Central Florida – a haven for naturalists

Florida has a great amount of biodiversity and nature lovers will enjoy the great variety of plants found in the Sunshine State. On our recent trip to Orlando we had a chance to visit several locations with a beautiful parks and gardens, such as the Harry P. Leu Gardens and the Historical Bok Sanctuary. Even my excursion on the Scenic Boat Tour in Winter Park brought me up close to some of the fascinating flowers and plants found in the Orlando area.

Florida has a mix of subtropical and tropical climates and the area around Orlando are more subtropical. Central Florida has a hot, but often stormy climate and experiences many thunderstorms with a frequent risk of hurricanes.

Wonderful leafy textures seen in Winter Park and Kissimmee

Geographically, the Central Florida area encompasses Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Brevard, and Volusia counties, and some consider Polk and Sumter counties also to be part of Central Florida. This low-lying area is dominated by hundreds of lakes surrounded by marshland. Historically predominant industries include cotton, citrus and cattle-raising. The climate favours a great deal of plant and animal species.

Nature lovers will revel in Central Florida’s abundant gardens and parks which give them a perfect opportunity to enjoy nature up close. Here is a collection of parks and gardens that will give you great exposure to Central Florida’s natural beauty:

The Historic Bok Sanctuary offered a glimpse at so many fascinating plants

Archbold Biological Station P. O. Box 2057, (Old State Road 8), Lake Placid, FL 33862 Phone: (941) 465-2571. “The Station fosters long-term ecological research on native plants and animals of central Florida and also provides environmental education for K-12 children.”

Bok Tower Gardens 1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales, FL 33853-3412; Phone: (941) 676-1408. “Historic Bok Sanctuary offers visitors Florida’s most abundant
opportunities for aesthetic, cultural and personal enrichment. The lush landscapes of the Olmsted gardens, the majesty and music of the carillon tower and the splendor of Pinewood Estate create an experience that inspires all who visit.”

Cypress Gardens 2641 South Lake Summit Road, Cypress Gardens, FL 33884; Phone: (800) 282-2123. “Standing sentinel in the historic gardens is the giant Banyan tree, which was planted in 1939 from a seedling during the parks early years. Topiary Trail features a collection of colorful topiaries, including a variety of animals such as a rabbit, swan and serpent. The crowning gem in this trail of jewels is the waterfall, a sparkling cascade accented by brilliant floral blossoms. The Plantation Gardens grace the manicured landscape of Snively Mansion and include the aromatic herb garden, a glorious rose garden and the butterfly garden adjoining Wings of Wonder.”

Wonderful colours and textures seen in Winter Park and at the Historic Bok Sanctuary

Disney Wilderness Preserve 6075 Scrub Jay Trail Kissimmee, FL 34759; Phone: (407) 935-0002. “Fifteen miles south of Walt Disney World, in the heart of Central Florida, lies the Disney Wilderness Preserve. The site, originally the Walker Ranch, is now owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, a private, non-profit conservation organization that is responsible for the largest network of private conservation lands in the world.”

Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens 1920 N. Forest Avenue, Orlando, FL 32803-1537; Phone: (407) 246-2620. “Miles of paved scenic walkways that take you through garden settings, including: America’s largest Camellia collection outside California and the largest formal rose garden in Florida, a house museum dating from the 1880’s, a palm garden and bamboo garden. New gardens include the Tropical Stream Garden and the new Kitchen Garden with herbs, vegetables and a butterfly garden!”

Highlands Hammock State Park 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring, FL 33872; Phone: (941) 386-6094. “The contrast of the dark swamp waters against the bright trunks of the bare trees is reminiscent of more northerly forests. White-tailed deer munch their way through the campsites, enjoying the scattering of acorns around the base of many oaks. Bobcat tracks are found each morning in the damp sands along the roadways, and the Barred owls call as soon as the sun goes down. Visitors are enjoying viewing alligators as they soak up the warm sun that follows the cool nighttime temperatures.”

Lake Kissimmee State Park 14248 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales, FL 33853; Phone: (941) 696-1112. “Florida’s cowboy heritage comes alive with living history demonstrations of the early Florida “cow hunters” in an 1876-era cow camp, open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekends and holidays. White-tailed deer, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, turkeys, and bobcats have been seen in the park, located on the shores of lakes Kissimmee, Tiger, and Rosalie. Visitors enjoy boating, canoeing, and fishing in the picturesque lakes. Nature students can hike over 13 miles of trails to observe and study the abundant plant and animal life. Six miles of trails are open to equestrians. A large, shaded picnic area with pavilions is available. The park has full-facility campsites, as well as a primitive camping facility. The youth camping area can accommodate up to 50 people. The dark skies make stargazing a popular nighttime activity for campers.”

Interesting varieties of palm trees as seen in Mount Dora and in the Loch Haven Park area

Ocala National Forest USDA Forest Service, 17147 E. Hwy 40, Silver Springs, FL 34488 Phone: (352) 625-7470. “The Forest offers 383,573 acres of unique ecological sites, trails, natural springs. There are hundreds of camping sites throughout the forest offering everything from full-service campgrounds to more rustic sites. The National Forest also has designated trails for horseback riding. Hunting is permitted in designated areas where the enforcement of state regulations is strict. Recreation areas include Alexander Springs, Fore Lake Recreational Area, Juniper Springs, Lake Eaton Loop Trail, Lake Eaton Sink Hole, Mill Dam Recreation Area, Salt Springs and Salt Springs Trail. Specially marked walking/hiking trails are located throughout this wonderful resource. Lake Eaton Sinkhole and the Lake Eaton Loop are only two of the trails that allow the visitor to explore the area on easily traveled interpretive trails.”

More colourful splendor from the Historic Bok Sanctuary

Silver River State Park 7165 N. E. 7th Street, Ocala, FL 34470; Phone: (352) 236-1827. “This park has more than 14 distinct natural communities, dozens of springs, and miles of beautiful trails. The adjoining Silver Springs attraction houses the headwaters of the Silver River, which flows through the park into the Ocklawaha River. The park is home to a pioneer cracker village and the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center. The center is operated by the Marion County School District in cooperation with the park and is open to the public on weekends and holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00. p.m. Admission to the Museum is $2.00 per person.Children 6 and under are free.”

A flesh-eating plant and a camellia from the Bok Historic Sanctuary

Silver Springs P. O. Box 370, (5656 E. SR-40), Silver Springs, FL 34489; Phone: (800) 234-7458. “Silver Springs is a 350 acre nature theme park surrounds the headwaters of the beautiful Silver River, the largest artesian spring formation in the world. Located 90 miles north of Orlando, just east of Ocala, Florida. Here you can view the underground springs from our famous glass-bottom boats, where you’ll see fish, shellfish, turtles and alligators in water that’s up to 80 feet deep and 99.8% pure. Walk the beautiful grounds and experience the natural habitats of Florida’s largest alligators, endangered bears and panthers, Kritter Korral petting zoo, plus an entertaining variety of wildlife shows from Birds of Prey to snakes and reptiles. There are rides and exhibits for all ages in a natural setting of stunning beauty. “

University of Central Florida Arboretum 4000 Central Florida Blvd. Orlando, FL 32816-2368 Phone: (407) 823-2141. “The Arboretum of The University of Central Florida was founded in 1983. From the original 12-acre “quick view” garden with a mix of ornamental and native plants in the pond pine community adjacent the Stockard Conservatory Greenhouse, The Arboretum has grown to nearly 80 acres. North of the 9 acre man-made lake and the Engineering E-2 parking lot, trails take visitors through a 5-7 acre cypress dome and a picturesque 2-3 acre oak hammock. North of the oak hammock the trail crosses an open area with wild rosemary and sand pine, and oak scrub, returning to the cypress dome. An unmarked trail circles the cypress dome on the north, club mosses and carnivorous sundews lining the sides, before rejoining the main trail on the southwest side of the dome. Follow the broad white sand trail west through a ‘mature’ [last burned in the 1950’s] sand pine and wild rosemary community for a quick exit to the University Field House road, or return on Arboretum trails.”

Winter Park Kraft Azalea Gardens, Winter Park, Phone 407-599-3334: Located on Alabama Drive off Palmer Avenue. Thousands of azaleas, tropical shrubs and trees grow luxuriantly along the shores of Lake Maitland where cool breezes and breathtaking sunsets can be found. Azaleas bloom January through March.

Although the Orlando area is mostly known for its big-thrill attractions and theme parks, nature lovers will find plenty of parks, gardens and wilderness areas to enjoy. For more information about the Orlando area contact the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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