The mission statement of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is “to promote an oasis of inspiration and tranquility, while furthering the understanding and appreciation of plants, especially epiphytes.” Selby has one the world’s largest living collections of epiphytic plants.
Visitors are treated to a hot and steamy experience – waterfalls and well-established tropical plants. The orchids displayed are not common – they are mostly species from the jungle and many are obscure. In some cases, few examples exist in nature. There are not banks of cascading phalaenopsis clones or groupings of mass-produced oncidiums. Selby wouldn’t be caught dead with a ‘dyed’ orchid in their conservatory. This is a setting for purists – those who appreciate the finer aspects of orchids. It is common to see orchids that are normally only found in books.
Their plant tags are color-coded and contain not only the proper botanical name and country of origin but also the relative importance of each plant:
Green – for display but not of any great scientific value (hybrids for example).
Gold – for scientific collections.
Red – very rare and likely a ‘type’ plant for the species.
Marie Selby was the widow of retired oil executive William Selby. In 1971, she left a special trust to create and maintain a public botanical garden on her 7 acre scenic estate in Sarasota, Florida. Today, Selby Gardens has grown to 16 acres on Sarasota Bay that is enjoyed by over 150,000 visitors annually.
Selby is dedicated to research and collection of epiphytes, especially orchids and bromeliads. A significant portion of their plants are documented species collected from native habitats. There is even an Orchid Research Center that actively works on understanding the complex taxonomy of the orchid family. The orchid collection currently consists of around 6000 plants.
Selby is proud of its many accomplishments including the survival of an orchid species that is now thought to be extinct in the wild. In the mid 1970’s, several specimen plants of a new species, Epidendrum ilense, were discovered by Selby scientists in a forested area of Ecuador. A return trip to the site revealed that the forest had been cleared for agriculture, and the species was thought to be lost in nature. Selby propagated their specimens via tissue culture and then distributed plants to botanical gardens and scientific institutions worldwide. Now this plant is plentiful in collections and hobbyists have a greater understanding of this elusive species.
Selby is also home to Florida’s native “Tampa Butterfly” orchid – Encyclia tampensis, as well as its many hybrids. These compact plants produce long sprays of colorful and fragrant blossoms. This species is considered endangered within the state but, at the garden, it thrives in the hot and humid protected environment.
With any luck, visitors will encounter Greenhouse Manager, Angel Lara, who was formerly with the New York Botanical Garden. Angel seems to know everything about orchids and gladly tells the story of each plant in the collection. He recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica where he was cataloguing rare epiphytes in the cloud forests.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is located half-way down the west coast of Florida and is open 364 days a year. Admission is free to members of any American Horticultural Society garden through its reciprocal program. Long regarded as one of the best tropical orchid destinations, Selby Gardens lives up to its reputation.