Today the fellows toured and experienced the only frost-free tropical forest garden in the continental United States. Located off the coast of Florida, The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden has an extensive collection of native plants of the Northern Caribbean Rim. The largest portion of their plant collection is endemic to the Florida Keys, containing approximately 60 endangered species. These collections preserve and protect important germplasm, while also serving as an important educational tool. The Garden currently runs educational programs for all school age children on Key West, reaching over 3,000 children annually. The Garden also has five docent led tours highlighting different ecosystems and plantings throughout the institution.
Our group was guided by docents Beryn and Rick Harty, who shared their extensive knowledge of the Garden’s history and plant collections. Beryn explained that the Garden was established in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration to foster jobs and tourism throughout the Keys. After opening, the Garden quickly became the #1 tourist destination in Key West. During World War II, part of the Garden was turned over to become a military base. The Botanical Garden was initially started with displays of tropical plants from around the world, but in 2000, the collection became focused on natives. However, many large exotic specimens remained from early periods, like the huge Barringtonia (Barringtonia asiatica), the beautiful Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia), a few large autograph trees (Clusia rosea), and an impressive sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata). Of the few other non-natives that can be found in the Garden are several nectar and host plant species for native butterflies.
Beryn and Rick proudly told us that the Garden now has collected 72% of all shrubs and 80% of all trees native to the Keys. Two particularly impressive native trees found throughout the Garden were the pigeon plum (Cocoloba diversifolia) and the sea grape (Colcoloba uvifera). We were all given good advice to stay clear of one native tree during our stay on the Keys. This tree was the poisonwood (Metoplom toxiforum), whose wood and foliage causes a reaction similar to poison ivy, but is also able to exude toxic sap during a downpour. One other plant that surprised the fellows was the endangered semaphre cactus (Opunita corallicola), which is reduced to only one male population found on Key West Island.
After our delightful tour, we met with board members Richard Keefe and Carolann Sharkey who shared many new and exciting plans for expanding the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. One new project that we saw being installed was the new pond. This pond is built on top of an aquifer and plans to showcase native fresh water flora and fauna. Another new construction project is a LEED certified visitor center, for which the Garden will begin a capital campaign this year. A few other projects that are on the horizon include: a scenic by-way, an internship program, more educational tours, a Miami blue butterfly garden and a Cuban forest garden. These plans are only made possible thanks to dedicated and passionate volunteers, staff, and board members. The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical garden is truly fortunate for them and is a must see destination when in the Florida Keys.