The Future of the Everglades Wonder Gardens

BY February 10, 2017


To step inside the Everglades Wonder Gardens is to be swaddled in green. The roughly 3.5-acre botanical jungle is a lush patch of peace along the Imperial River. The traffic along Old 41 is in earshot, but you barely notice.

Instead, you hear the soft crunch of shells below your feet on a shady trail that leads past orchids, turtles, rescued parrots and reptiles, and pink flamingos. Snatches of sunlight push through mature exotic and native trees. A broadleaf banyan is a majestic guard. This island of green, even with its concrete enclosures for reptiles, carries the sense that this is how things used to be in Florida, that a place like this deserves to be saved.

The Piper family opened the gardens in 1936. When the family decided to sell in 2013, residents worried this magical place with its quirky history would be bulldozed for the sake of new homes with river views. Landscape photographer John Brady swooped in to the lease the property and started updating it. Many of the animals the Pipers owned were sold. Brady helped to form a nonprofit group with the intention of saving the gardens. In 2015, a nonprofit created by local residents, the Bonita Wonder Gardens, bought the property. The hope is to grow the gardens as an educational center and event space, though the group’s more pressing focus is to pay off a $3.5 million loan it received from the City of Bonita Springs to buy it. 

Since the group has taken over, leaders have gained buy-in from local residents and volunteers, but they could use more help maintaining the grounds. (On a recent day, the orchids looked a little crispy.) Trish Leonard, president of the Wonder Gardens, said the park counts about 300 memberships.

“There’s a sense of peace here and we’re trying to keep it moving and keep it going forward,” Leonard says.

Other highlights:

  • The Gardens are working to replace the hanging bridge over the alligator pits with a boardwalk-like platform friendly to strollers and wheelchairs.
  • They’ve received tourism grants to market outside the local area.
  • Work is ongoing for an environmental learning center. Class kits relating to the Florida environment will be created for teachers and home-schooling parents through an FGCU partnership. The center plans to offer a Florida landscaping expert certification program.
  • The Gardens hopes to host weddings, lead eco and ghost tours, and restore an old home on the property, as well as offer children’s discovery gardens.
  • New executive director Thomas Hecker brings experience in botanical gardens and learning centers, recently as CEO of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center.


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