Urban Oasis

Perriello family

The Perriello family found a variety of plants to take home from the sale in the Propagation Garden on Mother’s Day. CHRISTINA TASCON PHOTO

City, citizens reap many benefits from botanical gardens


Many formal gardens seem like artwork in museums — beautiful but not created by or to be touched by mere mortals. Volunteers and organizers at the Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens strive for beauty, which inspires others to recreate the same tableau of nature in their homes and gardens.

The gardens, a beautiful 20-acre oasis by a lake, have paved pathways, a pavilion and a variety of native flora and fauna on the west side of Westmoreland Boulevard, just south of Port St. Lucie Boulevard on the shore of the St. Lucie River.

The gardens feature a variety of bamboo, bromeliad, cactus, hibiscus, orchids, roses, butterflies and many native plants. Upkeep and care is provided by volunteers and many varietal garden clubs that designate their volunteerism to their specialties. In return, they are can hold their meetings in the conference center.

“Our various volunteers could have planted their most exotic and difficult variety,” board president Jolene King said. “But then how will people grow them in their own gardens? We want the plants here to be within reach for everyone to grow.”

Compared with other well-known gardens in nearby cities, PSLBG is just a sprout — born March 6, 2010. Bok Tower Gardens was established as a public garden 87 years ago; McKee Botanical Garden opened in its original form as McKee Jungle Gardens 84 years ago and even Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Fort Pierce, its closest and youngest neighbor, opened in 1986.

Approximately 1,500 visitors come through monthly, but with events and festivals that bring in hundreds for the day like Christmas in the Garden and the Botanica Garden Festival and Plant Sale held every February yearly estimates are around 20,000 visitors.

“It’s exciting to think how it is only going to get better with time — not only because of the vegetation growing in and the continuing hard work of our dedicated volunteers and staff, but also the envisioned improvements to the Westmoreland property and the extension of Riverwalk, our on-the-river boardwalk,” Mayor Gregory J. Oravec said.

In a previous Indian River Magazine article, writer Mary Dodge delved into the property’s rich and colorful past when it was part of Burt Pruitt’s Fishin’ Farm, an old fishing camp in what was then considered Stuart.

In 1979, a small scene of the James Bond film, Moonraker, with Roger Moore as 007 was filmed along the river’s bank. This gave a building developer the idea of naming his fledgling subdivision on that site Moonraker Bay. The project barely got off the ground with no more than roads and utilities installed before it ran out of money.

A second developer, Max Westmoreland and his son, Joe, cleared more of the swamp-like palms and brush by the river but preserved much of the natural vegetation. He envisioned bringing in a hotel, shops and restaurants but again, timing and the local economy was not on their side.

In 2001, the City of Port St. Lucie, in an effort to preserve the property for the community, purchased the land from Westmoreland through the Florida Communities Trust land conservation program. Under program guidelines, the land had to be designated for public recreational use. In 2006, the land became part of the Community Redevelopment Area.

A park and marina was considered, but no final concept was approved until City Councilman Christopher Cooper proposed a public garden. Cooper, a passionate gardener certified in landscape design was interested in the ecological preservation of Port St. Lucie.

“This was a leap of faith by the city in 2008 to allow an organization of citizens to bring a botanical garden to our town,” King said. “Mr. Cooper held an appreciation that the city did not have a botanical garden or a passive recreational location for adults. ”

Cooper went to then-City Manager Don Cooper (no relation) when they were trying to figure out a use for the property and suggested the gardens. He agreed that it was a worthwhile idea and they brought it to the council for approval.

The Friends of the Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens was formed and it entered into a contractual lease arrangement with the city to bring the gardens to life. The land was purchased with a combination of money from Florida Forever, the Nature Conservancy and the Florida Communities Trust conservation program. No taxpayer money was used to build and develop the gardens, a fact Cooper is very proud to point out.

“The council wanted to keep the property in harmony with the river setting and the city had a conservation trust fund set up where developers were required to make contributions to conserve the land and we used that money to develop the site,” Cooper said. “We saved the property from becoming another housing project to become a beautiful place that fit a niche in the city that had not been previously addressed where people could sit by the pond or woods recreationally. ”

First and foremost, the gardens are a place to experience serenity in the center of Port St. Lucie as well as learn about nature as visitors stroll, rest on a bench and enjoy leisure time.

There is no entry fee. Instead, visitors are encouraged to drop money in a donation box or become a member. Money is raised by plant sales in the propagation section, gift shop sales, special events, sponsorships and rentals for weddings. There are plans for an outside pavilion with classrooms. King estimates the project will cost at least $100,000, which will be raised by an upcoming capital campaign.

Festivals like Botanica, where vendors sell their products and plants, and the monthly Fort Pierce Jazz & Blues Society jazz jams held by the lake also bring in visitors. In addition, many come to the gardens for educational classes and lectures. A schedule for these events can be found on its website.

“It’s so crisp and clear here,” said Antoinette Miller, who was visiting from her home, which is next to McKee Botanical Gardens in Vero Beach. “The variety of the plants along the winding trails is incredibly serene and beautiful, I am so impressed. There is also a newness here that is so pleasant. McKee is beautiful but it is different, maybe a bit more complicated, but the flower beds here are so orderly and easy to see individually.”

Some visitors come specifically to visit the propagation plant center, which offers reasonably priced plants to those who are looking to take home a piece of the garden’s beauty.

“I love gardening and I saw some plants here that I have not seen before and I wondered if they had some of them in the plant sale and they do,” said Laurie Perriello who came for Mother’s Day with her husband and children. “I found a certain type of variegated version of a copperleaf that I have never seen before in any of the stores and the prices are really good for everything.”

The family also had a chance to see the resident ospreys and the popular gopher tortoises, Tina and Turner Tortoise.

“Tortoises are one of the most important parts of the ecological makeup of wildlife in nature,” said vice president Illona Christie, who is a Florida Master Naturalist. “They make the tunnels where all the other animals go to protect themselves to hide, lay their eggs and bring their babies. There are literally 300 species which will go into that burrow’s network.”

“On the short walk that we did, we saw a lot of wildlife,” Perriello said. “We saw two baby osprey with the mother squawking at us and the father flying around; we saw egrets and the two tortoises as well. It was incredible. We have been on a lot of nature trails that are triple as long and all we have seen is a couple of lizards so the kids loved this. ”

The Butterfly Garden is one of the most popular spots for children. Hundreds of butterflies flit around stunningly colorful arrays of flowers and blooming plants, which are both food and a perfect space where they lay their eggs and wait to morph into a butterfly.

Phyllis Brown is the queen bee of butterflies. Her enthusiasm for the fluttering bits of beauty is infectious and she will happily explain to visitors which plants attract butterflies and the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle. All the plants are selected for their nectar and are larval plants, which the caterpillars eat. Of course, this is the most prolific area of sweet-smelling blooms surrounded by a white picket fence — very picturesque and quaint.

For many transplants, condo dwellers and seniors who are unable to continue their lifelong love of gardening or want to keep busy without being tied down to a set job schedule year-round, PSLBG offers them an outlet.

“We have a lot of people with some great professional backgrounds who work as volunteers,” Christie said. “As a result, we have ended up with great volunteers who are happy to come here and share in the joy of the garden and donate their talents.”

King said that volunteers are the heart and soul of the botanical gardens, which are cultivated 100 percent by volunteers who take a certain ownership of their work areas.

King, loyal volunteers and Mayor Oravec will attest the gardens are a labor of love that benefit every living thing.

“What is the value of nourishing one’s soul or a city’s for that matter?” the mayor said when asked how beneficial the gardens are for the city and its citizens. “Priceless.

“As the ninth most populous city in Florida, we are a very large urban area and we are still growing by leaps and bounds. Amidst this growth in people and man-made places, it is critical that we preserve special areas made by Mother Nature and provide opportunities for our residents and visitors to enjoy them. The greater property is a natural wonder right at the heart of our city that connects us to our history and reminds us of what makes Florida, Florida.”

Port Saint Lucie Botanical Gardens

Where: 2410 SE Westmoreland Blvd., Port St. Lucie
Hours: Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Admission: No entrance fee. Suggested donations $5 adult, $2 students.
For more information: Call 337-1959 or visit www.pslbotanicalgardens.org