Mary Selby Botanical Gardens

What to Expect on a Visit

Opened in 1978, the historic home and garden were left to the people of Sarasota by Marie Selby in 1970. Your visit should begin in the Cooley Theater where a 4-minute film gives the background history to this lovely Florida home. Marie Selby and her oil-tycoon husband, William, bought the land in the early 1920s. Although wealthy, they preferred a simple lifestyle which is reflected in the Spanish style home they built and the informal gardens they created.

This was intended as a winter home and a base for hunting and fishing. After the death of Marie Selby, the property has since been developed into a world-famous tropical oasis with an unrivalled collection of air plants called “epiphytes”. It has the largest scientific collection of orchids and bromeliads in the USA.

Your self-guided exploration of Selby Gardens begins in the steamy Tropical House where posts and frames support pots and rocks covered in ferns, orchids and bromeliads in a very natural setting. Waterfalls drip down mossy rocks and exotic orchids bloom at every turn, along with amaryllis, anthurium and a collection of gesneriads. Many of the specimen plants are labeled for easy identification.

Beyond this huge conservatory is the Bonsai collection followed by a shady display of airplants. They are attached to wicker circles creating tiered wind chimes which hang from the low branches of a huge native oak tree. The gentle chimes and oriental script make this a peaceful and harmonious place to take stock of these gardens for the first time.

After the tranquil Koi Pond which has two waterfalls, there are several bamboo stands and ferns including some sizeable tree ferns in the borders. A footpath leads off to the Children’s Rainforest Garden, a family-friendly area of recreated tropical rainforest with a 12-foot waterfall and an amazing banyan tree for scrambling over its roots. It’s a place for children to explore and play with three different huts housing various rainforest-related exhibits.

The huge fig trees planted by the Selbys 80 years ago have grown to create an impressive Banyan Canopy which is an impressive feature of the garden. The showy hibiscus flowers thrive in the Sarasota climate along with an area of succulents. In spring, the huge pink flower tassels of the Pseudobombax Ellipticum or Shaving Brush Tree lie scattered on the lawn and are an extraordinary sight.

The Gazebo on the edge of the lawn makes a stunning focal point to this part of the garden, surrounded by bright annuals in a palm-shaded setting. As you stand admiring the subtropical plantings, heavenly scents waft across from unidentified sources. Geckos and anoles rustle in the fallen leaves and birds enjoy the shelter of the Gumbo Limbo trees. See desert rose plants, exotic strelitzia (bird of paradise), flowering shrubs and giant staghorn and elkhorn ferns suspending high in the air on sturdy chains.

At the extreme south end of the garden is a paved area with seats for enjoying the stunning views of sailboats and pleasure craft moored in the bay beneath the John Ringling Causeway bridge. A scenic pavilion is used as a wedding venue and has beautiful stained glass panels of wildlife high in the roofline.

Close to the boat dock and landing stage is a boardwalk through the protected mangroves leading to a white sandy beach littered with driftwood and seashells. A gentle breeze from the water keeps the air fresh and breezy and the restful lapping of the waves adds to the peace of this pretty garden.

Heading back along the path to the original home, look out for the multicolored trunk of the well-named Rainbow Gum Tree, a type of eucalyptus.

When the house was built, it was coated in expensive cochina shell on the exterior, which was a new and expensive process in the 1920s. The building is now used to provide a Kids Discovery Corner, reading room and a café with indoor and outdoor seating. A small reflecting pool captures part of this lovely structure in its mirror-like surface.

At the rear of the house is the Christy Payne Mansion which houses the Museum of Botany and the Arts and has ever-changing exhibits on a floral or botanical theme. There is a planted butterfly garden in front of the house. The Old Carriage House nearby offers daily tea tastings and is a great place to relax with a well-deserved cuppa!

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!

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About gillianbirch

Greetings from your international roving reporter! Based in beautiful Cornwall UK, I am a freelance travel writer and published author of several travel books. As the wife of a Master Mariner, I have travelled extensively and lived in exotic locations all over the world including the Far East, Europe, Australia and the Republic of Panama. I would describe myself as having “endless itchy feet and an insatiable wanderlust”, as I continue to explore Europe, Florida and further afield, writing about my experiences with humour and attention to detail. BTW, I have a Diploma from the British College of Journalism and am a member of the International Travel Writers’ Alliance and the Gulf Coast Writers’ Association.
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