New Florida residents get popular with their northern relatives quicker than they can say “Mickey Mouse.” I was seven when we moved to Pinellas and within a year I’d visited the mouse, the mermaids, and a bevy of other Florida-style tourist attractions more times than most people will in a lifetime.
For whatever reason, we never visited Sunken Gardens. Maybe it was too close to be exciting; maybe sinkholes and flowers just didn’t light a fire under my relatives. But I always wanted to know what was down the street from the big sign on 22nd Avenue North and 34th Street. Last week I finally found out:
Lots and lots and lots of plants and trees and ponds and... well, you get the idea. If anyone has the silly idea in their head that Florida is all palm trees and sand they need to visit Sunken Gardens. Behind the garden walls exists an intoxicating rain forest teeming with yellow and purple orchids bright and sweet around you and splashing waterfalls and verdant vegetation towering tall and green above you.
You start out walking at street level and gradually meander 15 feet down to the sinkhole floor. As you dip further below Florida’s limestone crust you orchids, birds of paradise, and a myriad of other plants surround you.
In 1902 a man named George Turner, Sr. bought the five acres surrounding the sinkhole that makes Sunken Gardens, well, sunken. He created a terra cotta system of drains so he could use the rich mucky dirt at the bottom of the sinkhole to grow vegetables, plants and flowers. A year later he started selling exotic fruit and vegetables. By 1910 the Turners started charging a nickel to people who wanted to see their gardens.
By the 1990s the Turner family wanted to sell Sunken Gardens, but St. Petersburg residents had long ago fallen in love with the gardens. A grassroots effort prompted the city to put a temporary tax on the ballot, and by referendum St. Petersburg voters opted to pay an extra $3.8 million so the city could buy Sunken Gardens in 1999, saving it from rumored destruction or nudist spas.
BEST Part: Only in Florida can someone convert a misfortune like a sinkhole into a money-generating venture. Whether or not you like botanical gardens--without the bird shows, that’s really all that remains-- you can see one of the first Florida dreams still at work as you stroll down the paths. Also, the flamingos are pretty cool, as are the kookaburras.
Part: Nothing says “Florida roadside attraction” like wax Jesus displays, but I couldn’t find the famous King of Kings Wax Museum anywhere. Likewise, the big fake rock entrance I remember seeing on brochures is also long gone. The city of St. Petersburg purchased Sunken Gardens in 1999 and saved it from almost certain destruction, but other than one wall of photographs back by some offices, doesn’t seem to have a true sense of the attraction’s history.
MAGIC Question: $8 for adults, less for seniors. For $50 your household can get an annual membership that gives you unlimited admission, not only to Sunken Gardens but to botanical gardens throughout the United States.
Sunken Gardens opens at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday and at noon on Sundays. It closes at 4:30 p.m. every day.
Find Sunken Gardens at 1825 4th Street North in St. Petersburg. Plan on an afternoon at the most. Visit their web site at StPete.org/Sunken/index.asp for more information or call (727) 551-3102.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.