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Mildred Palmer, 88, nursery founder


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mildred E. Palmer, a nurserywoman acclaimed as an inspiration for the Florida Botanical Gardens, has died at 88.

Mrs. Palmer, a co-founder in St. Petersburg of a nursery of rare tropical trees, died Saturday (May 20, 2000) at Greenbrook Nursing Center.

Her non-profit Suncoast Botanical Gardens off 102nd Avenue N, in an unincorporated area of Pinellas County, disappeared when Walsingham Park opened in 1995.

But it triggered the plan to build Florida Botanical Gardens next to Heritage Village and the Pinellas County Historical Museum, said Judy Yates, director of the Cooperative Extension Service and the chief overseer of the project.

"She would be the mother of any (botanical) garden that would be in Pinellas," Yates said Tuesday.

Beginning in 1962, Mrs. Palmer was president and chief caretaker of Suncoast Botanical Gardens, a 60-acre nonprofit public park on burned-over acreage south of Largo. She helped design the gardens for the Pinellas County Horticulture Club.

She remembered how it all started and how little her volunteers had to work with.

"There wasn't even a road out front," she once recalled. Someone had lighted a fire 17 years earlier to hunt snakes "and everything was burned out. And when we first came out here to work, we used to be almost peppered from the gunshots of people hunting quail."

For a half-century, she and her husband, G. Kenneth Palmer, owned Palmer's Nursery, at 5063 Dartmouth Ave. N. Growing in abundance were exotic fruits, such as the ice cream banana, the peach-like white sapota and the black sapota -- "My husband's favorite," Mrs. Palmer once confessed. "You split it like an avocado and eat it with a spoon. You'll think it's chocolate pudding."

Lacking academic credentials in horticulture (she once worked in a beauty salon), Mrs. Palmer was well known to scientists for her practical experience. Professionals often forwarded to her seeds from experimental university gardens and those acquired on travels to distant lands.

She moved here with her husband from New York State in 1940. Five years later, when land was being sold for taxes, they paid $150 for a lot. On it they built a three-room house, in which she lived until entering the nursing home two years ago. Several nearby lots were transformed into the plant nursery.

The first plants came from Mrs. Palmer's mother -- night-blooming cereus and plumbago. And they began hybridizing hibiscus, then soaring in popularity after their introduction from China.

"I became vice president of the American Hibiscus Society, and we went to meetings all over the state," she recalled. "We were both hibiscus judges" and authors of a book on hibiscus.

In 1962, a freeze wiped out more than 400 hybridized hibiscus, and the Palmers switched their efforts to exotics.

Mrs. Palmer, a Baptist and a native of Kansas City, Mo., was a member of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and a past president and lifetime judge of the Woodside Garden Club, St. Petersburg.

Her husband died Nov. 30, 1990. Survivors include a sister, Linda G. Young, Indian Harbour Beach; a niece, Brenda Hilderbrandt, Tacoma, Wash.; and a nephew, Franklin Earle Hurst, Tarpon Springs.

National Cremation Society, St. Petersburg, is in charge of arrangements.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the Florida Botanical Gardens, Attention Mildred Palmer Memorial, 12175 125th St. N, Largo, FL 33774.

* * *

Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

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