Discovering Daytona Beach Gardens and Native Flora

by Editor
Daytona Beach

What comes to mind when you think of Daytona Beach, Florida? Top of mind for many is the famed Daytona 500 car race. And the beach. But Daytona Beach has grown up and expanded beyond racing and the water with a wealth of attractions that appeal to visitors of all ages and interests. And for gardeners, it has an incredible collection of flora and fauna to explore while there.

The long ribbon of sand on the ocean side of the Intracoastal Waterway gave Daytona Beach its start in car racing in 1902. Local enthusiasts found the hard packed beach sand ideal for racing. This tradition continued and evolved over the years until the 1950s when the Daytona International Speedway opened. Along the way, car racing has grown with the formation of NASCAR – founded in 1947 at the Streamline Hotel on Daytona Beach.

Downtown Garden

Downtown Daytona Beach sits on the mainland side of the Intracoastal Waterway/Halifax River with shops, restaurants, and attractions lining Beach Street. While these businesses have been the foundation of downtown, it’s a recent $30 million project spearheaded by one local couple to transform the riverfront across the street that has created a lot of excitement in town.

Over the years, the old riverfront park had fallen into disrepair and became a place to avoid. That was until Hyatt and Cici Brown, founders of Brown & Brown Insurance, funded the new Riverfront Esplanade project that has transformed 30 acres and 1.5 miles of riverfront. The land was sculpted, walkways were added, and more than 100 mature trees were planted. Swings, benches, and statues were installed. Gardens were created. All to re-envision the riverfront from a place to avoid to a place to enjoy.

Daytona Beach

Riverfront Esplanade garden / Beverly Hurley

Daytona Beach

Dombeya ‘Seminole Pink’ / Beverly Hurley

A highlight of the Riverfront Esplanade for gardeners is the 22-acres of recently planted garden space. The 330-foot long Riparian Garden Fountain mimics the tidal pools of the river. Towering palms line the street side and within the gardens are masses of plants, including African irises (Dietes iridioides), crinum lilies, and Dombeya ‘Seminole Pink’ (often called the tropical hydrangea).

The Palm Garden has native and exotic palms like the blue tinted Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis) and the Puerto Rican hat palm (Sabal causiarum). The original rose garden was redesigned and is sited under lovely trumpet flower trees (Tabebuia spp.).

Along the Esplanade, historic buildings were renovated and new buildings were made to look historic. Various plazas focus on local history. The Mary McLeod Bethune statue towers over the plaza on the north end to recognize this local black educator. On the south end is a tribute to Brownie, the beloved town dog from 1939 until his death in 1954. There is also a plaza with a tribute to veterans.

Daytona Beach

‘Wild Florida’ statue / Beverly Hurley

The towering sculpture “Wild Florida” is set atop an elevated plaza rimmed by porch swings and 360 degree views of the water and the town. A walking bridge to the small island in the river is perfect for a quiet stroll among native grasses, sea grape, magnolias, live oaks, yews, and more.

Local Gardens

Just south of Daytona Beach in neighboring Port Orange is the Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens. Here, you can wander multiple paths and discover a vast array of plants, many that grow as annuals or houseplants in gardens north of Zone 8.

Daytona Beach

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens / Beverly Hurley

Once a sugar mill before Florida even became a state, the mill is gone though a foundation remains. Over the years, the property was used for many purposes, including an amusement park called Bongoland in the 1940s to 1950s. You can still see the theme park’s concrete dinosaurs throughout the gardens, adding a touch of whimsy to your explorations. A local group formed the Botanical Gardens of Volusia in the mid-1980s and started planning and planting the gardens soon after. The plant collections are vast; bromeliads, cactus and succulents, cycads, a lily garden, bulb and rose gardens, Asian and butterfly gardens, plumeria and yaupon holly, and a fern grotto.

Daytona Beach

Cordyline at the Dunlawton Gardens / Beverly Hurley

Daytona Beach

Bromeliad at Dunlawton Gardens / Beverly Hurley

Trees towering over the landscape include palms and live oaks. The native Florida plant section is extensive with specimens like teabush, swamp milkweed, white indigo, necklace pod, and corkystem passionflower. A stand of sugar cane grows next to the old mill’s foundation. Colorful and interesting plants feature shell ginger, shrimp plants, bromeliad Quesnelia marmorata, and Acalypha wilkesiana. Monstera can be seen growing up many trees and tongue ferns cover the ground in shady sections. The gnome village and the human sundial add more touches of whimsy that appeals to young and old.

On the north side of Daytona Beach in Ormond Beach is the Ormond Memorial Art Museum & Gardens. The art museum part of the complex was founded on the art of Malcolm Fraser, who agreed to donate his art in 1946 to anyone who would build a museum with it to honor World War veterans. A veteran himself of WWI, Fraser’s permanent collection is on display in the museum on a rotating basis.

Daytona Beach

Ormond Beach Art and Gardens Museum / Beverly Hurley

The museum’s gardens were started in 1946, and today they feature lush, tropical Florida vegetation. Plants include native slash pine trees, lace tree philodendrons, paperbark trees plus bromeliad, shell ginger, spider lily, and staghorn ferns. Dense thickets of dragon’s nest bamboo can be found throughout. Peaceful nature trails wind through this garden with places to stop and enjoy the plants that have been taken care of by the same gardener for over 45 years. The waterfall made of native coquina rock is a popular stop at the entrance to this garden respite in Ormond Beach.

Daytona Beach

Vadner Park / Beverly Hurley

Not far away in the city’s Vadner Park is a garden developed by the Garden Club of the Halifax Country. The club, in tandem with the city of Ormond Beach, transformed this small overgrown park into a treasure trove of native plantings. The plant list is extensive – Florida flame azalea, butterfly weed, cardinal plant, Carolina jessamine, spotted horsemint, sword fern, Simpson’s stopper, and scorpion tail are just a few of the plants seen here. Cabbage palm, live oak, and long leaf pine tower overhead. It’s a testimony to the power of gardeners wanting to better the landscape and their community.

Wild Florida

As you travel up and down the coast of Daytona Beach, you encounter more wild Florida. At the southern tip of the barrier island is the 52-acre Lighthouse Point Park overlooking the Ponce de Leon Inlet. An extensive wooden boardwalk system traverses the white sand dunes in this unspoiled section of Florida shoreline. As far as you can see, the dunes are covered with a dense thicket of saw palmetto, towering palms, and other native Florida plants.

Daytona Beach

Lighthouse Point Park boardwalk / Beverly Hurley

Wildlife abounds from bird watching overhead to looking for gopher tortoises that call the dunes home. Stops along the boardwalk feature picnic pavilions with grills, access points onto the beach, and observation towers for a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean.

Daytona Beach

Ponce Lighthouse / Beverly Hurley

Towering behind the park is the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the beacon of light that began guarding this section of the Atlantic coast in 1887. This tallest lighthouse in Florida at 175-feet – and the third tallest in the U.S. – is considered to be the most intact lighthouse station remaining in the country. Inside the picket fence, the original brick buildings, including the three lighthouse keepers dwellings, house museum exhibits that tell the story of early Florida and life at the station.

The red brick lighthouse tower is the original and is accessible to climb the 203 steps to the top. Outside the picket fence, newer buildings include the lens museum with its rare collection of lighthouse lenses. The original Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse from 1887 to 1933 is on display, along with the lens from Cape Canaveral and from a lighthouse in Ireland that was the last beacon seen by the Titanic before its fateful journey. Other points of interest are a small nature trail in the coastal hammock and an exhibit of Cuban refugee rafts that came ashore nearby.

Ponce Preserve is worth a stop as you travel back to Daytona Beach. Stretching across the barrier island from the Atlantic Ocean to the Halifax River, this 41 acre preserve includes hiking trails through the native vegetation and the Green Mound State Archaeological Site, an ancient Indian midden.

Daytona Beach

Ponce Preserve / Beverly Hurley

The varied terrain includes ocean dunes with palmetto, native plants like yaupon holly, Florida lantana, southern red cedar, corky stem, and Simpson’s stoppers, along with wetlands along the river. Along the trail are patches of dune sunflower, marlberry (wild coffee), and hemp vine. Near the Green Mound is a live oak thought to be more than 350 years old.

North of Daytona Beach begins ‘The Loop’, 34 miles of scenic roadway with a canopy of trees overhead and acres of wild Florida on either side. Stops along the way include Tomoka State Park, home of a former native American village at the spot where the Tomoka River basin widens out. Towering at this spot is a curious 45-foot tall statue dedicated to the legend of Chief Tomokie.

Daytona Beach

Fairchild Oak / Beverly Hurley

Bulow Creek State Park has one of the largest live oaks in Florida – the Fairchild Oak. Both parks offer nature trails through the hammock and kayaks and canoes can be rented in Tomoka State Park.

Follow the Manatees

Inland from Daytona Beach is the surreal world of the manatees at Blue Spring State Park. This largest spring on the St. Johns River, with 72 degree Fahrenheit crystal clear water year round, brings in hundreds of manatees each day in winter from November into March to bask in these warmer waters. On a typical day in early February, over 600 manatees were estimated to be in the water. An extensive boardwalk along the shore allows for multiple access points to see and follow the manatees as they leisurely swim in the warm spring water.

Daytona Beach

Blue Spring State Park boardwalk / Beverly Hurley

Daytona Beach

The long, narrow spring opening at Blue Spring State Park / Beverly Hurley

Famed naturalist William Bartram set out in 1765 to find the source of the St. Johns River and came across this spring. His early written account was the first to document this natural wonder. Over 100 million gallons of water bubble out of this long crack in the earth each day. You can swim, kayak, and canoe into these waters, and even scuba dive into the 110-foot deep spring, from April to October after the manatees move back out to the main river once it warms up.

Museums and More

The largest collection of Florida themed art in the world is on display in the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art in Daytona Beach. Over the years, the Browns (the same couple who funded the town’s new Riverfront Esplanade) have donated thousands of pieces of art, along with the construction of the building.

Close by, the Museum of Arts & Sciences is the metro’s primary science and history museum. This Smithsonian affiliate houses impressive displays, including one on Cuban fine and folk art, plus a children’s museum and a planetarium.

The new Daytona Aquarium & Rainforest Adventure has close to 40 different tanks featuring everything from a stingray touch pool to an 110,000 gallon shark tank. The rainforest side is due to open by early 2025.

Where to Stay and Dine
Daytona Beach

photo by The Cove at Ormond Beach

Staying at the beach is a must when visiting. The Cove at Ormond Beach offers all suite accommodations with full kitchens in its two towers set on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. You can hang out at the pool or set up on the beach for a relaxing day.

The Daytona Beach area offers dining options for all tastes and budgets. But while here, start with dessert first at Angell & Phelps Chocolates in downtown. Started in 1925 on Mackinac Island in Michigan before moving to Daytona Beach a few years later, the chocolate shop overflows with high quality, handmade chocolates made in the chocolate factory at the back of the store.

Daytona Beach

Angell & Phelps Chocolates / Beverly Hurley

You can watch the chocolate-making process through its large windows. Make sure to take a free sample of chocolate from the overflowing tray of goodies as you browse the selection of chocolates to shop and take home.

For waterfront dining, Caribbean Jack’s Restaurant & Marina is a popular restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway, serving a selection of regional seafood plus gator bites and crabby patties. Down the Hatch Seafood Company overlooks the Ponce de Leon Inlet near the lighthouse, offering a varied menu from salads and sandwiches to fresh seafood.

One of the best kept dining secrets in town is Millie’s Restaurant. This small dining spot in a local strip mall is quite the surprise when you step inside to the cozy space with amazing food using quality ingredients and made from scratch recipes. The alligator ribs are the most unique and asked for item, though the menu includes a good selection of other offerings. And who is Millie? The restaurant is named for the owner’s dog.

Finer dining can be found at Rose Villa Southern Table, housed in a former 1901 bed and breakfast. From classic craft cocktails – check out the upstairs bourbon bar – to brunch, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant effuses southern charm at its best. Fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and fresh seafood are just a few of the menu items worth trying.


Daytona Beach

Rosie’s Cafe at Dunn’s Attic / Beverly Hurley

Dunn’s Attic offers both shopping and dining in this upscale consignment store in Ormond Beach. You can start your adventure by eating at Rosie’s Cafe for breakfast or lunch – plus a one dollar mimosa – inside the store and then wander through items from more than 3,000 consignors selling home décor, antiques, jewelry, and more.

Near the racetrack, ONE DAYTONA is a dining destination for everything from coffee and donuts to a full meal. Four Rivers Smokehouse is a popular dining spot here serving barbecue and sides to satisfy any appetite.

For more information, plus an extensive list of attractions, restaurants, and accommodations, visit

Featured image – Riverfront Esplanade Riparian Garden Fountain / Beverly Hurley

Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.


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