Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet – Thich Nhat Hanh
Wandering through a thicket of bamboo, gleaming green stalks that tower so tall they blot out the sun, the footpath tunnels through an interplay of light and shadow, sharp angles cast across a forest floor that could be somewhere in Thailand, not Gainesville. As to echo that thought, the path emerges at a statuette of the Buddah, inviting reflection.
First planted in 1978, Kanapaha opened its doors in 1987. But its botanical roots go much deeper, to the earliest botanizing in Florida. For it was “Puc Puggy” – The Flower Hunter, William Bartram – who camped beneath these oaks in 1774, overlooking “a spacious sink or grotto, which communicates with the waters of the lake,” in this case, Lake Kanapaha. On his journey across Florida, Bartram collected botanical specimens for his patron John Fothergill, a London physician and naturalist, and published a notable work now known as Bartram’s Travels.
Lilies drift across the clear waters of that grotto as a pair of Northern map turtles sun on their perch on a rock. As spring yields to summer, massive Victoria lilies – the world’s largest, which look like you could sit cross-legged on them – unfold their beauty to the sun.
A walk through Kanapaha Botanical Gardens focuses the senses. Along the rambling hillsides leading down to the lake, thematic gardens break the 62 acres into distinct niches within natural woodlands.
On the eastern side of Kanapaha, most of the gardens are set beneath a natural woodland canopy. Bright colors paint the understory of the Ginger Garden. The taste of a savory mint tempts in the Herb Garden, calling from its ever-so-proper raised bed. Sharp-needled cacti raise their blooms to the sunshine in the Rock Garden. In the leaf litter of the forest floor, be mindful of the little things: unusual roots, limestone protrusions, the nodding heads of trillium blooming at the southernmost extent of their range.
Water features are the central attraction in the West Gardens, the younger part of Kanapaha. Let the soothing sounds of water over rock slow your footsteps on the paths of the Oriental Gardens between the waterfalls. Even the Children’s Garden is rich with details, from found objects pressed into a rock wall to a snaking hose painted like a giant coral snake.
Central to the gardens is the Summer House, the public entrance to this floral feast. Just outside is the Labyrinth, ready for a meditative walk. Rocking chairs sit on the porch, inviting you to just be.
Open daily except Thursdays and Christmas, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is a place to slow your pace, to stop and smell the roses. Admission costs $7 for adults, $3.50 for ages 6-13.