My kids happened upon long-forgotten treasure recently when they rode their bikes into the woods of Walsingham Park. • "We found a secret spot today,'' my daughter reported at dinner.
As soon as we found the time, the Castillo siblings escorted me to the small lake in the southeast corner of the park, off 102nd Avenue. We sat on a big rock, gazing at the crystal clear water. A park employee stopped to say hello.
"Did you know you're in the old Botanical Garden?'' he asked. "You're right in the middle of where it used to be, and that rock you're sitting on is really a leftover ornament.''
In the last few weeks, I've studied up on my kids' secret find.
Walsingham Park, which opened in 1995, indeed is the site of the old Suncoast Botanical Garden. It is remembered by many as the precursor to the modern-day Florida Botanical Gardens, which are with the Pinellas County Extension at 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo.
"I have a memory of going through there right after graduating from University of Florida in the '70s," said Andy Wilson, head of the horticulture staff at the county extension. "I remember being impressed with their eucalyptus tree.''
Under the direction of Mildred Palmer, who owned a rare-tree nursery in St. Petersburg, 300 horticulturists started Suncoast Botanical Garden in February 1962. For more than 25 years, the organization leased 60 acres of burned-over land from Pinellas County for $1 a year.
Palmer's labor of love grew to include towering eucalyptus trees, rare wildflowers, a black tupelo tree, jasmines, and rare citrus trees and holly bushes. The plants and trees were kept moist by a water system that drew from the garden's two man-made lakes. One of the lakes was named in honor of the garden founder: Lake Mildred.
Hoping to get an expert to identify possible remnants of the garden, I asked Wilson to hike with me through the old site.
We began our mission at Lake Mildred. Within moments, the past sprung up to greet us.
Wilson quickly spotted an assortment of non-native trees and plants. There was a giant bird of paradise, more than 30 years old, a towering false monkey puzzle tree and two tabebuia trees.
"These trees are not native to the area and therefore were most likely planted at the time of the gardens,'' said Wilson.
Toward 125th Street, we came across different clusters of plants.
In one spot, 11 azalea bushes thrived. In another, there was an assortment of hollies, including east palatka and yaupon holly.
It was likely the plants, evenly spaced apart, were part of the formal plantings of the former garden, Wilson explained.
We also happened upon a collection of Southern magnolia trees, reaching 40 feet tall, and an assortment of bromeliads, ginger plants and philodendrons, most likely originally seeded by Mildred Palmer, who died in 2000, and her team.
We also walked by several young elephant foot plants, natives that have returned to the area. Wilson reflected on how natives return to an area after places created by man close.
"From walking through this area, one positive is that after man's intervention, if left alone, a place like this can and will survive,'' he said.
After the hike, I called Judy Yates, the former director of the Pinellas County Extension and Florida Botanical Gardens. Yates, 61, now divides her time between Dade City and Indian Rocks Beach. She was a friend of Palmer's.
"To me, Suncoast Botanical Garden was eclectic. It is considered the impetus of the Florida Botanical Gardens,'' she said. "And what was most amazing was Mildred. It was all volunteer, and she was always able to get what needed to be done, done."
I wondered out loud how in the world my kids knew they were in such an interesting place.
"It was the spirit of Mildred,'' Yates said with a chuckle. "She had something to do with it. She's still over there pruning.''
News researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.