Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bok Tower and Gardens

Can you believe we had the opportunity to visit not one, but three, botanical gardens in our 10-day trip to Florida? The second on our list was the Bok Tower and Garden - a national historical site - in Lake Wales, Florida.

Although we went on a cool, overcast day it was a delightful place to be. Built originally in the late 1920's the trees and shrubs are mature and full - a big contrast to the newly opened Naples Botanical Garden that we saw earlier in the week. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., this garden has the feel of the big stately garden grounds - like the Biltmore Estate or Central Park - but in this setting a very different sort of vegetation. It does come complete, though, with sculpture and a moat with swans - as any proper formal garden should.

We were there in Camellia season, but it was also interesting to see azaleas in bloom. In Central Virginia we get camellias in November through March, but the azaleas don't start blooming until April, so the two don't normally overlap. In this setting, tho, they are very complementary. And I loved the juxtaposition of the deciduous shrubs with palm trees and Spanish Moss.

As you can see from the map, there are large lawns and planted areas surrounding a lake and the tower itself. The tower is located on the highest point in Central Florida. It is situated in such a way that it is completely reflected in the lake at its feet. [I suspect that has more to do with the way the lake was sited, but they describe it in terms of the tower. Good PR there.] The elevation here is actually something near 300 feet - which for most of us is nothing, but in Florida is quite remarkable. The gardens spread around it on three sides, but on the fourth side the land actually falls away sharply creating a shelf only a few hundred feet behind the tower and giving the visitor the impression of standing on a cliff looking down on the town far below. It's an optical illusion, but a nice one.

The large planting areas included many camellias and azaleas, but also orange trees and various palms and Youpon holly. But there were also beds of annuals [well, at least where I live] and some gorgeous big agaves. These do not grow at all in my zone, so I am always fascinated by them.

There was also a variety of statuary. Some if it was "traditional" bronze figures, but the best, to my eye, were modernistic sculptures of flowers. These were scattered around the flowering beds that surround the education center.

The Tower itself is interesting. Over 200 feet tall, it is built of native stone and marble with gorgeous mosaic windows at the top. It contains a wonderful carillon, which is played frequently. When we were there they were celebrating its anniversary, so there were live concerts every afternoon and we were there in time to hear one. Other days they have recorded concerts. And, when the days are longer they have them in the evening as well. We did not stay to meet the carilloneur, but we could have! [They are doing some repair and renovation, so you can see scaffolding at the top.] If one has the appropriate level of membership (financial support), one can go into the Tower, but we were only poor travelers on the road, so we were satisfied with an exterior viewing.

An historical note here. Mitchell remembers his grandparents and aunt driving from Virginia to Florida in the 1940's to visit the Tower and Gardens. They made many trips to visit gardens, so this is not a big surprise. It was a surprise, however, that as we were driving from Naples to Orlando, when he spotted the sign he started looking for the tower. And, it was he who pushed to go see it.

One final note. I think it's always wonderful to find an idea that one might use in one's own garden and I found a great one at Bok Tower. It's not one I can use in my climate, but Elizabeth has a new house and is working on her landscaping, so I think she might want to give this a try. At the entrance/education building there is an enclosed courtyard with sidewalks around it and a garden in the center. Along the walks - and I suspect to dissuade walking into the garden - are "walls" made of plants. They have strung "air plants" together with wire and suspended them at one-foot intervals along the walk. The plants are staggered and they have used several different types of plant. I actually didn't know that air plants came in so many varieties, or grew so large. That's one of those zone things again! If you live far enough south (or perhaps west) that bromiliads will make it through the winter, or if you can figure out a way to shelter them, this might be a good idea for you, too.

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