McKee Botanical Garden, a Hidden Wonderland in Vero Beach
By Steve Winston
Behind a fence, along a busy stretch of Vero Beach road, lies a small slice of primeval, tropical Florida, a place where silence and stunning natural beauty still reign.
This spot has been here since 1932. That’s when a Cleveland industrialist named Arthur McKee and his partner, Waldo Sexton, opened “McKee Jungle Gardens.” They filled it with monkeys, elephants, lions, tigers, and alligators.
In an era when most visitors came to Florida by car, usually on their way south to Miami Beach, McKee Jungle Gardens instantly became one of the state’s most popular attractions. And it stayed that way until the early 1950’s. During those years, more than 100,000 people annually came to see this “wild” jungle just off the highway, and the wildlife inhabiting it.
But, as southbound auto traffic eventually turned into air traffic, the facility fell on hard times. By the early 90’s, the land was slated to be cleared for a shopping center. Indian River County folks, however, had other ideas. And they raised $1.7 million to buy the land.
“And it wasn’t a moment too soon,” says Christine Hobart, Executive Director of what’s today known as McKee Botanical Garden. “The bulldozer was – literally – at the front gate, ready to start clearing the land for the shopping center. And the townspeople were standing right in front of it, not budging an inch. It was a very tense situation.”
Today, the 18-acre site houses one of the largest collections of water lilies in the Southeast – 100 different varieties – some of them more than three feet wide. In all, there are over 10,000 species of plants and trees here.
There are trees with surrealistically-large root systems, and others with wildly-twisting trunks and branches. And they’re all interspersed among winding paths, little ponds with old wooden footbridges, hand-carved-and-painted bird houses, brilliantly hued butterflies, metal benches with funky family scenes, and all sorts of chirping, crawling, floating, and flying critters, as well as an occasional deer.
There are structures here, too. The Hall of Giants is a rustic wooden building with huge, rusty ship’s bells at the entrance. Inside are stained glass windows and cathedral ceilings, a TV explaining the diverse eco-systems and habitats here, and the world’s largest mahogany table — more than 40 feet long.
McKee Botanical Gardens has an “Alice In Wonderland” feel to it because of its myriad shapes, colors, and textures. As you walk, pinks and purples and oranges and reds and lavenders seem to bloom right in front of you. And you never know what exotic vegetation or small animals you’re going to find around the next bend.
“I really like the quiet paths,” said Sarah Schneider, visiting from Chile. “They kind of take you away… they let you forget about all the hustle and bustle. And I love the sounds of the water, and the crickets chirping.”
In this special place, it’s still primeval Florida. And all because some townspeople stood in front of a bulldozer.
If you are a flora enthusiast you will love these 9 Great Botanical Gardens in Southwest Florida too!
If you go…
350 US Highway 1
Vero Beach, FL 32962