It is easy to see why National Geographic magazine named McKee Botanical Garden as one of 22 international secret garden retreats of sanctuary and surprise. You don’t even have to turn off your ignition. The first surprise in this jewel of subtropical hammock sits in the middle of the parking lot — a giant 2,000-year-old cypress stump hauled by McKee co-founder Waldo Sexton from a sawmill in Zephyrhills, Florida, now squatting like a challenge. The skeleton of a whale once loomed over iron gates salvaged from Henry Flagler’s estate. No one seems to know what happened to the whale, which leads to the second surprise of how 356 bones could vanish without a trace.
McKee’s whispery precincts, once inhabited by Napoleon the Chimp, Doc the Dancing Bear and monkeys on harnesses attached to overhead cables strung through the treetops, are entered through a pergola. Stitched with confederate jasmine and a passementerie of dangling jade vines, the arbored tunnel, like Alice’s rabbit hole, promises something unexpected at the other end. The promise is kept with the Hall of Giants, a rough-hewn building fashioned of lighter pine logs and a galvanized tin roof, whimsically decorated with stained glass and bells, a Florida garden folly meant to surprise and delight like an unexpected obelisk, an ancient crumbling wall, or, in some quarters, a devoted pair of plastic pink flamingoes.
The garden is straight ahead. Even if it weren’t, we would find it. We gravitate toward gardens; perhaps that’s why the Magna Carta was signed in the meadows of Runnymede. Maybe we like to keep gardens near as a reminder that we both fidgeted to life from the same primordial twitch, both bubbled up from the same ancient and forgotten sea. The feeling may not be mutual. The truth of the matter is that plants got along without us for millions of years. We might need them more than they need us.
Despite the seeming stillness, things are happening in this riotous blend of exotic and native growth. Some are unseen, at least at first, such as the snake I didn’t see curving an exit trail in the dirt, root systems inching toward water, pollen carried by the breeze, a bee, an unsuspecting blue jay to a waiting pistil. Other things are visible, but unexpected, such as the current garden-wide exhibition of life-size painted bronze sculptures created by world-renowned sculptor Seward Johnson.