With its ample sunshine and coastal breeze, the Tampa Bay area has one of those climates made for horticulture. The surprising thing about the gardens in this area isn’t that you can find so many, but rather that they’re so diverse. Ranging from intimate to educational to eccentric, they cover the breadth of garden beauty, incorporating art, wildlife, architecture, and more.
Base yourself in Tampa, but be willing to drive. Some of the better gardens are farther afield.
The University of South Florida Botanical Gardens
For a nominal admission fee, you can explore this living museum with more than 3,000 types of plants. The USF Botanical Gardens are set in a series of collections, so you can tour the bromeliads, palms and flowering trees on one side of the parking lot before moving on to the rainforest, succulents and carnivorous plants. While the primary focus is as an outdoor classroom and research facility, the 16 acres are a pleasant escape in the middle of Tampa.
Home gardeners will appreciate that each plant is named with its species and origin, so you can see how the several tropical and subtropical plants fare in Florida weather. While there are plenty of native species, a majority hail from other continents, like the red hat plant from the Himalayas, desert roses from eastern Africa and blue sage from India. Though it’s weather dependent, if you visit during early spring, you might be able to catch the inflorescent corpse flower, pretty but putrescent, native to Indonesia.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Sure, it’s a theme park, but a few locals can still tell you about the Busch Gardens that started back in the 1950s as the Anheuser-Busch beer garden, a place to see bird shows, tour the brewery, and admire the flowers.
There’s less strolling today as tourists line up for thrill rides, but if you take it at a slower pace, you can appreciate the botanical diversity that this 335-acre attraction has to offer. Case in point is the bamboo, ubiquitous throughout the park, which on closer inspection you’ll notice is actually several different varieties, from the light-hued Golden Goddess to the towering Giant Timber to the ripple-edged Buddha Belly Bamboo.
Themed for the continent of Africa, the park is home to over 200 species of animals, and their habitats recreate lush landscapes from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The topiaries are another treat, often representing animals like the giraffe, tiger, and falcon. Meanwhile, a team of groundskeepers keeps the many floral arrangements in tune with the season. Around Valentine’s Day, reds and whites predominate. By the Fourth of July, it’s the colors of Old Glory. And gardeners who visit for the annual Howl-O-Scream will get the joke with the bat-faced Cuphea and eyeball plants (Acmella oleracea) on display.
Florida Botanical Gardens
Just outside Tampa in the city of Largo, the Florida Botanical Gardens might be the prettiest attraction in the Tampa Bay area, and admission is completely free.
It takes about 90 minutes to see everything, including a wetlands nature trail, plants from six continents, and several art installations ranging from murals to mosaics.
The 30 acres of landscaped gardens are divided into themed sections. On the western end, they’re devoted to herbs, wildflowers, vegetables, butterflies, and the like, homely names that belie how exotic many of the plants are. The herb garden is fragrant with orange jessamine and the lemon eucalyptus, while the fruit garden grows starfruit, pomegranate, papaya, jackfruit, and more.
Cross McKay Creek for even more tropical species: bromeliads, birds of paradise, cacti, palm trees, and an 8,000-square-foot vinery. In March, bright white gardenias put on a show. Starting in spring, roses fill the walled Wedding Garden. But if you must choose a season, go in summer when the gardens turn fiery with red torch ginger, frangipani, lantern hibiscus, angel’s trumpets, and more along the Tropical Walk.
Built on the site of an ancient lake drained and planted with flora from around the world, Sunken Gardens was designed to impress tourists from the very beginning.
Back in the 1920s, visitors paid a nickel each for tours, and by the middle of the century, it was thriving as a roadside attraction welcoming some 200,000 visitors a year.
You’ll still find flamingos and parrots there, but the plants are the stars. Stroll the winding paths to the sound of water from the various falls and pools. Tropical blooms and oversized green leaves are everywhere. You might glimpse pale pink oleander, the fuzzy magenta chenille plant or purple irises bowing over the koi pond.
Even in winter, the flowers dazzle — climbing aster and the snowy light bulb plant just to name two. At just over 4 acres with generous shade from the overhead canopy, the garden feels secluded from the busy St. Petersburg streets right outside.
Fine architecture can elevate a garden from ornamental to truly awe-inspiring. It’s a trick the landscape architects of old in Europe knew well, and it’s been put to good use at Hollis Garden in Lakeland.
The city is about 40 minutes east of Tampa and worth a visit just to see this charming garden. Laid out in careful symmetry close to downtown shops and restaurants, the 1.2 acres are embellished throughout with neoclassical architecture. A Tuscan gazebo and curved trellis, facing a central swan fountain, provides the focal point for the space. Classical music plays in the background. Lake Mirror shimmers in the distance.
What you might not realize — unless you pick up the brochure at the entrance — is that the garden tells the story, room by room, of Florida’s horticultural history. It begins with the grotto, covered with ferns and orchids, representing the life-giving spring water. Then you progress to more agrarian spaces: a vegetable room hedged in by Japanese boxwood, herb rooms on either side of the plaza, the orchard with its harvest of mangos, avocados, Barbados cherries, blackberry jam fruit, and peanut butter fruit.
As you walk toward the lake, the gardens become increasingly ornate. There are monochromatic rooms with plants in yellow, red or white, balustrades and fountains, various sculptures and urns, and flower beds in geometrical shapes. Look closely and visit often since the plants change with the seasons. You can even find a rather impressive collection of cycads in the historical tree section of the park. Incredibly, it’s all free.
Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens
While most gardens are all about the flowers, Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens focuses on water. Built in a century-old limestone quarry, it’s a world of turquoise pools, waterfalls, koi ponds and islands, connected by bridges crafted from Brazilian walnut. Bougainvilleas, bromeliads, waterlilies and more flourish in this aquatic setting and greenery spills over the rocky walls of the quarry. As you take the trail circling the ponds, you’ll notice most spots are named. So it’s Darby’s Hillside Garden, Nina’s Pool, Tim’s Gazebo. The swan, if you should see her, is Guinivere.
On the far end with maple trees and bonsai is a Japanese Garden, entered by way of a traditional red torii, hand-carved and held together with wooden wedges instead of nails. A little further and you’ll come to an overlook where you can survey most of the 20 acres. It takes about an hour to see everything, but you’re invited to bring lunch to enjoy at one of the many picnic tables.
Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens is a little off the beaten tourist trail, almost two hours north of Tampa in the small city of Williston, but its unusual style makes it worth the drive.
WHEN YOU GO:
Where to Eat and Stay in Tampa: For a familiar room with a rather glorious continental breakfast, stay at the Hampton Inn Tampa Downtown Channel District. The hotel has a rooftop pool, fitness center, and free Wi-Fi. Plus, guests can enjoy their first meal of the day at the Home2 Suites or Hampton Inn in adjacent dining rooms. Save room, though, because Tampa is a true foodie city.
When you’re hungry, hit up Ybor City, a historic district near downtown, for multicultural cuisine. La Segunda Central Bakery, a Tampa institution since 1915, is your go-to spot for fresh Cuban bread. For lunch, visit Michelle Faedo’s, reputed to have the best Cubano in Tampa Bay — with the local and national awards to prove it. Made fresh in house, their massive Cuban sandwich is piled with roasted pork, Genoa salami, honey-smoked ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, a perfect balance of flavors. Right after Cubanos, Tampeño cuisine is famous for crabs, so do yourself a favor and order their crab cake, crab empanada or deviled crab (preferably all three). They have two counter-service restaurants plus a food truck, so you can easily get your meal to go as you visit one of the area gardens.
Where to Eat and Stay in Williston: Since Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens is the farthest afield, you may want to overnight in town. Devil’s Den, just next door to the garden, has four cabins with modern conveniences plus a campground if you prefer to sleep under the stars. While you’re there, be sure to snorkel (or scuba, if that’s your style) in their famous prehistoric cave filled with clear spring water that’s 72 degrees year-round. For dining, Southern comfort food is on the menu. Melanie’s Restaurant offers generous breakfast portions while The Ivy House Restaurant is a must for lunch or dinner, serving up shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and homemade desserts like triple-layer coconut cream cake and peanut butter pie.
Featured Image – Aerial view of Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens / courtesy of Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens
Cheryl Rodewig is an editor and travel writer for local, regional and international outlets. Learn more at cherylrodewig.com.