Rare treasures

Along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and the southwest edge of campus hides a place that sometimes goes unnoticed. That little corner of USF is dedicated to tranquility, diversity and plants. Instead of large buildings and noisy courtyards, visitors find small flowers and quiet walkways.

According to Laurie Walker, director of the Botanical Gardens, the Botanical Gardens may be the best-kept secret at USF.

The gardens offer peace and quiet among an unusual variety of flora, Walker said. The branches of pink-flowering trees drape over walkways and several species of butterflies have been known to investigate the brightly colored plants. Toward the rear of the Gardens, a small artificial creek quietly hums and there are plenty of benches to sit on and enjoy the foliage. But this is not just a place to sit and look at plants, it is a place to relax and be at peace.

Walker said the problem is that most students don’t even know about the Botanical Gardens and that they are open to them at no cost.

Students are welcome to come out to the Gardens to read, study, have lunch or for any other reason.

“It is a way to escape the urban part of campus. There is a therapeutic component to nature,” Walker said.

The Botanical Gardens have been in operation since 1968 when former USF President John Allen set aside the land for development as research gardens, Walker said. Initially a research and teaching facility for the biology department, the Gardens today operate within the department of environmental science and policy.

Though originally designed for biology students, today a wide array of students from numerous colleges and majors make use of the Gardens according to Walker. She said the School of Architecture has its landscaping classes visit the Gardens. Painting and drawing classes, engineering classes and mass communication classes all use the Gardens as a teaching tool.

Schools outside USF, such as Hillsborough Community College, the University of Tampa and St. Leo University also make use of the Botanical Gardens, Walker said.

Aside from the Gardens’ educational aspects. Walker added that the Gardens have between 30,000 to 35,000 visitors annually. Recently, a guestbook was devised for visitors to the Gardens to sign. In the first year, visitors from 17 countries, 39 states and 100 Florida cities signed the book.

According to Walker, the main goal of the Botanical Gardens is to promote plant diversity, and to that end features a large collection of unusual plants, from bromeliads and orchids to carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap. Local flora isn’t neglected though, and there is also an emphasis on indigenous plants.

The hope with plant diversity is, “to connect and introduce people to the large world of plants,” Walker said.

The Gardens are divided into categories organized by plant family or similarity, Walker said. The butterfly garden is packed with plants and flowers attracting butterflies, with several plants being native to Florida. The John Gifford Meditation Garden, enclosed by bamboo and other grasses, is a lovely place to sit. There is also a fruit orchard, a flowering tree garden and a water garden.

At the Botanical Gardens’ plant shop, where visitors can purchase many of the unusual plants they see throughout the Gardens. Walker said the shop is not a typical nursery; it is also one of many ways the Botanical Gardens supports itself. The Gardens, like other departments around campus, have seen cutbacks and for the most part is self-funded, Walker said.

The Gardens plan numerous fund-raising events said Walker. They attract local plant clubs and societies for plant festivals, hold classes on how to make barrels for rain collection and centerpieces for tables in addition to other workshops. Along with the retail plant shop that opened in 1994, the bookstore contributes to funding and education.

Of course, volunteers and donations are always appreciated, Walker said, but membershipis also available for a certain fee.

According to Walker, there is no need to wait until the spring or summer to visit the Gardens.

“The beautiful thing about living in Florida is there is always something in flower. There is never an ugly time of year,” said Walker.

Throughout the 36 years the Garden has been in operation, the landscape has definitely changed.

“We are always planting and replanting. A garden is always evolving because nature is not static,” Walker said.

The most important thing students need to know, Walker said, is that USF has Botanical Gardens.

“Students need to know (these are) their Gardens, their backyard,” she said.