Former Glory

Overlooking the St. Johns River, Olmsted Garden was a jungle of dense, green foliage up until last September.

After 10 years of sleuthing, Holly Keris, chief curator at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, says the garden is now restored to its original state, or at least as close to what the extensive research discovered. In 1931, William Lyman Phillips, of Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm, designed the original garden for Waldo and Clara Cummer, the brother and sister-in-law of museum founders Arthur and Ninah Cummer.

“It was a slow process, but we really wanted to make sure we were doing it right and not too fast,” Keris said.

The museum studied old photos in its effort to restore the space to a close version of the original garden, Keris said. The Cummer is also environmentally conscientious in not using any fertilizers or chemicals that would pollute the St. Johns River, she said.

Overlooking the bottom portion of the garden are five original oak trees, which once grew alongside a parking lot that loomed over a Barnett Insurance Company employee break area, filled with picnic tables and shuffle boards, Keris said.

The center portion boasts a bronze sculpture of the Roman god Mercury, surrounded by seafoam roses, azaleas and agapanthus. An artifact from the 1930s garden, Mercury flies through the air in his winged hat and sandals as he rises from the mouth of the god of winds. The sculptor’s identity remains a mystery, but the piece is a copy of a 16th-century work by Giovanni Bologna.

Two original podocarpus conifers shade the left side of the garden next to palms and a pathway along the St. Johns River. More podocarpus plants decorate the center rose garden, which showcases eight species of roses alongside Mercury.

The garden is centered around the original pergola, with its wisteria-wrapped columns; the vines will eventually grow and create a nice shady spot, Keris said. Glen glossy and oak leaf hydrangeas are planted to the right of the pergola.

Keris’ favorite plants are the purple Japanese magnolia that are dotted throughout the garden’s upper portion. Near the magnolias is coontie, a palmlike plant that was part of the original 1930s garden.