McKee Botanical Garden Offers Family Fun During Spring Break

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When it comes to surprises, they come in all kinds and sizes, good and bad, big and small. But the best kind of surprise is when you come across a good one when you least expect it. And that’s what happens when you visit one of the oldest botanical gardens in the state, the McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach.

This venerable Florida attraction may be old, but this lush garden seems to have discovered its own fountain of youth as it lifts its heels these days with one of the most innovative and alluring kindergartens. of the world. Of course, there is a lot to attract, entertain and inform all ages, but in particular this garden offers so much for children to visit, discover, enjoy and learn. This lush tropical garden is a sure-fire spring break destination for kids – for the whole family.

“McKee Jungle Gardens was the vision of real estate developers Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton, who purchased the 80-acre tropical hammock in 1922 with the intention of growing citrus. The natural beauty of the property was deemed too special in its original state to be disturbed. McKee and Sexton have therefore identified a new purpose for the earth, ”according to Connie Cotherman, head of marketing and events.

“The two real estate developers employed landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, of the renowned firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the basic infrastructure for the streams, ponds and trails while focusing their efforts on assembling the one of the most remarkable collections of water lilies and orchids. increasing native vegetation with ornamental plants and exotic specimens from around the world. “

“In the 1940s, more than 100,000 tourists visited the gardens each year, considering it one of Florida’s oldest and most popular natural attractions. The garden’s award-winning orchid collection, unusual pelican flowers that trap flies and exotic wildlife captivated visitors, ”Cotherman said. “During World War II, the garden was temporarily closed to serve as a jungle survival training center for the Navy.

“But in the ’70s the bigger, more glitzy attractions grabbed the lion’s share of family attention and the lush tropical jungle couldn’t compete. McKee Jungle Gardens closed in 1976 and was sold to condominium developers. All but 18 acres have been developed. These 18 acres, once the heart of McKee Jungle Gardens, have been dormant for 20 years, ”Cotherman said.

“Fast-forwarded to 1994 and, with the help of The Trust for Public Land, launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the land from the developer who was finalizing plans for a mall. With their bare hands, basic tools and an unimaginable heart, volunteers of all ages cleared the trails to once again reveal the treasures of the jungle. This community effort touched so many people that even a young girl donated her weekly allowance to help save the gardens, ”Cotherman added. “Nov. January 18, 2001 marked the official opening of the rescued, restored and newly named McKee Botanical Garden.

From the moment you step into the beautiful entrance tunnel dripping with vines and tropical flowers that leads to the gardens, you realize you are about to enter a different world. With over 10,000 native and tropical plants to gaze at along a maze of trails and one of Florida’s largest and most famous water lily collections, the lush landscape has returned to its former glory. A glimpse of yesteryear is revealed as several restored architectural treasures such as the Hall of the Giants and the Spanish Kitchen (meticulously restored according to Sexton’s original vision) appear as you navigate the maze of jungle trails.

But it’s McKee’s most ambitious venture – the new kindergarten – that takes the whole family to another dimension. Designed by landscape architect Emmanuel Didier in 2020, the mission of the Children’s Garden is to create a fun and whimsical outdoor destination that inspires children’s imaginations and curiosity through interaction, education and exploration, forging a powerful bond between families and children and nature. And of course, he keeps his promise!

Activities include Tuesday pond surveys; on Wednesdays, Gordon the Pirate Turtle and his friend Amy sing, dance, read stories, and search for plants and wildlife; on Thursdays and Fridays, Minkee the pirate monkey in the outdoor classroom discovers nature; arts and crafts workshops and a range of educational workshops. A full schedule of programs is listed on the Children’s Garden website, mckeechildrensgarden.org. Registration is not compulsory.

“McKee’s educational programs also include helping the growth of our monarch butterfly population,” said McKee’s education coordinator Amy Shoemaker. “We currently have 50 pupae transforming into butterflies. Come take a look and maybe you’ll be at the Children’s Garden at the right time to see a butterfly hatch. The butterfly house is on display after each daily program in the kindergarten.

There is so much to see and do in this unique region, from monkey bridges and tunnels to climb, to the landlocked pirate ship to explore – this innovative garden is sure to amaze and keep young children busy. As in much of the rest of the Botanical Park, in the Kindergarten there are surprises around every turn.

Annual events at the garden include a motor show; display and sale of gardens and antiques; a water lily festival in June with the hundreds of water lilies in the garden; and special events for the holidays. McKee is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $ 15 for adults; $ 13 for seniors (65 +) / youth (13-17); and $ 10 for children (2-12) / military. McKee members and children under 2 are admitted free.

Now a Florida landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and recognized by the Garden Conservancy as a preservation project of national significance, the McKee Botanical Garden is, as its founders envisioned, a place wilderness of natural beauty for visitors of all ages. discover, explore and enjoy.

Lynette L. Walther is a recipient of the GardenComm Gold Medal for Writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal for Merit, National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and is the author of “Florida Gardening on the Go “. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Its gardens are located on the banks of the Saint John River.


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