Automobiles and lightbulbs are usually the first images associated with the names Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. But after a visit to the Edison and Ford Winter Estate in Fort Myers Florida, perhaps you’ll think of bamboo, hyacinths and orchids, fringed hibiscus and roses, and of course, goldenrod.
Early History of the Edison and Ford Estates
Thomas and Mina Edison chose the Fort Myers area for their honeymoon in 1886. At that time, the city was little more than a cattle town. A train didn’t even come this far.
But, coming from Ohio and New Jersey, winter was especially appealing on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Edisons loved it so much that they bought 13 acres here and built a home, laboratory, and guest houses.
They invited their friends, Henry and Clara Ford to visit and they, too, fell in love with Fort Myers. The Fords bought an adjoining seven acres.
The couples and friends took long camping trips into what is now Everglades National Park and were fascinated by the diversity of plant life found there. Thomas was fascinated by the tropical trees and dedicated his laboratory to finding a source for latex beyond rubber trees.
Mina was particularly intrigued by the orchids and brought samples back to her winter home.
“Thomas Edison believed there was always something to learn from nature,” says Debbie Hughes, senior horticulturist at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. “That’s our continued philosophy today. If there’s a new plant, we want it.”
Touring the Edison and Ford Estate Today
The combined Edison and Ford estates is now a 20-acre botanical garden, owned by the city of Fort Myers. It includes roughly 2,000 plants from six continents with new plantings and developments happening every day.
Each year, nearly 100 new trees are planted on the grounds. The landscape is restored to the 1920s era. As a result, the property has received numerous restoration and historic honors, including the National Garden Clubs’ Historic Preservation Award.
The most massive and problematic plant on the property greets visitors as you enter the front gates. It’s a banyan tree planted by Edison more than 90 years ago that now covers almost an acre. It is growing so large that the estate is redesigning the parking lot and entrance to accommodate the “walking tree.”
Most visitors tour the museum and laboratory at the estates before heading out onto the grounds. It’s a reminder of how brilliant Edison was and how influential his inventions were on life as we know it today. He filed 1,093 patents, built the first movie studios, created the phonograph and, of course, the lightbulb.
He was intrigued by bamboo as a filament source for lightbulbs, and you’ll find plenty of bamboo on the property. But he was most interested in finding an alternative source for rubber. The U.S. was consuming about 70 percent of the world’s rubber, which was in territory governed by Great Britain.
He tested thousands of trees and plants and found that the goldenrod had the greatest potential. Although he was never successful at finding a new source for rubber ̶ one of his very few failures ̶ check out the massive 12-foot tall goldenrod (Solidago spp.) he propagated that is now on display.
The Edison-Ford homes are located within view of the Caloosahatchee River, which contributes to the airy, fresh experience of wandering the grounds. Double peach and double red hibiscus standards greet visitors as they enter the grounds from the riverside.
Mina, who was a member of 12 gardening clubs, began creating the gardens in 1901, working with landscape architects John Nolan, Hale Walker, and Ellen Biddle Shipman.
She was passionate about orchids, placing them in trees throughout the property as they are found in nature. The estates have more than 200 orchids, which are celebrated each October with a festival of their own.
Clara Ford, also an enthusiastic gardener, loved her roses. Her favorites included yellow and white tea roses that today line the path between the Edison home and the Ford home.
Classes and Events
While gardening classes are offered throughout the year, and certainly something is blooming all year long in southwest Florida, one of the best times to visit the Edison-Ford estates is in November at an event called “Grow Fort Myers.”
Vendors from throughout the state are on hand, complementing the already abundant offerings in the estates’ garden shop.
But the best time is in February to celebrate the Edison Festival of Light. The two-week event, which overlaps Edison’s birthday on February 11, includes one of the state’s longest parades, as well as plant vendors, food, music, and a big birthday cake for the man who literally brought us light.
WHEN YOU GO:
Visitors may enjoy self-guided tours of the property, but serious gardeners may enjoy a guided tour conducted by a horticulturist. In addition to answering detailed questions, this tour includes going behind the scenes in the propagating nursery. A fee is charged and reservations are required at 239-334-7419.
For more information, edisonfordwinterestates.org.
Featured image: Edison Estates home / Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau
A travel writer/photography team from Kansas City, Missouri, Diana Lambdin Meyer and Bruce Meyer are award-winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers. They visited the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in December for Holiday Nights, which also celebrates the invention of the lightbulb.