1920 North Forest Avenue, Orlando, 32803
Admission: Adults $5, children (grades K-12) $1.
Hours: Daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed Christmas
Location: Take I-4 Exit 85 (Princeton Street), go east to Mills (US 17-92) and turn right. Turn left on Virginia Drive and follow signs
Strolling through Harry P. Leu’s magnificent formal gardens on the shores of Lake Rowena, it’s hard to believe that you’re in the heart of the city, just a short drive from the bustling “Centroplex” as Orlando rather inelegantly refers to its central business district.
There’s nothing inelegant about this luxurious estate, however. Deeded to the city by a local industrial supplies magnate and amateur botanist, the 50 acres of manicured grounds and artfully designed gardens offer a delicious respite from the cares of the world.
Camellias were Harry Leu’s first love and the place is full of them — over 2,000, making this the largest documented collection of camellias in North America. But there are many other trees, flowers, and ornamental plants to catch the fancy of amateur gardeners, who will appreciate the meticulous signage that provides the full scientific name for the thousands of species represented. They can flag down a passing staff member, who will be more than happy to answer their questions. The rest of us will simply enjoy strolling through this artfully constructed monument to the gardener’s art, stopping now and then to smell the roses.
The estate is given over to a number of gardens that blend seamlessly one into another. Camellias bloom under tall Southern oaks dripping with Spanish moss in the North and South woods, while the palm garden allows botanists to test the hardiness of various species during the nippy Central Florida winters. In the center is a formal rose garden that is at its best from April through October. The Tropical Stream Garden features tropical vines and plants that are native to or can be grown in Florida. By the lake, the Native Wetland Garden is home to swamp hibiscus, lizard’s tail, loblolly, and dwarf wax myrtle, all under the shade of stately cypress trees.
Another not-to-be-missed highlight is the 50-foot floral clock. The mechanism was purchased in Scotland and now sits on an intricately planted sloping hill at the foot of a formal garden. Later, a stroll down to the lake takes you past the Ravine Garden, lush with tropical plants. At the water’s edge a spacious wooden terrace offers a peaceful spot to sit and admire the wading birds. Benches and a gazebo encourage you to sit and stay awhile. Your patience may be rewarded with a glimpse of Lake Rowena’s resident eight-foot alligator.
Every half hour from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., except in July when it is closed, volunteers conduct tours through the Leu house. Don’t miss it. You’ll be treated to a wonderfully gossipy recounting of the building’s evolution, through several changes of ownership, from humble farm house to rich man’s estate, spiced with tales of a sheriff gunned down in the line of duty and a home-wrecking New York actress. (That’s her as Cleopatra in the photo in the living room.) Nearby is a cemetery in which the unfortunate lawman lies buried with many of his kin.
The antebellum-style Garden House, where you pay your modest admission to the gardens, houses a 900-volume horticultural library (open to visitors) and spacious meeting rooms. The terrace at the back of the building offers a stunning view of the lake. There are frequent arts and crafts exhibits in the Garden House, as well as a regular schedule of musical events. Wheelchairs are available free of charge. Pets are not allowed in either the gardens or the houses.
Nearby: Mennello Museum of Folk Art, Orlando Fire Museum, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Science Center.
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