TROPICAL WITH A TEMPERATE TWIST
Nothing is quite what it seems in Florida, a state where ‘zonal denial’ is the gardening mantra. Joanna Fortnam reports
One sunny day in March, almost six years ago, I landed in Orlando on a plane packed with excited Britons headed for the theme parks and beaches. I felt just a tad superior that I was there to experience the “real” Florida, having been called to the Sunshine State to work as an editor on a US gardening magazine. Although I was only a novice gardener, how hard could it be to dazzle the natives with my innate British flair?
I soon found that Florida, adaptable and obliging to a fault, is also full of baffling horticultural loopholes. I had left behind a national comfort zone, then presided over by Alan Titchmarsh, where gardeners speak pretty much the same language, and landed in a Babelian world of US Department of Agriculture climate zones, hurricane warnings, and humidity levels. Even gardeners on opposite sides of the state struggled to find common ground. I had to check my stock of received wisdom constantly against a never ending list of ifs and buts. Gardening books — forget it; all written by Brits. Plant labels — useless; “full sun” does not mean scorching Florida sun. “Plant in spring” means wait until autumn or your seedlings will fry.
When I sought advice from out-ofstate contacts, their ignorance matched my own: “Florida gardening? They just change the busy Lizzies from pink to white a couple of times a year,” guffawed one New Yorker.
Even Americans dismiss Florida as an escapist bolthole full of flamingos, alligator wrestling and theme parks. But in reality it is a hub of serious horticulture: 20 miles to the north of Orlando is Apopka, a township of foliage plant factories where just about every bird’s-nest fern that ever graced a waiting room first saw life. In Homestead, north of Miami, cloned orchids flood from petri dishes in numbers that have put a phalaenopsis in every living room. And there are the citrus groves that earned Florida its nickname of the “Big Orange”.
Horticulture in the grand tradition is not unknown either. During the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the 20th century, vast tracts of swamp and scrub were annexed by robber barons such as Deering, Edison and the circus impresario John Ringling. Centred around Palm Beach, Sarasota and Miami, these Gatsby-like estates are now public landmarks and the gardens, classical in scale and style, turn their backs magnificently on the oozing, prickly native Florida landscape of hardwood hammock, swamp, saltwater lake and scrub. Even today this is a reality gardeners are anxious to avoid.
For a gardener from temperate climes, the perplexities of Florida are many. Water is everywhere but you’d better not drink it (terrible disease) or swim in it (alligators). More to the point, it will disappear into the sandy soil faster than you can pour it on, so despite 60 inches of rainfall a year, irrigation will be needed to keep your lawn green. Likewise, the sun may shine most of the year, but you shouldn’t go out in it (skin cancer, insects). Then, of course, there’s the hurricane season from June to November (stifling humidity, roof in garden). And don’t be fooled by the holiday brochure image: there is a real risk of frost from November to March. This even catches out the locals — in 1989 the entire citrus crop was lost at temperatures of -8C (17F).
So the apparent “tropicalness” of Florida is an unreliable guide to what really lives there — the “houseplants gone wild” look is for the benefit of tourists and northerners who expect a side order of jungle with their place in the sun. My travels around the US confirmed that the tropical look (known affectionately as zonal denial), is popular from Maine to Miami, with everyone mad for lurid combos of cordyline, canna and coleus.
Nostalgia is another a key ingredient. Immigrants insist on roses, camellias and daffodils. The first two thrive; the latter, along with tulips and crocus, are non-starters. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. The Disney theme parks set the bar, lavishing enormous amounts of money and expertise on
For the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, see www.leugardens.org. The camellia collection is particularly good in March and April.
Comprehensive nformation on Orlando theme parks can be found at www.orlandofunparks.com.
The City of Winter Park, north-east of Orlando, is a good area for garden gawking. See www.ci.winterpark.fl.us/2005/index.asp. The best source of information for Florida Gilded Age estates is www.flagler.org. Two of the most notable are Vizcaya (www. vizcayamuseum.org) and the Ringling Estate (www.
ringling.org). persuading sulky temperate plants to perform leaf-perfect renditions of a “wild flower meadow” or a “typical Paris park”. And that’s not to mention the topiarised Tinker Bells in multi-coloured begonias. Fortunately for a home gardener like myself with limited budget and space, Orlando is also blessed with an outstanding botanical garden, the Harry P. Leu Gardens, presided over by Robert Bowden, a fount of practical knowledge.
“The great advantage of Florida is the lack of frost in some areas and the ability to garden 12 months a year,” Bowden explained to me, on a high-speed buggy tour of Leu gardens. “But central Florida is confusing, as we are on the cusp of the temperate/tropical climate zones. A lot of temperate plants do very well here, and it’s not artificial to grow them as they don’t need intensive care and support.”
Although it does produce some combinations that are bothersome to the eye — as in, would you care for a banana with that camellia? Bowden bans tropical plants among his camellias for this very reason.
“But gardening is easier both north and south of Orlando,” he continued. “The north is more temperate, so you add a few tropicals like the Victorians did for summer colour and texture. And South Florida is tropical so the palette is simplified.” Bowden’s greatest pleasure is his winter vegetable garden, a secret reserved for top-notch gardeners who can crack the upside-down sowing times. After spending a dormant summer in the shade of his porch, from November till April Bowden harvests broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, chard and herbs, the plants rushing into growth in fall with the onset of lower temperatures.
I rented a duplex in one of the older (ie 1950s) neighbourhoods of Orlando. Compared with the blistering ugliness of typical Florida urban sprawl — a flat, highway-andmall-dominated hell — Colonial Town was a haven of brick streets, quaint bungalows with porches and charming gardens.
Rows of amaryllis gaily lining a chain-link fence seemed a morethan-fair swap for the daffodils of home. Even the drabbest front yard could field a dazzling yellow tabebui (golden trumpet tree) to make our suburban forsythia seem insipid. Cycling around these neighbourhoods after work was an ideal way to enjoy the theatrics of a warm-climate flora — bromeliads hanging from improvised trapezes in the trees, scarlet poinsettias in full leaf. The groomed luxuriance of deep, cool lawns in the shade of live oaks, swirling borders edged with fluorescent begonias; trees hanging with giant philodendron and staghorn ferns — it’s impossible not to feel a little woozy with the cinematic romance of it all.
One landscape architect familiar with the terrain of Florida (real and imagined) is Jorge Sanchez from Palm Beach. “Gardens here are a Long Islander’s invention of the tropics,” he says. “They create an environment that is more Bali Hai than Florida, but it’s fun and a contrast to the sable palms and cypress that grow here naturally. I don’t disapprove. Versatility is what makes Florida wonderful.”
As a steady stream of ex-pat Brits continues to trickle into Florida, attracted by investment property deals and year-round sun, the state’s accommodating ways are to the fore. A slightly disorienting but magical kingdom — if you can learn to live with a little unreality.
Sunshine superman: (clockwise from above) Raymond Jungles of Miami has made an art form of tropical gardens; putting the final touches on a Mickey Mouse topiary; Vizcaya, former estate of industrialist James Deering; golden trumpet trees ( light up the suburbs in spring; cloned orchids such as Ever Spring King ‘Lee’, are big business.