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Old Tourist Attraction Gets New Life As Botanical Garden With Help From UF

Cindy Spence

Dan Culbert (561) 770-5030

VERO BEACH—There was a time when people came to Florida to see botanical wonders rather than those made by man.

The main tourist attractions were oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, palms swaying in the wind, alligators basking near ponds filled with exotic water lilies.

University of Florida horticulturists and master gardeners, along with Vero Beach residents, are betting that people still want to see that side of Florida, and they are turning a dilapidated 1930’s tourist attraction into a botanical garden and center for horticultural education and research. The restored park is set to open in late 1998.

In its heyday, McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero Beach was a tourist destination to rival any in Florida. Right on U.S. 1, the main drag into pre-interstate Florida, it attracted 100,000 visitors a year from around the United States. Then Interstate 95 opened up and drew traffic off U.S. 1.

And then came Mickey Mouse.

“When Disney World opened up, McKee couldn’t compete,” said Jim Haeger, a retired UF entomologist, botanist and horticulturist who has been active in the move to preserve McKee. “Disney World took all the tourists away.”

The attraction stayed open for a while, struggling, then closed to tourists in 1976. Some of its 100 acres were sold for a housing development. The 18 remaining acres were padlocked, but vagrants and weeds took over. Antique tiles in the open-air Spanish Kitchen, where food for visitors was prepared, were stolen and damaged. “Collectors” walked out with plant specimens. Artifacts disappeared.

Meanwhile, a group of citizens mobilized as the Indian River Land Trust to rescue the property. Not until December 1995, with bulldozers poised to turn the natural coastal hammock into 108 condos, did the group succeed.

In the years since, the garden has become a regional cause celebre. History buffs want to preserve the architecture of the Spanish Kitchen and the Hall of Giants, a meeting/dining hall built from Florida heart pine. Already, a $348,000 grant from the state Division of Historical Resources is being put to work to restore the circa-1941 buildings.

For their part, gardeners would like to restore some of the hundreds of varieties of water lilies that used to grow there along with the prize-winning orchids. The original garden was designed by William Lyman Phillips, the most noted landscaper of his day, also known for designing Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Dade County and Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. Phillips’ original drawings are being used in the restoration.

Dan Culbert, director of the Indian River County Cooperative Extension, a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said researchers could find the garden a valuable “living laboratory.” In its prime McKee was used as a plant induction site for species from around the world and could be used again to test new varieties of plants.

“As a demonstration/research site, you could grow something experimentally here before releasing it commercially,” Culbert said. “It could also be used as an educational facility, with students doing their research here and living down the road in the dorms at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory.”

Even in its current condition, the garden provides fodder for horticulturists, Culbert said.

“The garden challenges many of our plant assumptions about how things are supposed to grow,” Culbert said. “Here we have 20 or so years of benign neglect with Mother Nature allowed to sort out what would and wouldn’t work.”

Haeger said the garden started as a Florida east coast hammock with a mix of oaks, mulberries and cabbage palms. Founders Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton planned to use the land for a citrus grove, then fell in love with its natural beauty. They established a nursery first, then decided to make a jungle out of it by interplanting the native vegetation with some exotics from the tropics.

The unique diversity of plant life has remained, and there are many species a visitor can see in just an hour that would otherwise require a world tour. Six champion trees call the garden home, along with centuries-old oaks that predate Florida’s statehood. The Audubon Society has counted 30 to 35 bird species in the garden’s canopy.

“People would have to go to Borneo or South America or Africa to see what they can see here,” Haeger said. “It’s a good learning place for citizens, schools, colleges — just a beautiful setting.

“In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, it was like going to a jungle, only in Florida,” Haeger said. “It was a real eye-catcher.”

Suzan Phillips, vice president of the land trust, is one of many UF master gardeners playing a role in the restoration. In leading tours and activism to preserve the garden they are finding a little different niche than master gardeners in other communities, Culbert said.

Phillips said she remembers the garden from visits as a little girl.

“There were monkeys on harnesses swinging through the trees and Old Mac, the alligator, who was so old he was allowed to roam free. Otters played in the pools, and when you left they gave you a glass of sulphur water that everyone seemed to drink even though it was so smelly,” Phillips said.

“A Florida hammock is a very special place, and there are so few left,” Phillips said. “This really is Old Florida, but with plants mixed in that you can’t see anywhere else.”

With so much development on the east coast, Phillips and Culbert say it’s important to save the green space, both native and exotic.

“McKee is important for a sense of ownership, to see the connection between the way Florida was and is now, and is going to be,” Culbert said.

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