Before fans howled for Elvis, the Stones, Shania Twain, and Jimmy Buffett, fan clubs drooled over orchids. Today, orchid enthusiasts still stalk their quarry with a fervor unmatched by the most devout of Jimmy's Parrot Heads. But you don't have to study botany or learn an orchid society secret handshake to marvel at these amazing flowers close-up. Just visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, home of one of the South's foremost orchid collections.
Located along Florida's Sarasota Bay south of Tampa Bay, 8.5 acres of gardens occupy the former estate of William and Marie Selby. Although William, an oil magnate, amassed enormous wealth, he and his wife enjoyed a modest, unassuming life in their 1920s Spanish-style house surrounded by gardens that Marie designed. The trappings of fortune didn't interest them. Preserving Sarasota's natural beauty did.
Finding a Niche
William passed away in 1956. When Marie joined him 15 years later, her will established the estate as a botanical garden. "But it didn't specify much more than that," explains Mike McLaughlin, director of horticulture. "So a group of advisors was assembled and asked, 'What can we do with this small garden to make it stand out?' And the one thing no other public garden was focusing on was epiphytes."
"Epi-WHAT?" you ask. "Isn't that something they administer for pain during childbirth?" Actually, an epiphyte is a plant that supports itself on tree branches while gathering water and nutrients from the air. Orchids and bromeliads are epiphytes you've likely seen. Nowhere in the South will you find a more varied display of either group than at Selby Gardens.