Words and images by Carly Wille
Just off of interstate 75, loud car horns, traffic lights and a cluster of vehicles consume the street. From every angle fast food restaurants, gas stations and hustling drivers pass.
But further down the road, hidden amidst the chaos, where civilization begins to disappear and foliage takes over, is a sharp right turn. Taken by few but valued by all who do, is a trim, meandering pathway, surrounded by a canopy of green.
Deeper into the shade, a sweet aroma emanates, the rocky roadway expands and a small house emerges. The Summer House, an architecturally unique building surrounded by diverse botanical delights, is the entryway to the garden.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, located just west of Gainesville, blooms just off of one of most active streets in town, Southwest Archer Road. The garden is home to two miles of agriculturally sound pathways that pilot visitors past and through flowers, plants, wildlife, trails, overlooks and even sinkholes.
For $8 Mary Bigham, the small, chipper volunteer at the garden’s front desk, allows entry. She and all of the other volunteers are passionate about their workplace.
Bigham pulls out a large map of Kanapaha and explains each point on it almost by memory. Take a left out of the Summer House, there’s a half of a mile of garden to trek, and to the right, another mile.
“Unfortunately with today’s weather, I fear not much will be in bloom,” Bigham said. “But there is still so much to see.”
She was right.
On a cold day in February many of the plants and flowers were dead, or as Bigham referred to them, “sleeping.” If anything though, that made Kanapaha even more impressive; that even when the garden is not flourishing at its fullest. It is still a tranquil wonderland brimming with delicate life.
To the left of the Summer House is the shorter trail, budding with bountiful gardens and spacious fields of green. The children’s garden is located in the center of one of the fields and children frolic in the arboretum, playing tag and disappearing into the maze of vegetation.
The camellia garden also grows to the left of the Summer House. One of the only flowers to thrive in the cold weather, the camellia grows in shade.
Bright pink petals with fluorescent yellow whiskers are scattered throughout the garden. The isolated survivors gave the evergreen Kanapaha some of its only color that day.
Although, when visited during peak season in April, June and July, Alexis Cafrey, the director of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, said the colors of the divergent, local and exotic flowers that live in the garden are omnipresent.
“By June, almost all of our plants and flowers will be in full bloom,” Cafrey said. “The butterfly garden will in full population and by March 1, the hummingbirds will return.”
The hummingbird garden is located to the right of the Summer House. Visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the smell of syrupy blossoms and the subtle sound of buzzing as countless hummingbirds bound from stem to stem.
Past the hummingbird garden are towering bamboo shoots of greens, blacks and purples that form a trail of their own. It’s impossible to pass through the tough bond of the solid grasses.
Kimberly McDow, a student at University of Florida in Gainesville, stands at only 5 feet tall. She stands beneath Kanapaha’s over 15-foot shoots in awe.
“My father took me here for the first time when I was 10. He’s always had a fascination with bamboo,” she said. “Living so close to Kanapaha now, I visit often and I purchase bamboo for my dad every time.”
The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens not only provides visitors with the opportunity to experience nature’s allure but it also allows the purchase of some of the garden’s most impressive pieces.
For $3 visitors can take home a small bamboo shoot and for $4, one of the larger shoots. The bamboo is for sale back in the Summer House.
Bigham guards the entrance to the garden as well as to the decorative gift shop. Colorful mementos of the multisensory adventure Kanapaha offers fill the small shop.
“I feel like new visitors never expect what we offer. I notice a real change in attitude from when I first encounter a visitor to when they leave,” Bigham said. “Everyone seems a little astonished when their visit is over. I’ve never seen anyone not appreciate Kanapaha.”