In the beginning, it was Florida botanical gardens that enchanted visitors.
People from cooler climates could not get enough of the exotic flowers and trees, lushly green and vibrant with color in the warm sunny days of winter. As visitors started arriving in Florida by car in the early 20th Century, attractions sprung up to offer beauty and novelty – for a few bucks.
The earliest roadside attractions in Florida? Botantical gardens, like McKee Botanical Gardens (1929 in Vero Beach), St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens (1935) and Historic Bok Tower Gardens (1929 in Lake Wales.)
Thankfully, some things don’t change. Many of these gardens have matured into treasured collections of mature trees, rare plants and splendid landscapes.
Almost a hundred years later, these gardens are still favorites, and they’ve been joined by new gardens, like the Naples Botanical Gardens (opened in 1993), the Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens (opened in 2017) and the Morikami Japanese Gardens (expanded gardens opened in 2001.)
Traveling in Florida, I’ve tried to visit them all. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never had a bad time visiting a botanical garden.
A few notes about our garden profiles. I’ve included prices as of August 2022, but these are likely to increase. Many gardens are non-profits that must raise additional funds just to keep their gates open. Tickets aren’t cheap – some are $20 to $25 for adults. Most offer reduced ticket prices for children and seniors. A few are bargains — state parks with nominal charges and one is free. Some offer coupons and Groupons. Also check for AAA, AARP and military discounts.
Southeast Florida Botanical Gardens
Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Coral Gables
Fairchild is in a class by itself, starting with its 1938 origin: It is named after David Fairchild, one of the most famous plant explorers in history, who worked with Miami citizens including Everglades champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas, to found this 83-acre paradise on land purchased by businessman Robert H. Montgomery.
What’s special about this garden: Fairchild is full of rare palms, cycads, orchids and bromeliads. It has 125 species of bamboo and some of the most exotic tropical fruits in the world. It is expansive and beautifully designed by famed architect William Lyman Phillips. The gardens have been enhanced by the addition of a few glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.
A visitor favorite: The only tropical rainforest in the continental United States, which covers two acres and includes waterfalls and cascades and a misting system to keep rainforest plants happy. Tied for most popular: An enclosed free-flying butterfly pavilion “Wings of the Tropics.”
Adult admission: $24.95; $17.95 seniors; $11.95 children 6-17; free for 5 and under.
Fairchild Tropical Gardens website
10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables, FL 33156
Morikami Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach
Why is there a Japanese Garden in suburban Delray Beach? Because at the turn of the century, this land was home to a group of young Japanese farmers who formed an agricultural colony they called Yamato, an ancient name for Japan. It didn’t thrive and most soon left. But George Yamato stayed and when he died in the 1970s, he left the land to Palm Beach County for it to become a living memory to the Yamato Colony.
What’s special about garden: It’s authentic. Covering 16 acres, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is made up of six distinct landscapes inspired by significant gardens of Japan. As you stroll the pathways around the lake, you walk through gardens representing more than a thousand years of Japanese culture.
A visitor favorite: Perhaps the most peculiar garden is the Zen Garden or Karesansui that translates to “dry landscape.” In the 15th and 16th centuries, you’d have discovered such gardens around Zen Buddhist temples where monks found they enhanced meditation. It is comprised of carefully raked stones and sand and large rocks to express nature and the universe.
Bonus: The Morikami has an excellent museum, gift shop and the pan-Asian food at the Cornell Café is top notch.
Florida Rambler story on how to enhance your experience visiting Morikami Japanese Gardens.
Adult Admission: $15; $13 seniors, $11 college students; $9 children 6 to 17.
Morikami Japanese Gardens website
4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach, FL
Key West Botanical Gardens, Key West
Founded in 1936 by the federal government as part of the Depression Era recovery efforts, this 15-acre garden located on Stock Island has the charm of a community-supported project. It’s not manicured, trimmed and full of flowers; it feels more like a walk in a nature preserve.
What’s special here: With special attention to native plants, you’ll also see plants you would otherwise encounter only on Caribbean islands. As you enter, there is a beautiful view of a fresh water pond with several different kinds of chimes displayed, each with a mallet that lets visitors play music. When those chimes are played, the wild turtles swim over. The two fresh water ponds – rare in the Keys – attract migrating birds and thus this is also a good birding spot.
A visitor favorite: The garden houses a collection of “Cuban Chugs,” handcrafted boats and rafts that Cuban refugees have used to cross the Florida Straits to seek freedom in Florida.
Florida Rambler story on Key West Botanical Gardens
Adult admission: $10 adults; $7 seniors
Key West Botanical Gardens website
5210 College Road, Key West, FL 33040
Flamingo Gardens, Davie
Flamingo Gardens started with citrus trees, which are still an important part of the gardens, but there are now hundreds of native and exotic trees surrounded by lush gardens with ponds, a stream, and a waterfall. It was founded in 1927 by Floyd Wray, whose historic home on the grounds, full of period items, is an interesting stop.
Two decades ago, Flamingo Gardens began developing a new area of the park, the Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary. Over the years, it has added animals so that now it has more than 80 native species of birds and animals, including river otter, eagles, bobcats, tortoises, a black bear and a Florida panther.
What’s special here: The walk-in aviary is full of native Florida birds, most injured and unable to be released into the wild. It’s amazing to get two feet from a roseate spoonbill, a bird you are usually viewing through binoculars.
A visitor favorite: The flamingoes, of course. Be sure to buy flamingo food when you buy your entry ticket, because you can hand-feed the flamingoes, whose curved beaks gently scrape your hand to gather food pellets.
Florida Rambler story on Flamingo Gardens
Adult admission: $22; $20 if you buy a ticket online
Flamingo Gardens website
3750 S. Flamingo Road, Davie, FL 33330
McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
Before there was Disney, there was McKee Jungle Garden, a magical roadside attraction featuring exotic tropical flowers that drew 100,000 visitors a year in the 1940s. Today, while smaller than originally, it offers spectacular beauty in its vistas, its quirky historic structures and especially its water lilies.
What’s special here: McKee has one of the biggest outdoor displays of water lilies in the United States, with lilies blooming in lagoons, streams and around waterfalls on paths that wind through the jungly property festooned with orchids. McKee’s collection of waterlilies includes more than 80 varieties with more than 300 potted and 100 free-range plants, including night-blooming and day-blooming varieties.
A visitor favorite: For me, it’s a tie: 1) I loved the stickwork structure called Grand Central, which is woven out of willow reeds twisting and arching through a grove of royal palms to form rooms and spaces to explore. Internationally acclaimed artist Patrick Dougherty and his son Sam designed and built it with help from volunteers. 2) The Children’s Garden is a delight. When we visited, a graying grandma climbed up the stairs to explore a pirate ship that looks like it is marooned in a tree, explaining to me: “We’re all still kids.”
Florida Rambler story on McKee Botantical Gardens
Adult admission: $15; seniors and youth (13-17) $13; child $10
McKee Botanical Gardens website
350 US Highway 1, Vero Beach, FL 32962
Mounts Botanical Gardens, West Palm Beach
Mounts Botanical Garden is not the biggest or most famous garden in Florida, but it packs a lot in its 14 acres. Because Mounts Botanical Garden began as a demonstration garden, it is full of informative labels and practical tips on how to apply what you see to your own garden.
What’s special here: There are 25 distinct garden areas, with many paths and benches. Many area residents consider it their hidden gem.
A visitor favorite: The water garden of aquatic plants and small waterfalls. It’s called Windows on the Floating World.
Florida Rambler story on Mounts Botanical Gardens
Adult admission: $15; $12 seniors; $7 for ages 6 to 17; free for children under 6.
Mounts Botanical Gardens website
531 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach, FL
The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Miami
The Kampong was the home of David Fairchild — a “plant explorer.” (Imagine Indiana Jones as a botanist.) He is credited with introducing as crops plants that include soybeans, pistachios, mangos, nectarines, bamboo and literally thousands more. This estate with enchanting views of Biscayne Bay was his winter home and eventual retirement home.
What’s special here: Though only 11 acres, there are beautiful scenes and many exotic fruit, including candle fruit, peanut butter fruit, egg fruit, cocoplums, and over 50 varieties of mango.
A visitor favorite: We loved the swimming pool, with huge coral stone boulders submerged in it.
Florida Rambler story on The Kampong National Tropical Garden
Adult admission: $15; seniors and students $10; all visits require reservations
The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden website
4013 Douglas Road, Miami, FL 33133
Heathcote Botanical Gardens, Fort Pierce
This smaller, lesser known garden has a surprising claim to fame: It’s home to the largest public tropical bonsai garden in the United States. Bonsai garden occupies 10,000 square feet within the five-acre gardens, which also include an orchid house, rainforest, a Japanese garden, butterfly garden, herb garden and children’s garden.
What’s special here: The bonsai specimens. Each is displayed along a winding path on its own pedestal to create a “Walk Through Bonsai,” where visitors stroll and discover a unique bonsai tree at every turn.
A visitor favorite: The holiday lights display is a community tradition.
Adult admission: $10
Florida Rambler story on Fort Pierce, including Heathcote Botantical Garden
Pan’s Garden, Palm Beach
Covering a mere half-acre of land – less than half a football field – this carefully curated gem is filled with Florida’s native plants. In fact, this Palm Beach island garden is the state’s only all-native botanical garden.
What’s special here: One of the main reasons to visit is to enjoy and learn more about native plants and the birds, bees, insects and butterflies they sustain and attract. Signage throughout the garden can help you identify what species of plants you are seeing.
A visitor favorite: A fountain that features a colorful wall crafted from tiles imported from Portugal. The wall was saved from the Casa Apava estate, which was built in 1918 along what today is a two-mile-long stretch of South Ocean Boulevard dubbed Billionaire’s Row.
Adult admission: Free
Pan’s Garden website
386 Hibiscus Ave., Palm Beach, FL
832-0731 ext. 113
Southwest Florida Botantical Gardens
Naples Botanical Gardens, Naples
The 170-acre garden is devoted to the plants of the tropics and sub-tropics, presented in nine themed gardens, one more stunning than the next. Visitors often spend several hours following the garden map to see it all.
What’s special here: The Naples garden has spectacular manicured scenery in its well-groomed gardens, but also a one-mile trail through a wild native-plant landscape around a lake, where you are likely to see wading birds and alligators.
A visitor favorite: The Naples Garden has an unusual schedule of daily free tours, about which visitors rave. Depending on the time of year, there are several tours a day on different topics. You can sign up when you enter. Here are details of tour offerings.
Bonus: Folks love the FOGG Café and gift shop.
Adult admission: $25
Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens, Punta Gorda
An ambitious new garden, the Peace River Gardens opened in 2017 on 11 acres of gorgeous waterfront on the south side of the wide Peace River. It has a unique vision – to showcase the natural beauty of the property along with gardens of botanicals, all complementing spectacular sculptures. The garden is still being developed. Over the next decade, it will grow to fill 30 acres with features such as a café, an amphitheater and a museum.
What’s special here: Sculptures are carefully placed around the grounds, positioned in spectacular eye-catching settings. There are hyper-realistic statues, including one of a woman “floating” on an inner tube in a pool. There’s a dramatic kinetic sculpture that gently moves in the breeze, reflecting the surroundings in its mirror-like finish. There’s a huge metal sculpture set in the mangroves looking like the remains of a giant ancient ship. You don’t need an art degree to enjoy these often whimsical sculptures.
A visitor favorite: Boardwalks and bridges lead through the mangroves to an area that will be the site of a future museum and to a sweeping view of the Peace River.
Florida Rambler story on Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens
Adult admission: $18
Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens website
5800 Riverside Drive, Punta Gorda FL
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota
The 15-acre garden in downtown Sarasota is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other tropical plants. (Epiphytes or “air plants” grow on the surface of another plant and get moisture and nutrients from the air, rain or debris accumulating around it.)
What’s special here: The orchids! Selby Gardens contain the most diverse living and preserved collection of ephiphytes in the world, with thousands of species represented. The gardens hold a spectacular orchid show every fall. (In 2022, it is Oct. 15- Dec. 4.) Orchids bloom every month, with October and November considered the peak season.
A visitor favorite: Fans of the garden are thrilled with the recent announcement that Patti Smith, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, National Book Award-winning author, and fine artist, will be the artist in residence here in 2023-2024, during which she’ll offer readings and performances during two residencies. The announcement was made April 28, 2022, at a live performance by Smith at the Downtown Sarasota campus of Selby.
Adult admission: $21
Central Florida Botanical Gardens
Bok Tower and Gardens, Lake Wales
Sitting atop the Lake Wales Ridge on “Mount Iron,” with 298 feet of elevation, Bok Tower Gardens offers hours of activity and a variety of experiences. There is manicured greenery, a historic home, a garden just for kids, trails to wander plus you can hear the music of a 60-bell carillon that is played regularly from just about any place in the garden. You’ll see azaleas, camellias and magnolias in season.
What’s special here: The Singing Tower Carillon and Reflection Pool, one of only 200 carillons in the United States. The Art Deco structure is made of coquina, Georgia marble and ceramic tile used in a way that marries the landscape with the architecture.
A visitor favorite: If you have children with you, you’ll be thrilled with the Children’s Garden, where can can sit in a bird’s nest, climb on an oversized black spider’s web, sit atop the head of an indigo snake with pebble scales, try getting water from a hand pump, play harmonic instruments or create a costumed play on a stage. Other visitors will love the tour of El Retiro, a restored historic 20-room home placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Florida Rambler story on Bok Tower and Gardens
Adult admission: $17
Bok Tower and Gardens website
1153 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, FL
St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg
Starting in 1911, George Turner Sr., a plumber and avid gardener, drained a lake in a sinkhole and used the rich soil to plant fruit trees, flowering bushes and Royal Palm trees. Visitors began paying him a nickel to see it.
The ticket price has gone up, but many of the original plants and trees are still there. In 1999, the city saved the attraction in downtown St. Petersburg.
What’s special here: The Sunken Gardens are like a taste of Old Florida. Winding trails offer exquisite vistas past manmade waterfalls, over arched bridges with views of koi ponds and orchids – just the sort of scenery that delighted its visitors 100 years ago.
A visitor favorite: There is a flock of flamingoes and colorful parrots and macaws.
Florida Rambler story on finding Old St. Petersburg, which includes information on the Sunken Garden
Adult admission: $15 (check for a Groupon)
Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando
This 50-acre botanical garden could be the most beautiful place in Orlando. With towering mature trees giving shade and Lake Rowena providing a beautiful backdrop, the gardens unveil beauty at every turn – and there are many turns in the winding walkways.
What’s special here: The garden has an Old Florida feel and contains the Leu House Museum, a restored 19th Century home listed on the National Register of Historic Places that has been owned by only four families.
A visitor favorite: The garden features a verdant tropical stream, lush with fascinating specimens, all of which are carefully labeled.
Florida Rambler story on visiting Winter Park, which includes information on the Harry P. Leu Gardens
Adult admission: $15; check the website for monthly free days
Harry P. Leu Gardens website
1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, FL 32803
Northern Florida Botanical Gardens
Ravine Gardens State Park, Palatka
From January to March, Ravine Gardens State Park has close to 100,000 flowering trees and shrubs that draw visitors from around the region. The gardens are the product of the Depression-era jobs program, the Civil Works Administration. It was hugely popular then; it ranked in the top 10 tourist destinations in the state
What’s special here: Year round, visitors can admire the unusual landscape. A spring bubbles up here and forms Whitewater Branch, which flows into the St. Johns River. Over centuries, the stream has cut deep ravines into the land. There is a paved 1.8-mile road through the 146-acre park, with many picnic sites and a playground along the way.
A visitor favorite: Don’t miss the administration building and the log concession building. Constructed of cypress logs and knees in 1935, they are considered regionally significant as examples of American Rustic Architecture.
Adult admission: $5 per vehicle
Ravine Gardens State Park website
1600 Twigg St., Palatka, FL
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville
This 68-acre garden has 24 major collections you view from a 1.5 mile paved walkway.
What’s special here: Kanapahaha has the largest public display of bamboos in Florida (the sound of the wind in the large bamboo forests is other-worldly) and the largest herb garden in the Southeast.
A visitor favorite: The Giant Victoria Water Lilies can reach six feet in diameter during their brief growing season (late summer to fall.) The lilies die when the weather turns cold.
Adult admission: $10
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Palm Coast
The small garden in this state park has ancient spreading oak trees, a meandering waterway fed by a clear spring, plantings of roses and azaleas, a gazebo and numerous photo-worthy scenes.
What’s special here: The gardens, trails and Matanzas River waterfront have been maintained as beautiful gardens for more than 80 years. It started with a Owen Young, founder of RCA Corporation and eventually chairman of General Electric.
A visitor favorite: The garden is especially beautiful in spring when the azaleas are in bloom.
A Florida Rambler story on Washington Oaks Gardens State Park
Admission: $5 per vehicle
Eden Gardens State Park, Santa Rosa Beach
Eden Gardens State Park preserves a stately 1897 white mansion with columns and a big wrap-around porch. The mansion is surrounded by magnificent trees and grassy expanses with fountains and sculptures. The grounds spread over 163 acres on the waterfront overlooking Tucker Bayou at the eastern corner of Choctawhatchee Bay.
What’s special here: Peak bloom for azaleas and camellias is January to March. There are 100 varieties of camellias here and both native and non-native azaleas.
A visitor favorite: As you stroll the beautiful grounds, you’ll think it is just the place to have a wedding. Lots of people have had that realization and there is a magnificent 600 year old live oak that is named the Wedding Tree because countless people have said their vows here.
A Florida Rambler story on Eden Gardens State Park
Adult admission: $4 per vehicle
Eden Gardens State Park website
181 Eden Gardens Road, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Florida botanical gardens FAQ
When can I see blooming flowers in Florida gardens? At most gardens, something is in bloom year round. In Central Florida and Northern Florida, gardens are especially beautiful January to March, when camellias and azaleas blossom. (Call ahead if peak bloom is important to you; it varies yearly depending on the weather.
What’s the most beautiful botanical garden in Florida? That’s a matter of opinion, of course. But Selby Gardens in Sarasota is the only Florida garen to make Fodor’s lists of the 12 most beautiful gardens in the American South. Personally, I think Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Coral Gables might be #1 in Florida.
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.