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Discover Gainesville’s
Natural Wonderland
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Discover Gainesville’s Natural Wonderland

Wander through the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

by Gary McKechnie

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A statue of Buddha at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida.
Navigate paths throughout the garden.
Courtesy Gary McKechnie
A pink water lily at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida
A pink water lily embracing the Gainesville sun.

Seeing pictures of Kanapaha Botanical Garden’s giant bamboo, Victoria water lilies and Asian snake arums was all the convincing I needed to take a two-hour drive to Gainesville, FL. I didn’t mind the drive, because I would be outside.

Fresh air, the sun warming me, Disney-esque water lilies, lush foliage, bright flowers—these are things you yearn for when you work in front of a computer (even if your screen saver is green grass).

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is a hidden treasure that sits between a highway and an interstate, an area of peace sandwiched between what can only be described as a rush. Thankfully, someone had the good sense to preserve this land, which has welcomed visitors with a thirst for natural beauty since the 1980s.

I turned off the road toward the garden and instantly began the transition from traffic to tranquility. I parked the car, stepped outside and took a deep breath.

Flowers in Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, Florida
There are 24 individual gardens within Kanapaha.
The entrance of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida
Azaleas greet guests at the entrance to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens.

A walk in the woods

A long and winding canopy road led to the Summer House within Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, where a dragon fountain flows into a pond beside a massive clump of bamboo. I picked up illustrated maps in the visitor center, following their lead to the camellia and azalea garden, meandering along a 1.5-mile walkway. This is the kind of place where solitary meandering brings about introspection.

Hundreds of red-breasted robins filled the trees while visitors—some couples, some families with kids, and some walking their dogs (it’s a pet-friendly park where even canine water dishes are themed for the garden)—were out to enjoy the day.

Small art objects, such as a griffin that reminded me of a Hippogriff from Harry Potter as well as a replica of a statue I recognized from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, accented the garden. A clear day with a brilliant blue sky magnified the beauty of nature, especially vines as thick as steel cables—vines worthy of Tarzan—that reached the highest peaks of the tallest trees. Alongside the path ahead, ancient sinkholes warped the earth, their shapes softened beneath an emerald covering of vines, grass, and clover.

I’ve visited other gardens where signage is limited to the Latin name of a plant or tree (which would be helpful if I were on Jeopardy! and chose Latin botanical names for $100), but here, signs offered deeper insights into the plants, the trees, and the gardens I was looking at, such as the largest herb garden in the Southeast.

Victoria water lilies at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, Florida
Griffins by labyrinth at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, Florida
A wooden sign points toward different areas of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Victoria water lilies at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida
A dog drinking water at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida
The bamboo garden in Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, Florida
The bamboo garden forms a walkway shaded by tall trees.
The entrance of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida
Koi Krossing by Tim Malles, 2015

Bloom to grow

The bamboo garden that followed was surreal, with thousands of thin stalks woven together to cloak the walkway in shade. Several small Buddha figurines were placed along the path. I noticed a few of the brick pavers were stamped with the names of couples who chose to marry here; couples who realized Kanapaha’s botanical beauty is something their local florist can’t replicate. It’s not just weddings that take place here. Throughout the year, Kanapaha hosts camellia shows, bamboo sales, moonlight strolls, orchid shows, plein air art events, and more.

There are 24 individual gardens within Kanapaha, and they kept coming: tropical aroids and then a hummingbird garden followed by a rock garden with cacti and then palms, cycads, bromeliads, and a pond where giant lilies looked to be like something out of Alice and Wonderland. “Look, mama!” a young boy next to me said, making sure that his mother didn’t miss the absolutely huge green, floating lilies. His mother and I caught each other’s eye and gave each other a knowing smile before she stooped down and said, “Yes, I see!”

On the other side of the park, I enjoyed the blooms of the camellias and azaleas before the sound of waterfalls lured me deeper into the garden. Pausing beside the flowing water, the sight and sound brought back pleasant memories of a friend who taught me how, simply by adjusting a rock or two, I could change the tone and flow of my own pond waterfall.

Eventually, I reached a broad, expansive lawn known as the arboretum. I laid on the grass and stared at the sky. From nearby Lake Kanapaha, a flock of ibis flew past in formation, their orange legs and bills offsetting their black wing tips.

I watched until they were out of sight and then listened to the silence. Then I listened to myself. My body and mind were telling me when things are out of sync; never question nature.

As it turned out, Kanapaha was my answer sheet.

Walk through Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville