Three camellias. The blossoms sat in a silver dish in the parlor near the door of the Maclay House. I’d seen them there on several different visits to the manor home, always freshly picked, always a trio. I asked the docent why.
“It was Mrs. Maclay’s wish,” she said, “and a reminder. Her home may only remain open to visitors while her camellias are in bloom.”
Honoring a Legacy
The three blossoms on a plate came from Aunt Jetty, a camellia that dates back to the early 1800s, with the originator of the cultivar in America within sight of the front door of the Maclay’s Florida home. The camellia’s namesake, Angelica Robinson Gamble, was the social diva of Tallahasee both before and after the Civil War, and was known to display the deep red blossoms of this particular camellia bush as table decorations. When the Gambles went to sell their property to the church, Alfred Maclay offered them $75 for the then-113 year old plant and had it moved to his front yard. Aunt Jetty’s tradition – and her camellia – continue to blossom at Maclay Gardens.
“He began at once to plan a camellia walk and to start a nursery,” Louise Maclay wrote of her husband’s retirement endevour. When you walk down the brick driveway to the manor home, what you see today is just as Alfred originally envisoned it in 1923. Urged by Louise, whose Fleischmann relatives bought up many of the crumbling plantations to the north of Tallahassee, Alfred purchased a plantation on which a quail-hunting lodge had been built in 1909.
Named Killearn Gardens after the hometown of Maclay’s great-grandfather, and echoing the name of Maclay’s New York farm, the gardens were at first for the family’s pleasure. But by Maclay’s death in 1944, Louise knew that they were an important legacy, and opened them to the public in 1946. As soon as it opened, the park was a hit with Tallahassee visitors. Louise had Fred Ferrrell, Alfred’s garden superintendent, continue work on the original garden design plans until they were complete. In 1953, Louise gave the gardens in Alfred’s name to the state of Florida to manage as a Florida State Park, and asked that Fred be the park superintendent.
Paradise on Earth
Starting in 1923, soon after acquiring the property, Alfred designed and started planting formal garden landscapes under a canopy of already-ancient live oaks. He actively sought unusual camellias from the region with the help of his friends Breckenridge Gamble and Jim Fox. He bought unusual cuttings and whole plants from backyards all over Tallahassee, and would send Gamble and others out to chase down rumors of rare plants. He purchased the entire camellia collection a nursery in Iberia, Louisiana, and bought plants directly from Japanese nurserymen who had settled in the South.
The result is a camellia-lover’s delight. As we strolled through the gardens, we saw the Louise Maclay, a camellia with large double-flowered blossoms and crinkled pink petals, and the Lady Hume’s Blush, a bush more than 150 years old. But the gardens are not just about camellias. More than a thousand species of plants are spread out across the deeply wooded 307 acres, including native species.
Maclay’s friend Jim Fox found a rare Chapman’s Rhododendron (Rhododendron Chapmanii) in the wild, anchoring a more modern Native Plant Garden, one of our favorite finds. Here, wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) share space with the rare Ashe magnolia (Magnolia ashei ), and large torreya trees (Torreya taxifolia ).
The brick drive curves away beneath moss-draped oaks flanked by abundant blooms. Masses of azaleas look like watercolor paintings in the distance. Yellow iris bloom along the edges of a pool edged by forest. The concentric lines of an Italianate walled garden mimic the splash of a fountain. Tall Italian cypress trees line a reflecting pool pointing towards Lake Hall. As writer Leland J. Lewis said, “Maclay liked to create pictures with plants,” and on each path we walked, we found those images, both intimate and panoramic, waiting to be discovered.
Visiting Alfred B. Maclay Gardens
Located just north of Interstate 10 off Thomasville Road in Tallahassee, the gardens of Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park are open 9 AM to 5 PM daily. The park is open 8 AM until sunset. Fees are $4 for a individual driver or $6 per carload. An extra $6 fee per person (ages 12 and up, $3 ages 2-12) is charged during the prime blooming season, January through April.
Lake Hall Recreation Area has a picnic grove and is open for canoeing and kayaking, boating and swimming. Separate from the gardens but included in the admission fee, the Lake Overstreet section of the park has five miles of multi-use trails through rugged ravines, suitable for offroad biking and hiking.