Bloom and Grow Heritage TreesHistoric preservation efforts are typically focused on architecture—but think about the stories that can be told through a century-old tree.

The Bloom and Grow Garden Society in Winter Garden, Fla., is doing just that through its Winter Garden Heritage Tree Tour, a 2-mile, self-guided walking tour that tells the city’s story through some of its oldest heritage trees.

The garden club will officially unveil the tour at an Oct. 22 event that will bring together community groups focused on horticulture, art, history and healthy living.

The garden society has used Plants Map’s website and interactive plant tags to organize information about the more than 50 trees on the tour. Participants can use the QR codes on the plant tags to access historic photos, stories and other information about the trees kept within the Plants Map database.

“We realized we could tell the story of Winter Garden and its people through the trees,” said Katy Moss Warner, chair of the Bloom and Grow Garden Society’s tree fund.

Winter Garden has developed a reputation as a time capsule of “old Florida” amid the burgeoning Orlando metro area.

The city got its start as a citrus town, with two railroad lines running through the center of town to carry produce to market. Located on the southern shore of Lake Apopka, Winter Garden in the 1920s developed a reputation as the “large-mouth bass capital” of the U.S.

In the 1960s, pollution of the lake and the construction of major highways brought decline to Winter Garden’s downtown. Revitalization efforts got a boost in 1999 with the opening of the West Orange Trail, which transformed the former path of one of the railroad tracks into a 22-mile paved trail that has become a destination for bikers, tourists and visitors. Winter Garden’s downtown historic district is now recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

A community that values plants

With a name like “Winter Garden” and a main thoroughfare named Plant Street, it’s no surprise that this city has embraced horticulture as a means of building its profile as a pleasant place to live and visit.

Warner notes that the head of the city’s department of parks and recreation is a professional horticulturist.

“This is a booming town that has really used horticulture as its draw,” she said.

The Bloom and Grow Garden Society was founded in 1997, just as efforts to revitalize Winter Garden were gaining steam.

“The garden society was started with a real commitment to enhance the community through horticulture,” Warner said.

One of the group’s first projects was the Path of Life Garden, a public garden that transformed a former landfill site and continues to draw visitors today. The garden society has documented the garden on its Plants Map page with the Path of Life Oak, one of more than 100 heritage trees the group identified before planning the tree walk.

In 2020, the group gathered more than 200 volunteers to plant 1,000 bald cypress trees at Tucker Ranch—a 209-acre tract of land that the city purchased for conservation and use as a park. The project was named, “1,000 Trees for 1,000 Years,” because of bald cypress’ long lifespans.  The Tucker Ranch Oak tells that story.

Warner said the idea to identify heritage trees was inspired by the garden club’s participation in America In Bloom’s Growing Vibrant Communities program. This program encourages volunteer partnership with local government to promote beautification that supports community vitality and environmental stewardship.

Warner and fellow Bloom and Grow member Mary Cappleman Zahl proposed the idea of cataloging heritage trees, and city leaders agreed to partner on the project.

The garden club’s 130 members were asked to nominate trees that met one of two categories:

  • Historic Trees – Trees with a trunk diameter of 30 inches or more, indicating a long life.
  • Specimen Trees – Smaller mature trees that represent the quintessential character of their species.

Volunteers played an important role in managing the project. Zahl and other members contributed historic information for the plant stories, and the Winter Garden Heritage Society contributed archival photos to fill out the online plant pages.

Club member Vickie Parrish and her husband, Wes, a professional, horticulturist, visited, photographed and measured every single tree in the Heritage Trees collection.

“They have been remarkable,” Warner said.

As the number of nominated heritage trees grew, Warner and her fellow club members noticed that quite a few were located in the Winter Garden historic district. That sparked the idea to map out a walking tour.

“Our intent was to walk down streets where people have beautiful front gardens, and also to walk by some of the houses lived in by key figures in the community—mayors, artists, people who have made a contribution—and then to end up at the lake to tell its story,” Warner said.

The 2-mile walk begins at City Hall, takes visitors to Lake Apopka and ends at the Winter Garden Heritage Museum, located in a 1918 train depot in the center of town.

Empowering partnerships

The Winter Garden Heritage Tree Tour has caught the interest of both City Hall and volunteer groups within Winter Garden.

Because walking is an active pursuit, the project caught the attention of Healthy West Orange, a local nonprofit that seeks to promote active living, and the group signed on as a sponsor for the tree walk.

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum has offered to conduct guided tours of the walk because of its value in telling the city’s history. The Winter Garden Art Association’s SoBo Art Gallery will be having an art exhibit on trees when the tour launches at the Oct. 22 event, providing a fitting art component to the day’s celebrations.

By getting so many diverse groups involved in a project that tells the city’s story through plants, Warner hopes the walk and the heritage trees inventory will be living projects that continue to grow in future years.

“There is no question that there is an opportunity for us to keep discovering new ways that we can use the information we have and deliver it to people,” Warner said. “We hope that residents and tourists alike will become more knowledgeable and appreciative of the trees in our city, and that together we will know, love and protect our trees.”

To learn more, visit the Bloom and Grow Garden Society on Plants Map.  

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