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  • Sharon White

Winter Garden

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

Once a trailer park.

At the entrance to Heathcote Botanical Gardens, a screw pine was thick with gold bees on the fluffy inflorescence. The Palm and Cycad Walk was cool and shimmering. The vivid reds of bromeliads lined the path. Shiny, tall palms from the Amazon and a wild date palm from India rattled in the hot wind. I sat on a stone bench painted bright blue looking up at the spiky trees. I was far away from the hum of traffic along US Route 1 or the grinding bulldozers on Hutchinson Island.

A grey cat followed me as I meandered along the cool path into a thicket of loblolly pines. Fluted yellow elder and delicate pink garlic vine glowed in the soft light. Buddleia bloomed in the thicket. There was a hut thatched with palmetto palms at the edge of the Butterfly Garden. The Seminoles who lived in the area used chickees, the Seminole word for house, as shelter. Constructed with palmetto palms on cypress log frames, they were fast to make and could be transported from one place to another.

Amy Dahan, the director of the garden, told me about a girl from Newark, New Jersey who moved to this part of Florida with her family in the 1880s and wrote letters to friends at home. Later, I found the collection of her letters in the library. Lucie Richards was twenty when she sailed south to meet her father in Florida.

The river, she writes, is a "mass of green forest." The sky is full of birds. Captain Richards bought a large piece of land not far from the garden, just north of Stuart. His homestead was on a bluff above the Indian River. It is, Lucie tells her friend Mary, a "wild and primitive place." The tall palms have "tops like feather dusters."

At first they lived in a hut like a chickee, thatched with palmetto palms. Her father planted pineapples and was one of the first to grow the crop in Florida. He had 45,000 pineapple plants. Lucie describes planting suckers or slips in the sandy fields on Hutchinson Island. They harvested the pineapples in early summer and shipped the fruit north in baskets. As the cook for her family and the men who worked on the pineapple farm, she learns from Seminole women how to "trim out the heart or center of the palm and palmetto." She writes, "Either raw or boiled these are quite delicious."

The women also taught her how to smoke fish in a "palmetto covered oven." Lucie describes her other chores, stitching up her brother's foot with linen thread and soaking it in turpentine, making soap and scrounging meals. She sees a manatee, peering up from the clear waters of the Indian River. One day there are millions of ducks and coots on the river. She shoots sixty-eight and keeps shooting, lying on her back in a boat. Sometimes the children are so hungry she stews an egret and regrets it later. Her father asks her to cook a rattlesnake.

"We have not forgotten," she writes, "how near we came to starving." When her mother finally arrives, Lucy is still the cook--frying up hundreds of oysters for the men.

That day I walked from the edge of the garden where different kinds of pineapples were growing to the shade of an orchid tree, bauhinia blackeana from Southeast Asia, light pink mouths open.

A Japanese garden was a surprise tucked into a corner near a house built in 1922 and moved to the garden in 1967 when it was a commercial nursery. A red and gold kimono moved in the hot breeze. Pink papery petals of Bougainvillea fell on the path. Tiny slivers of silver fish swam in a miniature pool where a small waterfall tumbled into a little stream. Water lilies floated in the heat. A huge tree made the tiny paths of the Japanese garden cool.

When I drove back to my mother's house along the narrow length of Hutchinson Island past the signs of land for sale and bulldozers and piles of wild grapes scraped off the land, I thought about the cool garden, the red and gold kimono, the open mouths of the orchids.

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