Last Updated on April 27, 2023
The “hidden gem” in Osprey, Florida 12 miles south of downtown Sarasota is a little hard to find. I almost missed the turn-off for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus.
Luckily, I found the road and made my way over the crushed shell parking lot to the Welcome Center Gazebo. Surrounded by green, I had been transported to a tropical paradise,
I gasped at the view.
Historic Spanish Point and Marie Selby Gardens
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point campus is one of the most extensive waterfront preserves in the state dedicated to Florida’s native plants, pioneer history, and pre-historic people. This location focuses on Florida’s history and the plants found throughout the state.
Its companion campus, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in downtown Sarasota, takes exotic plants as its emphasis, particularly epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns. The urban oasis on Sarasota Bay was the former home of William and Marie Selby.
Today, this original Selby Gardens campus features 15 acres of tropical and sub-tropical plants along with special exhibitions, educational programs and environmental efforts throughout the year.
The Historic Spanish Point property was absorbed by Marie Selby Gardens in 2020 and the pair now operate as one entity.
The Palmer Legacy
Bertha Palmer, the widow of Potter Palmer, a prominent Chicago real estate developer, purchased 350 acres on Little Sarasota Bay in 1910, eight years after her husband’s death. She planned to build her winter residence here. She also acquired an additional nearly 80,000 acres around Sarasota to develop cattle ranches and plant citrus groves.
Her purchase on Little Sarasota Bay included the 30-acre Webb homestead established in 1867.
The Webb family became successful farming on Spanish Point–growing sugarcane and citrus– which they shipped from their dock via their own boat. They built a home, adding a packing house to store and send their goods, a chapel, and a family cemetery.
These buildings were saved by Bertha Palmer, connecting them to her formal gardens by a series of trails. She also preserved the shell middens created by Native Americans 5,000 years earlier.
Bertha constructed her home, known as The Oaks, respecting the contours of the hills and leaving them undisturbed.
Upon her death, the Potter family placed the 30-acre parcel on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the property’s significance.
Spanish Point Sarasota, Florida
As for the Webb family, after the Civil War, John, Eliza, and their five children left Utica, New York, under the Homestead Act, establishing a claim on Little Sarasota Bay. A chance meeting between the Webbs and a Spanish fisherman in Key West led them to stake out this specific plot of land.
The Spaniard often fished Little Sarasota Bay and told the Webb’s about the area’s rolling landscape and considerable “point,” 12-feet above sea level. He explained that the breezes felt at that “elevation” would keep them cool and less affected by insects.
The land rise was due to extensive shell mounds created by the area’s Indigenous inhabitants over hundreds of years. The Webbs dubbed it Spanish Point for the trader and fisherman they met in Key West.
Ancient Shell Middens and Burial Mounds
In 1871, John Webb was digging a trench to drain his sugar cane fields when he unearthed human remains. He sent his findings to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The museum sent a team down to Florida to inspect the remains along with the property’s artifacts, flora, and fauna.
To this day, the specimens are known as the Osprey Collection and are a part of the Institution’s Department of Anthropology.
While she lived there, Bertha protected the mounds, building her gardens and an aqueduct to distribute water around them, thereby keeping the middens intact.
In 1959, her grandson, Gordon Palmer, hired two respected archeologists and anthropologists from the University of Florida to conduct further studies. During their excavation, they applied a new scientific method called Carbon 14 dating; the findings placed the remains between 3,200 to 5,900 years old.
Inside The Midden
Archeologists surmise that Native people built thatched huts on top of mounds of shells to escape high tides and high temperatures. After communal or ceremonial meals, the piles of pottery and discarded shellfish and fish bones continued to grow. The waste gradually accumulated, forming multiple layers and eventually becoming a midden–detailing what life was like thousands of years ago.
The site’s excavation and subsequent mapping gave researchers a unique view into ancient burial methods for people and animals used on the same site for hundreds of years. These mounds at different locations on the property date back to 300 AD.
Visiting Historic Spanish Point
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus is open to the public with many ways to enjoy this outdoor museum in a park-like setting. Stop by the Welcome Center Gazebo to get oriented by picking up a map.
On-site facilities include Mary’s Chapel, the Pioneer Cemetery, and a replica of the original Packing House and dock where John Webb sailed his sugar cane and marmalade to Cedar Key and Key West.
After that, you’ll want to stroll up Homestead Road to stop by his son Jack Webb’s White Cottage and Bertha Palmer’s Sunken Garden adjacent to the cottage. The garden has a beautiful pergola and offers breathtaking views of Little Sarasota Bay.
Next, explore the exhibit “A Window to the Past,” where you can actually enter and investigate a cross-section of the mound. Here, visitors view layers of ancient shells and artifacts behind a glass wall. This exhibit is a standout and should not be missed.
As you tour, admire the local plant life along the trails and the Butterfly Garden and Butterfly House. It’s those native plants which bring the butterflies in.
Opened in the fall of 2020, The Butterfly House is one of the most popular attractions at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus. Visitors can get up close to meet numerous species of Florida butterflies including the Zebra Longwing, Malachite, and Julia, and learn about the plants that attract them. Florida is home to more butterfly species than any state east of the Mississippi River.
Stop at the Guptill House, an authentic pioneer home circa 1901, for a tour. Visit the nearby Pioneer Boat Yard, where volunteers handcraft period boats.
Walking Tours led by trained docents cover about 1.25 miles long. Boat tours are now available to discover both Selby properties on “Magic,” the pioneer-era replica boat similar to one John Webb used.
Bertha Palmer’s Jungle Walk is one of the gardens open to explore. It’s filled with native trees and plants and a cement aqueduct Palmer had constructed around the ceremonial midden bringing water from a fresh spring to her plants. The trickling sound coming off the trough was soothing, and the structure was a marvel of engineering.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus is a fantastic experience for any history lover, outdoor enthusiast, butterfly chaser or gardener.
Important Visitor Tips
- Comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended as the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus covers 30 acres and the exhibits are mostly outdoors.
- Wear a hat and apply sunscreen and insect repellent depending on the weather and season.
- If visiting in the summer, check the forecast for rain and plan accordingly.
- Outside food is not permitted, but Michael’s On East at White Cottage offers snacks, drinks, and sandwiches that can be enjoyed indoors or outdoors, complete with bay views.
- Most trails are wheelchair-accessible, and service dogs are permitted on the property. Check the website for specific parking and accessibility questions.
Historic Spanish Fort Hours and Ticket information
Historic Spanish Point (401 North Tamiami Trail, Osprey, FL) is open daily from 10AM to 5PM, Thanksgiving Day from 10AM to 3PM, Christmas Eve from 10AM to 3PM and is closed Christmas Day.
Tickets are available for purchase onsite or online. General admission adult tickets are $16 with kids 5-17, $11 and under 5 free.