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Gazette Gardener: Florida Keys tropical forest full of botanical treasures

Tuesday, April 6, 2010
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Lignumvitae trees were considered treasures by the Spanish explorers because the wood was used for construction as well as for medicine.
Lignumvitae trees were considered treasures by the Spanish explorers because the wood was used for construction as well as for medicine.

Take a garden writer to Florida’s Keys in March and she’ll want to breathe in the fragrance of every blooming flower, walk under the swaying palm trees and visit the only virgin tropical forest in the United States.

How could I miss that?

Not only was the experience interesting for a zone 5 gardener, but the trek inspired me to ask readers about botanical sites they have visited. E-mail me and I’ll gather the information and pass along your recommendations.

The site I visited was Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, 280 acres of what once was common vegetation in the Florida Upper Keys. As more people moved to the Keys, the native vegetation was scraped away to make room for development. The result is that Lignumvitae Key’s tropical forest is very rare and the Lignumvitae (Lig-num-vite-ee) trees listed as an endangered species by the state of Florida.

The island was once the home of William J. Matheson, a wealthy Miami chemist, who in 1919 built a caretaker’s home with a windmill for electricity and a cistern for rainwater.

Matheson was the chemist who developed the dye that keeps our blue jeans blue. Today, his home is the visitors center and first stop for the ranger-guided tours that are given twice daily, Thursday through Monday.

The home is interesting, with photographic exhibits of what it is what like to live on the island, and the creatures that visit, including turtles, butterflies and birds. But what gardeners will like most is the guided trail walk.

Intriguing trees

Walking under a canopy of trees with names like mastic, short-leaf fig, poisonwood, pigeon plum, Spanish stopper and gumbo-limbo you get a sense of what island life was like for the pioneers who settled there. Spanish stopper was so named because it helped control symptoms of dysentery, and gumbo-limbo earned the nickname of ‘the tourist tree’ because the bark is red and peels. Poisonwood gives a rash to anyone touching its bark, but its berries are absolutely vital to the migrating white-crowned pigeon. As you walk through the forest, you get a sense of how difficult it is for plant life to survive on what is essentially coral reef with lean pockets of soil in depressions.

The park ranger, Bill Cater, told us lignumvitae means “holy wood” or “tree of life” and is said to live a thousand years. The oldest specimen in the forest is 600 years old and because of stressful growing conditions remains small in stature — about 15 feet. In ideal conditions, lignumvitae will grow twice as tall.

Spanish explorers considered Lignumvitae a treasure. Not only was the dense wood used in construction, it was boiled and used as a cough expectorant, to reduce swelling and as a painkiller. Cater said the tree is still being studied today for its medicinal properties.

Other botanically interesting plants on the island include a large Jamaican dogwood, not related to our northern dogwoods but named because the dense rot-resistant wood was used by shipbuilders in the making of supports called “dogs” in the bilge of ships.

You’ll also see a short-leafed fig, which is the largest in Florida, near the visitor center. And, if you’re lucky, you will spot a nesting osprey with her young.

The views out to the Florida bay are postcard-perfect with clear Caribbean blue waters.

But before you get jealous, come the hot, humid weather, the island is swarmed with millions of mosquitoes. A boater told me he has seen people “run for the docks,” as the mosquitoes are “fierce.” I didn’t experience any insects, but the weather was cool in March.

Botanist’s legacy

Lignumvitae Key is accessible only by boat. Tours are available through Robbie’s Marina (305) 664-9814 and include a half-hour at Indian Key State Historic Site, a 12-acre island on the ocean side of Islamorada, where there are ruins of a small village destroyed by Seminoles in 1840. What I enjoyed seeing were the century plants with 20 foot spikes in various stages of bloom and sisal plants cultivated by noted botanist Henry Perrine.

Perrine was the U.S. Consul in Campeche, Mexico, for 10 years and hoped to introduce tropical crops into the United States. He thought the Florida Keys were the perfect location and, after moving to Indian Key, he tried his hand at cultivating coffee, tea, mangoes, limes, oranges and many other plants, including medicinals.

He was killed on the island by the Seminoles, but his family was saved by hiding in a turtle basin under their house, the opening of which was concealed by a large chest full of seeds the doctor was planning to plant when conditions were favorable.

Have you been anywhere you think other gardeners might like to know about? If so, let me know.

Happy Gardening.

 
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