McKee Botanical Gardens: the real story of the real Florida

I like Florida. Everything is in the ’80s. The temperature, the ages and the IQ’s.

George Carlin

I moved to South Florida at the end of the golden era of the tourist industry. Back then, Parrot Jungle was located in Ft. Lauderdale, Six Flags over Atlantis was a water park in Hollywood, and there was an Ocean World right off the 17th Street Causeway. I can still remember touching the dolphins in a shallow pool that would make any PETA member pissed. We weren’t very animal friendly back then. 

             In the mid-80s, these traps disappeared as families were more interested in spending time on the beach, shopping, and a more real Florida. So I was kind of surprised to find in Florida one of those long-lost tourist destinations reimagined.

             In the 1960s, The McKee Jungle Gardens opened up. Spreading over 48 acres, it offered the traveler a glimpse of the paradise that Florida was trying to sell. In reality, Florida was still a big swamp back then. With its imported tropical plants, birds, and monkeys; it was a place of wonder, delight, and so not like the real Florida. Sadly, like so many of these sites, it went belly up in the 80S. Most of its acres were sold off and turned into golf courses. But 18 acres were saved and turned into the McKee Botanical Gardens.

             While researching what to do in Vero Beach, I came across a local blogger take on this place. She talked about a beautiful garden and something to do to kill a couple of hours. So I jotted it down in my notes, so I had a backup if laying by the pool was bust.

             Turns out, laying by the pool was a bust, my boyfriend had surgery on his hand, and he was in the cast. So the pool was out of the questions. So after brunch at a great little café in Vero Beach, we headed over to the gardens to check it out.

             After paying the $10.00 charge to get in, we wandered around the twisting paths around the property. It was the tail end of the lilies being in bloom. The ponds around the property were alive with purple, blue, and yellow lilies.

             There were a couple of unique things to check out. One was a large grill that would be any barbecuer dream. We weren’t sure why they had a grill, but it is worth checking out.

             Another attraction is the sleeping tree, which is a type of tree that grows sideways instead of up and down.

             The gardens also had art displayed done by Patrick Dougherty called Royals. He is an artist that twists branches into three-dimensional shapes. These were three heads like statues that you could walk around and through.

             Along the path are reminders of the past. The runes of the aviary once held a collection of exotic birds, a couple of waterfalls that used to be part of a larger exhibit, and the historical markers talking about what was there.

The Royals, by Patrick Dougherty

             In its way, the gardens play homage to the past, admitting it once was a cheesy tourist trap while being a beautiful gathering of native Florida flora and fauna. Florida’s originally named Pascua Florida, meaning Flowering Easter. At certain times of the year, we are alive with beautiful flowers.

             Wandering around the gardens took about a couple of hours, and I would suggest a water bottle and some bug spray. The gardens are very well kept, in a natural way, so make sure you have a pair of good walking shoes.

              If you are in Vero Beach, it is worth checking out.

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