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The Little-Known Treasures of the Naples Botanical Garden

Keep an eye out for these attractions during your next visit to the botanical garden.

BY November 25, 2016


When we learned late last year that Brian Holley, executive director of Naples Botanical Garden, was retiring, we had a small, but heartfelt, pang of concern. After all, Holley has been at the helm of the organization since 2005 and helped turn it into one of our favorite places in Southwest Florida. (Seriously, I take amazing selfies there.) Yet even with his departure next month, Holley assures us that the garden will not require you or me to come over and spend our free time weeding the screw pine (a euphemism from forestry school). The place will keep humming along just fine, thank you very much. And though the garden first opened to the public in 2009—and this magazine has thrown some weeding the screw pine (a euphemism from forestry school). The place will keep humming along just fine, thank you very much.

And though the garden first opened to the public in 2009—and this magazine has thrown some terrific parties there since (some of which I remember clearly)—it turns out that there are still an awful lot of secrets to this place that we were unaware of. So between Holley and Deputy Director Chad Washburn, we decided to spotlight some of the unique features of what just might be this area’s most beautiful and serene spot.


  • There is a tree in the Kapnick Caribbean Garden that has an embedded teaspoon in the heart of the trunk. Long ago, when the tree was a sapling, someone placed a teaspoon between two lower branches. As the tree grew, the spoon was enveloped, leaving only the handle sticking out of the trunk. Oddly enough, it’s not technically a wooden spoon.


  • The garden has a Monkey Flower Tree (Phyllocarpus septentrionalis). The tree was first noticed by famed fruit hunter Wilson Popenoe on the hillsides of Honduras, where it puts on a fantastic show of cerise-colored blossoms each spring. Popenoe sent seeds to botanist David Fairchild, who spread them all over coastal South Florida in 1920. The tree came to be known as “Fairchild’s Folly” because the sides of the volcanoes in Central America are extremely dry in the winter, which triggers blooming. But in Florida, it doesn’t take much more than a heavy rain in January to abort the bloom. In fact, this tree has bloomed only twice. Ever. But when it does flower, it is spectacular.


  • There is a spot in the Vicky C. and David Byron Smith Uplands Preserve where you can stand on a distinct line between two different habitats. Facing one way is a view of coastal scrub, and then, turning 180 degrees, your view is entirely flatwoods. An elevation change of just a few inches results in the entirely different natural plant community. Also, in the coastal scrub area (the garden’s highest and driest area), there are little ephemeral water gardens that appear right in the middle of the paths after a rainfall. When they’re wet, little carnivorous plants (insect-eating sundews) begin growing around the puddles.


  • The James and Linda White Birding Tower—overlooking the Collier Enterprises South Wetland Preserve—is one of the best birding locations in Southwest Florida. The garden is frequently ranked as one of the best birding locations in the area on During fall and spring migrations, you can often see roseate spoonbills and white pelicans.


  • The garden is now home one of South Florida’s most famous native plants—the ghost orchid—thanks to a collaborative partnership that includes the University of Florida and Illinois College. The orchids, made famous in the best-selling book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, are on display along the Sonne Family Ghost Orchid Boardwalk. It turns out that the colleges have finally figured out how to propagate the plant from seed, rendering Orlean’s plot moot.


  • Obviously during daylight hours the garden is a visual feast of colors and landscapes, but when the sun goes down your olfactory takes over. “Many of our most fragrant plants smell best at night when the garden is typically closed,” says Washburn. And the only time to experience the garden’s many night-blooming flowers is to visit during one of its Night Lights events, to be held Dec. 15-23 and 26-30 and Jan. 2-4.


  • In the Buehler Family Foundation Enabling Garden, there is a small unassuming perennial plant that, when in bloom, has an intense milk chocolate fragrance. Berlandiera lyrata, or Chocolate Flower, blooms throughout the year but is most fragrant early in the morning (by noon they’ve lost most of their sweet scent). This sunflower relative (and great butterfly plant) is native to the American Southwest and Mexico. The plant looks similar to dandelions. “The fragrance is incredible,” Washburn says. “It’s not just chocolate; it’s milk chocolate.” Take that, Hershey Park.


  • Nightlife in the garden is also much different than during daylight hours. The garden has several wildlife cameras stationed throughout the formal gardens and preserves. They see everything from deer to otters to bobcats wandering the garden’s trails. 


  • The Herbarium of Southwest Florida, located at the garden, contains nearly 39,000 specimen sheets. The collection represents many of South Florida’s rarest plants, including Trichostigma octandrum. Dr. George Wilder, botanist and herbarium curator, found Trichostigma or Hoopvine growing in 15 locations on Marco Island. This rare native vine had been found growing in Florida only a handful of times in recorded history and had never been reported on Marco Island. And speaking of the Herbarium, the plant specimens not only are within a vital scientific record of our flora—they are incredible pieces of artwork. Wilder and his team of volunteers artfully arrange each plant on the sheets before pressing and drying them. Check the museum’s website for dates when Wilder gives tours.


  • There are hidden puns and word play in the Vicky C. and David Byron Smith Children’s Garden. “My favorite is the vibrant turquoise toilet planted in the Hidden Garden topped by a pair of wooden clogs—a clogged toilet,” Washburn says.


  • The garden is much more than a collection of tropical and subtropical plants from around the world. It partners with organizations from the community to provide a wide range of programs, including a pre-vocational program for high school students with special needs from Collier County Public Schools. The students help to design, plant, manage and interpret the displays in the Buehler Enabling Garden. If you visit the garden on any Friday morning during the season, you will find a group of engaged students who will be more than excited to tell you about their latest successes. This is just one of the many ways the garden strives to serve the area and meet its mission of connecting people with plants.



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