Over the course of 17 years, Dr. John Rossi collected and planted palms from all over the world on his 17-acre property near Hastings. Impressed visitors repeatedly told him that he should convert his collection into a park for the public to enjoy.
He finally agreed, formed a 501(c)(3) and, aided by several volunteers, devoted the next three years to creating the St. Johns Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve. It was no small project. The property needed signs, pathways, picnic areas, parking, public restrooms and a building to house the ticket booth and gift shop.
The gardens held a well-attended grand opening on Oct. 1.
Visitors will appreciate the tropical vibe. Nearly 400 different types of palm tree are represented among the thousands on the site. It’s the largest collection of its kind north of the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, according to Rossi.
“We’re doing research to determine what kinds of plants will survive here,” Rossi said. “A lot of the plants that you see are not fertilized, and they’re not watered. The reason we’re doing it like that is to try to see what plants do well here.”
Rossi credits the oaks’ canopy for helping some of the species. A little bit like a greenhouse, the canopy keeps the temperature slightly elevated.
The park is divided into areas representing species from different geographic regions. Visitors will find palms from Australia, Africa, Asia, South America and a variety of islands in their own designated areas. There are Cuban palms and Mexican desert palms.
“We’ve got the largest collection of the genus Brahea,” Rossi said, adding that the park is experimenting with cactuses, too. Visitors will find an Argentinian saguaro, for instance.
The park is also planting flowers, including some unusual varieties such as the Chinese hat plant and cat’s whiskers. There are pagoda plants, coleus, hibiscus, frangipanis, caladiums, tricolor ginger, bird of paradise and more, though blooming seasons may vary.
Some of the palms are quite rare. There’s the Pritchardia vuylstekeana, which comes from an island chain about 3,000 miles south of Hawaii, and the Pritchardia munroi, of which there are only two known specimens in the wild and 31 in botanical gardens, including the St. Johns Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve.
Also onsite Oct. 1 was Sallie O’Hara, Hastings Main Street program manager, who told a steady stream of visitors about upcoming events in the small town in Southwest St. Johns County, and invasive plant species volunteer Ely Brooks, who educated visitors about the difference between native, nonnative, exotic and invasive plants.
The St. Johns Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve is located at 8310 County Road 13, east of Hastings. Because of an inaccuracy at Google Maps, enter the name of the park when searching for it, rather than the street address.
For information about hours of operation, admission fees, memberships and more, go to stjohnsbotanicalgarden.org.