Nestled in downtown St. Petersburg among strip malls is Sunken Gardens, a paradise in the city. The botanical paradise is a living museum and one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions.
1903: Birth of a Garden
The gardens were birthed in 1903 when a plumber and avid gardener named George Turner Sr. purchased four acres of land. He drained the property’s sinkhole lake which revealed a bottom 15 feet below the street level. Mr. Turner found the soil ideal for growing exotic foliage and fruit and by 1924, visitors paid 25 cents to meander through the Gardens.
Decades later, the Turner family opened the World’s Largest Gift Shop and King of Kings Wax Museum in 1967 and closed the building in 1995. Today, it is the main entrance to Sunken Gardens and home of the children’s science museum called Great Explorations. The Gardens are a designated local historical landmark (in 1998 and in 1999). The City of St. Petersburg purchased then renovated the attraction.
Today, visitors can meander through the lush grounds and admire botanicals like Cuban Petticoat Palm, Buddha Belly Bamboo, and Balloon Milkweed. One of the most intriguing trees I saw is Eucalyptus deglupta, also called Rainbow Eucalyptus. Native to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines, the bark peels off in strips revealing colors in hues of orange, yellow, and purple.
Exploring a Century’s Old Living Museum
Stepping into the century’s old botanical gardens, my eyes immediately followed the gray, sleek trunks of Cuban Royal Palm (Roystonea regia) trees. A blue sky served as a backdrop as the palm fronds danced in the wind. With each step through Sunken Gardens, I looked up to admire these trees which stand between 50 – 70 feet tall.
In the Gardens you will find succulents, orchids and bromeliads, a palm grove, butterfly garden, and fruit trees. Camellia, hibiscus, and other flowers are blooming now. The attraction is popular for weddings and other events and there is a designated wedding lawn where I saw preparations for a reception under a tent.
Picture Perfect Foliage
Chairs for a wedding ceremony were on the North Lawn. The gorgeous pink bougainvillea makes the perfect backdrop for saying “I do.” Large branches of a Live Oak extend over the Oak Pavilion. The National Arborist Association recognized the tree in February 1977 with a plaque. It reads, “The National Arborist Association recognizes this tree and commends those who had the vision and foresight to preserve it.”
Toward the back of the attraction is the Sunken Gardens Growing Stone which is about the size of a park bench and made of fossilized limestone rock. It was found in the sinkhole lake Mr. Turner drained. According to legend, “He who sits upon the ancient stone shall be granted tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow.”
Stop and Listen
Although it is in the heart of St. Petersburg, gentle sounds of wind knocking bamboo stalks against one another and Live Oak leaves rustling mask sounds of the city. Squawks from the resident exotic birds, such as laughing kookaburras, an umbrella cockatoo, and flamingos, create their own symphony.
Listen closely and you’ll hear the constant flow of water throughout the Gardens. Waterscapes, created by George Turner Sr., are throughout the grounds and include waterfalls and ponds. Low Pond is the last pond in the series of waterscapes and sits 15 feet below street level. Look for bright orange and white koi in the ponds. A photo spot on the red arched bridge reads “Sunken Gardens” and grand palms and lush foliage serves as a pretty backdrop.
Sunken Gardens is an unexpected and welcomed paradise. Plan on a 90-minute to two-hour visit and while sitting on the Growing Stone should be part of your visit, take time to look up at the treetops. Better yet, lie down on a bench and watch and listen to the trees swaying in the wind. Let their mesmerizing, century-old dance bring tranquility and inner harmony into your 21st century world.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Sunken Gardens, a Paradise in the City
1825 4th St. N.
St. Petersburg, Fla. 33704
Tel: (727) 551-3102
Open Monday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 4:30 p.m.
- Last admission is sold at 4 p.m. daily.
- Sunken Gardens is open daily except closed for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
- Programs are offered throughout the year. Check the website for a list of events.
- Because the Gardens is a historical landmark, not all areas are ADA accessible.
Additional Photos of Sunken Gardens on Flickr
Seniors (62 years old and older) $8
Children (2 -11) $4