: a LEED-certified entrance, walkways, education center, cafe and retail area, along with a beautiful Orchid garden.
On a private tour with us, Brian Holley explained how the soft gray wood slats in the entrance came from 100-year old Cypress tree logs sitting at the bottom of a river. They pulled up the logs, dried them and used them for the new construction. Brian’s conservation-minded team is always on the lookout for old-growth trees that will be cut down around town; they rescue the trees and bring them into their botanical family fold in the garden.
The garden team includes plant-lovers and botanical specialists of all kinds: Aquatic Plants (think water lilies and lotuses), Orchids, Tropical Fruit Trees and local Floridian native plant life.
We interviewed Danny, the Aquatic Plant Specialist, as he helped us obtain a night-blooming red water lily for making a flower elixir.
He put on the waders, and braved the water snakes to help us collect the water lily. He also graciously performed the water offering ceremony and prayers typical of when we collect flower essences.
We also interviewed Taylor Burnham, Horticulture Therapist in the Enabling Garden, who showed us leaves that smell like buttery popcorn, a spongy magenta flower that feels like a cat tail and seed pods that make music. We explored her tea garden, all the scented geraniums and a sweet almond tree, whose tiny white blossoms fill your entire being with the most exquisite cherry and honey fragrance.
We went on a native plant and herb walk with Chad Washburn, who started the walk by gently breaking off a tiny branch of the gumbo limbo tree for us to smell. Mmmmm … the most divine unisex perfume/cologne could be made from the resinous branch of the tree similar to the Frankincense tree. These aromatic trees were planted by members at the garden, so they can come back and enjoy the growth - and legacy - of the trees.
On the walk I was so delighted watching Chad’s excitement at every turn of the path. The excitement of a botanical buff is contagious, and when you see someone get so excited about a plant that pops up out of nowhere – and start spouting off all the latin names of the plants – you can’t help but also feel excited too. We walked though the preserve which boasts a new set of wildflowers each couple of weeks, making every stroll a new discovery.
Chad showed us where the little sisters of venus fly traps pop up after a rain: Sun Dew are teeny-tiny, little insectivorous plants the size of moss! He also showed us where a few of the ghost orchid babies had been planted in the preserve. Most of them are planted in secret locations, but there are a few of the 100 or so ghost orchids that are visible, along with security cameras, because, yes, Florida is crazy like that – and the obsessed plant collectors will actually brave alligator waters to steal a precious ghost orchid.
Every time I visit this garden, new flowers are blooming, this time one of my all-time favorite, elusive flowers called the Jade Vine. A flower literally the color of jade, it blooms in shades of light green and blue that are rarely ever found in nature. Native to the Philippines, where they are endangered, the Jade Vine is a rare beauty. With the collaborative efforts of the Naples Botanical Garden, we were able to make a flower essence of the Jade Vine (dream come true!), along with six other incredibly beautiful tropical flowers.
Along with the garden team + board members, I joined in some of the 10-year garden future strategy meetings, and I can tell you this place will continue to evolve ... definitely put the Naples Botanical Garden on your bucket list!
Love + flower petals,
Comments will be approved before showing up.