Flower Power Blooms in Florida

Flower Power Blooms in Florida

Wait for it. Coming. Coming. Zing!

The calendar page turns and voila, March arrives today – yeah!

Flower power in Florida starts in January and goes through April, This is much different than “up North” but then Florida is tropical. The bloom surge peaks this month.

One example: Weather permitting, masses of magenta, white and pink azaleas, evergreen shrubs in the genus Rhododendron will soon fill botanical gardens, home landscapes and state parks.

flower - azaleas at Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon
Azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Say the magic words: “road trip”, power up your camera batteries and get out the GPS.

Flower Power Around Florida

Flower power viewing suggestions around the state include: (always call ahead to see what is in bloom and admission fees):

Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon (24 miles southwest of Ocala) was a private attraction decades ago and while the shows are gone remaining landscaping details are extensive, including waterfalls, walkways and plants.

Azaleas line walkways and Friends of Rainbow Springs State Park make it their mission to keep the colors going. One breathtaking view covers the lovely headwaters and on the hillside are azaleas in bloom. Call the park at (352) 465-8555 for bloom updates. An extra attraction this month is the Marion County Springs Festival being held at the park March 16-17 from 9-4 each day.

Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, a private estate of 50 acres given to the city in 1961, has a page on its Web site that outlines “What’s blooming” every month of the year. For March the list includes amaryllis, camellias, herbs, vines, gold/pink/yellow trumpet trees, citrus, shaving brush tree, angel trumpet, orchid tree.

This is a cool bonus – Those with camera phones can scan QR code images found on plant signs to learn more information about the plant collections – or bookmark the site for later reading. The Leus were avid gardeners, traveled a lot and brought home plants. There are 28 different plant collections including Mary Jane’s beloved Rose Garden.

Call (407) 246-2620 to see what is in bloom before you visit. Leu Gardens are off I-4 east, take Exit 85, Princeton Street and follow the garden signs. The first Monday of every month admission to the gardens is free during the daytime.

If you are like the Leus and want to bring plants home, Leu Gardens is having a plant sale March 15-16 from 9-5 both days.

Alfred B. and Louise Maclay bought property for a winter home in Tallahassee. They began planting gardens in 1923 and eventually the land became a state park. Over the years, brick walkways, a secret garden, a reflection pool and a walled garden are all graced by an abundance of camellias and azaleas.


flower - camellias at Maclay Gardens, Tallahassee
Camellias at Maclay Garens in Tallahassee.photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

See Flower Power While Walking Parks and Gardens

Especially fine are the paths through forest areas where old live oaks with spreading limbs have bushes of azaleas and camellias sheltered under their branches.

From January 1 to April 30 a special fee is charged for visiting the gardens during this high blooming season. Floral peak is mid-to-late March.

The Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park is located one half mile north of 1-10 on U.S. 319/Thomasville Road, phone (850) 487-4556.

Surprisingly, the Gardens holds their annual tour of the gardens in May, a time that is “iffy” for weather and certainly past prime flower time.


flower - fairchild botanical garden, Coral Gables, Florida
Tropical garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Are you an early bird? Starting today, and every Saturday and Sunday thereafter, join an Early Bird Walk from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables. The gardens have 3,400 species of plants. Twice a day they release butterflies in Wings of the Tropics, a good place to learn about flowers that attract butterflies.  Call (305) 667-1651 for garden times and admission. Orchid lovers will want to know that the 12th Annual International Orchid Festival at Fairchild is coming Friday March 7 through Sunday, March 9 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

All of the gardens above are chapters in my book 50 Great Walks in Florida and I’ve made a Flower Power map to show the gardens and butterfly gardens that are in the book.

flower power map


Did you notice how many of the state parks with lovely gardens were formerly private residences? There are also estates that are open to the public featuring lovely landscaping. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers has heritage gardens worth wandering for an hour or two.

The Ringling in Sarasota has a Circus Museum, Museum of Art, the Ca’D’Zan where the Ringlings lived and Bayfront Gardens, some 65-acres of delightful bayfront strolling.

Take a 90-minute paid guided tour or do-it-yourself with your own gardens tour through Mable’s Rose Garden, the Secret Garden, the Dwarf Garden, Banyan trees and Millennium Tree Trail.

Mondays are free admission at the Ringling (to the museum and grounds only).

The sun is shining, the calendar has turned, flowers will be at their peak this month – what are you waiting for? enjoy Florida flower power. Now is the time.



On Saturday, March 15, the Sarasota Garden Club is having a Gardens in Paradise tour of five private coastal gardens, plus at their clubhouse and on the grounds will be garden displays, including authors of garden books. I’ll be there with both of my books “Florida Gardens Gone Wild” and “50 Great Walks in Florida” and I’ll have free copies of my Flower Power map. You do not have to buy a tour ticket to come to the Garden club grounds and see us! That is free. Location: 1131 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, phone (941) 955-0875. Hours are 10-5


Wild, natural and untamed

A full plate of art in Polk County

Flowing into the future

Rainbow Springs State Park has Azaleas

Rainbow Springs State Park has Azaleas
Azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park
Heatherann Cundiff and azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Yes, all the azaleas are blooming! That’s the good news from Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.

Rejoice. Do not hesitate. Pack up the kids, the family dog and its leash. Alert your neighbors, get together and carpool or caravan. This is huge. The azaleas blooming at Rainbow Springs means spring has officially arrived to North Central Florida.

Rainbow Springs State Park has amazing azaleas everywhere you walk

It is a sight worth seeing – masses of azaleas blooming along old brick walkways, meandering up the sides of waterfalls and cascading down the hillside to the headwaters of the Rainbow River.

In the Florida timeline there are two eras: BD and AD. Translation: Before Disney and After Disney. Rainbow Springs was a thriving private attraction in the BD era. A Wild West theme had cowboys and their horses – the old stable are still visible in the back area of the park. Glass bottomed boats glided on the Rainbow River. Overhead, gondolas went through the air on a suspension cable, going into tropical bird aviaries. And the azaleas, ah yea, they were here, by the hundreds, a blooming reminder that landscaping in Florida doesn’t have to be tropical to be beautiful.

waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias
waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

When Interstate 75 arrived, everyone drove straight to Disney. In the AD era, old time attractions like Rainbow Springs died. The horses were sold. The glass bottom boats sank to the bottom of the river. And the azaleas? They stayed on, blooming in the fullness of Florida springtime, oblivious to the economic downturn.

A developer bought the headwaters and surrounding property. The Rainbow Springs residential area began to grow. Being able to go to the springs was a perk of having a home nearby. Some green thumbs noticed that under the jungle of overgrowth were beautiful azaleas and other plants. They formed a garden club called the Friends of Rainbow Springs and began weeding. In the fullness of time the developer decided to build condos at the headsprings.

Condos? The green thumbs thought not.  They fought to save the springs and won. A combination of county and state monies purchased Rainbow Springs State Park in 1990.

Rainbow Springs State Park volunteers keep flowers blooming

But there was no money at first for staff so the same homeowner volunteers became the Friends of Rainbow Springs State Park. They kept it open, kept it maintained and waited for improvements. For one dollar you could visit the park. The park has staff now, and many amenities including covered picnic, a swimming area, gift shop and restrooms. It is still one dollar to get in the gate. Such a deal!

Guided garden tours are given the first and third Saturday of the month through April. Tour starts at 11 a.m. No reservations necessary.  The walk around the gardens is about one mile. Some of the walk is on uneven brick surfaces with slightly steep grades going uphill.

You’ll go by beautiful manmade waterfalls leftover from the private attraction days, get a glimpse of the old stables, hear about the springs and how what we do with our lawns affects its water quality, see the Rainbow River Run and of course, lots of azaleas.

Rainbow Springs state park - Headwaters of Rainbow River. Note canoeists on the river. Photo By Lucy Beebe Tobias
Headwaters of Rainbow River. Note canoeists on the river. Photo By Lucy Beebe Tobias

On the second Saturday of every month except June, July, and August, there is a guided bird walk that starts at 8:30 a.m. On your own, you can take a backcountry nature trail that meanders for 2.5 miles. The free trail guide is in the gift shop or ask for it at the main gate.
Dogs are not allowed on the bathing beach or concession areas. They may walk the trails of well behaved an on a six-foot hand held lead.

Want more? Ranger programs also include guided canoe/kayak trips, guided snorkeling trips and on the third Saturday of each month there is Music on the Grounds – open mike and coffee house at 8:30 p.m. Bring a chair, a mug a musical instrument, perhaps some poetry and hang out with local talented artists.

Rainbow Springs State Park address is 19158 S.W. 81st Place (off U.S. 41), Dunnellon, Fl. 34432, phone (352) 465-8555. Their Web site is under: www.floridastateparks.org

Admission is $1 per person, children under the age of six admitted free.

Lucy Beebe Tobias is the Authentic Florida Expert for VISIT FLORIDA and the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida.” Chapter 18 in “50 Great Walks” is all about Rainbow Springs. She lives in Ocala.

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Grandma Rie’s Bodacious Biscotti

Grandma Rie’s bodacious biscotti started in childhood. Back in the dinosaur days before computer games and cell phones, most kids played outside, riding bikes, playing baseball, doing anything to stay out of the house until dinnertime.

But not Maria Muscalo. She was in the kitchen at the family’s Tampa home, soaking up the vibes, learning to make biscotti and loving it. Maria said she’d sit in a kitchen chair and ask lots of questions.

Grandma Rie’s bodacious biscotti had its beginnings in the family kitchen

“I hung out in the kitchen with the old folks,” Maria says, her face glowing with good memories. Her grandfather and grandmother came over from Naples, Italy in 1890.Grandma Rie's bodacious biscotti There were eight boys and two girls. Aunt Phil (short for Philomena) taught her younger sister, who became Maria’s mom, the family recipe for biscotti.

I’m hearing the family history as we sit at a table under an umbrella at the Thursday Farmer’s Market at Circle Square Commons in Ocala. Two women approach the nearby kiosk loaded with packaged biscotti of different kinds and sample pieces. Their eyes cut to the free samples.

“Excuse me,” Maria saGrandma Rie's bodacious biscottiys, gets up and heads for the potential customers. She’s wearing a white shirt with the name “Grandma Rie” in red on one side (the name her grandchildren call her) and the words “Bodacious Biscotti” on the other.

“Hello, would you like to try some bodacious biscotti?”
The two women stand rooted, interested but not moving forward.
“Our biscotti is famous for what is NOT in it,” Grandma Rie says, giving them her 100-watt smile that comes straight from the heart.

The two women look at each other. This is certainly different! They step up, get some free coffee and try the samples. One bite and they’re hooked. Biscotti means twice baked, that’s why it is dry and crunchy, just right for dipping in coffee.

“When I was 10 years old, I learned how to make biscotti,” Maria says. “I often made it with my Aunt Phil but my mom stopped making it after my brother was born when I was 11.”

Grandma Rie’s Bodacious Biscotti name came from her daughter in law

Maria never stopped. She picked up the family recipe and ran with it.
“Over the years I’ve given at least 10,000 biscotti away to family and friends.”
Her full name is Maria Musalo Canerossi Buchman. She made biscotti growing up, during a first marriage, while raising tGrandma Rie's bodacious biscottiwo sons, all through working full time, then while divorced and remarried now for 30 years to Ralph Buchman.

Last year while making biscotti in her son’s kitchen in North Carolina, her daughter in law said, “Why don’t you stop giving away your bodacious biscotti?”

She came home, pitched the idea to Ralph, a retired CPA, and he said, “Let’s go for it.” And so the business was born. He took care of all the legal stuff.
Did I mention Grandma Rie is 73 years old? What a wonderful role model. Go Grandma!

She holds up a package of her biscotti and says to the two women: “You go to a grocery story and you need a magnifying glass to read the ingredients in biscotti. Not mine, it is very simple. There are no artificial flavors, no preservatives, no added fats.”

Here’s the ingredient list for her Classic Almond: Unbleached wheat flour, white sugar, whole almonds, whole eggs, baking power, salt vanilla extract, almond extract.

Underneath the ingredient list it says, “We only add Love!” I believe it.

The two women buy several packages and walk away smiling.

“I’m having a blast,” says Grandma Rie. “It is my turn.” Here is what she means by that: “I helped my first husband get an education. I helped my second husband with his practice. Now it is my turn. I never had anything I did on my own.”

As we’re sitting at the table, Ralph is helping more customers. He’s smiling. Looks like being at the Farmer’s Market beats being a CPA. Right now they are putting out 200 dozen Grandma Rie’s Bodacious Biscotti a week, baking them under contract with a bakery. You can find Grandma Rie at Circle Square Farmers Market on Thursdays and Union Street Farmers Market in Gainesville on Wednesdays. They hope to expand to local coffee houses and later to national markets.

And now you can order Grandma Rie’s Bodacious Biscotti on line. Her sons worked on a web site and it just went live.

“I love my sons, they are so smart,” Marie says, eyes sparkling. Marie herself had straight As and her dad wanted to send her to college. Instead she opted to stay home and went to work.

Here is this Italian grandmother, starting a new business at 73. She is vivacious and outgoing. I realize when I buy her biscotti (I’m VERY partial to Classic Almond) that I’m also getting a bite of Grandma Rie’s beautiful take on life.

We hug and I’m about to leave. Grandma Rie draws herself up straight, looks me right in the eye and says

“You are never too old to start something new.”

Now that is truly bodacious.

©2008 Lucy Beebe Tobias. Her book “50 Great Walks in Florida” , University Press of Florida, February, 2008, is available here.


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