Plants Change Lives
Valkaria Gardens Offers Lush Landscaping — a Legacy Grown from World Travels
“The jungle is for everyone to enjoy!” declared Clay Millare, owner of Valkaria Gardens.
Millare led a personal tour for the team at Everything Brevard Magazine, and from the first breathtaking step onto the 2-acre property, a sense of calm descended. Decoratively displayed terracotta pots filled with exotic finds from around the globe lined the walkway. They spidered out into various design spaces with outdoor living rooms, vine walls and hanging plants.
“I let the plants talk,” Millare said when asked how he creates his garden room nooks.
The variety of levels, layers, and colors expertly recreated a jungle ambiance and from everywhere in the garden, a cool breeze whispered. Winds rustled through the crowns, leapfrogging from tree to tree, carrying peace, tranquility, and beauty from one end to the other. Millare shared statues from Japan, fountains from Indonesia, and Vietnamese bamboo with stalks that stretched 30 feet into the air.
“Years ago, while Dr. Brown and I were always travelling and seeing gardens, I kept all the visuals in my head to recreate later.”
Millare mixes style with purpose to craft plant rentable rooms, based off those spaces he’d seen in his travels. The wedding room consists of outdoor seating, a stone aisle, and central platform, for exchanging vows, framed by foliage. In the reception room, a stone table spread beneath dozens of wood beams, remnants of natural tree telephone poles from eras past. Driftwood chandeliers hang between the pilings, creating an ambiance only nature (and Millare) could create.
But the story started thousands of miles away in a Phillipine jungle village.
Millare was born to parents who couldn’t read or write, the middle child of 11. His life was vastly different on the archipelago. His meager home had no running water or electricity. Like his friends, Millare walked barefoot daily to school or to work in the rice paddies.
Until he met Dr. Bartley Frank Brown. A former Melbourne High School principal, Brown was a self taught botanist who retired and traveled the world cataloguing exotic plants. He spoke on the botanical circuit, wrote three books on tropical plants, and hybridized and patented variations, including the Aglaonema.
On his first visit to the Philippines, Brown fell in love with the beauty of the land and with its plants and foliage. During a five-day journey across the Big Island, he serendipitously bumped into Millare, who was about 18 at the time. Millare agreed to help harvest jungle plants, and over time, they became friends, as Brown returned twice a year for fresh inventory to continue his hybridization work.
After five years of working together, Brown brought Millare to America, where he financed Millare’s education at Florida Tech and changed his life. It was a huge change for Millare to leave his village for America, where he had running water and electricity. But he also underwent some culture shock.
Until his death, Brown and Millare travelled the world, visiting gardens and collecting new plants. Millare caught the bug and embarked on his own journey. It began with the Chinese Evergreen, designated as one of the top 10 air purifiers in a NASA clean air study.
These plants were part of an experiment for purification inside the shuttle. A room was filled with poison and only these plants, then checked after 24 hours of exposure. Remarkably, these plants purified the air completely — a powerful study and testimony to the regenerative power of nature.
“To me, the plants are so common,” Millare said. “Over there, everywhere you look (in the Philippines) is like this. They are weeds. Then, Dr. Brown patents and sells them, and they are worth money in America.”
Many of the gorgeous plants Millare shares at Valkaria Gardens are unforgettable. Malaysian and Easter orchids, Rangoon creepers, and two that embody their names: lobster plants — which are reddish and mimicked lobster claws — and monkey tails, which are hot pink, soft to the touch, and imitate craft pipe cleaners.
With Millare as the nursery manager, Brown opened Valkaria Gardens to the public as a place to display his tropical beauties. Eventually, the gardens were left to Millare, who continues to develop and build the property.
In early 2020, Millare opened a second garden. Valkaria Edibles sits on 5 acres with fruit trees and more, managed by Millare's sister. They both grew up in a world where you only grew what you could eat — a principle shaken to the core when Brown introduced Millare to the other ways people like to utilize plants in their personal environments.
Plants served multiple purposes in the jungle of Millare’s youth, far beyond beauty, purity, or monetary gain. Large licuala palm leaves functioned as umbrellas during rainy weather and offered shade when travelling. Bamboo stalks acted as boundary walls for security and privacy, growing as tall as permitted until cut to halt progression.
Millare lives on a 5-acre property he calls his classroom. It contains all the plants he and Brown brought back from their travels, the ones he cuts and brings to sell at Valkaria Gardens. It’s also where he’s made all his mistakes.
“I never expected to end up here,” Millare said. “Just in the right place at the right time. And then I worked hard, hard, hard!”
Millare lived with Brown, planted and curated the 5-acre garden, and took care of him until the end of his life. Brown died in 2014, at the age of 97. “This is my best import,” Brown would lovingly joke about Millare whenever he gave a garden club lecture.
Years later, now on his own, Millare offers his best advice to non-gardeners: “Practice makes perfect. Plants are less needy than people. Ignore them and they will thrive. Talk to them. Admire them. They are living, after all.”
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