If you drive down Archer Road through the busy section between 34th Street and the exit and entry ramps for Interstate 75, you will be maneuvering down the main drag with one of the largest retail centers in the southeast on one side of it and strip mall heaven on the other.
It’s hard to imagine there’s a quiet place to get away from it all just down the road.
But about a mile west of Exit 384, take a right at the sign for Kanapaha Botanical Gardens and you will end up somewhere you may never want to leave. It’s a 68-acre natural wonderland that includes Florida’s largest display of bamboos and the largest herb garden in the Southeast.
Director Alexis Caffrey loves the gardens, not surprising as she is the daughter of founder Don Goodman.
“When I was a child, my dad would pick me up from school and take me to Kanapaha and I would play on the grounds until the end of the workday,” she said. “I have an attachment to this property because of the time I spent here while I grew up.
“When I was younger Kanapaha didn’t have as many customers, and it felt as though I had the whole gardens to myself,” she said. “My job is very fulfilling because I love this property and creating beauty. It is a peaceful place to work.”
Caffrey said the gardens take their name from a contraction of two Timucua Indian words for “palmetto leaves” and “house” and refer to the “thatched huts utilized by the lake’s earliest human inhabitants. Lake Kanapaha – the feature from which we take our name – means ‘lake of the houses,’ distinguishing it as an inhabited lake,” she said.
Work began on the land in 1978, although it wasn’t until 1986 that the gardens opened to the public.
The hours spent at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, whether on foot or in a wheelchair or another mobility device, are a passage through paradise along a 1.5-mile paved path. All of it is viewable from different vantage points. Great care is taken to make everything accessible as the visitor meanders through the mystique of the gardens.
Caffrey’s dad designed the main sidewalk trails. “On the eastern loop, he liked the aesthetics of a winding trail that maximized the space by creating a circular trail that encompassed the outskirts of the property.
“The western side of the gardens are primarily dominated by the water gardens and as such, the sidewalk follows along the water’s edge, forming a “T” shape,” she said.
The gardens have 24 major botanical collections that the visitor can enjoy, including the bamboos and herb garden. Some are organized taxonomically; others demonstrate the principles of ecology or natural selection.
Water lilies, especially the Giant Victoria Water Lilies, stand out in the summer months. The gardens have set records for two species, the Longwood Hybrid at 8 feet and for the cultivated (and possibly wild grown) Victoria cruziana in 2019 at 93 inches, according to Caffrey.
There are also gazebos galore in the gardens that give visitors some respite from rain or Florida’s often grueling sunshine.
“We wanted to provide places for guests to sit in the shade and rest or picnic,” Caffrey said of another one of her dad’s ideas.
Goodman is the author of Summer of the Dragon, which recounts his life as a naturalist and how he lost his right arm to an alligator two decades ago, but as he wrote, he still maintains his sense of humor.
Of course, keeping up the grounds takes work. This writer has made numerous visits to the gardens and there is always someone at work, perhaps planting or weeding or doing whatever is necessary to keep things looking good.
“Given the small staff and large acreage, we are always prioritizing projects to yield the maximum results in making the overall gardens look maintained,” Caffrey said.
“Tasks change depending on the season. For example, we mow the facility every week during the summer but less so other times of year. After winter, a large portion of time is spent removing dead plant material killed by the frost,” she added.
The gardens have eight staff members, three full-time and five part-time. But much of the work is done by 320 volunteers, who put in about 5,800 hours of service each year, Caffrey said.
“Many come to the gardens and fill out a volunteer form to get started. Some reach out to us looking for a place to get some sort of school credit. Other organizations, like the Gainesville Gardening Club and Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association, have long-standing volunteer ties to Kanapaha,” Caffrey said.
Not unsurprisingly the gardens offer the most color from June through September. Kanapaha hosts many special events including a Bamboo Sale and the Spring Garden Festival. Dogs are permitted on leashes except during special events,
Picnic baskets are welcome and there is a picnic area very close to the entrance building.
The gardens are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursdays when the facility is closed. Weekend hours are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or dusk, whichever is earlier,
Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 5 – 13 when accompanied by an adult. Children under 5 enter free. Annual memberships are also available.