Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is an adventure to traipse during any season as well as a bayfront sanctuary in Sarasota, Florida. But autumn does provide a break from Florida’s hothouse summer temperatures.
I visited the Selby Gardens: The Living Museum in Sarasota, Florida in late September, determined to pack a week’s activities into a three-night stay in the city. This meant a whirlwind schedule touring the John & Mable Ringling Museum, Ca’ d’Zan and Sarasota Museum of Art as well as searching for “bike art” in the city.
But my visit to Marie Selby Botanical Garden was sublime. It is the #1 garden to visit in Sarasota. Picture a simple white home tucked away on a side street. You might reach it on foot, by bike or car. Behind the fence blooms tall flowers and roses. A thick grove of trees provides a canopy of shade. Benches beckon for a moment of solitude.
Now you have to walk far down South Palm Avenue past the gardeners’ shovels and rakes to reach the entrance. But when you swing open the door to the vestibule, you are stepping back a century into the life of one of Sarasota’s most acclaimed female residents.
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Forward Thinking Female
Marie Selby was the first woman to cross the United States by automobile. She also had this 15-acre garden named after her in Sarasota, Florida.
Clearly, Marie was adventurous. Married to an oilman (William Selby), she traveled extensively but permanently moved to Sarasota in 1921. They bought this property on Sarasota Bay and built a simple two-story white house. Today, the home is used as a Cafe. There is also the Kid’s Corner, featuring botanical-themed activities.
By the late 1920s, she was a founding member of the Sarasota Garden Club.
“Marie prepared a special trust that would create and maintain a public botanical garden on the property that was her home.”SarasotaHistoryAlive.com
This bequest guaranteed that Marie’s garden would never die away. For she was unwilling that her little botanical paradise might perish “with beautiful reluctance, like an evening star—” (Emily Dickinson).
Today Marie Selby Gardens is a city garden that displays a living collection of rare tropical plants and native Floridian trees.
The Selby Gardens living collection numbers 13,500 plant accessions in 214 families.”Selby.org
According to the venue, “it is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns, and other tropical plants.”
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens also regularly offers art exhibitions. Back in spring 2021, it hosted Roy Lichtenstein: Monet’s Garden Goes Pop! This takeover showcased the legendary Pop artist’s re-interpretation of famous Impressionist painters’ work, including Claude Monet’s paintings of his Giverny garden and bridge.
On my visit, I saw the “In Dialogue With Nature: Glass In The Gardens” exhibit, which was organized July 10-September 26.
From the moment you walk into the conservatory, I began to sweat. I felt a blanket of moisture and spray wet my face and arms. Since visitors were required to wear a mask indoors, I felt soggy.
But my first sight of the triumvirate of three red glass vases perched on pedestals and surrounded by the jungle of lush green plants instantly distracted me. The contrast between art and nature dazzled me.
The curator appeared to deliberately choose glass objects which were bold—no pastels here. These were primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—mixed with secondary colors (orange, green, and violet).
I felt like I had entered an art museum. But instead of the sterile white walls that helped to make a painting or sculpture loom as the primary object, the backdrop of the hothouse plants served to accent the glass art on display.
It can be tight moving around the conservatory especially when a group of visitors meanders like a slow-moving river through the aisles. I also saw a woman staging her Selby selfies for her IG account.
It would be impossible to choose a favorite vase among the exhibits, although I did find myself most drawn to the blue-green vase which reflected the colors of the sea outside. The vase’s curvy orange lavender neck reminded me of the sunrise I witnessed on Lido Key.
Leaving the conservatory, I meandered through the bonsai garden. These miniature trees mimic life as small-scale versions. Again their presence at Selby Gardens heightened the contrast with the towering Floridian trees outdoor. I marveled at the gardener’s skull to coax these specimens into arbor masterpieces.
In simplified Chinese (Hanyu Pinyin), bonsai is translated as “pénzāi.” The literary meaning for bonsai is tray planting.
The Selby Gardens must have been a lifeline to locals during the pandemic. The expansive lawn fronting the Sarasota Bay, coupled with intimate seating areas and private walkways, would be a place where I know I would have escaped worry.
But on my visit, it was a busy outdoor classroom. A guide helped young children from a Montessori school work on an art project. Nearby a group of high school students dumped their backpacks and listened to a lecture. I darted off to follow the dirt path into a dark grove of trees.
Everything is not manufactured floral beauty at Selby Gardens. It is a “Living Garden” which means studying plant science and conservation is a key tenet of its mission.
“The Botany Department specializes in plant inventory and classification, which is the basic information needed to understand and conserve plant diversity,” according to Selby.org.
There is a second home on the estate of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. The Payne mansion is a large white home, which features columns and a large porch. There are rocking chairs where visitors can relax. The mansion is surrounded by a wildflower gardens which can be seen from the street.
Inside visitors can explore an art gallery which features rotating exhibits of Floridian artists’ paintings. The home was originally owned by Christy and Anne Payne, who were neighbors of the Selbys. Christy Payne was an oilman who built this vacation home in Sarasota in the mid-1930s.
Things To Do
The list of things to do is endless at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. It is the perfect place for a quiet morning or afternoon walk alone on the bayfront.
But I also saw groups of friends who apparently like to visit together and exercise. Consider these options:
Do a dog down pose while inhaling the perfume of flowers with a morning yoga class at the gardens. Immerse yourself in a peaceful mind and body yoga experience.
See the annual Orchid Show. This year’s edition brings together circus aerialists and orchids for its “From Tree Top to the Big Top.”
Scout out a quiet corner under the trees and meditate.
Bring a sketching pad and colored pencils to draw in the conservatory.
Improve your skills as a photographer by focusing on closeups of flowers. Be a Georgia O’Keefe with your camera.
The poet R. H. Swaney wrote, “If words are seeds, let flowers grow from your mouth, not weeds.”
The poem that Marie Selby wrote before her death in 1971 to Sarasota is this living garden. It sprouts joy and wonder in the minds of all who visit. She lives on through her urban garden.