Doctor leads effort to bring memorial garden back to life


Dr. Craig Tisher explains the process of air-layering a camellia plan at the Wilmot Gardens near the intersection of Gale Lemerand Drive and Mowry Road on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in Gainesville. Camellias have a life-span and air-layering allows a portion of the plant to be re-grown and live on.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

When Dr. Craig Tisher walks by the gardenias that front the Wilmot Gardens on the corner of Mowry Road and Gale Lemerand Drive, just behind Shands Medical Plaza, he is reminded of his high school prom.

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Dr. Craig Tisher explains the process of air-layering a camellia plan at the Wilmot Gardens near the intersection of Gale Lemerand Drive and Mowry Road on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in Gainesville. Camellias have a life-span and air-layering allows a portion of the plant to be re-grown and live on.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Up the hill and into the heart of the gardens, the “Tree of Hippocrates” reminds him of colleagues who have received the Hippocratic Award in a ceremony that has taken place every year since 1969, at the site of the garden’s emblematic tree from the isle of Kos in Greece.

And fittingly the “circle of life” is a theme that Tisher has applied to the vast restoration of the gardens that he has largely overseen.

A nephrologist by training, Tisher served as the dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Florida from 2002 until 2007 and had been on the UF faculty since 1980.

In his retirement, he has helped transform the gardens from a few acres of overgrown weeds to a secret garden that, bit by bit, is regaining its original splendor as the camellia capital of the country.

The gardens are named for a famed UF horticulturalist, James “Roy” Wilmot, who in the 1940s, founded the American Camellia Society and classified 3,000 known varieties of camellias — small trees that sprout big white, pink and red flowers. After Wilmot died in 1950, society members donated camellias and azaleas, another flowering plant, from around the country to establish the gardens.

For a while, the gardens flourished, becoming an enchanted place for proposals and weddings. But after a few decades, active management of the gardens stopped and invasive vines and harmful bugs moved in, leaving the gardens in a state of disarray.

About five years ago, Tisher and others started renovating the property, first clearing pathways and then laying sod.

Several of the original camellia plants, including the oldest, from 1941, were resurrected. And many of the garden’s original trees, including basswoods, magnolias and pines, still tower over the property.

Meanwhile, new circular areas are home to plantings in their infancy.

“One of the symbols we’ve tried to maintain is the circle of life,” Tisher said, pointing out a few memorial benches or bricks for esteemed faculty members who have died, such as most recently Dr. David Paulus, UF anesthesiology professor, and Dr. William Deal, a former UF College of Medicine dean.

Working in the gardens is also a therapy project for local veterans, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’ve brought them out of their shell,” Tisher said.

Master gardener Linda Luecking, one of Tisher’s partners in the restoration project, added, “I think it’s very beneficial to them because we see big smiles on their faces.”

“They choose something they want to plant and when they come back and it’s 4-5 inches taller, they are in shock because things grow so much quicker in the greenhouse,” Luecking added.

People generally stick to growing one type of plant, including tomatoes, cucumber, basil, and various citrus plants, Luecking said. She added that the vets also learn about cooking with the fruits of their labor, making things such as basil lemonade and basil lemon bars.

“The whole thing is designed to take their minds off of their problems and give them a better quality of life,” Tisher said.

And that mission just expanded, since last week Tisher and his other gardening colleagues got funding for a proposal to the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“This will allow us to offer the therapeutic horticulture experience to veterans locally who suffer from spinal cord injury or disease and are wheelchair-bound,” Tisher said.

Tisher added that part of the money will be used to fund a new 2,700-square-foot completely accessible greenhouse in the gardens.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com

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