Thursday, February 2, 2012

Flamingo Gardens Celebrates 85 Years

Floyd and Jane Wray came to Florida in 1925 and were deeply intrigued with the horticultural possibilities of the subtropical locale. They purchased 320 acres of land on Long Key in the Everglades, and on January 2, 1927, Floyd L. Wray incorporated Flamingo Groves, beginning what was to become one of the first botanical gardens and tourist attractions in South Florida. 85 years later, Flamingo Gardens remains a gem in South Florida, and celebrates its legacy.

When Floyd Wray and his business partner Frank Stirling founded the botanical collection in 1927 it was largely a flat field, surrounded by reclaimed agricultural land. They planted the first citrus tree on February 22 and eventually the grove grew to 2000 acres with over 60 varieties of citrus and included a 20-acre citrus laboratory. In the 1930‘s the botanical gardens received foreign plants and seeds from the federal government for test planting, and to showcase rare tropical fruit, flowering trees, and shrubs, further expanding the botanical collection.

From the beginning the Wrays welcomed visitors and the public to the gardens. They built a weekend home atop the 200 year old hammock in the groves where annual barbeques were held on the vast lawn. Tours of the citrus groves and botanical gardens, as well as the fruit shipping area, were given daily. Wild Turkeys roamed freely on the property, and Mrs. Wray introduced Peacocks and Flamingos to the gardens in the 50’s to the delight of the visitors. In the 60’s reptiles and alligators were introduced with daily demonstrations and shows, and later a petting zoo was added.

The Floyd L. Wray Memorial Foundation was established in 1969 by Mrs. Wray in honor of her late husband to preserve the core property for future generations and emphasize the history of the Florida Everglades. The name was changed to Flamingo Gardens, and the botanical gardens was preserved and expanded. In 1990 the Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary opened with the Bird of Prey Center, followed by the half acre Free Flight Aviary featuring the 5 ecological zones of Florida. One of the first of its kind in the country, the sanctuary gave residence to permanently injured or non-releasable Florida native wildlife. Other wildlife displays opened including River Otter, Bald & Golden Eagles, Bobcats, Tortoise, and a Florida Panther Habitat.

Today Flamingo Garden’s Botanical Collection boast one of the last natural jungle growths in South Florida with over 3000 topical and subtropical species of plants and trees, including the largest single collection of State Champion trees which are the largest tree of their species as determined by the Florida Division of Forestry. The Wray Home is now a Museum giving visitors a glimpse of life in the 1930’s. Over three dozen peacocks roam the Wray lawn’s unique 200 year old Live-Oak Hammock and 19 Flamingos splash in the small pond below. The Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 83 different Florida native species of birds and animals, including River Otter, Bald & Golden Eagles, Bobcats, Tortoise, and a Florida Panther Habitat, making it the largest collection of Florida native wildlife in the state. The Free Flight Aviary boasts over 250 birds representing 45 species, with the distinction of being the largest collection of Florida wading birds in the state. In the last 20 years the birds in the Aviary alone have successfully bred close to 2000 birds which have been released back into the wild.

Flamingo Gardens hosts ecological tours for over 26,000 school children of different ages each year, educating them on Florida’s unique wildlife, plants, and environment. Special events are held throughout the year which focus on the unique ecosystems and ecological concerns of Florida and the Florida Everglades, from invasive reptile species to native Florida plants and butterflies.
Flamingo Gardens will celebrate its 85 year history with a variety of special events throughout the year which continue its legacy of preserving the beauty of South Florida Wildlife and Landscape, including Flamingo Fest in January, the Butterfly & Garden Festival in March, the annual Orchid & Bromeliad Show in April, and the Native Bird Festival in September.

A special exhibit featuring archival photographs of Flamingo Gardens and its 85 year legacy will open on February 22, 2012 to mark the planting of the first tree at Flamingo Groves.
As Mr. Wray wrote in 1939, “You are welcome to Flamingo [Gardens], and are invited to spend as much time as you desire, my only request being...that you help us preserve this beauty spot for others.”

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