CEDAR LAKES WOODS AND GARDENS by Dotti Hydue
Tucked off a rural road just outside Williston, Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens was a flat, swampy expanse punctuated by abandoned limerock pits when Dr. Ray Webber purchased the 100 or so acres in 1993. At first, the former professor of dentistry envisioned stocking some of the mining pits with fish to create his own private fishing holes. Over the course of several years, four individual lakes were dug out, leaving islands of limerock outcroppings intact for interest. The muck and soil dug from the lakes were piled on the surrounding property; the deeper the lakes, the higher the hillsides. To keep runoff from fouling the lakes, the hillsides were terraced and concrete applied to the banks. To mask the concrete and keep erosion in check, Dr. Webber started adding plants and planters. An avowed novice with no previous gardening experience, Webber soon found he was spending more time with his plants than his fishing pole.
Over the last several decades, the doctor and his dedicated staff brought in concrete, fill dirt, and rocks, one wheelbarrow at a time, to create this private backyard utopia. Webber’s passion for a private fishing hole gradually blossomed into an oasis of small lakes and waterfalls, lookout points and decks, and a stunning assortment of native and exotic plants. The layered plant canopies and moderating effect of the water create microclimates that allow semitropical plants to survive and flourish.
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A labyrinth of walking paths, stairs, bridges, and causeways lead to gazebos and islands where guests can relax and revel in the hundreds of species of flowering trees, shrubs, and plants in the surrounding landscape. The soothing sounds of falling water blend with the rustling of foliage in this harmonious refuge that is home to an assortment of birds, butterflies, and other native creatures.
As you navigate the well-marked paths you will spy marble plaques tucked among the foliage identifying the dominant plant in that section of the gardens (bamboos, gingers) or features named for friends and individuals who have significantly helped Webber with the gardens (Pedro’s Catfish Walkabout, Jacob’s Fortified Gateway, Lori’s Garden Wall).
Maple trees planted throughout the gardens include native red maples, fancy and fine leaf Japanese, and trident maples. In the spring, hillsides erupt with the blossoms of hundreds of azalea bushes. Numerous varieties of ornamental ginger nestle in shady nooks. Visit the gardens from summer to early fall to see the blooms of dancing ladies white dragon gingers, white butterfly ginger lilies, and peacock gingers. Chinese hat and sky vine are free to ramble in the approximately eight acres of improved gardens. Bamboo Island holds clumps of silver stripe, stripe stem, fernleaf, and giant timber bamboos while stands of golden, hedge, blue, and black-striped bamboos dot the gardens, forming backdrops for blooming plants or garden art. Red and pink Turk’s caps brighten hillsides and towering flowering almond bushes perfume the air with their fragrant blooms. Cabbage palms, queen palms, pindo, needle, and Canary Island date palms lend a tropical flavor.
Water levels in the lakes rise and fall depending on the amount of precipitation, not only locally, but also from as far north as southern Georgia. There, runoff drains into the Okefenokee Swamp; the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Rainbow River basins; and underground to the Florida Aquifer. On one of my visits last year, the water levels had risen some eight feet.
Blue catfish, including 100-pound Big Ben, and a variety of sunfish make their home in the lakes along with several species of water lilies. Native to Paraguay and Argentina, the imposing pads of Victoria cruziana can grow to 5 and 1/2 feet in diameter with 5- to 8-inch rims. The night blooming, 10-inch flowers arise from underwater buds. They live only two days and are white the first evening and shades of pink the second.
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Near the office you will find one of the garden’s dawn redwood trees. Native to central and western China, these deciduous, coniferous trees were known to exist 50,000,000 years ago. Once thought to be extinct, a Chinese forester discovered a stand growing in the wild in 1941. These relatives of bald cypress sport soft, fern-like foliage that is light green in the spring and transitions to deep green in summer and then reddish bronze in the fall. Over time, the trunks widen at the base and often develop elaborate fluting.
Dr. Webber wanted to make sure the land would never be developed and has worked to restore native vegetation to benefit wildlife. Conservation Trust of Florida administers an adjacent 54 acres of pastures, prairie, and forest, the latter consisting of a lush mix of oaks, cedars, pines, pecans, hickory, and dogwood trees. You can hike through the woods or feed a collection of ducks at Billy’s Lake, part of the undeveloped wetlands.
What started as a private retreat for the pleasure of the doctor and his guests is now open for the public to enjoy. Individuals and groups can walk the grounds and relax at the many benches and picnic tables scattered throughout the property. There is always something in bloom at the gardens and plant enthusiasts can expect to see something different each time they visit. The recently opened office and gift shop sit next to a large tent pavilion with picnic tables and brick barbecue. Call ahead if you would like a guided tour or to schedule events such as weddings and reunions. Bathrooms are handicap accessible, as are most of the trails. Due to the uneven nature of some of the trails, non-skid footwear is recommended.
For more information including days and hours of operation and admission fees (annual memberships and group rates are available), visit www.cedarlakeswoodsandgarden.com or contact Lori Wallace at (352) 812-2279. Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens, Inc., 4990 NE 180th Avenue, Williston, FL 32696.
Plan to attend the grand opening and First Annual Spring Festival at Cedar Lakes on Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Enjoy music, vendors, and tours as you delight in these amazing gardens. Be sure to bring your camera! Visit cedarlakeswoodsandgarden.com or call (352) 812-2279 for more information. The gardens are at 4990 NE 180th Avenue, off 27-Alt. just down the road from Devil’s Den. See you there!