During the early 1900s, many of America’s wealthiest families built lavish winter retreats and gardens in our state. Fortunately, some of the estates and gardens have been preserved and have become inspiration for our own backyard oasis.
One of those estates is Central Florida's Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, now in peak bloom. Visitors can enjoy more than 150 varieties of camellias, azaleas, nun's orchids, irises, coral bean, snapdragons, delphiniums and many more while walking and admiring Florida nature in its springtime glory.
“Our azaleas always steal the show," says Greg Kramer, the gardens’ director of horticulture. “And the best time to visit is right now while the bloom cycles for camellias and azaleas are overlapping.”
So how did the Bok Tower Gardens get started?
Named for Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant, the story begins when Bok came to the U.S. in 1869 at the age of six. Unable to speak English as a young boy, Bok learned the language as he worked tirelessly and fastidiously as an office boy in the Western Union Telegraph Company. It's an interesting start for the man who eventually became publisher of Ladies Home Journal. He was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author as, well as an advocate for the environment and world peace.
While growing up, Bok visited Lake Wales, often hiking to the nearby Iron Mountain, a 298-foot hill, where he enjoyed a panoramic vista from one of Florida’s highest elevations. He cherished evening strolls through the tall pines and the Florida sand hill scrub. He particularly enjoyed the peace, tranquility, stunning Florida sunsets and the plethora of birds and wildlife.
Bok was also a dedicated humanitarian. He wanted to give back to the country that gave him so much. Guided by his family’s philosophy to “make the world more beautiful,” Bok was inspired to create a magnificent space for serenity, beauty, music and peaceful contemplation.
He eventually purchased the Iron Mountain property and envisioned a carillon tower surrounded by luscious gardens. Such a place would remind him of the musical sounds of his native Holland while incorporating the natural beauty of his new homeland into a serene and beautiful garden. To realize his dream, he employed Frederick Olmsted, Jr., a landscape architect who transformed the property by creating a subtropical garden in a woodland setting with scenic vistas and calming areas for personal reflection.
The Bok Tower Gardens
At the entrance, you’ll pass by the fragrant orange groves and a nature preserve with hiking trails. After parking, begin your visit at the Bok Tower Gardens Visitor Center for an overview of the property.
Be sure to stop at the “What is Blooming” display on your way to the gardens with cuttings from flowers you’re likely to notice during your walk.
The self-guided tour begins with the River of Stone, a central pebble pathway that showcases 30 species of epiphytes, commonly known as air plants because they receive their moisture and nutrients from the air. A display of air plants strung with transparent wire, creates a beautiful “floating” affect.
Soon you’ll arrive to the reflection pond, surrounded by huge oaks, draping palms and Florida native plants mirroring the beautiful tower and framed by a forest of trees and blue skies. Needless to say, this is a good “photo op”.
Making your way along the path, you’ll arrive to the glorious 205-foot bell tower composed of pink and gray Georgia marble and Florida coquina rock, equipped with 60 bronze bells. Considered one of the finest carillons in the country, concerts are at 1 and 3 pm daily. A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of cast bronze bells played from a keyboard emanating soothing sounds ideal for the garden experience.
Also, you may want to see the 1930s Mediterranean-style home, the Pinewood Estate, built for Charles Austin Buck, an associate of landscaper Olmsted. The 13,000-square-foot estate has a barrel-tile roof, carved doors and beautifully designed iron work. The architecture, landscape and period furniture make it worthwhile, even with the additional entrance fee.
If you want to bring your lunch, Bok Tower Gardens is a superb place to enjoy a picnic, but the restaurant, the Blue Palmetto Café, also provides meals.
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