McKee Botanical Garden, one of Florida’s often overlooked public garden spaces, is found along US-1 in Vero Beach. It may be easy to miss this gem if you don’t know its history or its charm.
Developers Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton planned to grow citrus on the 80-acre tropical hammock when they purchased it in 1922. The property was so beautiful they decided against destroying it, instead assembling one of the most outstanding collections of water lilies and orchids.
The McKee Botanical Garden hosts the 19th Annual Water Lily Celebration on Saturday, June 15, 2024.
The developers contracted William Lyman Phillips to design the basic infrastructure of streams, ponds, and trails. Phillips worked for the Frederick Law Olmstead firm. The gardens are another unique Florida link to Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, The US Capital Grounds, and Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC.
The sub-tropical environment is the perfect host for a large sampling of hibiscus, heliconia, plumeria, palms, caladiums, and other cold-intolerant plants.
The garden opened to the public in 1929 and is one of Florida’s original attractions. By the 1940s, more than 100,000 tourists visited the Garden each year. Attendance wained in the mid-1970s as Central Florida’s theme parks drew more visitors to the state’s center. The garden shut down in 1976, and most of the land was sold for development. The area remained vacant for twenty years. until the Indian River Land Trust purchased it and restored it in 1995. It was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1998 under its former name — McKee Jungle Gardens.
The nature-inspired exhibit A Tropical Flock of Avian Avatars is on display until April 28, 2024. Ten environmentally friendly bird sculptures are created from bamboo and other mixed media. Each unique Avatar was created specifically for the Garden and is made from natural materials.
The design scale is whimsical and an engineering feat that invites visitors to experience and interact with the sculptures by walking through them, resting in them, or marveling at the impressive design.
An Inspiring Children’s Garden
Younger visitors connect with nature in a designated Children’s Garden. There are several backdrops to ignite the imagination. The Music Maze, Fairy Forest, and Grand Discovery Tree invite young nature lovers to explore and interact with Mother Nature.
The Water Lily Collection
Water lilies are perennial aquatic plants that thrive in Florida’s damp wetlands with showy blooms of many colors. There are other places to see waterlilies throughout Florida, but the McKee Botanical Garden’s collection includes several rare varieties.
Often confused with the lotus flower, the waterlily’s petals are more sharply pointed, creating a star-like bloom that lasts up to two weeks. The flowers are brightly colored in pink, purple, peach, yellow, red, and white.
McKee Garden is open Tuesday – Saturday from 11:00 am-5:00 pm, and Sundays from Noon-5:00 pm. The last admission is at 4:00 pm. An on-site gift shop is open during garden hours, plus a Garden Cafe is open until 3:00 pm for lunch.