75 Years of Symbiosis: Mead Botanical Garden and Rollins College

The Rollins College Archives is pleased to share this post by guest blogger and Archives volunteer, Anna Ton. Anna holds a B.S. in Health Science from the University of Miami and an MLS in Library and Information Services from the University of Maryland, College Park. Thank you, Anna!


Mead Botanical Garden (Photo:  Visit Florida via Creative Commons,  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)

Mead Botanical Garden celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year! With a mission to “enrich the community through the discovery, enjoyment and celebration of nature and the cultural arts,” it is no surprise that Mead Garden and Rollins College have remained close community partners for over seven decades. Indeed, with its picturesque natural landscape and signature architecture, Rollins was named Most Beautiful Campus according to this year’s Princeton Review.

Of course, beauty is not the only connection between these pioneering Winter Park institutions, as is evident by the planned joint celebration in October to commemorate the Garden’s anniversary and honor Rollins’ President Emeritus, Thaddeus Seymour. Read on to find out more about their ongoing history as partners in beautification, community building, and learning!


   Theodore Mead holding an allamanda (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

Theodore L. Mead was a horticulturalist known for his work in growing and hybridizing plants such as the orchid—a challenging feat at the time. He settled in Oviedo, Florida, in 1886, working on his garden experiments and orange grove. Although his friendship with Edwin Grover, the “Professor of Books,” is Mead’s best-known connection with Rollins, his relationship with the College began as early as 1896 (before meeting Grover) when he was Special Lecturer in botany.1, 2

As a Scoutmaster in 1922, Mead met John Connery, a Boy Scout and future Rollins Tar. Connery soon became his “young disciple” both in the garden and in life. They spent years working together, and later following Mead’s death from a stroke in 1936, Connery came into possession of Mead’s bulb and plant collection.Their bond remained unbreakable even after Mead was gone. As a testament to this bond, Grover and Connery would soon set out to build a memorial garden to house Mead’s beloved plants and keep his legacy alive.

This orchid photo was donated by Mead to the Rollins College Archives

The anticipated garden was not Mead’s only legacy. He cemented his connection to Rollins when he willed the contents of his scientific library, his personal papers, and letters to the College. Mead’s self-recorded contributions to various scientific fields serve as inspiration for generations of scientists to come! His dedication to learning and community was further underscored when he donated his carefully sectioned literary library to two public libraries and his multitude of beloved plants to a local park.4   (The park owners graciously waived their rights to the collection, and plans for the Garden proceeded.)


After proposing the idea of a memorial garden, Grover and Connery quickly settled on a swamp and its adjacent land in sunny Winter Park for the site. Whether it was a result of good luck or intensive research done by Connery, the land included many natural landscape features that perfectly suited a garden, including a brook, lake, and rookery. Much of it was also unused city and county land. They quickly appealed to various property owners to donate their land—and (amazingly) succeeded!5

                     Groundbreaking Ceremony at Mead Botanical Garden.             Fifth from the left is Edwin Grover, and John Connery is third from the right.         (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

Clearing the swamp and preparing the land began in 1937, and the official groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of planting on January 9, 1938. Among the supporters of Mead Botanical Garden was Rollins’ President, Hamilton Holt, as well as many city, county, and state officials. They hoped the garden would become a “source of study” and represent Winter Park as a “place of culture and art.”6

Mead in his garden in Oviedo (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

The Garden officially opened on January 14, 1940. Like the groundbreaking ceremony, opening day was just as well attended, with many speeches made. After all his hard work in honoring his late mentor, Connery reflected in his short speech, “This is a great occasion for all of us.”7 The mayor of Orlando reiterated this feeling, stating, “[This Garden] is a memorial to Dr. Theodore Mead . . . and a tribute to the loyalty and tenacity of [John] and Mrs. Connery.” President Holt also acknowledged Grover and Connery, “who carried out Dr. Grover’s ideas” with special care.


In February of 1950, Mead Garden hosted “Fashions in the Garden,” where Grover gave a tour of the gardens, followed by Rollins students modelling in a pageant-style fashion show and ending with a “Fashion Show tea” for both the models and the crowd.8 In the following years, this became an annual event showcasing clothing and styles from local Winter Park businesses.

 The women who participated in “Fashions in the Garden” included Rollins students (from The Rollins Sandspur, 2/18/1950)

Edwin Grover’s 88th birthday party at Rollins College (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

The year 1963 marked Grover’s 93rd birthday. That year he told the Winter Park Star that his wish was to see a renewed interest in Mead Garden. He spoke of his many physical and financial contributions to Mead Garden (even up until his 80th year of life), and how he wanted to see more continued support for the Garden in future years.9 Grover’s commitment to Mead’s memory and the community was a testament to both men’s enduring legacy in Winter Park.


 In the following years, the City of Winter Park took ownership of Mead Garden and in 1967, a plan was drawn to further develop the Garden. From the outside, it would “retain its natural woods-like appearance,” but inside it would benefit from a variety of new plants, landscaping, and greenhouses. By 1971, it was clear that the plan had been put on hold indefinitely due to lack of funding and some protests against moving away from the Garden’s more “natural state.” At the time, minor construction work was still being done to improve small areas.10

Undated photo of the Zarnasee Jungle, lily pool, and island in Mead Garden           (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

However, the Garden’s condition had declined by 1977, with its Director stating that he heard complaints about it “all the time.” By that point, only one person maintained all 55 acres that comprised the Garden. And while the Winter Park Mayor “denied that the [Garden was] neglected,” he also admitted that there were not enough funds to hire more personnel for the monumental tasks required for upkeep. The Garden also reportedly fell victim to thieves and vandals at this time. The one bright spot in this era of Mead Garden’s history was that in the summertime, Rollins and other local students and interns helped to spruce up the grounds.11


Following this darker period in the Garden’s history, Rollins actively contributed to efforts that helped to restore the Garden to its original glory. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s marked community events where students and other members of the community got down and dirty to clean up and beautify the Garden. It may have been a huge undertaking, but Rollins students were committed to serving the community for the greater good!12, 13, 14

Poster advertising a beautification event in 1987 (from the Rollins College Archives)

 This partnership continued in 1992 and 1993, when Winter Park officials asked the students to map out a “Braille trail for sight impaired visitors,” as well as, “identif[y] 16 sites for educational stations” on the trail. Officials were so impressed with the students’ work that they were asked to contribute to more city projects! This included planting test sites with drought-resistant plants to instruct homeowners about how to keep their yards pretty with minimal water usage. Another project called for designing a plan for a paved path between Winter Park’s Showalter Field and Orlando Fashion Square Mall.16


Prof. Eric Engstrom giving his students directions for their biology exam in Mead Garden (Photo by Scott Cook)

In the present day, Rollins alumni, students, faculty, and staff have not forgotten that the Garden is ripe with opportunities for study and creativity. In October of last year, a general education art class visited the garden for “a source of inspiration and imagination.”15 Furthermore, earlier this year, a biology class had their practical exam at Mead Garden, allowing students to study the plants and animals there firsthand.16 It would certainly not be a surprise to run into someone from Rollins while strolling through the Garden!

 Past, Present, and Future

Mead Botanical Garden and Rollins College have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for nearly eight decades. Although there were some hard times, Theodore Mead’s legacy, which Edwin Grover and John Connery sought to immortalize in the Garden, is still going strong in Winter Park. And the Garden’s connection with Rollins has blossomed over the years as the two institutions have partnered to provide opportunities to the community for learning and culture. It is our hope that this relationship will be nurtured for many more years to come. In the blink of an eye, the Garden will turn 100 years old, and Rollins will be there to celebrate with the rest of the Winter Park community!

The final words of Mead’s autobiography perfectly encapsulate Grover and Connery’s vision for Rollins’ enduring relationship with Mead Garden, “Loving labor is never quite lost . . . but I feel that warm friends . . . are ever ready to carry on.”17

~ by Anna Ton, Archival Volunteer

Special Thanks to D. Moore & R. WaltonI couldn’t have done this without you guys! You’re amazing!

1 Eduard Gfeller, “Paul Butler talks about Mead and Grover,” Video, Youtube.com, April 26, 2014.

2 “Mead, Theodore Luqueer” (Catalogue Card, Rollins College Archives).

3 Edwin Osgood Grover, “The Making of a Botanical Garden,” Parks & Recreation (1948): 451-457.

4 “The Last Will and Testament of Theodore L. Mead” (Print, Rollins College Archives, 1933).

5 “75 years of Mead Botanical Garden,” date accessed September 3, 2015, http://meadgarden.org/who.

6 “Ground Broken for Mead Park,” The Sunday Sentinel-Star, January 9, 1938.

7 Elaine Klepper, “Hundreds Stroll Thru Mead Gardens on Opening Day,” Orlando Morning Sentinel, January 15, 1940.

8 Skook Bailey, “Rollins Beauties Model at Gardens,” The Rollins Sandspur, February 17, 1950.

9 Nick White, “Mead Garden Founder is 93,” Winter Park Star, June 5, 1963.

10 Don Mead, “Mead Gardens Expand Plans Gather Dust,” Winter Park Sentinel, May 16, 1971.

11 Sherry Andrews, “Mead Gardens,” the little sentinel, May 11, 1977.

12 “Clean and Seed for the Love of Mead” (Poster, Rollins College Archives, 1987).

13 Bill Morse, “Mead Gardens needs you!” The Rollins Sandspur, February 28, 1990.

14 Karen Pankowski, “Mead Garden trail will give senses a workout,” The Orlando Sentinel, February 28, 1993.

15 “Rollins Art Classroom Extends to Mead Garden,” October 2014, Mead Botanical Garden, http://www.meadgarden.org/news-rollinsart-oct2014.

16 Meredith V. Wellmeier, “Photos: An Exam on the Flora of Florida,” Rollins360, March 11, 2015, http://360.rollins.edu/academics-and-research/photos-an-exam-on-the-flora-of-florida.

17 Theodore L. Mead, Naturalist, Entomologist and Plantsman: An Autobiography (1935), 14.

1 thought on “75 Years of Symbiosis: Mead Botanical Garden and Rollins College

  1. What a lovely article! It’s a wonderfully well written piece and a terrific tribute to the beauty of Mead Garden as well as the ingenuity and commitment of those who keep it going.

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