Sunken Gardens: A Verdant Treasure Trove

Kids of all ages love to lose themselves in the lush and exotic surroundings of this tranquil spot right in the heart of St. Petersburg

The phrase "tropical paradise" generates 16,700,000 hits on Google, proof that the term is wildly overused.

In addition to enchanting weather year-round, a tropical paradise should offer beauty, tranquility and unique natural surroundings. It needs to be a place that can sweep you away with its beauty.

In other words, it should be a lot like Sunken Gardens.

The 4-acre attraction in downtown St. Petersburg is a century-old celebration of serenity, a botanical and biological feast for the senses that features more than 50,000 tropical plants (representing more than 500 species), plus flamingos and other exotic birds.

Paved pathways make it easy to traverse the Gardens, yet the marvels within make it hard to leave. Set the kids free by letting them romp; encourage them to tell you about what they spot through the dense foliage and around the next bend. The riches of this terrain beg to be discovered.

A Tour of the Gardens

As you enter the Gardens and step through a fountain plaza, follow the path to the main trail then turn right. Past the exotic birds and flamingos are displays of natural and invasive plants. Behind the amphitheater is the enchanting orchid arbor. The croton garden dazzles in the sunshine as the sturdy leaves throw off brilliant oranges, yellows and reds – fire without flames.

Those of you with green thumbs and keen eyes will enjoy caladiums, white birds of paradise, glorybower (native to Java), Brazilian spider flowers and blue ginger (which is neither blue nor ginger – read about it on the sign adjacent to the plant). The Gardens also features Cuban royal palms and bougainvillea – among the oldest in the Southeastern United States.

Wind around a corner and come to the Growing Stone, a fossilized limestone rock. Feel free to have a seat. According to the sign, "Legend has it that 'he who sits upon the ancient stone shall be granted tranquility, inner harmony and the talent to make things grow.'"

More Than Plants

As the presence of the Growing Stone illustrates, Sunken Gardens presents more than plants, and that soon is reinforced with a stop at the Wishing Well, Photo Ring, waterfall and Wedding Lawn (doesn't a visit to the Growing Stone seem like a natural fit for those about to begin a marriage or renew vows?).

Upon leaving the Wedding Lawn, the path takes you over a petite arched bridge and onto one of the longer straight paths at Sunken Gardens. As you make your way slightly uphill, turn and enjoy the view. Palm trees; abundant low, shiny tropical plants; and filtered, late-morning light make for a postcard view. Turn and continue on your way into the Gardens' largest open space.

To the right of the path is a Japanese garden. It brings minimalist features to the outdoors – "restrained use of plant material, stone and ornament" – with a higher purpose: "contemplating the simplicity of this design allows the viewer to find the vast within the small, a philosophic ideal of Zen."

Advance up the path and pass under an archway of natural materials – branches that have grown together create a pergola feel. It, too, projects the sense that there is something large within the small. The interwoven paths of the branches that wind to and fro will fascinate anyone.

As you head into the open space, the sunlight feels welcoming, even in mid-July. Head to the path to the north side of the encounter and enjoy the stroll. A cactus and succulent garden awaits.

Leaving Sunken Gardens is a bit startling. It's easy to lose track of big-picture surroundings as you get wrapped up in little things – the colors of the flowers, the way branches cascade – that when you emerge into the parking lot, you realize that for a couple of hours you were able to forget about cars and other trappings of modern civilization.

Come back and take an official guided garden tour or field trip, or participate in a shifting roster of horticultural programs and workshops (there are many geared to kids). Immersion in nature and tranquility needn't be a one-time event.       

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