SPRING HILL — From the colorful blooms of the Butterfly Garden to the waxy, deep-green Rain Forest, the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens are a delight for the eye and heart.
The shady, verdant enclave tucked neatly within a Spring Hill neighborhood, boasts 20 themed gardens, all painstainking maintained by Spring Hill Garden Club volunteers.
On Saturday, in honor of Arbor Day, the public was treated to a variety of educational programs, refreshments and guided tours of the lush, nearly 5-acre botanical gardens. Arbor Day, a national observance focused on tree planting and education, has been celebrated since 1872.
"This is a great place to go and hide — it's like an oasis," said Doug Brainard, 62, garden club president. A financial consultant by trade, Brainard says he likes to get his hands dirty in his free time.
The garden club is best known for its maintenance of Spring Hill's U.S. 19 entrance. Volunteers religiously plant and preen the landscape around the waterfall and nearby medians.
Education is the main thrust of the botanical gardens, at 1489 Parker Ave., Brainard explained as he plucked from the sandy soil a small green clump of newly grown leaves. He crushed them between his well-worn hands and held them to his nose. They gave off a rancid scent.
"Skunk vine," he explained, "will grow to cover trees and bushes, killing them."
This vine, along with air potato vine, are considered "invasives," a category of plants that chokes out native vegetation. But, to the untrained eye, these noxious plants relocated to the area from Asia look just like any other.
"We're trying to show people what's best to plant in Florida," Brainard said, adding that many commercial nurseries may sell plants that are not be suitable for Florida's environmental extremes such as drought and torrential rains.
The botanical gardens feature Florida native plants such as oakleaf hydrangea; dune sunflower; tick seed, our state wildflower; and coontie, as well as Florida-friendly varieties that are water-wise and grow heartily here.
During Saturday's event, a group of students from Suncoast Elementary School put on an Arbor Day skit while volunteers from the K-Kids Kiwanis Club of J.D. Floyd Elementary sold decorated potted plants to help raise money for the botanical gardens. They also raked leaves and pulled weeds.
The gardens are fully funded through monetary and plant donations from residents and agencies such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District and corporations such as Home Depot. It also gleans income from an adjacent nursery. The nursery features plants grown through clippings and are priced from under a dollar to about $60 for a tree.
But the botanical gardens have flourished through the sweat equity of dedicated volunteers. The Spring Hill Garden Club, which was started in the late 1960s, rents the land from the county for $1 a year, said Gloria Nadeau, 75. She has been a member of the garden club for more than 20 years.
It took volunteers three years to clear the thick woods and brush, sculpting paths that wind around the well-established oaks and pines. The botanical gardens opened nearly a decade ago.
"It took a long time to get this garden started — it's hard work, but very satisfying," said Nadeau, who donated a gazebo in memory of her husband, George.
"I like to see things grow," said Merry Erickson, 48, a volunteer at the gardens who tends to the Aroma and Secret gardens.
And the Botanical Gardens are truly a family affair with Erickson's father, mother and sister all volunteering. Dad Jim, 77, created the Orchard, planting apple, peach, pear and fig trees as well as blueberry bushes and native grape vines. He says his goal was "to show people how fruit trees can be used successfully in landscape design."
"We tend to live here," Merry Erickson said jokingly.
The Asian-theme garden features small evergreens, bamboo, papyrus and a small pond loaded with lily pads and croaking frogs. Paper lanterns hang from the canopy and slowly sway in the breeze.
A favorite for children and adults alike is the Garden Railway, featuring a miniature village scene. A small train circles a track around a pond and disappears beneath a rock-laden mountain and waterfall, only to appear on the other side.