LARGO — One of the perks of living in the Sunshine State is enjoying a winter garden full of color. And on Cupid’s favorite day, about 60 couples will come to one of the region’s largest gardens to say "I do.''
At the Florida Botanical Gardens, among the bougainvillea, the rows of zinnias and pentas, the assortment of palms, oaks and pines, and even ironically-named vines (purple passion flower and bleeding heart), the Pinellas County Clerk of the Court'’s office is holding the Valentine’s Day Group Wedding with Clerk Ken Burke officiating. This is the 11th year the event is being held at the 100-acre property off Walsingham Road.
“We had gotten the idea from Palm Beach County and first started holding the event at the courthouse 14 years ago, but we outgrew that setting,'' Burke said. "I remember the first one clearly at the Botanical Gardens. It was a perfect day. The couples were just radiant, and it had a special, exciting feel.’’
Over the years, the event has changed with the times. In 2015, about six weeks after it became legal for same-sex couples to marry in Florida, about two dozen couples exercised their new right and exchanged vows during the event. And a few years ago, Burke and his team decided to include renewals of vows. This year, about 12 couples will participate in the renewal ceremony. "A lot of renewals are folks who were part of the group ceremony,'' Burke said.
The program also includes the Charmonizers Barbershop Quartet and cake for the newlyweds.
While the Pinellas County Clerk of Court office manages the Valentine’s Day event, horticulture volunteers, many holding master gardener certificates, maintain the gardens year-round, while efforts of the non-profit Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation ensure there is always plenty of blooms and artwork dotting the landscape.
Vernon Bryant is the director of the foundation, and he was also part of the team that established the botanical gardens 20 years ago.
"The Valentine’s Day Wedding is always fun to see. It’s a perfect place for a wedding, and one benefit for us is how there will be people visiting here for the first time,'' Bryant said. “Personally, one of my favorite memories is when one of my good friends participated. To have him get married here, at my place, was very special.’’
But with so many people getting married simultaneously, will a couple feel like it is ‘their’ day?
The answer is definitely a yes, according to Nancy Dickman, the clerk’s manager of recording services.
“From observing it over the years, I see how the couples are so excited and how they naturally make it personal for each other,’’ Dickman said. “You see the love in their eyes and Ken may be speaking to 50 couples but they are hearing it only for each other.’’
The wedding, which is open to the public, is set to begin at 2:00 p.m. at the Wedding Garden of the Florida Botanical Gardens, 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo, FL 33774.