Ringling's living museum -- one of nature's best-kept local secrets

"Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty."
John Ruskin, English Romantic writer and painter (1819-1900)

One of nature's best-kept local secrets is The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art's enchanting grounds and gardens. Known for its extensive collection of circus memorabilia, a world-class art collection, and the historical mansion called Ca' d'Zan, Ringling also boasts 66 acres of stunning botanical landscapes. Ringling's "outdoor collections" feature "exhibits" that change every day and throughout the seasons, providing new plants and flowers to enjoy and appreciate.

Kevin Greene (what an appropriate name for Ringling's director of horticulture!) oversees a daunting task of managing these botanical treasures with a modest staff of nine assistants. Although David Sachs of Miami was instrumental in the original landscape planning, the botanical collections also reflect gifts and personal touches of John and Mable themselves.

Thirteen awesome banyan trees were gifts to John Ringling from Thomas Edison, brought up from his estate in Fort Myers in the 1920s. (The story of this gift was passed down via oral history, but not officially documented.)

Banyans are members of the large tropical family Moraceae (fig or mulberry) and classified under the genus Ficus (fig), which comprises more than 800 species worldwide. Banyan trees represent some of the world's largest tree girths, because their unique growth pattern can easily cover an acre of ground in less than a century, almost "walking" with expansion of their aerial roots and support trunks.

The Ringling grounds boast the most extensive collection of banyans in Sarasota County, including both Ficus benghalensis and F. benjamina, as well as the beloved spiritual Bo tree (Ficus altissima). In ecology class at New College, one of our laboratory exercises is to calculate the mass of one Ringling banyan tree -- students are usually stumped (no pun intended) by this mathematical and botanical challenge!

A fascinating characteristic of figs is their milky, sticky sap. Called Oj juice in the Amazon, mothers administer one teaspoon to their children to control stomach parasites. Fig trees are important medicinal plants in every tropical village.

Considered her pride and joy, Mable Ringling's rose garden has amassed a special heritage collection that is now accredited by the American Rose Society (as well as being the recipient of an Award of Excellence for a Demonstration Rose Garden). Mable was said to be more of a "finger pointer" than a "shovel pusher," but her love of roses was renowned among all her friends. Mable's garden is also listed as an All-American Rose Selection site and receives new varieties of roses annually, thereby enhancing the viewers' enjoyment.

Thanks to Mable's passion for roses, Ringling Museum is today one of 20 demonstration test gardens in the United States with 400 trials of new rose hybrids. Curator and horticulturist Ron Mallory tends the site, which is a favorite for weddings, photo shoots, lectures and visitor appreciation. The Mable Ringling Rose (hybridized by Mallory) is fiery red with a hint of yellow and a sensual fragrance. The Museum boasts over 1,000 rose plants including: eight tree roses, 53 floribundas, 36 grandifloras, 506 miniature roses, 64 shrubs, 80 hybrid teas, and 73 old garden roses.

Rose lovers, mark your calendars, because April is fast approaching and reputedly the best month to enjoy roses in Florida!

Other botanical wonders on the Ringling grounds include an enormous Ear Tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) that has been designated a state champion tree -- the largest known specimen of its species in Florida. The Ear Tree sits just beyond the entrance to the Circus Museum and its canopy umbrella spans nearly an acre of ground.

For either amateur or professional botanists, the Ringling "living museum" provides extensive green treasure: holly, cypress, bottlebrush, flame tree, willow, elm, silk floss, buttonwood, hibiscus, kapok, oak, magnolia, mango, maple, monkey puzzle, Norfolk Island pine, sausage tree, eucalyptus, sweet gum, more than a dozen palm species, and many other trees as well as myriad shrubs and perennials to provide hours of walking and botanizing.

Additional restoration of the original landscape from the Ringling era is planned, after all the building and construction has been completed. The whimsical dwarf garden (originally built by the Historic Asolo Theater when the theater was to the west of the Museum of Art) is now on the south side of the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion. Kids, you'll want to visit this exciting addition!

Sarasota Herald Tribune. February 25, 2007

Dr. Margaret Lowman is a science writer and director of Environmental Initiatives at New College of Florida.

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