A jungle of species once rooted in the most remote and forbidden corners of the world grew lush and dense amid the mansions of Beach Park.
The garden flourished so well that people passing by on elite Swann Circle couldn't see the house in the center, where an orthopedic surgeon and his wife raised three boys and tended their botanical treasures.
Dr. U.A. Young and his wife, who called herself Ben, moved here in the early 1950s from Texas.
She set out to build a garden on the four lots surrounding their home, and he decided to help. She loved big bulbous blooms and became a flower-arranging judge. He loved razor-sharp thorns. His energy took over.
"Mom was the creative impetus," said their oldest son, Ulysses Young V. "Dad approached it like a scientist, with incredible focus."
Together, they loved to travel, but never as tourists. Sometimes they took the boys along.
He wouldn't spend money in Europe, his son said. Instead, they went to Africa and South America and Australia. Invariably, U.A. would find a well-dressed person and ask for a guide to take them to the backcountry.
They trekked through jungles, searching for something they had never seen. They clogged motel sinks with the mud washed from their finds. After a freeze in Tampa killed most of the palm trees they had collected, U.A.'s eye turned to the cycad.
"They're strange plants," Ulysses said. "Some are sharp and spiny to keep monkeys from eating them. Others are light as a feather."
Typically short, stocky and unassuming, the plant's frondlike foliage looks like a cross between a palm and a fern. Tenacious and rare, they can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. Some say they were the favorite food of the stegosaurus.
U.A. was intrigued. He traipsed the far reaches of the world searching for new species until an international treaty known as Cites in 1975 banned bringing cycads (and other things, including ivory) across borders.
He had already collected about 100 cycads that can no longer be brought here.
"Altogether this is an art collection," Ulysses said, composed by his father, who was "so into it on the purist level. He wanted to preserve this incredible nature."
Cycads (pronounced SI-kids or -kads) produce cones, which reveal their sex. They can be male or female or even transsexual. Some change colors. Red. Brown. Yellow. Green.
Tom Broome, former president of the Cycad Society, evaluated the collection at $360,000.
"He has some very significant things that no one else has," he said. "This is the most diverse cycad collection in a private yard in Florida."
There are seven plants Broome has never seen. There's a Cycas scratchleyana that may be the only one of its kind in North America. It's valued at $15,000.
The most expensive cycad in U.A.'s collection, an Encephalartos latifrons, takes about 15 years to seed and is nearly extinct in its native South Africa. Its value: $18,000.
Between the house and pool, sprouting pots filled a two-story atrium, where a rare double coconut palm tree has grown up inside. A native of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, it has nuts that can weigh 50 pounds.
There's a plant that looks like a palm tree with a coconut frond. The Pondoland Palm is hard to sprout and slow growing. It can be found on the banks of two rivers in South Africa's Zululand. The Zulus use cycads for spiritual purposes. They grind the plant into a power and sprinkle it around their property to ward off evil spirits, said Broome.
Cycads, which are high in starch, have been food all over the world and sometimes used for medicine. Many contain neurotoxins capable of paralyzing or killing cattle that graze on them.
Cycads were probably the main food of dinosaurs, Broome said. Typically people who like the cycad like plants with a fountain form, like palms and bromeliads.
"There's something unusual about them. Primeval a bit. It's hard to explain," Broome said. "You might wait all year for a 'flush,' when they send out 30 to 40 fronds at once."
U.A. became a recognized expert and was generous with seeds. He rarely paid anything for his plants.
He stopped importing after the treaty of 1975. But other collectors continued and some, whom U.A. knew, were caught. Smugglers today still transport the coveted plants, which can be easy to rip from the ground. Thieves have also taken them from public and private gardens.
Brad, the youngest son, remembers his father coming home from Tampa General Hospital and fixing a drink — vodka on the rocks with a splash of citrus from his red lime tree. Then he and Ben would walk through the gardens. Invariably, a cycad that had not changed in months, or years, would be sending out new fronds or Ben's plants would be in bloom.
Later on the screened porch, they would sometimes overhear passers-by admire or criticize their jungle, never guessing its inhabitants could hear them.
Brad is the only son who lives in the area and has been tending the garden since his father's death.
That porch is Brad's favorite place to be.
More than a year ago, the sons met to reminisce and figure out what to do with their inheritance. U.A. died about 10 years ago, and Ben followed in 2011.
As his health was declining, U.A. had tried to have the kind of discussion that his sons weren't ready to have. Ulysses, an artist who lives in Manhattan, wishes he had assured his father that they would preserve his living legacy.
The brothers had to sell and knew the house, without air conditioning, was obsolete. But they couldn't bear the idea of plowing the botanical treasures. They offered to sell the collection to Walt Disney World, Busch Gardens and several local governments.
In the end, the city of St. Petersburg offered the brothers $300,000 from a fund reserved for park enhancement that came from the sale of property in Weeki Wachee Springs. The money would cover $125,000 for the plants. The rest would pay to transplant, tend and secure the plants in two locations, Sunken Gardens and the Gizella Kopsick Palm Arboretum.
This week, a landscape crew started digging. They lifted out an Encephalartos paucidentatus, from South Africa, and a double-headed Encephalartos whitelockii, valued at $11,000.
The collection should be all transplanted across the bay by mid May, and after a few months, new fronds should appear.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.