500 Artists, Gardens Celebrate Florida’s 500th Birthday


December 17, 2012

By Xavier Cortada

On Easter Sunday 1513, Ponce de Leon landed his three ships on the eastern shore of the peninsula where I live.

Claiming the land for Spain, he named the place La Florida, (for the Spanish word “flor” or flower) because of the lush landscape and because of the day the explorers arrived, Pascua florida, Easter.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of this encounter, I am working through the Florida International University College of Architecture + The Arts to develop FLOR500, a participatory art, nature, and history project that encourages participants to explore Florida’s natural wonder:

Indeed, I wanted to create an art project that allowed our inhabitants to understand the multicultural origins of our state, its fragile biodiversity, and its threatened coastlines. So I took the father of the Fountain of Youth mythology and his historic milestone as a point of departure to explore ways of rejuvenating “the Sunshine State.”

This exploration to wasn’t solely mine; I wanted as many Floridians as possible to really understand it. So, I went big.


My first step was to seek out biologists and botanists from across the state to identify the wildflowers that around when Ponce de Leon and his crew first landed our shores. As the architect of the project, I gave some guidelines: I want a diversity of color, region, size. I wanted to focus and everything from weeds to flowering trees, so that people understood the varieties of flowering plants in Florida. And I wanted 500. One for every year of the anniversary.


Then, I invited 500 Florida artists to go out into their communities and find and depict those 500 flowers. The 500 art pieces and information about each artist and flower are exhibited as a virtual bouquet on the project website.


Students from 500 Florida schools and libraries are being encouraged to plant 500 wildflower gardens and dedicate them to one of 500 historic Florida figures selected by our team of historians.


The roster of 500 includes individuals who have helped mold our state’s history since March 3rd, 1513, when Ponce de Leon set sail from Puerto Rico on the Santa Maria de Consolación, Santiago, and San Cristóbal. 

The first FLOR500 garden was planted at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee on March 22, 2012 and dedicated to the indigenous people of Florida. We plantedCoreopsis lanceolata, the official state wildflower.

On November 27, the latest garden was dedicated in Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens to Juan Ponce de Leon and the Taino people of Caribbean he left as he journeyed to Florida. There, at the edge of Biscayne Bay, the place he sailed by 500 years ago now has three species planted in his name:


The FLOR500 project marks the importance of the moment when the history of our state changed forever and gives us a glimpse of what its landscape was like 500 years ago.

These gardens are created to inspire Floridians to replicate the effort and plant gardens at home to honor the natural history of the state and of its people. The more that participate, the stronger the project.

Indeed, all Floridians are asked to participate in the 500th anniversary by growing native wildflower gardens at home and in the process, they help reduce drought and improve biodiversity.

They are asked to dedicate the garden to either one of the 500 featured Floridians or to a Floridian who is special to them—anyone who currently lives and/or who has lived in Florida during the past 500 years. In the process they will learn about their environment and pay tribute to members of our community.

Upon planting the garden, they are asked to upload the dedication and their photos online.

The effort furthers my long-standing commitment to eco-art projects that engage community and expose human impact on the environment.

My hope is that by planting one garden at a time, we are planting seeds of change. Change that is needed so that when we, as a community of engaged individuals, look to the next 500 years, we can find better ways to coexist with nature. And with one another.