10456948875?profile=RESIZE_710xHistorical Society Executive Director Winnie Diggans Edwards (left) counts on volunteers like Dan Kowalski and Connie Cook Lyons to keep the Heritage Gardens thriving. Photos by Jan Engoren/The Coastal Star

By Jan Engoren

On a beautiful Friday morning, volunteer Dan Kowalski is watering the Heritage Gardens, the Florida native garden at the Delray Beach Historical Society outside the 1920s Cason Cottage.
The garden at Swinton Avenue and Northeast First Street was conceived in 2017 as a collaboration between the Historical Society and the Grass River Garden Club. It was born out of the desire to teach the importance of utilizing native plants and as a way to mitigate the dwindling green space and natural habitats in the city due to increased development.
“It’s an asset and a green oasis in the midst of downtown Delray Beach,” says Winnie Diggans Edwards, executive director of the Historical Society. “We’re blessed with 1 acre of property and as a gathering place for the community. We wanted to create an outdoor classroom to educate the public on its history through nature.”
She credits Carl Terwilliger of Meadow Beauty Nursery in Lake Worth with helping design and plant the garden and her volunteer garden committee, which includes several master gardeners, for maintaining it.
Kowalski is outside most days from 8-11 a.m., doing his part to keep the beach verbena (Glandularia maritima), the blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) and the coontie plants (Zamia pumila) watered.
Growing native Florida gardens as opposed to Florida-friendly gardens “is best for sustainability reasons,” says Kowalski. “We don’t use any chemical fertilizers and we make use of the natural rainwater, as we have more than 300 gallons of water stored in our rain barrels.”
The garden has distinct sections, including a Florida scrub section, a pollinator garden, the Lower Keys, oak hammock, Dade County pine forest, wetlands, a raised bed heritage farm, a raised bed gladiola garden, and a fruit grove with a starfruit tree, Zill mango tree and a Brazilian grapetree or jaboticaba (Plinia cauliflora).
In the wetland area are swamp milkweed, a host for monarch butterflies, fragrant water lilies, buttonbush and a pond apple tree (Annona glabra).
Still in the works are educational kiosks to be located in each distinct habitat, providing an information panel describing the habitat’s plants, the fauna that benefits and messages about perpetuating Florida native gardens, endangerment issues and sustainability.
The improvements will assist the garden in providing guided and self-guided tours. The Historical Society also plans to hold lectures, classes and kids summer camp, all centered on native gardening, sustainability and conservation. 
As detailed on the society’s website, the mission is “to provide an outdoor, interactive experience that engages and inspires visitors of all ages to preserve our history, cultural heritage, and planet for future generations.”

10456949494?profile=RESIZE_710xThe property includes the Cason Cottage, whose furnishings showcase Delray’s early history.

Edibles are next
The next phase of the garden will be to plant green beans, tomatoes and pineapple, all original crops dating back to the city’s agricultural heritage.
Edwards says Delray Beach has a rich history of garden clubs beginning in the late 1800s, when the town was founded as an agricultural city. She credits the Ladies Improvement Association of 1902 with the genesis of the city’s beautification efforts. One of those early garden clubs, the Poinciana Garden Club, remains active to this day, and a scrapbook with memorabilia from the nine original clubs sits in the Historical Society archives.
Edwards says the Delray Affair, which had its 60-year anniversary last month, began as a celebration of the city’s agricultural heritage and was first known as the Gladiola Festival, because the city was the gladiola capital of the country.
At last month’s gala the Historical Society sold special Florida-hardy gladiola bulbs, known as corms.
Connie Cook Lyons, a third- generation Delray Beacher and former naturalist with the Deering Estate in Miami, has deep roots to the Historical Society and has volunteered at the garden since the start.
Her father and Edwards’ father were founding members of the Historical Society and her brother, David Cook, is the vice president.
Walking through the Heritage garden, Cook Lyons highlights the native coontie plant, used by the atala butterfly to lay its eggs.
“This plant helped bring the atala butterfly back from the brink of extinction,” she says.
She points out the Hercules club tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), a member of the citrus family and a host plant for caterpillars of the giant swallowtail butterfly.
“The garden is a place to come for peace and tranquility and to look for butterflies,” says Cook Lyons.
“We are bringing things full circle,” she says. “Learn about Delray’s history, stroll through the gardens, take pictures and use them as inspiration to create your own native garden.
“Preservation and conservation are twin tenets of our mission. The garden is an oasis of beauty and learning for years to come. We hope to leave a strong legacy for future generations.”
She quotes an old gardening adage especially relevant for native gardens: “In their first year, they sleep, in their second year they creep and by the third year, they leap.”
This particularly applies to slow-growing plants such as manzanitas, mahonias and other shrubs.
Now in their third year, they are “ready to leap,” says Cook Lyons.

Educational Heritage Gardens: Open year-round. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Suggested donation, $5. Group tours welcome. 

Twilight in the Garden
What: Delray Beach Historical Society fundraiser.
When: 6-10 p.m. May 14
Where: Historical Society campus (Cason Cottage), 3 NE First St.
Admission: $150
Reservations: Call 561-274-9578 or visit https://delraybeachhistory.org
Details: Food and craft cocktails from Caffe Luna Rosa, Farmer’s Table, Meso Beach House, Costa Organic Kitchen, Dada, Ember Grill at The Ray, Ceasar’s BBQ, Delray Hideaway, Hawker’s, Hopportunities, Warren Delray, Deke’s in Delray and others. Music from Brett Staska and Uproot Hootenanny.


You need to be a member of The Coastal Star to add comments!

Join The Coastal Star