SARASOTA, Fla. -- Like so many Midwesterners, Marie and William Selby of Marietta, Ohio, started out as snowbirds, seeking the warm weather, water sports and lush nature of Florida. Their love affair with the Sunshine State turned into a full-time residence aboard a houseboat around 1909, and by 1920 they were the happy owners of seven magnificent acres bordering Sarasota Bay.
You'd need to be as rich as the Selbys -- William made a fortune merging his oil-and-gas company with Texaco in 1948 -- to acquire that kind of waterfront acreage in bustling Sarasota today.
But luckily the conservation-minded Marie Selby left her estate and an endowment for maintaining and growing this precious property. The 14-acre Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, with its world-class collection of orchids, bromeliads and ferns, plus special exhibits and education programs, is a quiet oasis, a learning center and major attraction for modern-day snowbirds (and baseball enthusiasts attending spring training games) visiting Southwest Florida.
"There are people who are interested in plants and come for the garden experience," said Selby CEO Tom Buchter. "But people also draw strength from the artistic expression of nature. For many of our guests, there is a spiritual connection."
Opened in 1975, the botanical gardens grew from Marie Selby's passion for roses and nature, cultivated as a child on camping trips along the Ohio River, into a living library of tropical and subtropical plants, some but not all native to South Florida. Selby Gardens' specialty is epiphytes, nonparasitic plants that attach to and grow on other plants, making it unique among public gardens.
Selby Gardens' annual attendance of 140,000 is fueled partly by baby boomers' great interest in horticulture and gardening, Mr. Buchter says. Plus, its ranks of volunteer docents, administrators and greenhouse and laboratory assistants has swelled to 800 as local retirees, many who winter in Florida, find Selby Gardens an engaging place where their time, energy and intellect is more than welcomed.
"The value volunteers bring is incalculable," said Mr. Buchter, who makes a point of circulating through the gardens twice a day, greeting many volunteers by name. Indeed, sustaining the programs and research of the not-for-profit Selby Gardens probably wouldn't be possible without the volunteers, who outnumber its full-time and part-time staff by a ratio of 15 to 1.
Volunteer Denise Leschinski looked and sounded every bit the botanist as she guided a recent Tuesday morning tour, highlighting the many gardens, groves, greenhouses, ponds and pavilions on the Selby property.
While her emphasis was on educating how the gardens' spectacular epiphytic orchids, bromeliads and ferns collect water and minerals from the air, Ms. Leschinski made sure to spice her stories with enough history, lore and fun facts to keep the group entertained.
The bamboo Mrs. Selby planted, for example, is a tropical variety that grows 3 feet a week, reaches its full height in a year and clumps rather than spreads. ("Otherwise, you'd be visiting the Selby Bamboo Gardens," Ms. Leschinski joked.) And those massive banyan trees in the grove just beyond the historic Selby home and gravesites? They, too, were planted by Mrs. Selby in the 1930s from saplings provided by Thomas Edison, who had a winter estate 75 miles south in Fort Myers.
Ms. Leschinski, a retired fifth-grade teacher who moved to Sarasota from Ronkonkoma, N.Y., nine years ago, admits that she knew nothing about plants before she became a Selby volunteer. In fact, her first volunteer gig was at Sarasota's Mote Aquarium, where she spent her shift counting the number of times the dolphins came up for air.
"I came home and said, 'This isn't working. I'm a people person,' " said Ms. Leschinski, who switched to guiding tours at Selby knowing, as a teacher, "I have a voice that can quiet a lunchroom." Over five years, she has amassed a wealth of botanical knowledge, befriended fellow volunteers and earned an unpaid position managing the training and schedules of 100 volunteer docents and information specialists.
Guided tours, offered four times a day and included in the admission ticket, provide a great introduction to the gardens. On your own, it's easy to spend a day at Selby Gardens, starting at the visitors center by viewing a short film on the gardens' history and horticulture; hiking the path that meanders through the hibiscus, succulent and wildflower gardens; and savoring the view of Sarasota Bay and the skyline before stopping for a visit to the Selby House and having a snack in the garden of its cafe.
Another must-see is the Selby conservatory, a rain forest habitat where epiphytic orchids, perched high on other plants, fall in colorful cascades from the canopy and look to be floating on air. Selby's 4,900 orchids, 3,600 bromeliads and 1,600 other plants have been collected and documented by botanists on more than 150 expeditions to the tropics.
Selby's botanical research and conservation department, renowned for its electronic databases and library that inventory and classify tropical plants, is a hub for volunteers (although not open to visitors). The research center for orchids alone holds almost 60,000 living and preserved orchid specimens, one of the largest collections in the world.
Opportunities for learning abound, even for the day visitor. Check the gardens' website for events, which include free lectures, special tours and plant sales. Many videos and plant-care guide are available online, too. If you make the Sarasota area your winter home, Selby offers a wide selection of community courses, including botanical drawing and watercolor, nature-inspired writing and, of course, growing your own orchids.
The Christy Payne mansion, a 1930s-era colonial home on the grounds, houses the gardens' museum of botany and the arts. It's also the spot for special exhibits, including the popular Rainforest Masks of Costa Rica, on display through April 19.
Conceived, carved and hand-painted by Borucan tribal artists, the fanciful, brilliantly colored masks depict endangered plants and animals of the rainforest, protected by a traditional representation of diablillos, or "little devils." If you're headed to the Sarasota area for spring vacation, browsing the eye-catching exhibit of 200 masks is a must.
Before leaving the gardens, take a few minutes to visit the butterfly, fragrance and edible vegetable gardens, and sample a complimentary tea-tasting in the Carriage House. If you plan to return, a $60 annual membership has its rewards: free admission to Selby Gardens and some 200 other gardens in the United States and Canada.
"This is a marvelous place to come," said Ms. Leschinski, as she headed off to lead her second tour of the morning. "Not only is it beautiful and serene, but every day is different."
Mary Leonard: email@example.com.