If we say “magical landscape in central Florida,” do you think Disney? Not us; we think about something quite a bit different. Try a lush and exotic jungle, alive with the splendor of towering Banyan trees, majestic palm groves, lounging violet passion flowers, and cascading butterfly vines. While you won’t find a tuxedoed mouse here, you will find wonder and delight among its gurgling brooks, waterlilies, and serene grassy paths. So if you fancy a bit of Old Florida magic on your way to the Magic Kingdom, stop off at McKee Botanical Garden, the must-see hidden gem off Florida’s Treasure Coast.
How to get there
McKee Botanical Gardens is located off US Highway 1 North at Vero Beach’s southern gateway. The entrance is only accessible via the north side of US Highway 1 at mile marker 350, so if you’re approaching from the north, pass the entrance and do a U-turn. Otherwise you can access the gardens directly from the south.
Plan your visit
The gardens are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday noon to 5pm. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for children two to 12 years old. Special rates apply for seniors and groups. Members and children under two are free. Parking onsite is also free.
The gardens cover a sprawling 18 acres in total. Set aside at least two hours to enjoy the site fully, and an additional 30-40 minutes for lunch at the Garden Café. To fully appreciate the multitude of trails, bridges, and paths, we suggest wearing comfortable, water-resistant walking shoes. Also, as with Florida generally, insects abound. Bring insect repellent and enjoy the foliage without feeling like the pests are enjoying you.
By the way, kids will enjoy exploring the interactive children’s garden and various sculpture exhibits, so grab the Children’s Activity Guide on your way in for information, games, and puzzles that will keep them happily engaged while you contemplate ferns and eucalypti.
A brief history
McKee Jungle Gardens was first built on a sub-tropical “hammock” along the Indian River in 1929 by local land developers Arthur G. McKee and Waldo Sexton. Initially 80 acres in full and designed by tropical landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, the gardens included indigenous vegetation augmented by ornamental plant specimens from around the world. Streams, ponds, and trails were added along with chimps, monkeys, and other exotic wildlife.
First opened in 1932, the gardens proved to be a popular roadside attraction with tourists heading south for the Florida sun. This went on for decades until the mid-1970s when Highway I-95 opened up, drawing crowds to newer themes parks and attractions father west. Facing declining attendance, most of the garden plots were sold to condominium developers, with the remaining 18 acres abandoned.
In 2001, however, thanks to a unique partnership between community volunteers and the Trust for Public Land, the 18-acre parcel was purchased and restored to its previous splendor. Renamed McKee Botanical Garden, the site remains true to Saxon and McKee’s vision of a sub-tropical paradise that people can enjoy and ponder for generations to come. The site also has historic significance as an attraction of Old World Florida (a term used to describe the state before it became beach resort central), and is on the National Register of Historic Places and endorsed by The Garden Conservancy as a project of national significance.
What to see and do
Today, the gardens are nearly overflowing with over 10,000 native and foreign tropical plants, including one of Florida’s largest and most celebrated collections of water lilies. Follow the walkways through violet orchid clusters, spiky red bromeliads, and wide banana leaf canopies. Be sure and keep an eye out for the many and varied bird and butterfly species that make their home here.
If you’re a natural vegetation photographer – or just want an Insta-worthy pic – there’s an Eden’s worth of material to choose from. While it’s hard to pick a favorite, we particularly love the oodles of water lily species scattered throughout, as well as the fly-trapping pelican flowers (yeah, they’re here, too).
Among the flora and fauna are also several restored architectural treasures to explore from the garden’s early days. The onsite structures were used for celebrations and include the Hall of Giants, a wrought-wood and glass building that houses a massive 35-foot-long wooden table — made from a single piece of mahogany — suitable for any giant who may need it. The Hall also includes exhibits on the history of the garden.
There is also an outdoor Spanish Kitchen, where food, be it for giants or others, was prepared. At one time, it purportedly included enough grills to cook nearly 200 steaks at once. Also, don’t miss the exotic Dragon Tree or Sleeping Tree; both would fit perfectly in Alice’s Wonderland.
Speaking of Wonderland, permanent art exhibits include massive glass mesh cubes from German sculptor Hans Godo Frabel and a stickwork installation created from willow saplings by Patrick Dougherty. Dubbed “Grand Central,” the stickwork installation spans a palm grove and includes a whimsical series of interlocking caverns, huts, and entrances that looks like something out of Middle Earth.
Finally, the garden hosts several temporary exhibits, art installations, and holiday-themed displays throughout the year. Check the McKee Botanical Garden website for information on the latest ones.
Before you leave
The Sealantro Garden Café has a wide selection of soups, sandwiches, and salads to restore your strength after a full day of exploring. We like the Turkey on Multigrain Bread with Avocado, followed by the Housemade Key Lime Pie (it’s Florida, folks). If you fancy bringing home a prepared meal for later, the Café also offers a full menu of prepared meals (including vegan, paleo, keto, and low carb options) available for pick up Friday through Sunday, just because. See full details here.
Finally, make a quick stop at the onsite gift shop for that magnet, book, postcard, or garden membership for the serious horticultural enthusiast or casual flower-lover in your life. For more information, visit McKee Botanical Garden online.