ORLANDO, Fla. - It's a little difficult to concentrate on the plants when you're on the lookout for water moccasins and alligators.
Truth be told, I saw only one of each - the snake slithered below me in a swamp, while I walked above it on a raised walkway. The alligator surfaced for air as we drove by one of the many drainage ditches that were created in Central Florida when its creeks and rivers were dammed for development.
We learned that the American Alligator, Florida's state reptile, has an appetite that "includes almost anything." Now we also know that the water moccasin has a "bacteria-rich venomous bite," according to our guide book.
To be fair, however, these creatures are on the move and inadvertently in the path of humans, for a reason - Florida has a population of more than 12.5 million people, and grows by 900 people a day. Habitat for alligators and water moccasins, armadillos and butterflies, is disappearing. They've got to go somewhere, and there's a good chance humans will be there, too.
That's all the more reason to seek out a spot like the Henry P. Leu Gardens if you visit Central Florida. At almost 50 acres, the gardens are a welcome respite from busy Orlando. The site includes the Leu House Museum, a restored late 19th-century home that began as a Florida farmhouse. A Garden House on the grounds overlooks Lake Rowena, a home for the aforementioned snakes and alligators, as well as turtles and various interesting water plants.
The Leu Gardens are full of plants with foot-long leaves, such as huge monsteras, as well as the distinctive Alocasia amazonica, an otherworldly accent plant that favors shade. This is a place where philodendrons, which we might find as houseplants in our homes, grow up pecan trees, the fruit of which we might find in a kitchen cupboard.
You'll also find the familiar, such as camellias. The Leu Camellia Collection is one of the largest outdoor collections of its kind in the United States. Common camellias, as well as sasanquas, comprise the majority of the collection. From October to March, the camellias are in bloom, and they're everywhere: Leu planted more than 1,500 of the shrubs and more than 50 historical varieties are on display now under the garden's oaks, sweet gum and pine trees.
Other plant collections of interest include one of the largest formal rose gardens in Florida; a palm garden; a bamboo garden; a tropical stream garden; and a kitchen garden, complete with herbs, vegetables and plantings for butterflies.
I especially liked the palm, bamboo and tropical stream gardens - all marginally hardy plants in our area, but grown to spectacular form here. Palms are ubiquitous in Florida, but should not be confused with cycads. Cycads, such as the Sago palm, are some of the oldest living plants on Earth and are frequently mistaken for palms, even though they share the palm name. The Leu Gardens hold wonderful specimens of true palms, such as the tall Bismarckia nobilis, and the low-growing Arenga engleri, or sugar palm.
Great stands of bamboo shade the pathways in one part of the gardens. I've never stood so near to a clump of timber bamboo - the 60-foot-tall stuff with 4-inch diameter culms. When I hid beneath one stand and closed my eyes, I swear that the noise of the culms swaying was just like being on a sailboat and hearing the mast creak. The best-named variety at the gardens, Rudi and I agreed, was Bambusa ventricosa or Buddha's belly bamboo, named for its pleasantly and decoratively swelling stems.
The tropical stream garden showed the effects of a recent Florida frost. The bananas and colocasias had been hit hard, but the gardeners left the plants standing in anticipation of the final cold spells of the season. It was a ghostly scene, with lots of crackly leaves rustling in the wind and little gecko lizards jumping from plant to plant.
The stream wended its way down to Lake Rowena, where it poured into the dark waters that undulated promisingly with whatever might have been lurking underneath the day. Or, it could have been the afternoon breeze kicking up the little waves the day we visited, but I like to think that we were just about to see some wildlife. There was certainly plenty of plant life for critters - the lakeshore was covered with three native species of mangrove and giant leather ferns and arrowroot grew in pockets on the muddy banks.
For more information about the Henry Leu Gardens, call (407) 246-2620 or go online to www.leugardens.org
The street and mailing address is 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, FL 32803-1537. Admission is $4 for adults and $1 for children. The gardens are open daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Christmas day. The Leu House Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with tours every 30 minutes. The museum is closed for repairs and inventory in July.
Here are some other Web sites for Florida gardens, if a trip (virtual or real) is in your future: McKee Gardens, Vero Beach www.mckeegarden.org; Florida Botanical Garden, Tampa www.flbg.org; Selby Gardens, Sarasota www.selby.org; Sunken Garden, St. Petersburg www.stpete. org/sunken.htm; Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville www.kanapaha.org
Cathy Peterson belongs to the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Please send comments and gardening news to "In the Garden," The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online to firstname.lastname@example.org
Early bird gets the ticket
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. - Early bird tickets are available for the annual Bainbridge in Bloom Garden Tour, an event that takes in six personal gardens and offers a lecture series, book and plant sale.
The 15th annual is July 12-13, and includes a day of children's gardening activities on July 9. More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the event, according to its organizers, with proceeds to benefit the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council. Tickets cost $12 to $25 if purchased before May 15, when the prices go up. For more information, go online to www.gardentour.info or call (206) 219-3182.