Our guide swept aside dripping, tangled foliage as, between subtropical squalls, she led our tiny group through the improbably jungly Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, an anomaly in otherwise well-manicured West Palm Beach, Fla.
The gardens feature the work of famed late Florida sculptor Ann Norton, whose work ranges from her acclaimed, figurative Seven Beings, carved from huge blocks of Norwegian granite, to similarly monumental brick abstracts. Her art-filled studio (a stop on tours) and her house both sit on the grounds; along with the gardens, they were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
I was intrigued by the sculpture, but my ears really perked up when our guide, Cynthia Inklebarger, started talking about the scores of palm species that Norton, who was also a conservationist, had chosen for the site decades earlier. Being an inveterate, if not entirely successful gardener, I had been fascinated by all the tropical foliage we’d been traipsing through. And Inklebarger, the Norton’s curatorial manager, really knew her stuff: pointing to a cycad, a large leathery plant with razor-sharp leaves that, she said, is a rare survivor of the Jurassic Age, she speculated it could have been used as a weapon by our humanoid ancestors.
The Norton is just one of several stellar parks and wildlife preserves in Palm Beach County, a wealthy jurisdiction in South Florida that’s best known for being home to many in the one percent.
If the Norton gardens are, perhaps, a perfect South Seas pearl, the Four Arts Botanical Garden, across the Intracoastal Waterway in tony Palm Beach, is a sparkling 100-carat white diamond. It’s owned, proudly, by The Society of the Four Arts, a nonprofit endeavor dedicated to providing the local citizenry with art, music, drama and literature
Originally planted by eight society matrons (and one society gentleman) in 1936 to demonstrate the types of gardening possible in the region’s subtropical climate, the lush gardens were devastated by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. A new garden, expanded to include the adjacent Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden, emerged from the ruins. With its Chinese, jungle and midnight gardens; fountains; and tidal waves of red and purple bougainvillea, it’s a crowd-pleaser. A life-size bronze by Lawrence Holofcener of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sitting on a bench is popular with visitors; there’s just enough room for someone to sit between the two statesman and pose for pictures.
In an unlikely setting in a drab area near Palm Beach International Airport, Mounts Botanical Garden traces its origins to Marvin V. Mounts, who in 1925 planted an orchard on the site to grow crops of fruit to cure vitamin deficiencies among settlers. Today, trails wind through 23 different gardens, among them a rose garden, rain garden, fragrance garden, butterfly garden and a tropical forest. There’s also a maze for children (it’s trimmed to three feet so parents can keep track of their kids) and a bookstore.
Farther south, in Boynton Beach, Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, a100-acre wildlife preserve operated by the county, provides a glimpse into Florida’s native flora and fauna. It includes a one and a half-mile boardwalk with barcodes that can be scanned for a self-guided tour. A visitor center includes a live animal exhibit, educational displays and a gift shop.
West of Boynton Beach, in the northern Everglades, the gargantuan Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a National Fish and Wildlife Service wilderness area, welcomes visitors with a short boardwalk, tram and airboat rides and guided canoe tours. Hunting for birds, alligators and other animals is permitted in designated areas.
More celebrated, if far smaller, the 53-acre Wakodahatchee Wetlands in neighboring Delray Beach, operated by the county’s water utilities department, was recently named the best park in Florida by Money magazine. There’s neither a visitor center nor barcodes (and there’s definitely no hunting) but the signage along the three-quarter mile boardwalk is excellent.
On a recent visit there, we found an islet draped with dozens of squawking male wood storks guarding nesting females; snowy egrets; great blue and tri-colored herons; giant lizards basking in the sun on the banks of a rippling stream; and rare, brown-and-white marsh rabbits, whose numbers in South Florida are being decimated by an exploding population of non-native pythons. An alligator swam languidly under the boardwalk, perhaps keeping an eye on dinner — the juicy green turtle that was paddling ahead of it. But the birds are the main draw; the Wakodahatchee, home to 151 species, is a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden, also in Delray Beach, is the crown jewel of area parks. It was fashioned by renowned landscape designer Hoichiri Kurisu on land donated by the late George Morikami, at the time one of the last surviving member of an ill-fated, early 20th century colony of Japanese pineapple growers.
The 16-acre classical garden reflects six different periods in Japanese history and its wooded grounds include, among other things, a Zen garden, bonsai garden, rock gardens from two different eras, bamboo grove, two waterfalls and shady walking trails around a sizable lake. The garden’s Japanese restaurant, the Cornell Café, has been featured on the Food Network, but is accessible only with paid admission to the garden.
A pond stocked with huge orange and silver koi provides fun for children and adults who throw crumbs to the jumping fish. They’re not the only wildlife present; on a recent visit we came across a crowd gawking at two humongous iguanas, one rusty red, the other avocado green, perched in a tree.
This, after all, is Florida. Nature rules.