Made possible in part by the generous support and donations of two Gadsden County residents, the North Florida Research and Education Center (located on Pat Thomas Parkway, just outside of Quincy) was able to recently unveil a new heritage garden.
The garden, which will be open to the public, will be the collection of several themed micro-gardens and historical displays.
During the garden’s grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on May 14, the garden was officially opened and named in honor of its Gadsden supporters, Robert and Elaine Woodward.
The ceremony took place at the edge of the gardens, with speakers from the organizations that helped contribute to the birth of the gardens coming forward to speak on the mission and dreams that had been set in place for the Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden.
“We are so very grateful to Robert and Elaine Woodward for pledging a gift…to create a heritage garden here,” said Dr. Gary Knox, director of the Gardens of the Big Bend.
While Elaine passed away recently and Robert was unable to attend, the opening ceremony was filled with members of the Woodward family and their close friends.
According to Knox, the garden will function as both a historical and horticulture center – although not as a museum.
“The heritage garden is intended to focus on the plants that were important to the people of Gadsden County and the greater Big Bend area,” said Knox, adding the plants will be selected from species that were important to Native Americans, pioneers, and homesteaders alike, as well as locals on up through the 20th century.
The garden will have 300 years worth of horticultural history.
“While we are highlighting the plants, we are also going to include design elements and artifacts that will echo the architecture of the area as well, because this area does have some unique architecture as well,” says Knox. “By walking through the garden, you might be able to take a walk through history for the Gadsden County area. We are trying to get the echoes of history here.”
The starting point of the garden will be designed to look like an “old-timey” homestead, Knox says, and the starting point will include signage to explain the garden’s horticultural and historical importance.
From there, the grounds will contain medical and kitchen gardens with plants that were important to the hard lives and diets of the area’s homesteading pioneers.
Between the homestead and Pat Thomas Parkway, there will be an orchard garden with fruit trees that would have been used by early Gadsden homesteaders, such as fig, blueberries, peaches, and citrus.
Spreading outward from that point, the garden will feature several other gardens, such as the Jurassic Garden, which has been designated as an American Conifer Society Reference Garden for its wide variety of conifer species representing the Jurassic period; the Discovery Garden, which will help visitors explore new, and underutilized plants for their own personal gardens; the Magnolia Garden, with 150 cultivars and species of Magnolia; and the Native Showcase Garden, which will include experimental plantings of rare trees that are native to the region.
There will also be the Palm Garden, Pavilion Shade Garden, Champion Arboretum, Mediterranean Garden, Dry Garden, Bird and Butterfly Garden, and Crapemyrtle Collection.
The garden was made possible by an initial financial commitment by the Woodwards – a donation the University of Florida and Gardening Friends of the Big Bend were later able to match – but Dr. Glen Aiken, the director of the North Florida Research and Education Center, says Woodward’s connection to the garden is not solely monetary.
“[Woodward]’s footprint through the garden is not just through his funding,” said Aiken.
During initial meetings with the landscape architects, Aiken said Woodward would show up to most of the meetings and offer words of advice and expert input on the region’s historically significant plants and designs.
“We really appreciate what he’s done and he’s got a footprint in this research center,” added Aiken.
While the Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden is just one of many gardens planted by the university’s research outposts, Aiken says there is something special about the Gadsden-located garden.
Aiken says he has been to research centers across the state, and many of them have gardens – “But none of them have a garden like this.”
“To come in here, and this be the first thing visitors see, this is pretty special,” says Aiken. “This is the most beautiful research center I have ever been in, and it is primarily because of this garden.”
While her father was unable to attend the ceremony, Katherine Woodward – eldest daughter of Robert Woodward – spoke on behalf of the Woodward family.
“Dad and Elaine were so excited about this project,” said Katherine Woodward. “I really am amazed at their generosity and their desire to showcase Florida’s tough and beautiful heritage plants.”
Woodward remarked on how many other heritage gardens around the nation are behind locked gates and require admission to be seen – something that will not be the case with the garden named after her parents.
“This one is going to be so special. People can literally drive by, walk in, and I bet they will. Something will catch their eye – whether it is the weathervane, the pergola [gazebo], or the beautiful flowers. They are going to stop, and drive right in through that gate,” said Woodward. “It is going to be a beautiful and inviting educational space.”
After Woodward’s speech, the gathered Woodward children cut the ribbon on the Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden, officially opening it to the public.
As Robert Woodward’s financial donation allowed the research center to plant the first trees and shrubs in the garden, the Woodward family were asked to ‘break ground’ on the center and plant an Ashe Magnolia in the garden.
The magnolia will be located next to the homestead garden spaces.
According to the University of Florida, the Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden will honor the region’s horticultural heritage, and highlight the plants, garden artifacts, and design elements that are unique to gardens found in the greater Big Bend area.
The first phase of garden development has been completed, including the paved patio in the shape of a pioneer house footprint.
Future phases will be installed in the coming years.
The Woodward family have a long history in the Gadsden County area; Robert is a native of Quincy, and Elaine is a native of the greater Big Bend area.
The family owns The Woodward Family Tree Farm, which celebrated 100 years of ownership in 2014, and contains over 1,400 acres of pine and hardwood.
The gardens will be open all year, from dawn to dusk each day.
Restroom facilities at the garden will be open to the public Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. through 5 p.m.
Ashley Hunter – firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Ashley Hunter