Three camellias. The blossoms sat in a silver dish in the parlor near the door of the Maclay House.
I’d seen them there on several different visits to the manor home, always freshly picked, always a trio. I asked the docent why.
“It was Mrs. MacLay’s wish,” she said, “and a reminder. Her home may only remain open to visitors while her camellias are in bloom.”
Plan Your Visit
Address: 3540 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee FL 32312
Hours: Daily 9 AM to 5 PM
Fee: $6 per vehicle plus seasonal per-person surcharge Jan-Apr
Established in 1923, these woodland gardens first opened to the public in 1946. Formal elements are interspersed through the forested hillsides.
Prime blooming season is January through April, when you can expect an extra per-person surcharge atop the normal Florida State Parks entrance fee.
Built in 1909, the MacLay House is open for tours only while the camellias are in bloom. Guided tours are often provided on weekends during this period by park volunteers.
Restrooms are located at the visitor center and at the MacLay House.
Due to their historic nature, the garden pathways and main drive to MacLay House are not accessible. A golf cart tour of the gardens can be provided with advance notice.
An audio tour of the gardens is also available. The park keeps a beach wheelchair and motorized wheelchair on hand so guests can access Lake Hall.
From Interstate 10 exit 203 in Tallahassee, drive north 1.5 miles on Thomasville Rd (SR 61) to the traffic light for MacLay Gardens Rd. Turn left. The park entrance is on the right.
The three blossoms on a plate came from Aunt Jetty, a camellia that dates back to the early 1800s.
The originator of the cultivar in America is within sight of the front door of the MacLay’s Florida home.
The camellia’s namesake, Angelica Robinson Gamble, was the social diva of Tallahassee both before and after the Civil War.
She was known to display the deep red blossoms of this particular camellia bush as table decorations.
When the Gambles went to sell their property to the church, Alfred MacLay offered them $75 for the then-113 year old plant and had it moved to his front yard.
Aunt Jetty’s tradition – and her camellia – continue to blossom at MacLay Gardens.
“He began at once to plan a camellia walk and to start a nursery,” Louise MacLay wrote of her husband’s retirement endeavor.
Members of Louise’s family – the Fleischmanns – had bought up many of the crumbling plantations between Thomasville and Tallahassee.
She suggested Alfred do the same for them. Alfred purchased a plantation on which a quail-hunting lodge had been built in 1909.
Soon after acquiring the property in 1923, Alfred designed and started planting formal garden landscapes under a canopy of already-ancient live oaks.
He actively sought unusual camellias from the region with the help of his friends Breckenridge Gamble and Jim Fox.
He bought unusual cuttings and whole plants from backyards all over Tallahassee, and would send Gamble and others out to chase down rumors of rare plants.
He purchased the entire camellia collection of a nursery in New Iberia, Louisiana, and bought plants directly from Japanese nurserymen who had settled in the South.
From Gardens to Park
The MacLays had a New York farm named Killearn (Kill-ARN) after the Scottish village that MacLay’s great-grandfather called home.
When Alfred established the formal gardens around their home, they named them Killearn Gardens.
At first, the gardens were at first for the family’s pleasure. With Alfred’s botanical connections, they were visited by nurserymen and botanists.
Alfred died in 1944. Louise realized the gardens were an important legacy. By 1946, she opened Killearn Gardens to the public.
Tallahassee visitors flocked to see them, especially during the showy late winter blooms of camellias and azaleas.
Louise directed Fred Ferrrell, Alfred’s garden superintendent, to continue work on the original garden design plans until they were complete.
By 1953, Louise gifted the gardens to the state of Florida to manage as a state park. She asked that Fred be named the park’s first superintendent.
Inside the Gardens
When you walk down the brick driveway to the manor home, what you see today is just as Alfred originally envisioned it in 1923.
As writer Leland J. Lewis said, “MacLay liked to create pictures with plants.”
The brick drive curves away beneath moss-draped oaks flanked by abundant blooms. Masses of azaleas look like watercolor paintings in the distance.
The Formal Gardens
Under the live oak canopy, rows of camellias dominate the upper portion of the hillside.
Among them are the Louise MacLay, a camellia with large double-flowered blossoms and crinkled pink petals, and the Lady Hume’s Blush, a bush more than 150 years old.
But the gardens are not just about camellias. Formal garden landscapes meld into the woodlands. Yellow iris bloom along the edges of a pool edged by forest.
The concentric lines of an Italianate walled garden mimic the splash of a fountain. Tall Italian cypress trees line a reflecting pool pointing towards Lake Hall.
The main gardens sweep down the hill on the west side of the brick drive leading to the MacLay House.
The Native Plant Garden
On the east side of the drive, the upper hillside is dedicated to native Florida species.
MacLay’s friend Jim Fox found a rare Chapman’s Rhododendron (Rhododendron Chapmanii) in the wild and brought it to him for his collection.
It anchors the Native Plant Garden, where wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) share space with the rare Ashe magnolia (Magnolia ashei), and torreya trees (Torreya taxifolia).
While the gardens are the highlight of Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, the park also includes two distinct recreation areas at Lake Hall and Lake Overstreet.
Anglers can fish on Lake Hall and paddlers can explore the lake by canoe or kayak. Rental kayaks are available. A swimming beach is popular in the summer months.
Two nature trails, Big Pine Trail and Boy Scout Trail, provide short hikes in the woodlands above Lake Hall.
The Lake Overstreet Trails are popular for rugged off-road biking, with lots of hills on the 5-mile loop trail.
Of course, MacLay Gardens is a popular setting for Tallahassee weddings, especially during the peak bloom of azaleas late February to early March.
Some of the formal garden spaces lend themselves to wedding venues, particularly the Italianate Garden and the Secret Garden, as well as the front lawn of the MacLay House.
The Gardener’s Cottage may also be booked for wedding party use as well as for meetings and other small events.
To discuss wedding venue possibilities with a wedding planner associated with the park, call 850-766-9592.
Walk through MacLay Gardens with us by viewing our photographs from our visits. Click to open the gallery.