Friday, April 19, 2013

Behind A Garden Wall: Ravine Gardens State Park, Palatka, Florida

Court Of States, Ravine Gardens, Courtesy of Boston Public Library

A trip to Florida excites me as much now as when I was a child, so I was delighted when my son suggested we head south to visit a couple of Florida's state parks. They included Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka and Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park near Keystone Heights, both known for their botanical wonders.

Florida advertises its state parks as "the Real Florida." Whether more real than the rest, I won't argue. But Florida's state parks certainly possess an authenticity hard to find elsewhere in the state. For example, fresh water fountains at a constant 72 degrees F temperature actually spring naturally from the ground, not only from recirculating pumps. And beasts are not cartoon characters. So, along with nostalgic scenes, the Florida State Parks are mighty appealing.

The ravine at Palatka, shaped something like a boomerang, is theorized to have been formed over millenia by artesian springs emerging under sandy ridges near the western bank of the St. John's River.  It was an ideal spot. Aboriginal Timucuans inhabited the area for Lord only knows how long, hunting, farming and fishing for sustenance in innocent, edenic tranquility. Then the Spanish arrived. It's said they were looking for land, riches, a fountain of youth, ways to outflank the French and English, and converts to Catholicism. Anyway, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Timucuans were extinct. Disappointed Spanish retreated.

After the Timucuans and Spanish, enterprising Creeks (Seminoles) and English arrived. Entrepreneurs, idealists, hopefuls, destitutes, rascals and slaves contributed to the building of Palatka, Florida, founded in 1821. Some of the big names, like Denys Rolle's, are retained in maps and nearby landmarks with Denys Rolle's name. Actually, the ravine used to belong to Denys Rolle, Esqr. (Look for the boomerang on the map.) Palatka's colorful history is well worth reading about.

The growing town needed lots of water, so the Palatka Water Works plant was built in 1886 at the lower end of the ravine. Until 1986, the water works supplied up to a million gallons of pure water per day to the city.

The country's response to national economic hardship (The Great Depression) in the 1930s brought about the Works Progress Administration. The WPA enlisted millions of unemployed Americans to perform public projects. Ravine Gardens was one result. The 59-acre garden was planted with over 95,000 azaleas, 11,000 palms, and over 250,000 other ornamentals. It was described in the 1934 Florida Municipal Record as the "Nations Outstanding C.W.A. project." The gardens were maintained by the city until given over to the state in 1970.

Old postcards advertised Ravine Gardens as picture-perfect. Perhaps it was. Picturesque stone-walled terraces invited rest. Winding paths suggested gentle strolls. The splash of an ornamental waterwheel reminded visitors of a time not so long ago. Flowers were always in bloom.

Today's approach to Ravine Gardens State Park leads through a residential/small business neighborhood and past a school, none of which look too promising. In fact, I thought we were lost, but my son's trusty GPS app assured us we were on the correct street.
Cat's-Claws (Macfadyena unguis-cati)

The entrance to Ravine Gardens State Park is constructed of fossil-rich native stone. In fact, native stone is used in most of the original structures. Stone-columned pergolas are still draped with flowers. There are coral honeysuckles (Lonicera sempervirens), cat's-claws (Macfadyena unguis-cati) and crossvines (Bignonia capreolata) flanking the Court of the States. Front and center, a large obelisk honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt is still there.

The park consists of a formal garden, an office/visitor center complex, a playground and fitness area, several trails around and into the ravine, a picnic pavilion, an amphitheater, several walking trails and a 1.8 mile perimeter road.

To get an overview, we began the driving tour around the perimeter of the park, but stopped along the way to inspect interesting things. As it turns out, that's the best way to see the park. Come to an overlook or trail crossing, park the car, get out and walk, return, drive to another and repeat.

Springs Trail, Ravine Gardens
From the first overlook, we meandered the circuitous Springs Trail (0.6 miles). Towering palms, hardwoods and bamboo darkened the fern-lined walk. I felt like an explorer in a jungle. Bird songs and the gurgling sound of springs were enchanting. By and by we came to a delightful glade divided by a stream. What I mistook to be naturally bubbling fountains turned out to be two recirculating water pumps strategically sited to enhance the scene.

Since it is an intentional garden planted in a natural ravine, you'll find native and introduced species growing together. Begonia, Angelica and ginger lily (Hedychium) thrive near water dragon (Saururus cernuus) and royal fern (Osmunda regalis). Sword ferns (Nephrolepis cordifolia), netted chainferns (Woodwardia areolata), cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea)  and southern woodferns (Dryopteris ludoviciana) flourish in the damp seeps. Elephant ears (Colocasia spp.) wave above rippling streams. Citrus trees with their edible ornaments dangle over shrubby palms and shrimp plants (Justicia brandegeeana). The ravine protects many tender plants from damaging cold, though some of the banana trees looked like they had been nipped by frost.
Forest canopy, Ravine Gardens

The park drive and overlooks provide many alluring views into the ravine. From above, the towering canopy reminded me of scenes from those old Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller. All seemed right in my world. (What happened to my Johnny Weismuller autograph, anyway?)

For another delightful elevated view, we descended into the ravine to cross a suspension bridge surrounded by cypresses and their knees (Taxodium spp.). It won't matter how old I grow, I'll never lose the fascination with swinging bridges. I've crossed many and I can recall nearly all of them. Strangely, the most inebriating are best remembered.

We passed up walking the Azalea Trail (0.8 miles). Azalea season was over, though some straggling flowers splashed the forest with fading "red family" hues. Unfortunately, most of the azalea shrubs seem straggly, in need of pruning and brush removal.

Garden designers included an amphitheater. Who builds amphitheaters any more? As it turns out, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, built by the WPA, also has an amphitheatre. Perhaps those are remnants of a time when entertainment was more community oriented, long before the age of solitary play with i-things.

After returning to the parking lot, we strolled through the formal garden, stumbling upon a wedding almost in progress. The bride was beautiful, as all brides are. Typically, the bridesmaids barely or over-filled their ultramarine dresses, but guests and consorts encouraged each and every one with many compliments.

Detouring around the party, we returned to a cypress-shaded reflecting pool we had driven past earlier. Several couples lazed about on the dappled lawn. Even without the waterwheel, the scene was recognizable and pleasant, but not as bucolic.

Fairies at Ravine Gardens State Park
Gardens such as these are very popular spots for photography, therefore the management posts signs warning against anything beyond snap-shooting without a permit. Probably with permission, a bridal couple was captured for posterity in one setting. A pair of sprites, on cue, paused to adore their "faire" reflections from a bridge.

I already mentioned the Palatka Water Works. Since it is close-by, it seemed worth seeing, and was. I'm ever amazed at how past architects and designers ornamented the most utilitarian structures and tools. Though not extravagant, even the Palatka Water Works brickwork and roofing have their charm. The Coffin Valve Company's monogram lends dignity to a common fire hydrant. (Incidentally, some are still in use in Palatka.) The disused tanks and sediment basins with cattails even have a sentimental quality. Home, sweet frog home. What had fallen into ruin is now a small museum and community education center. A wildflower garden suggests how nearby residents can transform their landscapes.
Wildflower Garden

A historical marker near the Garden Club Of Palatka's club house reminds visitors that William Bartram (1739-1823), naturalist and botanist, once explored this area. His route is known as the William Bartram Trail. The garden didn't exist at the time, but the ravine did. Perhaps he delved into it.

Though I grew up in a family including herbalists, horticulturists, florists and gardeners, I like to think that those childhood trips to Florida also contributed to my interest in flora. Even ubiquitous species like coontie (Zamia spp.), ferns, bromeliads and cast iron plants (Aspidistra elatior) still fascinate me. God willing, I'll take many more trips to Florida to search for interesting gardens, plants, and paradise.

Ravine Gardens, Courtesy of Boston Public Library
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