Sunken Gardens returns to its former glory

Sunken Gardens started in 1903 with plumber George Turner's private garden

When I lived in the Tampa Bay area of Florida in the late 1970s and 1980s, the best place to buy tacky tourist gifts, bar none, was the gift shop at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. There you could find shell-shaped everything, snow globes galore, and all varieties of alligator-themed contraptions.

Alas, the gift shop is now a serious affair, with real objets d’art, a sad turn of events for this kitsch collector. But the reason for the change is a happy one. The city purchased the faded, dated botanical-garden attraction in the heart of the city in 1999 and renovated and reopened it a few years later. Gone are the exotic animals and bird shows (yay) and remaining is the tropical haven the garden started out as. (OK, there are a few caged birds and flamingos, but all handled with care.)

Orange Angel’s trumpets

Sunken Gardens has a quintessential Florida beginning – it was a sinkhole. In 1903 plumber George Turner Sr. drained an adjacent lake and used his well irrigated land/sinkhole to create a garden. It became so popular he began to charge admission, and it grew from there. After several decades of glory and fame, it became, by the 1970s, a poorly maintained, tired tourist trap. So how wonderful to see a spiffed-up Sunken Gardens enjoy a second, respectable life.

Flaming red bromeliad

We visited the four-acre spread on a warm day in October and brought Wessel’s parents, visiting from the Netherlands, along with my friend Martha, who lives in St. Petersburg. Karel and Francis are plant experts and were duly impressed by the lush assortment of trees and plants, many blooming. Highlights: orange Angel’s trumpets hanging over the walkways, a field of birds of paradise, more palms tree species than I knew existed, a bromeliad garden, a hillside of Bougainvillia, and an orchid arbor.

As we started our tour we passed a city-run outdoor yoga class, and I so wanted to stay and stretch surrounded by all that beauty.

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