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A garden variety at USF plant festival

The USF Botanical Gardens had its fall festival this weekend, in which vendors from all over the state of Florida came to display Florida-friendly plants as well as plants from all over the world.

“This is our 15th year for the fall festival,” said Laurie Walker, the director of the Gardens. “It’s the second week in October. We have a spring one, (which) is the second week in April. And it’s our big fundraiser. It’s what we depend on to maintain the Gardens and keep it open for all the students and the staff and faculty to enjoy.”

The Gardens presented a wide variety of plant life with over 60 vendors in attendance, including some horticultural experts.

According to Walker, these experts can answer questions to help people select the right plant for the right location and give vital information for successful plant growth. Vendors Mary Lou Harden and Lisa Villabol have taken part in the festival since the Gardens’ first festival. This time they were introducing the rare African Violet.

“(The display) shows (the guests) that it is not a difficult procedure and that almost anybody can grow a beautiful flower,” Villabol said.

Visitors also had the option of purchasing fruit-bearing plants. This is where local plant clubs and societies, such as the Tampa Bay chapter of Rare Fruit Council International, also had a chance to be seen.

The council showcased seeds for the Keitt Mango, Passion Fruit and Cherry of the Rio Grande among others.

The Gardens opened in 1969 as a small area of marsh and served as a teaching and research facility for the biology department.

In recent years the Gardens have experienced tremendous growth with the building of new structures and demonstration gardens. The facility attracts an estimated 35,000 visitors annually.

The Gardens maintain a living collection of more than 3,000 plants and natural habitats that reflect the rich botanical diversity of Florida.

In addition to plant and fruit life, visitors to the Gardens will notice different animal and insect species at the gardens. For example, throughout the day a variety of butterflies can be seen fluttering around the foliage of the Gardens.

“The whole garden is a butterfly garden,” Walker said. “But we do have a place set aside where (there are) plants specific to certain butterflies that are found naturally in our area.”

The Gardens also keep visitors such as Madonna and Melody Dietsch – who’ve attended the festival for the past three years – coming back to the fall and spring festivals. They said they love the prices, variety and expert advice that the festival offers.

“If you see something you like (and) you don’t know whether it grows in the sun or how much water it needs, they tell you all about it, or you can say, ‘I have a big shaded area what would grow good there?'” Madonna said.

The Gardens are open to the public seven days a week, and admission is free. For more information about the Gardens, call 974-2329.