I’ve been trying to find Old Florida since my October 2009 move to the Sunshine State. Natives refer to this Old Florida as if it’s hidden from the general public. Yet, everything I assume being old and Florida falls flat. Finally, I found it at Flamingo Gardens, which began as a private home with orange groves, then a roadside attraction, and ultimately non-profit institution. Their evolution and desire to preserve distinctly Floridian elements allows me to say, “Eureka!” Who needs Ponce de Leon?
Floyd L. and Jane Wray came south in late 1920s from Michigan. Their one-level home shaded by Live Oaks is an Old Florida postcard. Mrs. Wray’s interests were botanicals. Mr. Wray’s interests were citrus, not only in growing native fruit but also species not found locally. However, after hurricane Wilma, the last orange groves were replaced by mango and avocado.
At Mrs. Wray’s death in the 1960s the grounds were already an established botanical garden.
“By the 1970s the overall look was established,” said Clark. “Ecological tours were developed so visitors could learn about the local animals, and of course the gardens.”
The Botanical Gardens collection now contains more than 3,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants, including a unique live oak hammock, threatened Florida native plant species, as well as endangered plant species from around the world.
The outdoor aviary boasts the largest collection of Florida wading birds in the state. Visitors walk along paths, past the birds, who don’t seem to notice passers by. In fact, none of them came to take feed from our hands. Ultimately, there is a net high above the canopy of trees. Below are egrets, blue herons, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, great egret, who are happily well-fed and maintained. The list of aviary residents includes trespassers, such as the fish crow and local box turtles.
“Sometimes they crawl in, then grow too big and can’t get back out,” he said of the aviary’s guests.
The Gardens boasts one of the largest collection of Birds of Prey, also sent for rehabilitation but kept in individual aviaries. A pair of American Bald Eagles seemed content in their habitat, while nearby we encountered a magnificent Golden Eagle.
“She came to us from a Seattle military base,” Clark told SFGN. “She was in pretty bad shape, impaled on a lightening rod.”
Sadly, the metal pins put in her wings to keep her alive will prevent her from ever leaving the Gardens. She has yet to mate with her male companion. If they mate Flamingo Gardens will release the young into the wild.
Other animals include alligators, Elvis and Priscilla. A pair of bobcats and panthers, both native to Florida but due to population expansion are quite endangered, also live here. Despite small, feline faces, and playful behavior, Clark explained bobcats are still dangerous. A panther who came out from his cool, shady spot, has much loose skin hanging from him.
“These animals often come here because they were being mistreated. This guy was twice his size, because he was overfed,” Clark explained. “We’re also building a habitat for a Black Bear who just loves people, because he entertained tourists.”
As it was late in the day more and more ibis took shelter at Flamingo Gardens, but only for the night.
“We’re on the map as a guest house,” said Clark. “But only if you’re a bird.”
Please visit FlamingoGardens.org for more information.