When we planned a trip to Legoland with my nieces and nephews I was secretly jumping up and down at the opportunity to finally see Cypress Gardens. What was once a stand alone tourist attraction has now been absorbed into the Legoland theme park in Winter Haven, Florida. I’ve heard about the plant collections in these gardens for years and I was looking forward to experiencing myself.
According to Wikipedia, “Cypress Gardens opened on January 2, 1936 as a botanical garden planted by Dick Pope Sr. and his wife Julie. Over the years it became one of the biggest attractions in Florida, known for its water ski shows, gardens, and Southern Belles.” It changed hands several times, finally closing in 2009. In 2011 it was reopened as part of the Legoland attraction. After being involved in the horticulture industry for a while, I’ve heard many tales about the size of Cypress Gardens’ plants and of their unusual specimens.
The publicity and promotion of Cypress Gardens is now fairly minimal in the existing theme park. The Legoland website reads simply: “The beautiful and historic botanical gardens have been restored to pristine condition, and the collection of native plants, including azaleas and camellias, have been reclaimed and combined with a range of exotic species to create a horticultural masterpiece. Still standing sentinel in the garden is the vast Banyan tree that was planted as a seedling in 1939.”
I should mention that on the day we visited there was some minor flooding in the gardens and some pathways were closed. We entered across the main bridge and I couldn’t take my eyes off of this huge bougainvillea. It is monstrous!
You can see that same bougainvillea in this photo. A structure at the top of the hill invites visitors to continue walking to the top, led by long plantings of bright chartreuse ‘Gold Mound’ duranta trimmed to tight strips. In the distance is Lake Eloise, the western border of Cypress Gardens. I would love to learn more about the history of these. They are a little bit like the serpentine plantings at Chanticleer Gardens, but without the very curvaceous design.
I am not sure if it was because of the high water closing pathways or not, but there wasn’t a distinct flow to Cypress Gardens. As a huge supporter of gardening and the beauty of nature I was hoping that this area would be packed with kids and families, but we were really on our own for quite a bit of it. As we rounded each bend there were great specimens to be appreciated and the overall landscape was nice. I was excited to see this huge sausage tree, Kigelia pinnata, rising up through the shrubs. I wish there was a big sign that said “LOOK UP!” next to it so that everyone would see this cool tree.
The next plant that caught my attention were these shooting star clerodendrum, Clerodendrum quadriloculare. Our timing just happened to be right to see these in such a spectacular display of blooms. These were very large, at least 20′ tall, thanks to their warm lake-side environment and many years of growth.
As we worked our way through the gardens and closer to the lake’s edge we came to a little waterfall area. In the grassy area in front of this was this beautiful sculpture. I love the details that include a small tree frog and tillandsia. I didn’t see any information on the name of the piece or the artist but it was quite intricate and seemed to fit the location well.
As we left the small grotto-area and came through the trees we saw this amazing banyan tree! I can’t even pretend that this photo will capture the scale of this huge specimen. Planted in 1939, this 76 year old tree defies the area that it grows and continues to spread and thrive. Central Florida is traditionally a little too cold to grow these very tropical plants, but the warm micro climate here has nurtured this tree. You can see where the aerial roots of the tree have found hospitable places to grow and started to thicken and develop into large trunks. This tree is so large, and there are so many of these large trunks, that it is almost impossible to decide where the original trunk is at within the canopy. Just when you think you have reached the end of this tree you see more of these trunks spreading out across the gardens. Looking for a cool place to sit and relax? This is definitely the spot!
When I finally quit taking pictures of the banyan tree we came next to this two-headed palm. It probably goes without saying that I was pretty jazzed up by this much more than Mike. Palms are monocots, which means that technically they usually have just a single growing point, but somewhere along the line this plant seems to have been stressed to successfully branch. Pretty cool for a plant nerd.
As we passed the two-headed palm and started to get really close to the edge of Lake Eloise we were distinctly aware that this is prime alligator habitat. Not two minutes after making some jokes about this, we spotted this guy sunning on a bank. Yikes. So I don’t want to say that we cut our visit short, but we really didn’t dilly-dally in the natural areas by the water.
Coming back toward the banyan tree we made a small loop through an area filled with statues and artifacts from the far east. This was the largest piece to catch my eye, but there were many small pieces tucked throughout this part of the garden. Bamboo fountains, stone structures and a very simple plant palette set off this area. And of course there has to be bamboo! The plants in this area seem perfectly suited for an Asian garden and there are many water features and ponds to add to the tranquility.
We spent about 45 minutes walking through Cypress Gardens. It was so nice to finally see the famous gardens and the amazing plants that remain from one plant lovers dream garden. I look forward to seeing how Legoland builds on this historic garden– and hopefully in a way to inspire the next generation of young gardeners.