Paul Butler first set foot in Mead Botanical Garden in late 2009, slipping through the little-used pedestrian entrance on South Pennsylvania Avenue. A retired professor who had recently relocated from England, Butler was an avid horticulturalist and was curious to see this 48-acre urban oasis, which was named for arguably the most skilled hybridizer of plants who ever lived.
“The years had not been kind,” says Butler, who taught mineral science at Imperial College and the University of Oxford. So Butler joined a small army of volunteers under the auspices of what is now known as Mead Botanical Garden Inc. The group managed to rescue the garden from neglect and reestablish it as one of Winter Park’s most important assets.
But what about Theodore Luqueer Mead (1852-1936), for whom the garden was named? “I was unable to find much published information about him,” says Butler, who began researching Mead’s life — at first a casual pastime that quickly became an obsession. “I wanted to find the essence of what made him tick.”
Butler credits his interest in Mead to the late Kenneth Murrah, a Winter Park attorney and history buff whom he had seen perform “a short but captivating historical reenactment of Mead” at a meeting of volunteers. “I left with the impression of just having met a fascinating person from the past who had lived in interesting times,” Butler recalls.
The subsequent five-year project undertaken by Butler resulted in the first-ever book about Mead and his (literally) groundbreaking work, Orchids and Butterflies: The Life and Times of Theodore Mead (Little Red Hen Press, 2016). It is a monumental achievement within its relatively narrow niche, rightfully placing the low-key Mead among the likes of Luther Burbank in the pantheon of great horticulturalists.’
The book, which is dedicated to Murrah, was a labor of love for Butler. Some hard costs were covered by a Rhea Marsh and Dorothy Lockhart Smith Winter Park History Research Grant, which is administered by Rollins College and the Winter Park Public Library.
But with thousands of hours invested — plus research trips to New York, Colorado and West Virginia — Butler is unlikely to come out ahead financially. ”With something like this you have to struggle to stay on message,” he notes. “You find a new piece of information and before you know it you’re off on a tangent.”
What truly matters, Butler says, is that at long last proper recognition has been granted to both Mead the scientist and Mead the man. “He was a true gentleman; an old-school gentleman,” Butler says. “He wasn’t a promoter. He didn’t name his creations after himself. That’s the main reason he isn’t better known today.”
Orchids and Butterflies is a hefty 358-page tome highlighted by dozens of never-before published photographs of Mead and his family, some vividly restored and colorized. Unlike most limited-run books aimed at enthusiasts, this one is priced for everyone: $29.95 for a paperback and $39.95 for a hardback.
That’s because Butler believes the book will be of interest even to those who know nothing about horticulture. And while some chapters do discuss Mead’s exacting work in detail, Orchids and Butterflies is, at its heart, a human-interest story.
It recounts the marvelously productive — and occasionally tragic — life of a genial gentleman-scientist who enjoyed romping with children and portraying Santa Claus at community celebrations in Oviedo, where he and his wife lived on the shores of aptly named Lake Charm in an English-style cottage.
It also provides fascinating background about the ornamental plant and citrus industries in Florida, and highlights Mead’s unheralded invention of a still-commonplace method to protect fruit against freezes.
Finally, it explores Mead’s ties to Rollins, and the effort by a student, former Boy Scout John “Jack” Connery, and a professor, the ubiquitous Edwin Osgood Grover, to create a botanical garden in his honor.
Butler’s writing is direct and accessible, which is not always the case with books penned by academics (particularly, one assumes, academics with backgrounds in science). You do not have to know an amaryllis from a caladium to find Orchids and Butterflies engrossing, primarily because the book is a biography — not a treatise.
Still, students of agriculture, horticulture and entomology will find a compelling, well-documented analysis of Mead’s contributions to those fields, studded with enough Latin designations and technical definitions to make the book as authoritative as it is enjoyable.
If you only know the Mead name through the garden — and perhaps through a ’70s-era subdivision in Oviedo — then you’ll enjoy meeting the precocious youngster, the rugged adventurer, the pioneering citrus grower, the brilliant scientist and the beloved pillar of the community.
Mead was born to Samuel and Mary Mead in Fishkill, New York, 60 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Mary was deeply religious, while Samuel, the well-to-do son of a wholesale grocer, might be best described as a freethinker. But the two made a congenial couple, and were equally indulgent of young “Theo’s” interests in plants and insects.
In 1867, he and his mother enjoyed a seven-month tour of Europe, where “Theo” was fascinated by exhibits of machinery at the French International Expedition. In Florence, he wrote, he was “rather intrigued by Galileo’s dried finger … and also by the stuffed skin of a saint.” Indeed, what 15-year-old could resist?
Fatefully, while in Europe the youngster also wheedled his mother into buying him a large and comprehensive collection of butterflies — it cost $50, the equivalent for more than $800 today — sparking a passion for studying and collecting the winged creatures.
The family first visited Florida in 1868, where Theo was thrilled to find and net a rare Papilio calverleyi around the town of Enterprise in what is now Volusia County.
The adventurous teen, certain that he had found his passion, spent the summer of 1869 at the Coalburg, West Virginia, home of William H. Edwards, the foremost expert in lepidoptera (the study of butterflies and moths) in America.
In 1868, Edwards had published Butterflies of North America, which eventually encompassed three volumes. The lavishly illustrated books “secured Edwards’ reputation as the greatest American butterfly expert,” writes Butler, who adds that the volumes are today regarded “on the same iconic level as Audubon’s bird books.”
After several months chasing specimens on the 30,000 acres owned by Edwards, the peripatetic young man returned to New York and joined his brother, Sammy, at the Columbia School of Mines.
Two years later, the Mead brothers accompanied the Edwards family on a government-sponsored mapping expedition of the Colorado Rockies. There, Mead gathered 3,800 butterfly specimens, including 28 new species — several of which were named by Edwards for Mead.
He also explored by horseback an area now called the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument, discovering numerous fossilized insects — including a variety of termite that had previously been unknown — and calling attention to the importance of the site for scientific research.
In 1874, Mead enrolled at Cornell University, where he won $20 for the best lecture on a subject in physiology based on his butterfly research. But in 1875, he was devastated when Sammy, with whom he was extremely close, accidentally shot and killed himself while preparing for a hunting trip.
Still, Mead managed to graduate in 1877 with a degree in civil engineering. He and his parents then embarked on a six-month-long nature excursion to California, traveling by steamer from New York to Panama and up the coast to San Francisco, then returning via Salt Lake City and Chicago. Along the way he collected cacti and more butterflies.
In 1881, the Meads moved to the town of Eustis in what is now Lake County. Mead’s father bought his surviving son 90 acres for citrus growing and an additional 800 acres of pine forest as an investment.
The following year, Mead married Edith Edwards, daughter of his entomological mentor, after receiving personal assurances that she did not share his mother’s evangelical fervor. Mead, like Edwards, was an adherent of Darwinism, much to his mother’s dismay.
“You won’t have to fear having chosen a ‘female revivalist,’” Edith wrote him, “for as you know, I don’t approve of that sort of thing. I believe in complete freedom of conscience, and shall never try to make you, dear boy, try to believe as I do where you can’t.”
After honeymooning in England, the couple returned to Eustis and began life as frontier citrus growers — although Mead also began experimenting with ornamental and subtropical plants. But the operation was a financial drain, prompting Mead to sell his butterfly collection to raise cash.
Souring on Eustis, in 1886 the Meads moved to Oviedo, an isolated backwater south of Lake Jessup in what is now eastern Seminole County. With financial assistance from Mead’s father, they bought an 85-acre grove around Lake Charm and built a home they whimsically dubbed “Waitabit.”
Across the small lake, Henry Foster, a savvy homeopathic physician and part-time citrus grower, maintained a winter home (which still stands). Foster’s wife, Mary, was Edith’s aunt. The Fosters, who had encouraged the Meads to relocate, also operated a sanitarium at Clifton Springs, New York, where the healing power of sulphur springs attracted patients.
In 1887, the Meads had a daughter. Mead, however, had desperately wanted a son, and wrote his parents shortly after the child’s birth that “at present I don’t want to see her or hear her or have anything to do with her.” Soon, though, Mead was doting on the little girl, named Dorothy.
But the youngster contracted scarlet fever at age 4, and died “after 17 dreadful days and nights.” The Meads, who would never have another child, were devastated.
Following the loss, Mead spent even more time gardening. He ordered palm seeds from England and Italy and patiently waited years for them to germinate. By 1894, he had as many as 250 palms in pots. But he gave up on palms after losing them all in the Great Freezes of December 1894 and February 1895.
Mead’s interests turned increasingly toward flowers. His approach to hybridization was to create new types of plants that combined beauty and commercial value — whether the process was difficult, as with orchids, or simple, as with daylilies.
“He would just give plants away to anybody,” says Butler. “People would come from miles around to see his home and his plants. They’d admire a flower and he’d just say, ‘Go ahead and take it.’”
According to horticulturist Henry Nehrling, who then lived and worked in Gotha, his low-key friend and sometime collaborator was a more accomplished hybridizer of plants than the far more famous Burbank.
The grounds around Waitabit became a wonderland of exotic plants, including succulents and cacti, while Mead conducted his experiments in a greenhouse and sold plants to wholesale clients.
Remembering weather disasters from years past, Mead also turned his attention to the problem of protecting citrus during freezes. He hypothesized that enclosing groves in wood-and-cloth sheds — and coating trees in water via an overhead irrigation system powered by a steam pump — might allow fruit to survive by encasing it in a 32-degree ice cocoon.
He successfully used this approach on 475 of his own trees in the brutal winter of 1901. An article about Mead’s innovation in a 1905 edition of Country Life in America magazine included perhaps the first description of continual watering to prevent freeze damage — a technique still used by growers.
The Meads also took an active interest in the young people of Oviedo, many of whom called Mead “Uncle Teddy.” Edith taught sewing classes, gave piano lessons and was a founder of the Oviedo Woman’s Club. Mead, with his jolly demeanor and white beard, played Santa Claus in local Christmas pageants and became Oviedo’s first Scoutmaster.
“The Meads had an incredible library and had read a lot of medical books,” Butler says. “Edith had training as a nurse. So the two of them would ride around Oviedo in their buggy, going into the black areas and offering medical help, sometimes bringing remedies made from the plants he grew.”
It was through the Boy Scouts, at Apopka’s Camp WeWa, that Mead met Jack Connery, an Orlando Eagle Scout who would later join forces with Grover to make Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park a reality.
Connery was an avid collector of birds’ eggs and nests, which in 1932 he donated to Rollins College’s Thomas R. Baker Museum of Natural History in exchange for tuition. (The museum moved off campus in 1939 and no longer exists; the fate of its collection is unknown.)
While serving as student curator for the museum, Connery also became Mead’s protégé, assisting the aging horticulturist at his greenhouse and gardens. “Someday,” he told his mentor, “I am going to build a memorial garden for you.”
Mead, alone since Edith’s death in 1927, was undoubtedly flattered. But he could have had no idea that the eager Connery, along with a visionary professor, would do exactly that just a few years later.
Although his health was failing, Mead continued to work into his 80s. An admiring colleague, horticulturist Julian Nally, made the pilgrimage to Waitabit in 1932 and found the property to be “a tangled ruin” overgrown with plants of every description. But he was most struck with his host’s disheveled appearance.
“I left that afternoon more conscious of Mead’s peculiarity of dress than anything else,” Nally later recalled. “He had on a stocking skated knitting cap, the jacket of a Boy Scout uniform and a pair of shorts over long wool underwear.”
Mead died in 1936, and the headline in the Orlando Morning Sentinel read: “Science Loses T.L. Mead — Well Known Oviedo Botanist Dies.” His legacy, according to Butler, is perhaps most profound in the development of the ornamental horticulture industry.
His work with Nehrling led to the bi-colored Mead-strain amaryllis. He created hundreds of new orchids — almost all forgotten today, Butler says — and he was a pioneer in launching the orchid industry. All strap-leaved caladiums owe their origin to his efforts.
Mead’s overhead water irrigation system to protect citrus against damage from freezing weather was revolutionary. As an entomologist, he discovered many species of butterfly, two of which still carry his name.
His early experiments with Edwards demonstrated that environmental factors controlled variations within butterfly species, supporting Darwinism. While regarded as irrefutable fact today, the theory of evolution was savaged as heretical, even by other scientists, when On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859.
In his will, Mead left his orchid collection to Connery, who in turn discussed the idea of a memorial garden with Grover. The professor’s brother, Frederick, was a professor of botany at Oberlin College in Ohio, and admired Theo’s work.
Grover was a tireless civic activist who knew what an asset a botanical garden would be for Winter Park. Through persistence, persuasion and sheer force of will, he spearheaded the drive to create Mead Botanical Garden from a primeval tract tucked away at the end of South Denning Drive, across the railroad tracks and bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and Howell Creek.
In 1937, Theodore L. Mead Botanical Garden Inc., a nonprofit organization that would operate the garden, was formed. At its helm was Grover as president and Rollins President Hamilton Holt as honorary president. Connery was named director and executive secretary.
The memorial garden that Connery had promised opened, against all odds, in 1940. The story of how it happened — and the roller-coaster years between then and now — would fill another book. Orchids and Butterflies, which is, after all, a biography, appropriately concludes at Mead’s death. The formation of the garden is dealt with in a cursory final chapter.
But that chapter reinforces the impression of Mead as a kindly and exceedingly modest man who, despite his accomplishments, would almost certainly have insisted that he was unworthy of a memorial garden.
“They call a fellow a wizard if he takes the trouble to cross-pollinate a couple of blossoms,” he once said. “But as a matter of fact, we do nothing more than the farmer who drops seeds in the furrow. We merely do systematically what the bees do for the farmer instinctively and haphazardly, and what the wind does because it cannot help it.”