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5 Amazing Photos of Florida’s Best-Kept Secret

Bok Tower Gardens is one of our country's hidden gems and the subject of a new book from Skira Rizzoli. See why it's worth a trip.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

Central Florida’s Bok Tower Gardens was created by Edward Bok, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, humanitarian and the editor of Ladies Home Journal, who swore by the motto: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” He also wanted to create a sanctuary for birds, which he called “the tired little singers of the sky.”

With the Gardens, which opened in 1929 with a dedication ceremony presided over by President Calvin Coolidge, Bok more than succeeded in these missions. Today the Gardens’ 250 acres attract 126 species of birds and contain countless species of plants, flowers and trees. Here’s a peek at some of its attractions.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

The Gardens’ Singing Tower is America’s Taj Mahal.

The magnificent stone- and shell-sheathed structure soars 205 feet, or the equivalent of a 20-story building, and sits on one of the highest points in Florida. Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary Jr. designed it, and three other men were his close collaborators: sculptor Lee Oscar Lawrie who did all the stonework (he’s best known for Atlas at NYC’s Rockefeller Center), metalworker Samuel Yellin, and tile maker J.H Dulles Allen. The building started with a steel frame, which was first covered by brick and then by pink Etowah and gray Creole marble from Tate, Georgia, with embellishments of native Florida coquina shells. At sunrise and sunset, the gray, pink and white of the materials make the tower look as if it’s glowing.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

It sounds beautiful, too.

Housed in the upper third of the tower is the carillon, a stationary hanging set of musical bells. The bronze bells were cast by the venerable British firm John Taylor & Co., who also worked on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Washington National Cathedral, and the chapels at Wellesley College and Duke University. The largest of the 57 bells in the Tower weighs nearly 23,400 pounds; the smallest, a mere 17. The carillonneur, the term used for the musician who plays the bells, uses his fists on one keyboard and his feet on another.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

The Gardens are home to some enormous water lilies.

This isn’t a trick photo, but a real, live child sitting on a pad of one of the giant, rare Victoria water lilies that grow in the Reflection Pool. The pads can support up to 99 pounds as long as weight is evenly distributed (so kids, please don’t try this). The Victoria lilies are exceptional in other ways, too. Their pads average five to six feet in diameter, with the record being 10 feet, and their blossoms are 12 inches wide. They bloom for only two nights, but really make the most of their short span, like the Lady Gaga of flowers: The first evening, they’re white; and the second, they’re bright pink.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

It’s exceptionally stunning during peak bloom season.

Let New Englanders get all excited for leaf-peeping season, which is essentially a festival of decaying foliage. Floridians get their year’s best photo ops during peak bloom season, a techni-colored celebration of nature’s rebirth sometime in February and March, depending on the weather. On the azalea path, some 10,000 azaleas were planted when the spot first opened in 1929. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who also masterminded grounds for the White House, National Mall, Jefferson Memorial, and the National Zoo and was the son of the Olmsted responsible for NYC’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and the Biltmore in North Carolina, among numerous other landmarks. Together, the gardens boast 150 varieties of camellias, as well as orchids, irises, bloom-bedecked trees like magnolia and plum, and other flowering plants.

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Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

Though massive, you can still find a private corner.

The gardens also contain the Pinewood Estate, a 12,700 square foot, 20-room Mediterranean revival mansion and its grounds built between 1930-1932 as a winter home for C. Austin Buck, vice-president of Bethlehem Steel Co. in Pennsylvania. (He had good reason for such a big place: Buck had nine children and 18 grandchildren.) William Lyman Phillips of the Olmsted Brothers firm designed its landscape, and among the captivating, cosmopolitan elements Phillips crafted into the property were a formal Mediterranean-style garden with a Cuban Spanish frog fountain that leads into a coral grotto; an Asian-style Moon Gate Garden off the dining room porch; and an English-style country garden with a lawn and pond.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest