Bok Tower Gardens
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Bok Tower Gardens is a unique and beautiful botanical gardens located in the town of Lake Wales between Tampa and Orlando in Polk County. The gardens are a 2 hour drive from Sarasota. My husband and I took a little road trip to explore this hidden gem in the sleepy town on a lake in Central Florida.
“The pond is filled with a variety of water lilies including giant Victoria Longwood Hybrid Lilies, which have extremely large pads (6 feet in diameter) that look like giant green stepping stones floating on the surface of the pond and can support up to 70 pounds.”
Edward W. Bok was a young boy when he immigrated to America from the Netherlands. He was able to capitalize on the American dream through hard work and tenacity becoming a Pulitzer prize-winning author. He lived in Lake Wales during the winters and fell in love with the nature and beautiful sunsets he viewed from Iron Mountain. Due to his philanthropic nature and appreciation of the environment, he decided to create a garden for the enjoyment of the public offering a place of serenity and a sanctuary for birds. Bok Tower Gardens has been designated as a site on the Great Florida Birding Trail because the natural habitats attract over 126 different species of birds. After conceiving of his idea for a botanical garden in 1921, Mr. Bok’s dream came to fruition in 1929 and since then more than 23 million visitors have enjoyed his legacy.
The gardens were designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Mr. Olmsted and his firm, Olmsted Brothers, designed over 3,000 projects. However, he is best known for designing New York City’s Central Park, the National Mall & Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, and Biltmore Estates in North Carolina. He also created the master plan for the California State Park System. So you can be assured that Bok Tower Gardens are truly well designed and absolutely lovely.
Mr. Bok remembered hearing the bells from the carillon in his Dutch hometown and decided to recreate a carillon for his gardens. According to the garden’s web site: “Carillon is an instrument of at least 23 tuned bells in chromatic series. Cast from bronze, which is composed mainly of copper and tin, and then specially tuned. The bells are “hung dead” meaning that the bells do not swing, only the clappers move. The instrument is fully mechanical.” Bok commissioned architect Milton B. Medary to design and build a tower housing a carillon. Coquina stone (from Florida) and pink Etowah marble (from Georgia) were the stones used to build the tower. The coquina stone is the same stone used to build the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.
I think it’s fascinating that the bells were created in England and were transported via ship to Jacksonville where the 60 bells were loaded onto railcars and delivered near by the garden property. The largest bell, named The Bourdon, weighs almost 12 tons (22,400 pounds) and the smallest bell weighs 16 pounds. All the bells were hoisted 156 feet inside the tower by an elaborate pulley system.
The Singing Tower carillon plays live concerts at 1 & 3 pm daily with short selections played on
the hour and half hour from mid-October to mid-May on Thursday – Sunday. On the other days of the week and during the summer months (mid-May to mid-October), recorded music is broadcasted. There are approximately 600 carillons in the world with only 185 in North America. Consequently it is highly special that there is one in Central Florida.
I visited the gardens in summer (July) and there were not a lot of flowers blooming but the gardens are lush, vibrant, full of texture, and dazzling green. There are many shady spots, private nooks and crannies, and many tranquil resting spots. I am enamored with the area around the Singing Tower. The Reflection Pool, is very picturesque and a prime spot for photos of the warmly glowing tower and it’s reflection in the water. The pond is filled with a variety of water lilies including giant Victoria Longwood Hybrid Lilies, which have extremely large pads (6 feet in diameter) that look like giant green stepping stones floating on the surface of the pond and can support up to 70 pounds. The giant water lilies are annuals and only bloom in the summer. They are quite spectacular. On the south side of the tower (where the sun dial is located), there are towering old trees laced with Spanish moss that provide a shady oasis with stunning views of the tower and the valley below. There are many benches to relax, just breathe, and soak up the pure Floridian beauty.
There is a major paved pathway around the gardens making most areas accessible to individuals using wheelchairs or mobility carts. Due to the pandemic, the Shuttle Service is not providing service. There are wheelchairs and motorized carts available at The Shop at Bok. There are many mulched paths meandering throughout the garden and the 3.5 mile Pine Ridge Preserve hiking trail.
Another iconic photo spot is the Exedra & Sunset Overlook. At an elevation of 298 feet, this is one of the highest points in Florida. Mr. Bok conceived the idea for the gardens when viewing the sunset from this vantage point. The Exedra is marble and it was a gift to Edward Bok from his friends.
Window By The Pond was a little surprise. It’s a petite wooden cabin with several rows of bench seats and a large window overlooking a pond. It’s screened in to protect you from bugs and it’s dark and cool. Speaking of bugs, I was bitten a few times during my exploration of the gardens so next time I will be sure to wear insect repellant. The small observatory offers the chance to observe the wildlife in and around the bog. We saw several birds, butterflies, and colorful dragonflies.
I found flowering foliage in the Pollinator Garden which had informative plaques describing the important role of bees in our food supply.
For little garden explorers with lots of energy, check out the Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden.
My husband and I had lunch at the Blue Palmetto Café, which serves lunch, snacks, ice cream, and beverages including water, sodas, juice, coffee, tea, beer, and wine. We had the Veggie Black Bean burger which was the kind from Morningstar Farms and it came with a pickle and bag of potato chips. The café offers gluten free bread which my husband ordered while I had a naked burger. We shared the caprese salad which was good. Bok allows you to bring your own water and food if you wish. I perused The Shop at Bok which is full of unique treasures and purchased a souvenir coffee mug for my husband. You can find a plant to take home for your own garden at the Plant Shop.
In the air conditioned Visitor Center, there is an Exhibit Hall. This small museum is packed full of very interesting and educational information, photos, and the original carillon keyboard. I highly recommend you check out this exhibit to learn about the design of the garden, construction of the tower, examples of the materials used to build the tower, and the production, transportation, and installation of the carillon bells.
I had a lovely time discovering this amazing botanical gardens. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm started just before the 1:00 pm Carillon Concert so we missed out on the music. Consequently I have to go back! I plan to return to Bok Tower Gardens during the springtime to see the profusion of flowers of the azaleas, camellias, and magnolias. Also I think a visit during the holidays is a must since the gardens and the Pinewood Estate are decorated in Christmas splendor and there are several special holiday events such as the annual Sunset & Symphony Holiday Concert with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Cork & Craft Dinner, and walking tours.
*Open daily 8 am to 6 pm (last admission
*Open 365 days a year
*Restrooms in Visitor Center and by the Info Booth adjacent to The Singing Tower
*Visitor Center, Blue Palmetto Café, and Shop at Bok are open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
*Tickets available online and at the gate
*Parking is included in the admission
*Single day admission: $15 adults
$5 children (5 – 12 years old)
Free for children under 5 years old
Address: 1151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL 33853