The Gardens and Citrus Groves of Polk County
Orange blossoms at the UF Citrus Research and Education Center
If you set a map of Florida up on a dart board, a seasoned player will easily be able to get a dart to hit right smack on Central Florida and probably will be able to make the bull’s eye, money shot right on Polk County. Polk County is the quiet, relaxed, laid-back neighbor to the boisterous, bustling, touristy Orlando and Kissimmee (Orange County) areas to the east and northeast . Close enough for an Orlando fling when the feeling strikes, Polk County is just a 1 hour drive from the Disney resort area. Polk County has many surprises beyond being an ideal home base or “bedroom community.” The area does have the ability to steal a little daytime fun away from Orlando too.
Polk County, Florida was named for Tennessean, James Knox Polk, the 11th president of the USA. During his 4 year term from 1845-1849 he his lauded for his ambitious accomplishments. He threatened war with Britain, then backed down and split ownership of the Northwest with Britain. He was responsible for the second largest expansion of the nation’s territory and successfully led the Mexican-American War. Polk was the first president to retire after a single term without seeking reelection and died of cholera three months after he stepped down. He should have come to rest and relax in Polk County Florida!
The major cities in Polk County are Lake Wales, Lakeland, and Winter Haven. A significant part of Polk County is water – 6.75% of it is under water according to the U.S. Census Bureau and this includes 554 named lakes (one for every day of the year and plenty for two visits on the weekends).
Citrus at Lang Sun Country Groves
Historically Polk County has had citrus, cattle and phosphate mining industries. Close to 100,000 head of beef and dairy cattle still call the county home but are gradually being pushed aside by land developers. Phosphate mining was a big industry until it has been stalled of late by low prices and weak demand for fertilizers. Still there are millions of tons mined each year from 5 active mines. The citrus industry is the most visible of the big three industries with 95,000 acres of commercial citrus groves in cultivation.
A rare view looking out of the tower door into Bok Tower Gardens
On the gardening side, Polk County has long been a visitor destination. It is the home of Bok Tower Gardens, dedicated in 1929 and Cypress Gardens, Florida’s first theme attraction. More recently Hollis Gardens was developed and opened in Lakeland in 2000, drawing visitors to its tranquil setting on Mirror Lake.
A real swan at home in Mirror Lake, Lakeland Florida
Lakeland, Florida is the city of swans and whether live or sculpted, these majestic birds are right at home in this city. There’s an interesting story behind the Lakeland swans. The white mute swans found on many of today’s Lakelands lakes are descendants from a pair donated by Queen Elizabeth in 1957. Because of hazards from cars and alligators, the swan population in the early 1950s had dwindled down to 1 from a high of 20 or so birds in the 1930s. A Lakeland resident living in England wrote to the Queen hoping to buy a pair of the royal swans that were living on the Thames River. The Queen offered to donate a pair if the cost of transportation was paid for them. An Englishman who had visited Lakeland donated the $300 to make it happen and a pair was released in Lake Morton in Lakeland in 1957.
Lakeland Swan at the Terrace Hotel
Swansation Art Project was a public art installation initiated in 2003, where 5-foot tall, life size (or larger) swans were decorated and placed around Lakeland. 62 of the decorated swans were then auctioned off to benefit a Children’s Museum and many still can be seen in the Lakeland area. One is in the courtyard entrance of the Terrace Hotel.
Fountains in the Hollis Garden in Lakeland
The Hollis Garden in Lakeland
Hollis Garden is a formal 1.2 acre botanical garden donated by the Hollis Family to the City of Lakeland. It is located on the banks of Mirror Lake. Stacy Smith, Park horticulturist was a gracious tour guide and justifiably enthusiastic about the interesting plants and design there. Of note are the silver bismark palms and popcorn cassia or yellow senna that smells like popcorn when in bloom.
Shucking the Palm in Hollis Garden
Other interesting happenings when I visited the garden was a gardener using chain saws was doing what he called “shucking the palm” by removing the boots. He was using the chain saw to clean up the trunk of the palm and remove the branch stubs.
Hollis Garden fountain in Lakeland, Florida
Hollis Garden planter
Besides the plants and thoughtful garden design, Hollis Garden is impressive because it is free admission for the public (there is a charge to rent the gardens for weddings) and it is operated by the Parks and Recreation Department of Lakeland, Florida. Good work!
Popcorn senna (Senna didymobotrya) blooming in the Hollis Garden
Silver Bismark Palms in Hollis Garden
Polk’s Nature Discovery Center and Circle Bar B Reserve
Anhinga drying at Polk's Nature Discovery Center
One of the many wildlife habitats at Polk's Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve
Newly opened, the Polk County Nature Discovery Center and Circle Bar B Reserve offers walking and hiking trails that pass under mature trees laden with dangling Spanish moss, and march past marshy areas with white pelicans, anhingas and alligators, around open water that attracts many more birds and other wildlife.
Spanish moss at Polk's Nature Discovery Center
The nature reserve, that includes an interactive orientation center featuring a large banyan tree replica with both a canopy and underground root observation areas for children to experience. Imagine the fun of joining kids in a secret underground area by crawling into a gopher size hole under the tree. There’s a great photo op spot as the underground explorers pop their head up through a hole at the base of the tree several feet away. The property covers more than 1,200 acres of wildlife habitat that guarantees plenty to discover.
Bok Tower Gardens
Swan in Bok Tower gardens
A long time favorite destination during azalea blooming season is the Bok Tower Gardens – a national Historic Landmark. Today, the interactive visitor center, new garden additions, Pinewood Estate house and tempting gift shop make Bok Tower an interesting place to visit any time of the year.
Sculpture just inside the entrance of Bok Tower Gardens
Edward Bok was born in the Netherlands in 1863 and immigrated to Brooklyn when he was six years old. He worked for Western Union Telegraph Company and Charles Scribner’s Sons before moving to Philadelphia to become editor of Ladies’ Home Journal for 30 years. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, “The Americanization of Edward Bok”. A noted philanthropist, in his 60s he created The American Foundation which would later be known as the Bok Tower Gardens Foundation to create his legacy garden near his winter home. It was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929 less than one year before he passed away – within sight of his beloved tower.
A view of the gardens and surrounding citrus groves from the top of Bok Tower
The gardens are designed with meandering paths under canopied trees with hundreds of azalea shrubs at eye level covering many of the 47 landscaped acres. They were designed by famed American garden designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, who works include garden parks in Buffalo, Montreal, Boston, New York City, Chicago, Louisville and Ashville. Splashes of color from the azaleas, magnolias and camellias fill the shady respite under the oaks, pines and palms from October through May. Then the roses and crape myrtle take over the blooming chores. A 700 acre buffer zone of citrus surrounds the gardens.
Bok Tower Gardens Tillandsia in the entrance garden
Bok Tower Gardens pond
Camellia at Bok Tower Gardens
The impressive entrance building and visitor centre has fountains, sunlight, innovative plant displays and creative artwork.
Edward Bok’s Singing Tower
Bok's Singing Tower
A look upward at the biggest bells in Bok Tower
Bok Tower is a 205 foot art deco tower (as demonstrated by the tile grills at the top of the tower) that is the centerpiece of the gardens. The tile grills depict birds and plants and other Florida wildlife representing the balance in nature and were designed by H. Dulles Allen. The tower was designed by Milton B. Medary and created by Lee Lawrie, stone sculptor extraordinaire. Inside the tower are 60 bells in a 40 foot by 30 foot chamber that form one of the world’s finest Carillons.
The Carillon clavier in Bok Tower
The tile grill at the top of Bok Tower
Daily live concerts are held at 1 pm and 3 pm. The job of carillonneur is an honored position and if past history is examined, it is a job almost for life. There have only been three carillonneurs at Bok Singing Tower since 1928. The playing room inside the bell chamber housing the clavier or keyboard in a somewhat soundproof room. Good thing because a mid-afternoon hourly chime played when I was standing right underneath the largest of the big bells.
Calliandra in the Bok Tower Garden
“Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
Edward W. Bok
Flowering maple (Abutilon) at the Bok Tower Gardens entrance pavillion
Jardinere in the Bok Tower Mansion
Bok Tower Gardens now includes an historic 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion that was the winter home of C. Austin Buck, vice president of Bethlehem Steel. The house, called Pinewood was designed by a member of Frederick Law Olmsted’s staff and is situated so that the entire house has views of the surrounding pine trees. Pinewood was acquired by Bok Tower Gardens in 1970 and restored to its original design by staff and volunteers.
Tillandsia display at the Bok Tower Gardens entrance
For more details visit www.boktowergardens.org
Lang Sun Country Groves
Mexican Flame Vine (Pyrostegia venusta) at Taste of Florida Cafe
Outside the Lang Sun Country Groves and Florida Café is a spectacular vine the color of oranges and grapefruits that is growing about three stories up an electrical pole. Covered in orangish-yellow blooms the vine is a traffic stopper and a landmark as much as the building and family behind it. The vine is a Florida (or Mexican depending on where it is growing) Flame Vine (Pyrostegia venusta) and is originally from Brazil. It grows well in zone 9 and flowers in profusion when it is kept above freezing. From the look of the vine, it might have been planted by Mary Lang over 55 years ago when she shipped her first box of fresh citrus.
For more information and some of Mary’s citrus recipes visit www.langsuncountry.com.
Grapefruits at Lang Sun Country Groves
Honeybells at Lang Sun Contry Groves
After admiring the stunning flowering vine during my visit, the next stop was to order a piece of grapefruit pie. Never imagining that it would taste so good, I was hooked on it from the first bite. Consisting of ripe grapefruit sections, strawberry jello, a graham cracker crust and a dollop of whipped cream, it was yummy.
Just picked citrus at Lang Sun Country Groves
Three years ago, bad weather forced a strawberry festival indoor into the packing area and a new feature was born. The Taste of Florida Café and grapefruit pie! Langs Honeybell Tangelos , which are available only in January are a treasure. Sweet, juicy and oh so tasty. They are worth a special trip just to get some to take home. Other citrus include navel oranges (known for their sweetness), tangerines and grapefruit. These are available in season from November through May.
Florida’s Natural Growers
Florida's Natural Grower's Grove House orange
Florida’s Natural Grower’s have built an attractive citrus information building across the road from one of their main plants. The Grove House in Lake Wales houses a video presentation room, citrus tasting bar and gift shop all surrounded by live citrus groves. A great photo spot for the obligatory “standing in a citrus grove” souvenir pictures – without worrying about trespassing. Florida’s Natural Growers grows only juice citrus and is a 1000 grower coop spanning 50 thousand acres. And here’s a little citrus trivia, the first orange seeds were brought by Ponce de Leon , Navaez and De Soto in the early 1500 from Spain.
For more information visit www.floridasnatural.com.
Citrus Research and Education Center
University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida is a 90 year old establishment for research, teaching and extension responsibilities. Their current major citrus research is on introduced pests; Citrus leaf miner, Diaprepes Root Weevil, and Asian Citrus psyllid, an aphid-like insect that is the carrier of a bacterium that is the real threat to the citrus industry in Florida. The resulting disease called “citrus greening” first arrived in Florida in 1998 and at present there’s no cure. Citrus greening is a serious challenge for Dr. Wendy Meyer and many others at the Citrus Research Center.
For more information visit www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu.
Most (95%) of the commercial citrus raised Florida is used mainly for juice. With that much being squeezed, there is a lot of byproducts left over. The rind and pulp is not wasted and is used for cattle (another important Polk County industry).
For more information about Polk County visit the Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau at Polk Outpost 27 in Davenport, Florida or visit www.visitcentralflorida.org.