This past weekend my wife, Carol, and I decided we wanted to do something fun without taking an hour or two drive to get there. We decided to visit McKee Gardens in Vero Beach. Since this was my first time visiting this garden, I had no idea of what to expect. I will say, the visit totally exceeded my expectations. Not only is the garden a beautiful place to see, the history that is evident within the gates dates all the way back to 1929.
In 1929, the then McKee Jungle Gardens was opened to the public. The area was known for the lush tropical foliage and the animals that called the garden home. It was like going to a real tropical jungle where monkeys, deer and other animals roamed free throughout the park. The main difference is that it was much safer than going to a tropical jungle in South America.
During the 1940s, 100,000 tourists were visiting the garden annually and it quickly became one of Florida's main attractions. For many years, the garden remained a preferred destination for people traveling to Florida. As time went on, the Turnpike and I-95 were built and started to take traffic away from U.S. 1. This decrease in traffic along with the construction of such places as Disney World started a downturn that finally forced the park to close in 1976.
Most of the land was sold with the exception of 18 acres. This area sat unused for 20 years until the Indian River Land Trust launched a fundraiser to buy the property. They purchased the property in 1995, saving it from becoming a shopping mall. In 2001, a fully restored McKee Botanical Gardens was opened.
When visiting the garden, history can be seen at almost every turn including the parking area. From the historic Cypress stump to the Hall of Giants and the Spanish Kitchen there are plenty of great photo opportunities to be had.
While you stroll through the gardens, there are loads of winding walkways and waterways all crisscrossed with historic stone bridges. Right now, all the water lilies are in bloom and they make for a breathtaking sight as you walk through the gardens. The official time for touring the gardens is 45 minutes to an hour but you will want to spend a lot more time than that looking at all the treasures that are there to see. You can almost place yourself back into the 1940's as you stroll along the historic paths.
While on your stroll, you will come across the giant Banyan tree that was knocked over during the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. The tree had to be trimmed and then inverted to an upright position in the hopes that the tree would again flourish. The tree is now doing great and it will make for a great photo opportunity.
Another point of interest is the "sleeping tree." This tree is actually a tree that was knocked over in 1979 when hurricane David tore through the Treasure Coast. The hurricane dropped this huge tree completely to the ground but the root system remained intact in such a way that the tree survived. The tree now grows while lying completely on the ground.
The gardens have plenty of places to sit and enjoy the tranquility while you are on your tour. They also have a garden café and a gift shop.
The gardens are open from 10 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 on Sunday. They are located at 350 U.S. Highway 1 in Vero Beach.
Joe Zelenak has more than 30 years experience in gardening and landscape. Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site www.hometowngarden.com.