Love it or hate it, there's no denying that Florida is absolutely packed with unique and enjoyable attractions. With eyes full of hope and pockets full of change, early American entrepreneurs could turn just about anything into a source of income. The Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg is a lively remnant of a long-forgotten historical tradition of novelty roadside attractions. Travelers on the west coast of Florida should be sure to pay a visit to this fascinating botanical garden.
The History Of Sunken Gardens
In the early 1900s, a plumber named George Turner Sr. bought six acres. George was passionate about horticulture, so much so that one would describe him as having two green thumbs. The land he purchased included a lake, which he drained and converted to a botanical garden. Since the garden exists at the bottom of a lake bed, the altitude is a few feet below sea level. In such conditions of humidity, air pressure, and oxygenation, a number of plants from all over the world can thrive.
- Fun Fact: The Sunken Gardens are one of Florida's oldest roadside attractions.
George began planting papayas, lemons, and in great Florida fashion, oranges. The blend of colors imbibed the garden with a surreal and magnetic quality. It became a natural roadside attraction despite not being advertised as one. As years went by, George Turner added exotic plants to his eclectic botanical collection. He started charging an entry fee for visitors and put up banners on the roadside to drive traffic to his sunken garden.
There is a large building on the property. It is on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places. When it was built in the 1920s, the building was used as a sanitary public market. It was initially styled in a Mediterranean Revival style that very much juxtaposed and complemented the tropical gardens. In the 1940s, Coca-Cola bought the building and converted it to a bottling facility, converting it to Art Moderne style.
As a family-owned roadside attraction, Coca-Cola's operation on the premises was unacceptable. The Turners purchased the building from Coca-Cola and turned it into the largest gift shop in the world as well as a wax museum. It was a delightful place that was designed to titillate. There was even fake wax lava running through it that gave the place an otherworldly atmosphere. Eventually, in a voter-approved event, the building was taken over by the city and transformed into a children's museum.
Flora And Fauna At Sunken Gardens
It's important to know that the lake bed that George Turner drained was quite large, spanning around four acres. At its peak, the garden had tens of thousands of vibrant and alien plant species from every remote corner of the world. Visitors walk on winding trails past the fragrant, mellifluous, and sometimes poisonous foliage. As the garden grew in complexity and revenue, an entire ecology formed around it. There are cascading waterfalls and flocks of pink flamingos to observe.
The Sunken Gardens became a defacto wildlife conservation that is focused on preserving rare and precious flora. Adaptable fauna has the opportunity to symbiotically integrate with the eclectic environment. For example, Flamingo guano is a powerful fertilizer that helps nourish the soil and maintain the garden. Similarly, plantlife alters the PH and chemical makeup of the water, making it suitable for fish and shrimp to reproduce, which in turn feeds aquatic birds like the Flamingo.
Visiting Sunken Gardens
After his death, George's wife, Eula played a significant role in turning the gardens into a landmark. Over the generations, their children and grandchildren maintained and expanded the gardens, keeping the family vision alive. Today, the Sunken Gardens are managed by the city of St. Petersburg.
- Address: 1825 4th St N, St. Petersburg, FL 33704, United States
- Operating Dates and Hours: Monday through Saturday: 10 AM to 4:30 AM; Sunday: Noon to 4:30 PM
- Price: $15 for adults, $6 for children under 17, and $12 for senior citizens
While Florida is a hot and sunny place, the Sunken Gardens are cool and mostly shaded. It takes around 90 minutes to walk through the entire arboretum, making it the perfect roadside stop. The Sunken Gardens are full of spaced-out picnic tables nestled in green nooks and crannies. Visitors are allowed and encouraged to bring their own food and drinks. In order to break up a long, arduous road trip, stop for a relaxing lunch in the tropical depths of the Sunken Gardens botanical reserve.
As a piece of classic Americana, the Sunken Gardens celebrate every major holiday. On Christmas, for example, the plants are enlivened by festive lights and decorations, creating a dreamlike environment to escape in.
A regular GPS will navigate curious visitors right to the garden. However, for Florida tourists without a car, there are two bus stops located within walking distance to the Sunken Gardens. Both the 22 and 4 lines pass by the gardens, and depending on the bus they're in, visitors can get off at either 4th St N + 18th Ave N or 4th St N + 22nd Ave N, a one-minute and four-minute walk away respectively.