Sunken Gardens
St. Petersburg, Florida
December, 2010

This 4-acre garden first opened to the public in 1935 as a private roadside attraction. A garden’s guide from the 1960s mentions numerous tourist attractions within Sunken Gardens, including “jungle animals” and “alligator wrestling”. The garden was purchased by the city in 1999 and, for better or worse, is now much more staid. There are still “jungle animals," but today they are all birds. The only remaining ‘roadside attraction’ sort of animal is an enormous Alligator Snapping Turtle that lurks in one of the pools.

The most striking thing about the garden is how lush it is. Nearly every inch is covered with plants. This wall of foliage and the winding trail system make it difficult to see more that 20 or 30 feet in any direction. Sounds almost claustrophobic, but I didn’t find it so. And it serves to make the garden feel much larger than 4 acres.

Sunken Gardens Trail

Fortunately, recent restoration work has managed to preserve many of the older plants in the garden. One of my favorites is this huge Screwpine. This mass of aerial roots is just incredible.

Pandanus aerial roots

Another highlight are the huge Bougainvillea’s growing up through the canopy. Whenever you look up there are masses of pink, purple or red sprawling from the treetops. I’ve never seen such massive specimens. I couldn’t wrap my arms around the trunks on some of them. They are truly a spectacular sight.


A stream runs through the middle of the property, creating a series of pools. The snapping turtle owns one of the pools but the others are full of colorful Koi.


There are a few large interpretive signs that provide great information but are in need of refurbishing. They are also very text-heavy and not very interesting visually. Although I stood and read from beginning to end, I don’t think most people would.

interpretive sign

The croton collection that this sign highlights is wonderful. The diversity of leaf color and leaf shape displayed in the collection is almost overwhelming. As an edging for this path they are just superb.

croton collection

Temperatures were unseasonably cold when I visited so although there was a sign for an orchid collection, the orchids themselves must have been safely tucked away. The cactus garden and tropical fruit garden had an interesting array of plants but most were not looking their best in the cold. However, there was still a lot to see. The palms are really spectacular. I especially liked this one with the flower stalks coming directly out of the trunk.

Palm Inflorescence

Sadly, I don’t know what kind of palm it is. Like most plants in the garden, it was not labelled. I would have liked some way to identify the amazing plants on display. Plant labels, or a brochure, or even a sign with numerous plants pictured and identified, would have greatly enhanced the experience. For me, the best garden visit is one where I not only get to enjoy beautiful plants and surroundings, but also get to learn something. I certainly enjoyed the beautiful plants and surroundings at Sunken Gardens, but I didn’t get to learn anything. I’m sure the garden offers wonderful classes and workshops but these reach only a small percentage of visitors. It would take only a small investment to add some educational elements that would reach all visitors.

The garden is not without its shortcomings, but I visited with a friend who, though not a garden or plant person, totally enjoyed the visit. And I must admit that the exuberance of the vegetation and the ambience of the place combined to make this one of the most enjoyable garden visits I can remember.

To see more photos from Sunken Gardens, click
here to visit the garden's website.

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