Part 2: Tropical Paradise in the Harry P. Leu Gardens

This October Jeffrey and I set out on a trip to Europe that had a day layover in Orlando, Florida.  We decided to avoid the theme parks and the beaches and instead go on an adventure to the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, Florida. thumb_IMG_0294_1024This garden has a partnership with the Atlanta Botanical gardens, so as luck would have it we managed to get in for free. Once you enter the garden you are greeted by a beautiful oak tree that is spangled with swatches of Spanish moss that is flanked by a wetland to your right. As you follow the path around the garden, you encounter various immersive experiences that are not only beautiful, but that are carefully and artfully planned.

The Tropical Stream Garden

Past the oak you walk into what feels like the rainforest. You are not in a greenhouse. You are outside in the free air, and you are separate from the neighborhood outside the garden’s gate and from the hotels and theme thumb_IMG_0295_1024parks a few miles away. As you walk, you feel Florida’s humid air, hear the call of birds, and hear the scurrying of feet in the dense tropical foliage. You are surrounded by palms, cycads, bromeliads, birds of paradise, orchids, banana trees, and air plants. It is as if you have been carried back in history to a time before the Spanish or Mickey Mouse set foot in Florida. Small streams run through the foliage, beneath bridges, and beneath your path as you continue to walk in awe at the world before you.

The path takes you to an overlook of Lake Rowena then through a forest strictly dedicated to cycads. Cycads are some of the oldest plant species on earth that date back 200 million years, which, by the way, is before the dinosaurs. At first I believed that cycads are the same as palms, but the signs throughout the cycad forest quickly corrected me. I learned that cycads are actually completely separate from palms because they do not flower or fruit and they are dioecious, which means the male and female reproductive parts are on separate plants. While both palms and cycads are evergreen, the similarities are only superficial.

Past the cycads is a path lined by camellias, a bamboo forest, and a palm forest, which opens up the Floral Clock and the rose garden.

Mary Jane’s Rose Garden

IMG_0365Mary Jane’s Rose Garden is a beautifully landscaped area that first began in 1944 when Mary Jane Leu first planted roses by Lake Rowena. According to the website, there are “over 215 varieties and 650 roses” displayed. The rose garden has a concentric design that is flanked by shaded sitting areas and has a beautiful fountain at its center. Unlike the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden in The New York Botanical Garden, this garden was not very fragrant. I was impressed by the colors and the voluminous petals of the roses. More than anything the roses’s in Mary Jane Leu’s garden reminded me of peonies. Click through the slide show below to see some of my favorite roses!

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 The Idea Gardens thumb_IMG_0371_1024

The Idea Gardens were truly my favorite part of this botanical garden because they are a cluster of 10 distinct gardens that demonstrate many different designs and techniques, such as the Herb and Vegetable gardens pictured above. One of the things I liked about the Herb and Vegetable gardens was the use of rowed mounds to grow herbs and veggies like rosemary and lettuce. I also really liked the use of concrete blocks as both aesthetic planters and as a means to create an urban, vertical garden.

I could have spent hours perusing the Idea Gardens taking notes on the demonstrated techniques for sustainably growing food, but Jeffrey and I had signed up for a tour of the Leu House Museum and we ran a little late.

The Leu House Museum

The former Leu house is an incredibly beautiful plantation house that was originally built in  1858. According to our tour guide, the house belonged to 4 families from thumb_IMG_0321_1024the time it was built until the final owners, the Leus, donated the house and the grounds in 1961. The first owner, David Mizell was Orlando’s first sheriff who was murdered in 1870 and is buried at the family cemetery located on the grounds. But expect no ghost stories from your tour guide. Unfortunately Mizell is a sensible dead man who decidedly stayed dead.

The tour guide also informed us that the house double in size with each subsequent owner. The second owner Duncan Pell was the most interesting the owners as he brought his mistress Helen Gardner, a silent movie actress, to live with him here. They later married and divorced, and Helen Gardner became the first woman to run her own production company. Less interestingly, the Pell-Gardners doubled the house by adding 2 wings. The third family, the Woodward family, later owned the property and expanded the house to its current size.

The gardens weren’t built up until the Leus occupied the house as Henry Leu was an avid gardener who was interested in collecting species from all over the world. According to our guide and the website, “The Leus traveled extensively and brought back plants and seeds for their [50 acre] garden.” Leu was particularly fond of camellias. Between the north and south gardens there are over 200 varieties which bloom from mid-October through March. Unfortunately, we arrived just before the camellias bloomed so we did not get to see their full splendor.

The Arid Garden


Last, but certainly not least, we visited the Arid Garden, which is in the southeastern most corner of the garden. Here there were many cycads, euphorbias, aloes, haworthias, cacti, kalanchoes, yuccas, and crown of thorns. This corner is the only place were no irrigation is used and that depends on natural rainfall “which demonstrates good plant selections for a drought tolerant landscape.”

In comparison to the arid gardens in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and the New York Botanical Garden, this arid garden was particularly small. It seemed to have problems with water drainage and root rot as some plants, particularly barrel cacti, around the garden were rotting or showed signs of scars from previous rots. Florida is really a tropical clime and it didn’t surprise me that their arid garden was suffering from lack of aridity.

The garden did have some areas where cacti and succulents were arranged in containers that were beautiful and very well done. What I enjoyed most is their use of scale.

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The Harry P. Leu Gardens is a beautiful example of a tropical garden. It’s also a wonderful example of how to successfully garden according climate.  If you would like to tour Leu Gardens, you can click here to view their hours. If you would like to preview their grounds, click here for a map.

Have you visited the Leu Gardens? Is there a part of my experience you would like to know more about? Leave a comment below or feel free to contact me. If you’d like to hear more about what The Garden Generalist is up to, please give me a follow on Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr! Next up is my visit to Bushy Park, Hampton Court Palace, and Kew Gardens in London, England.



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