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Visit Edison, Ford winter homes for an inventive getaway

The 102-foot-tall Mysore fig tree in Henry Ford’s front yard is a former Florida champion — at one time the biggest of its kind in the state. It’s popular for “family tree” photos, says gardens manager Steve Hottovy. with family members clambering up into the limbs. The estates are full of botanical novelties. 
The 102-foot-tall Mysore fig tree in Henry Ford’s front yard is a former Florida champion — at one time the biggest of its kind in the state. It’s popular for “family tree” photos, says gardens manager Steve Hottovy. with family members clambering up into the limbs. The estates are full of botanical novelties. 
Published May 1, 2013

I thought I knew Thomas Edison — I've been a fan since I was a kid. I read his biographies, talked my mom into a family vacation to his New Jersey lab, and taped his poster next to Donny Osmond's in my bedroom. I loved Thomas Alva Edison!

But I didn't really know him until I met his plants. His winter home and gardens in Fort Myers — along with wife Mina's and those of neighbors Henry and Clara Ford — take visitors on a walk into the early 1900s at a time much like the one we're in, with inventors and innovators speedily changing how we operate day to day.

Make the two-hour drive from Tampa to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates for a getaway this month and not only do you get respite from the driest, most frustrating time of year for Florida gardening, you'll experience the wizardry of a genius playing with plants. The estate celebrates National Public Garden Day on May 10 with some free guided tours (call to register; space is limited), Mother's Day with a half-price Behind the Scenes Tour for moms, and Memorial Day with free admission for veterans and their families.

For those of you who missed the Edison craze, think of him as the Steve Jobs of his era. Geeks ruled the cool in early 20th century America, and Edison reigned supreme. A mentor for some of the most creative, younger minds of his time, he was the old guy who racked up 1,093 patents. That brought him the same blessings and burdens today's stars deal with, and explains some of his plants — like the banana trees screening his in-ground swimming pool from paparazzi.

Thomas Edison's home and gardens have been open to visitors since 1950; Henry Ford's neighboring home opened to the public in 1990. The grounds and buildings have undergone a painstaking eight-year, $15 million restoration to return them to 1929 historic accuracy. Completed just last year, the project has earned numerous honors, including the top award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for CEO Chris Pendleton, its passionate and down-to-earth mastermind.

She and everyone I met here confirmed: The plants tell the stories.

"What do you take as a gift for a famous person when you come to visit in the era of the 'cabinet of curiosities'?" asks historic gardens manager Steve Hottovy, referring to the Victorian parlor fad of displaying nature's oddities.

A sausage tree!

Night-blooming Kigelia africana, with its 15-pound sausage-shaped fruits dangling from long, rope-ish stalks, is one of the most photographed wonders on the 20-acre combined estates. It grows in the Edisons' front yard.

But it doesn't tell the whole story. More than 1,700 plants representing more than 400 species grown by Edison and automotive titan Ford include novelties like the shaving brush tree, with its rubbery, bristled blooms, and the intoxicating ylang-ylang tree, mother of countless bottled fragrances.

Edison, remember, not only had an insatiable curiosity, he also had a severe hearing impairment. I imagine that heightened his remaining senses and drew him to plants remarkable for their sight, smell, touch and taste. Which might explain all the edibles, including citrus, pineapples and mangos; the hundreds of orchids naturalized in trees, and popular ornamentals (Mina loved plumbago.)

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"There's something in bloom all the time," says marketing director Lisa Sbuttoni, who suggests checking the monthly "What's Blooming" list at edisonfordwinterestates.org before you visit.

Many of these plants are originals, including a towering deep-fuchsia bougainvillea that must be pure torture to trim, and twin podocarpus shrubs flanking the Edisons' front stoop. These are the biggest, most gnarly podocarpus I've ever seen! (I'd always thought of the spiky shrubs as remnants of an '80s fad. Apparently, they were a '20s fad, too.)

The grounds also include thousands of plants grown for experiments in Edison's on-site botanic laboratory. Edison, Ford and friend Harvey Firestone (yes, the tire guy) wanted to develop a renewable resource for manufacturing a high-demand product: rubber.

That 1-acre banyan tree on the edge of the visitors' parking lot? It's not just another curiosity. That's a rubber tree.

The Ficus benghalensis, just 4 feet tall in 1925 when Firestone gave it to Edison, is the largest of its kind in the United States. It's one of many rubber plants — any that bleed milky white, latex-laden sap when cut.

"Edison started out as a telegraph operator, and he had lots of connections around the country and the world," gardens manager Steve says. "He sent out what for us would be an email blast, asking everyone to send rubber plants from their area."

He got 17,000.

Edison bought the property overlooking the Caloosahatchee River in 1885. He built a modest Craftsman-style bungalow, which contains the original furnishings and is lit by his electric "chandeliers."

His former employee and good buddy, Ford, came to stay each year for a couple of weeks around Edison's birthday, Feb. 11. Ford's home contains reproduction furniture, but the garage holds some interesting vintage cars.

There's a great museum on the grounds, Edison's lab, and fun plant and gift shops. But my friends and I found the heirloom plants and their histories the most fascinating part of our visit.

What better way to get to know a dear departed fellow gardener?

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Catch more local gardening stories and photos at digginfladirt.com or join the garden chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow her on Twitter @DigginPenny.

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