Rainforest Garden at Selby Gardens. Photo Credit: Eddie Kirsch.

Selby Garden's Children's Rainforest Garden

Sarasota's Marie Selby Botanical Gardens may be nestled along the placid shores of Sarasota Bay that many call home, but it hardly takes a speck of imagination to reinvent oneself as an explorer along the exotic banks of the Amazon River in the botanical gardens' newest exhibit, the Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforest Garden. The exhibit, which opened its doors to the public in early November, provides a unique opportunity for Sarasota residents and visitors to get a taste of the tropical rainforest - without the logistical complications of traveling deep into the jungles of another continent.

How it Was Concieved

The seed was planted, in the form of an idea, in 2005, when the Selby Gardens board of trustees began to conceptualize an addition to the gardens that would provide interactive education about the relationship between plants and humans in a fun and natural environment. Seven years later, the five million dollar project has come to fruition, as the 16-acre Marie Selby Gardens blooms into the "wildest" place in Sarasota with the addition of its new Rainforest Garden.

What to Do in the Children's Rainforest Garden

A craggy rock face featuring a cascading waterfall and lush tropical flora sets the opening scene for the exhibit, a tropical jungle environment that starts at ground level and climbs upward into the trees. The burbling waterfall provides a meditative space, as well as an educational one, where children can learn how the water cycle moves water from reservoirs such as the waterfall's pool, into the atmosphere, and back to the earth by evaporation and precipitation.

The Rainforest Garden's single entry-and-exit point provides parents with the peace of mind to allow kids to let more than their imaginations run freely in the safe rainforest space, without strict supervision. At every turn, children have ample chances to learn something new about the plant and animal inhabitants of the world's wildest ecosystem, the rainforest, as they play along the adventure trails that meander past gurgling forest pools, through lush vegetation, into thatched-hut educational centers and botanical research stations, and into the nooks and crannies of echoing caves.

World-class Home For Epiphytes

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is recognized worldwide for its extensive collection of epiphytes (plants such as bromeliads and orchids that grow on trees, rocks and inanimate objects, but derive sustenance from sources outside their host). The Rainforest Garden epiphyte canyon, a winding cavern filled with fun hiding places, provides an excellent lesson in plant biodiversity by introducing unique members of the epiphyte family called lithophytes, which are specially adapted to grow on rocks in cave environments.


Adults can Learn Too

Children are not the only ones who have an opportunity to learn while they play. Adults may be surprised by the new knowledge they glean in the Rainforest Garden, as well. Exploration of a Selby Rainforest Garden cave, for example, may invite a lesson about the world's only known nocturnal, flying, fruit-eating bird, the oilbird, which makes its home in the wilderness caves of South America and communicates by echolation, much like bats.

For the aspiring young botanist, the Selby Rainforest also includes a comprehensive research center with hands-on access to field research equipment like telescopes, gauges and binoculars. On weekends and during school visits, volunteers are present in the Rainforest Garden research station to teach students about work in the field, including how live plants are collected and documented by researchers living and working in the wild. Additional amenities in the Rainforest Garden include an amphitheatre with stadium seating and an adjacent classroom for special performances and group experiences.

On the exhibit's upper level, a rope bridge stimulates both the body and the mind in exploration of the "rainforest canopy" that winds through the sprawling Banyan grove Marie Selby planted in the 1920s, and which serves as the central anchor for the rainforest exhibit. The Canopy Walk climbs up into the treetops, providing a vast view of the expansive, exotic gardens below and across Sarasota Bay. While the ground below provides ample space for romping and playtime, the Canopy Walk provides a tranquil vantage point that presides over some of Sarasota's most treasured natural environments.

Beyond the Children's Rainforest Garden

The Marie Selby Gardens is an internationally-respected public garden, research and education center that hosts over 130,000 visitors annually. In addition to the new Rainforest Garden exhibit, the horticultural center features both open and indoor exhibitions of native and tropical flora, as well as seven greenhouses utilized for research and education. Selby Gardens is best known for its extensive living collection of orchids, which includes more than 6,000 specimens. With the addition of the Children's Rainforest Garden, Selby Gardens enhances its vision to inspire greater appreciation of the natural world among visitors of all ages.

The Marie Selby Gardens is open to the public 364 days each year, excluding Christmas Day. To learn more about current happenings at the gardens, visitors are encouraged to refer to the Selby Gardens calendar of events.

As the rest of the nation pulls out bulky coats and prepares for a chilly winter, the Florida Sun Coast lives up to its name, and Sarasota's sub-tropical climate makes the perfect environment for year-round outdoor play. Forget snow boots: It's time to strap on adventuring boots and journey deep into the rainforest at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.