Land of Flowers at Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee
Whether it’s art, postage stamps, vinyl records, or autographs, nearly everyone collects something.
After collecting personal wealth, in 1923 Alfred and Louise Maclay purchased a Tallahassee hunting lodge and the plantation that surrounded it. Naming it Killearn in honor of the Scottish town where a Maclay ancestor was born, it was here they began working on a new collection.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Look back on Florida history and you’ll often find interesting parallels. Perhaps in response to The Great War (WW I) or the Great Depression, in the 1920s and 1930s a shared endeavor across the state was the creation of botanical gardens that would make Florida even more peaceful, more tranquil, more beautiful.
In Lake Wales, publisher Edward Bok recalled his grandmother’s reminder to “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it” and created a lovely bell tower surrounded by Bok Tower Gardens. Similarly, in Tallahassee Alfred and Louise decided to make the world a bit better by highlighting the natural beauty of their estate with elaborate ornamental gardens, walkways, and water features.
Although neither was a professional horticulturalist (he’d made his fortune as the founder of an ice company-turned finance and banking corporation, she as an heir to the Fleischman yeast and baking products business) the Maclays had such a soft spot for camellias that they sent out teams to scour the Southeast and bring back camellias, which they did by the hundreds.
Along with more than 60 varieties of azaleas, the diverse colors and unique eye-catching composition of more than 150 varieties of camellias became the floral foundation of the gardens. Beauty begat beauty as their garden grew, and in time the camellias and azaleas were joined by dogwoods, oriental magnolias, spring bulbs of tulips, irises, banana shrubs, honeysuckle, silverbell trees, and pansies. Sadly, Alfred died in 1944 at the age of 46, leaving Louise to continue the work they had started.
By 1953, the Maclay’s shared vision had grown far beyond their expectations. Louise and her children donated the home, the gardens, and more than 300 acres of land to Florida. As a state park, now everyone could experience firsthand the Maclay’s generous gift.
Since that time, land has been added to the Maclay’s initial estate and Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park now covers nearly 1,200 acres.
Outside the circa 1909 hunting lodge-turned-home (which is open for daily tours), attractive brick walkways lead into 28 acres of tended gardens overlooking Lake Overstreet. Peak blooming season generally lasts between January and March, with a special fee for seeing the gardens between mid-to-late March when the camellias are in full bloom. But even in the secret seasons, the park sustains its popularity by hosting weddings as well as gardening workshops, ranger walks, and concerts. On the park’s annual calendar are special events such as Kids’ Fishing Day in June, Scarecrows and Jazz in the Gardens in October, and December’s Camellia Christmas.
Deserving of its description as a “masterpiece of floral architecture,” there are actually several gardens in one, with sections highlighted by camellias, some by azaleas, and Mr. Maclay’s favorite retreat – a scenic “secret garden” accessible via a single entrance. There’s a walled garden and a reflecting pool and a native plant arboretum featuring Piedmont and Florida flame azaleas, white wild indigo, English dogwood, gardenias, wisteria, ginger, and jasmine.
A sandy beach on the shores of 160-acre Lake Hall includes picnic pavilions, making it a popular spot for reunions, family get-togethers, and business retreats. To preserve the tranquility of the park, only non-motorized watercraft – canoes, kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, and electric boats – are allowed. Throughout the park hikers explore miles of nature trails, riders travel equestrian trails, and bicyclists take to shared-use trails; each trail leading to vista points and peaceful sanctuaries that stand tall with bald cypress, black gum, dogwood, oaks, hickory, and holly. In these woods are white-tailed deer and seasonal residents such as orange-crowned warblers, blue-headed vireos, dark-eyed juncos, and even bald eagles flying in via the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail that soars above the park.
When you need a break, when you need to pause and remind yourself life is more than emails and errands, put Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park on your to-do list.
It’s a great place to just stop and smell the camellias.
When you go…
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park
3540 Thomasville Road
One half-mile north of Interstate 10 off U.S. 319/Thomasville Road
Open 8 a.m. - sunset