Destination Clearwater: A Stroll Through the Garden

•Originally published for the Clearwater Patch on December 1, 2012•

Sometimes the garden’s brightest colors are at night

Just outside Clearwater, the Florida Botanical Gardens lights up like a Christmas tree every December. Not just one Christmas tree, though – all of them.

It’s one of those rare Florida nights when it actually feels like winter feels in most of the country. I’m not complaining; I love that I can wear shorts on Christmas. But when we do get a cold burst, I feel brilliantly alive out in the elements, wrapped in a scarf and breathing the cold air.

That’s what I’m doing tonight, and I’m doing it at the Florida Botanical Gardens. There’s no snow, but it’s a Florida wonderland all its own over here.

Everywhere I look, lights sparkle against the rich backdrop of green fringe and brilliant blossoms. I walk across a long bridge to reach the sparkly, shiny brilliance and am not disappointed: everything glitters here, even the stars high above me tonight.

I make my way through the throngs of people and towards the popcorn tree. I’m pretty sure it has a scientific name, but to me, it’s the popcorn tree. That’s because it smells like buttered popcorn, and when I stand directly under its perfectly round balls of blossoms, I feel like I’m awash in a vat of movie theatre popcorn.

As much buttery delight as I take in the tree, I realize I can’t stay under it forever. The Gardens, always enchanting to me, offer up one festive treasure after another. I rub my eyes, afraid I cannot possibly hope to take it all in tonight. A breeze ripples down my sweater-clad spine; this is Florida winter, and I want to suck it all in and breathe out frosty, steamy breath. I wrap my arms around myself and, alone, I am content to wander the garden.

George Eliot said, “It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees” and as I stroll through the gardens, I sense the truth in these words. I feel it when I rub my thumb over the slick palm leaves; I smell its heady honesty under my beloved popcorn tree. When I sit by the pool and watch people stroll by, I feel the chill in the air as the breeze blows through. I hear the wind over the foliage, and if I close my eyes and try only to listen, I can hear the air singing over each leaf, every petal, and individual blossoms. My senses understand, somehow, a symphony of the gardens, and I am reluctant to leave.

Plenty of people have joined me tonight – after 12 years, it is a tradition to come out to the garden to see the lit sprays of palm trees, the two-dimensional lit birds, the walkways illuminated with a thousand tiny bulbs – and I have again the sense of being alone in a crowd. Unlike so many other times, though, I am alone in the crowd but feel a thread pulling us all together. It’s not the Christmas spirit, no exactly, but it is something greater than all of us.

It’s the spirit of the garden itself.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.