As you approach the entrance to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens from the parking area, you walk a path shaded by bamboo and guarded by a dragon. Or you can follow in my footsteps and explore the path less traveled. It weaves to the left of the main walkway and looks a bit like a patchwork quilt. The sections are stamped concrete, river rocks, and flat rocks, laid in varying designs to give a little preview of what is to come in the individual gardens.
An Introduction to Kanapaha Gardens
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens was established in 1978 when the North Florida Botanical Society in Gainesville, Florida, leased 33 acres of land to create a public botanical garden. In 1982 they added another 29 acres. The Garden takes its name from nearby Lake Kanapaha. The original name comes from the Timucua Indian words kana meaning “palmetto leaf,” and paha, meaning “house.” So, it refers to tiny thatched houses—the historic Native American dwellings found in villages on the shore of 250-acre Lake Kanapaha.
Gazebos and benches in shaded nooks offer the perfect spots for a picnic, so be sure to bring one with you—miles of walkways and paths ensure you will work up an appetite! A mile and a half of paved handicap-accessible walkways make much of the 68-acre garden accessible to most visitors.
With good timing, you can explore the Gardens on a walking tour. On the first Saturday each month, staff members lead a guided tour at 10 a.m., so plan ahead!
So Many Plants
There are twenty-two specialty gardens, and I’ll name just a few to tempt you. There is a Rose Garden, Herb Garden, Ginger Garden, Butterfly Garden, Container Garden, and a Children’s Garden—with a life-sized chess set.
You will see the most vibrant colors throughout the gardens between July and September.
Florida’s weather promotes a long growing season for Florida gardens. The humidity is also perfect for Giant Victoria Water Lilies—these grow to be a remarkable 6-feet wide. The lily pads are so sturdy, you will actually see herons standing on them! Kanapaha’s signature plants include these spectacular giant Victoria water lilies, a premier stand of Chinese royal bamboo (Wong Chuk), and Asian snake arums.
One of the most unusual plants I found was the Flying Dragon (Poncirus trifoliata) a cultivar of the Chinese Trifoliate Orange, that has intimidating spines and twisted stems, protecting a small, sour fruit that is nearly inedible, but possesses medicinal benefits, and is said to be delicious when cooked.
The Bamboo Garden holds the most extensive public collection of bamboo in Florida. Like me, you probably thought all bamboo was, well, bamboo. Who knew there were more than 1,000 species? And even Guinness acknowledges one of the genera as the world’s fastest-growing plant—growing up to 35 inches in just one day!
The largest Herb Garden in the southeast (nearly a half-acre) is found right here at Kanapaha. That makes it the largest in both size and collection. The garden area is divided into three sections; medicinal herbs, scented herbs (planted in raised beds, so you don’t have to stoop for a sniff), and a knot garden, designed to resemble a tied knot.
Waterfalls and tinkling fountains are sprinkled throughout the gardens, along with koi (giant goldfish), turtles, lizards, butterflies, and dragonflies. The bamboo makes the clinking and clacking sounds of wind chimes as the wind blows them into each other. Walking the gardens’ paths is a peaceful, relaxing way to spend your time.
Cuong Nhu Garden
The stories of each garden could fill a book, but this one truly touched my heart.
This garden is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ngo Dong and his wife, Ton Nu Thanh Chau. The inscription on the plaque reads: “Open mind, Open heart, Open arms.” What a lovely thought!
Now, I didn’t go to the garden searching for a mystery or even a history lesson. But Dr. Dong’s story is a bit of both. Born in South Vietnam, Dong was educated at the University of Florida. He returned to Vietnam and became a biology professor, then college president and grandmaster of the Cuong Nhu Oriental Martial Arts school.
After the communist victory and fall of Saigon in 1975, this outspoken opponent of communism and his family spent time in a “re-education camp” and, on their second attempt, finally escaped in a small boat. He wrote to his martial arts students, “It was like in a spy movie.” In 1977 the family made their way to Florida, where he taught entomology (the study of insects) and nematology (the study of worms) at UF and guided the Cuong Nhu martial arts community.
His family commissioned this oriental plant garden to be built and maintained in honor of this hero. This garden contains plants and flowers that he loved.
The Garden provides wheelchairs on a first-come, first-serve basis. Electric scooters/wheelchairs are allowed in the garden but are not provided.
The park is open daily except for Thursdays. Weekdays the gate closes at 5 pm, but on weekends they remain open a little later—until dusk or 7 pm, whichever comes first. If you live nearby, consider an annual membership.
Before You Leave
Be sure to stop by the Garden’s gift shop. It displays unusual items that include original art and natural treasures, many created by local artisans.
Everyone knows if you plant bamboo, it spreads and takes over. Kanapaha Gardens has the same problem, but they’ve turned it into an asset. In January each year, the Garden lists the bamboo varieties offered for sale. Then the shoots are dug and orders are filled during January and February. Other plant sales are held in January for Camellias; there is the Spring Garden Festival in March. In October, the Gardens holds the Open House and Plant Sale.
Exploring Kanapaha is Good Medicine
A visit to Kanapaha can be a day spent in peaceful solitude and reflection, or a day of laughter and family fun. When your mind needs a rest, visit the garden to relax and reduce your level of stress. Walking and fresh air help you stay fit, and when you feel better you enjoy your life. So, spend a day in the Garden—it’s good for what ails you!
WHEN YOU GO:
Spend a few days at The Sweetwater Branch Inn. The 1885 Victorian beauty is located in historic downtown Gainesville, surrounded by the magnificent McKenzie Gardens. The Inn has bedrooms, as well as cottages. A scrumptious breakfast is served daily in the main house. Pack a swimsuit for the saltwater pool. And be on time for the afternoon wine and cheese service before heading out for the evening.
Depot Park at the Historic Train Depot, has the Boxcar Beer and Wine Garden, a sandwich shop, and a burger shop.
Nearby, you will find the University of Florida’s Butterfly Rainforest—a screened, outdoor tropical haven. While you visit, you will be soothed by the sound of waterfalls, and be surrounded by 50 species of butterflies. TIP: Go on a sunny day—when butterflies are most active.
Tony and Al’s Restaurant and Bar, in historic Alachua, has wood-fired pizzas, and Shrimp Frangelica dripping with cheese. And delicious Cannoli!
A new Hampton Inn recently opened in Alachua. It is comfortable and less than 20 minutes from the Garden.
Island Grove Winery creates wines by blending blueberries with traditional wines. I especially enjoyed the Backporch Peach, a peach blend with a crisp Chardonnay. The Coastal Blue is 100% Florida blueberry juices, barrel-aged for two years to create an sipping wine similar to port.
Jo Clark is a happily-retired teacher. She is spending her days road tripping, taking photographs, and writing. Favorite topics include beautiful places, great food, wineries and their delicious wines! Her articles and photographs may be seen at Have Glass, Will Travel and on Instagram she’s known as Jo Goes Everywhere (she sure tries!)