Saturday, February 20, 2010

Harry Leu Gardens

The third garden of our recent trip was the Harry P. Leu Garden in downtown Orlando. We chose a sunny, but windy day and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. This garden and estate were donated to the city of Orlando about 40 years ago by the Leus after they spent another 40 years developing it. Earlier owners had built much of the house and landscaped a bit, but it was Harry Leu's love of camellias that led to this lovely oasis in the city. The grounds are an interesting mix of styles with about three miles of paved walkways to make access easy. The property also has a lake down one whole side, so there are some lovely vistas out over the lake, and at one point a walkway over the water. When we arrived a wedding was just ending in the rose garden, with the guests moving inside for the reception, and there were fairly many visitors in the garden.

Located on 50 acres this garden combines a somewhat traditional southern garden with the natural flora of central Florida. There is the largest camellia garden outside of California - developed over years as the Leus traveled abroad and brought back specimen plants. The house is now a museum furnished mostly in possessions of the Leus and surrounded by kitchen gardens of herbs and annuals, and a huge rose garden. There is also a natural area of native Florida plants and an educational garden where they grow "idea gardens" designed to give recreational gardeners ideas of things to try at home. The camellias were almost finished blooming, but the area was filled with mature shrubs - many 10 feet or more tall and in diameter - and covered with their final blooms of the season. I particularly liked this flower, that was a very dark coral color.

Another thing I liked was that they painted with their bromiliads. At the garden in Naples the designers have used huge swaths of the same variety of bromiliad. When they are older/larger it will create large drifts of the same plant. Here they have mixed plants of the same size, but different colors to create a different, softer look that I liked a lot. In a way it's more natural looking like a rock garden, but also charming - at least to me.

In the educational "idea" garden, there were many small planting areas more like we have at home, than those normally found in a large scale garden like this. There is also a series of delightful sculptures of people having fun and playing together. As you can see from the photo, there was not much going on in the plantings, but it was early February after all! In some beds there were "leftover" annuals - things that we wouldn't consider trying to grow this time of year in Central Virginia - and clear signs that they are getting ready to start a new round of planting for their upcoming season.

There were many plants that were not familiar to me. One I particularly liked was this "orchid tree". A young man passing by was also intrigued with it. He was pretty sure it is actually a legume of some sort. The tree was probably 20 feet tall with a very open growth habit and covered with these gorgeous dark purple flowers. They were not true orchids at all, but certainly gave the general impression of orchids. They actually remind me more of hibiscus flowers with five major petals and a few insignificant ones with a prominent pistil.

Another spot that we particularly liked was the pond walk were we could see hundreds of water lilies just waiting for a bit more sun and warmth to open. We walked all the way to the end of the pond walkway - past all the "do not feed the alligators" signs - to see the lilies. You can see how hard the wind was blowing by the raised leaves in the water.

All around the pond were huge water oaks and palms and many philodendron vines climbing both. For those of us who are used to philodendron as part of a dish garden, or perhaps working its way across our desk and up over the door to our office, this was the most steroidal plant ever. The leaves on this plant ranged from two to three FEET long and the vine was as large as my wrist.

The final fun thing in this garden is the flower clock. I have never seen one, but apparently this one is patterned after one the Leus saw in their travels. It will be gorgeous in the later spring when it really fills out in annual blooms. In case you are wondering.... the time was correct!

Harry P. Leu Gardens is definitely worth the time to visit. On a prettier day we could have spent three or four hours wandering. We didn't really see as much of the camellias or the natural areas as I wanted, but the wind was cool and we decided to move on to a warm bowl of Pho in the nearby Vietnamese section of Orlando. The arts district was also close by, so if you find yourself in Orlando and looking for an alternative to the Mouse, head over to northwest of downtown and visit some different things. This one was fun and interesting.

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