Hollis Garden’s History
By Meredith Jean Morris

Nearly 90 years ago, the promenade and seawall around Lakeland’s Lake Mirror were completed. Known as the “Civic Center” in the time of its construction, it was featured in the January 1930 issue of National Geographic magazine. A photo caption of the newly constructed promenade described it “like the ornate entrance to some vast Venetian palace… rising on Mirror Lake like a fairy city on an iridescent sea.”

However, at the time of its completion in 1928, there was a key piece missing in that “Venetian palace” – the gardens.

“There was supposed to be a garden included in the original design,” says Stacy Smith, the foreman of Hollis Garden. “They never went farther to finish it due to the [stock market] crash.”

The promenade’s designer, Charles Wellford Leavitt, was a student of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect responsible for New York City’s Central Park and Golden State Park in San Francisco.

“He included a tennis court, a new city hall, an auditorium, shuffle board, lawn bowling and carpet golf,” Smith says.

But, the gardens weren’t completed until Dec. 8, 2000.

In 1998, Publix president Mark Hollis and his wife, Lynn, donated $1 million for the construction of gardens at Lake Mirror, Smith says.

“They had traveled from garden to garden around the world, and the gardens here are based on a garden they saw in New Zealand,” he says. “They wanted to give the garden piece back to Lake Mirror.”

The garden’s design and plants tell a story of Florida’s history, with Florida limestone represented in the grotto,  Florida’s ancient history represented by native plants, and the agrarian age represented by vegetables and herbs.

“The white room, yellow room and red room represent the age of refinement,” Smith says of sections of the garden filled with modern plants in designated colors.

Beyond the plants, water connects it all together as Lake Mirror completes the story flowing back to the Civic Center.

Spread across 1.2 acres, there is a lot of meaning packed into this tiny little garden, Smith says.

In addition to telling Florida’s history, the garden’s plants have stories to tell, too.

“There are a lot of rare species that we have here,” Smith says.

One of those is the extremely rare frankincense tree.

“Everyone who comes here is surprised by some of the unique plants we have,” Smith says.

The strange fruit collection includes the peanut butter fruit and the blackberry jam fruit.

“Some people appreciate the classical music we play in the garden,” Smith says. “Because of the neoclassical architecture, we only play music from the late baroque era.”

Another marvel in the garden is the Trees of America section featuring cuttings of trees with historic ties.

The Susan B. Anthony sycamore is a cutting from the tree at her grave, and Elvis Presley’s weeping willow is a cutting from a weeping willow at Graceland.

“There was a nursery in the early 2000s that specialized in those trees,” Smith says. “All the trees came with papers. We are fortunate to have that collection.”

While the garden’s design is completed, Smith says the collection is still growing.

“We’ve done our best to collect the most unique plants, like the Balm of Gilead, that we’re purchasing in May,” he says. “We’re adding it to our incense trees. It’s exclusive and rare, and used as bartering in the Middle East.”

Smith says people come to the garden to enjoy nature and learn about the plants. Last year 30,000 pamphlets were distributed to visitors.

“They wander through, maybe not knowing we’re here,” he says. “Or, they come to look at plants. Last year, caching was popular. We do have Pokemon monsters here.”

Additionally, the gardens are a popular site for weddings and special events, with approximately 50 to 70 held each year.

Winter Haven’s Becky Scholten was married in the garden 15 years ago on Nov 23, 2001.

“Bryan proposed to me the year before (Dec 24, 2000) on Lake Mirror,” she says. “It was a special area to us for that reason, and therefore that was a major factor in choosing the gardens. It was and still is such a gorgeous place. The flowers, fountains, ponds and the lake in the background was very picturesque. We even recently did our 15-year anniversary photos and family photos at the gardens again and recreated some pictures.”

The gardens are an asset to the city of Lakeland, as close to a botanical garden as one can get without employing scientists, Smith says.

“As an asset to the city, the garden is an educational tool to introduce different plant species to the community,” says Pam Page, the deputy director of parks and recreation for the City of Lakeland. “It gives people ideas and color juxtaposition and different ways of doing things. They might say, ‘I don’t think I can grow orchids at home,’ and then come here and see how we have them in the trees and realize they can do it.”

Page is pleased with the legacy the Hollis family has given the city of Lakeland. In addition to the initial $1 million, the Hollises also put $500,000 of Publix stock into a perpetual care fund for the garden, and the fund has nearly reached self-sustainability on interest.

“The city would have never had the funds to do this,” she says. “It was a wonderful gift.”