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Destination Clearwater: Strolling Through the Garden

Sometimes the Florida Botanical Gardens' brightest colors are at night.

Just outside Clearwater, the Florida Botanical Gardens lights up like a Christmas tree every December. Not just one Christmas tree, though – all of them.

It's one of those rare Florida nights when it actually feels like winter feels in most of the country. I’m not complaining; I love that I can wear shorts on Christmas. But when we do get a cold burst, I feel brilliantly alive out in the elements, wrapped in a scarf and breathing the cold air.

That’s what I’m doing tonight, and I’m doing it at the Florida Botanical Gardens. There’s no snow, but it’s a Florida wonderland all its own over here.

Everywhere I look, lights sparkle against the rich backdrop of green fringe and brilliant blossoms. I walk across a long bridge to reach the sparkly, shiny brilliance and am not disappointed: everything glitters here, even the stars high above me tonight.

I make my way through the throngs of people and towards the popcorn tree. I’m pretty sure it has a scientific name, but to me, it’s the popcorn tree. That’s because it smells like buttered popcorn, and when I stand directly under its perfectly round balls of blossoms, I feel like I’m awash in a vat of movie theater popcorn.

As much buttery delight as I take in the tree, I realize I can’t stay under it forever. The Botancial Gardens, always enchanting to me, offer up one festive treasure after another. I rub my eyes, afraid I cannot possibly hope to take it all in tonight.

A breeze ripples down my sweater-clad spine; this is Florida winter, and I want to suck it all in and breathe out frosty, steamy breath. I wrap my arms around myself and, alone, I am content to wander the garden.

George Eliot said: “It will never rain roses: When we want to have more roses we must plant more trees.”

And as I stroll through the gardens, I sense the truth in these words. I feel it when I rub my thumb over the slick palm leaves; I smell its heady honesty under my beloved popcorn tree. When I sit by the pool and watch people stroll by, I feel the chill in the air as the breeze blows through. I hear the wind over the foliage, and if I close my eyes and try only to listen, I can hear the air singing over each leaf, every petal, and individual blossoms. My senses understand, somehow, a symphony of the gardens, and I am reluctant to leave.

Plenty of people have joined me tonight – after 12 years, it is a tradition to come out to the garden to see the lit sprays of palm trees, the two-dimensional lit birds, the walkways illuminated with a thousand tiny bulbs – and I have again the sense of being alone in a crowd.

Unlike so many other times, though, I am alone in the crowd but feel a thread pulling us all together. It’s not the Christmas spirit, no exactly, but it is something greater than all of us.

It’s the spirit of the garden itself.

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