Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Behind A Garden Wall: The Maclay Gardens

Tall pines and a thick hardwood forest conceal one of Florida's best gardens from heavy traffic on Thomasville Road in Tallahassee.  But behind a fence and beyond a brick entry, the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens is open for all to enjoy.  Now an urban oasis, it was once the hunter's paradise.  The scene is not typical of what one imagines when thinking of Florida.  Rolling hillsides and forests resemble the upcountry of the eastern U.S.  Indeed, the geology of the Appalachians is rooted here.

Fertile soil and rich diversity of flora and fauna attracted humans to this site from prehistoric times.  Native Americans inhabited the area, followed by Europeans.  Encompassing this region, Spanish missionaries developed the largest and most enduring system of missions in North America.  Control was later seized by the English.  Following the War of Independence, the U.S. government deeded land to the Marquis de Lafayette for his assistance during the conflict.  The Marquis never visited, so later sold his property.

In 1882, another Frenchman bought a parcel and developed a vineyard which, by 1890, was producing 4,000 gallons of wine per year.  He sold it when the county voted to go "dry" in 1904, before Prohibition.  Colonel John H. Law, an insurance businessman from Chicago, bought the property and established a hunting lodge which became the site of lavish parties.  New York financier Alfred Maclay and his wife Louise acquired the land in 1923, joined "house to house and field to field", and established a large estate of over 3000 acres as a winter home.  Later it was acquired by the State of Florida and now is operated as a state park.  Join me now as we visit this garden treasure.

A picturesque brick walkway flanked by native plant species including Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) and non-native azalea cultivars such as 'Christmas Cheer' leads to the house.  Laid in 1968, the bricks were salvaged from an old street in Tampa, but were made in cities as distant as Baltimore, MD.  Because this was a winter home, plantings were designed for late-winter and early-spring bloom.

From the house, a short walk leads to a lakeside pavilion which affords a fine vista of Lake Hall.  Native trees include Gleditsia triacanthos, Magnolia grandiflora, Nyssa sylvatica, Taxodium distichum and Quercus species.  Further along the path, Aucuba japonica, Magnolia species, azaleas, camellias and native hollies provide seasonal interest.

The Camellia Walk is one of the most notable features of the Maclay Garden.  Sloping away from the house toward the Walled Garden, the path is flanked by an extensive collection of these lovely plants.  It is said that the oldest camellia, purchased and moved to the site in 1923, is nearly 200 years old.  Thousands of lovely blossoms adorn the shrubs and strew the path during colder months.

At the end of the Camellia Walk, one comes to the Walled Garden.  Ficus pumila covers the walls with soft evergreen foliage.  Sculptures of magnificent lions guard the entrance and stately peacocks perch atop the walls.  One notable feature is the blue medallion of infants inset into the wall.  The artwork was created by Florentine sculptor, Andrea Della Robbia, and was acquired by Mr. Maclay during one of his travels to Italy.

Mr. Maclay also returned from Europe with an increased knowledge and appreciation of landscape design.  Collaborating with his gardener, he designed special effects into the landscape such as the "disappearing" walk from the point of view of the reflecting pool.  Pansies are planted in the walled garden every year, continuing the tradition begun by the Maclays.  Century Plants (Agave americana) are also featured in the garden as well as repeated in the fountain's design.

From the Walled Garden, a path beneath large hollies leads to the Secret Garden.  This delightful little space features antique wrought iron benches and table, creating an intimate atmosphere.  Asarum, Selaginella and Cyrtomium are planted within the cozy scene and bordered by Mahonia.  During fall, winter and early spring, Osmanthus fragrans scents the air with its delightful citrusy perfume.

The visitor will also enjoy another pleasant walk.  The Pine Needle Path meanders between walls of large camellias, gardenias, osmanthus and viburnum.  Of special note is the native Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum) which produces lovely star-shaped blooms, and releases a spicy fragrance when the leaves are crushed.

Another narrow path leads past Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum), cherry and redbud (Cercis canadensis) to a scenic pond.  This water feature is designed to reflect the azalea covered hillside in the distance, and is especially effective when the shrubs are in bloom.  Daylilies, iris, liriope, ornamental grasses and bulbs are planted at the water's edge.  The Azalea Hillside is magnificent in season, but it also features Magnolia x soulangeana, conifers, holly, dogwood and Halesia (Silverbells).

Beyond the Azalea Hillside is the site of the former nursery where many of the plants in the garden were produced by the Maclays.  One is impressed by their level of involvement in the process, from production to design and installation.  Their inspiration, exploration and devotion resulted in this peaceful garden which all may now enjoy.  There is so much seldom understood and seen that grows behind a garden wall.

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