A visit to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in southwestern Florida is a great way to escape the winter and surround yourself with ocean air, tropical plants, and breathtaking beauty.
Located in Sarasota, Selby is just a short drive away from some other well-known gardens - including the private homes of plant aficionados Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Mable Ringling (wife of circusman John).
And if you’re a true plant nerd, this may be the strongest argument that you’ll need to hear:
"Selby Gardens features the most diverse living and preserved collections of epiphytes (air plants) in the world. The living collection is accompanied by an herbarium, the world’s second-largest spirit collection (plants in liquid), and a library."
Admittedly, I didn't visit Selby to see their epiphytes, orchids and spirits. My interest in all Botanical Gardens boils down to one thing: overall vibe. Selby’s vibe rates high, and here’s why:
It's a fantastic blend of Florida's native plants, and tropical gardens focused on sensory experiences. The outer edges of the garden serve as a small-scale nature preserve, while the inner areas showcase unusual specimens and thoughtful design.
Marie Selby Botanical Garden Highlights
Among the can't miss areas are:
- Native Plants at the Mangrove Baywalk, Tidal Lagoon, and Hardwood Hammock
- The tranquil and lush Bamboo, Fern, and Epiphyte Gardens
- The Banyan Grove and collection of Coastal and Tropical Palms
- The rainforest-filled Conservatory and adjacent Bonsai Exhibit
In my opinion, the most impressive thing about Selby, is that you’re treated to a spectacular view of Sarasota Bay from a natural shoreline setting. There are moments when you feel a bit like a real-life castaway, accidentally catching sight of civilization through a break in the dense mangrove. Other times, you feel like a welcome guest at a classy lawn party.
Visiting Selby Gardens with Kids
One of my favorite parts about our visit to Selby, was that we seemed to tour the grounds on the same exact schedule as a family with two young girls. From the moment we arrived, we were shadowed by their uncontainable excitement at every turn.
I heard them screaming after butterflies: "Hey that's my friend! Helllloooo, Mrs. Monarch!", identifying birds: "Dad! Look, an Osprey!", and even taking a stab at some botany: "No - Spanish Moss is alive, not dead!".
Selby has a fun, interactive area dedicated to kids, although adults might enjoy a walk-through as well.
In addition to regular 'ol tree climbing, the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden features rope bridges, caves with paintings, and a re-constructed scientific research station, showcasing the behind-the-scenes life of a rainforest botanist.
There are plenty of interactive stations for making big-picture, plant-related epiphanies, and playground equipment for burning off energy.
Native Plants at Selby
Selby has many native plants and trees throughout. There are also several areas to see natives presented in groupings.
The Butterfly Garden:
I visited Selby with my dad, who belongs to a butterfly club about an hour south of Sarasota. By the time we arrived, we had seen no less than five other butterfly gardens throughout the week.
Selby’s butterfly garden is on the small side, but it still provides a great glimpse into what makes this type of intentional plant collection special. You'll also get a chance to see how butterflies are raised from eggs, caterpillars, and chysalides in a home setting.
Lively butterflies can be spotted throughout the gardens. We were even fortunate to catch sight of a purple-tinged Mangrove Skipper Butterfly. The host plant for these lovelies is the Red Mangrove tree that lines the shores of Sarasota Bay.
A Host Plant is the only plant (or family of plants) that specific butterflies will lay their eggs on, and the only food source for the growing caterpillars to eat as they grow and change into adult butterflies.
Just steps away from the Butterfly Garden, you’ll find yourself entering a purely native habitat, filled with plants and wildlife.
While The Tidal Lagoon recalls a French Impressionist painting with its water plants and brightly-colored flowers, it also carries a strong dose of 'pure Florida Everglades'- in a busy, swampy kind of way.
This area has a nice, gently-sloping lawn that leads to the lagoon, perfect for sitting down and enjoying the view. We spotted a handful of birds, none of whom were shy about being photographed and admired.
Near the Butterfly Garden and Tidal Lagoon, you'll also find the Hardwood Hammock, where an impressive group of Native Florida trees and shrubs is on display. Along the shoreline, search for native grasses and wildflowers.
In college, I actually got to spend a week on a Mangrove Research station off the coast of Belize, so I was excited to walk through this specialized habitat once again.
A boardwalk winds you through the Red Mangrove trees (Rhizophora mangle), giving you a chance to observe their root systems up close. Mangrove trees masterfully filter 90% of the salt out of sea water, in order to get their necessary fill of potable, fresh water.
Epiphytes, Ferns and Relaxation at Selby
Epiphyte Garden and Koi Pond:
For me, this area was Heaven. A full-sensory experience complete with soft light, pleasant sounds of moving water, the gentle swaying of flowers and leaves, and plenty of private sitting areas.
Here I found myself amazed by the design. Flowering air plants lace the trees from garden floor to tree canopy ceiling.
Throw in some babbling waterfalls, a handful of peaceful statues, and several lively koi, and you have a recipe for an introspective afternoon. I'm not sure what you have to contemplate in life lately, but I can tell you that this might be the place to do it.
You might want to bring a journal.
After visiting the koi, you'll wind your way through the Fern and Bamboo gardens, filled with statues, and larger-than-life specimens of familiar-looking plants.
Orchids in the Tropical Conservatory
Selby also has an impressive orchid collection. In addition to viewing these living wonders in their Conservatory, the gardens host an annual orchid show and offer a handful of classes to orchid enthusiasts.
Orchids in the Conservatory are joined by Bromeliads and other Rainforest plants, making this a can't-miss stop on your tour. For many people, the Conservatory is the main reason for visiting selby gardens.
The Wishing Tree at Marie Selby Botanical Garden
Not only was I lucky enough to visit Selby just at the turn of the New Year, but I also happened to be there on the exact day of the New Moon, which is double-auspicious timing for setting an intention, or a 'New Moon Wish'.
It was pure joy to happen upon the Wishing Tree; a bodhi tree covered in beautiful 'baskets' decorated by 'wishes'.
Piles of multi-colored ribbons representing peace, happiness, tranquility and celebration were set out with markers for writing down your hopes and dreams for 2017.
For me, this was certainly a great ending to a great day. And for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 2017 is sure to be the beginning of a great, new year. In mid-February, they'll kick off a 6 month exhibition called Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera, intended to draw a connection between art and nature. This exhibit will feature:
- Two Chagall paintings, never-before exhibited in public.
- Grounds decorated with Orchids, Bromeliads, Bougainvillea, and Citrus, as a nod to the South of France.
- The Conservatory will be decorated with large-scale recreations of Chagall's iconic stained glass work, woven together with live flowers and plants.
For more information on visiting the Gardens and attending lectures and events, visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens' website.