Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

New day dawns at Key West’s botanical jewel

June 29, 2008 

One of Key West’s oldest attractions is crawling back from the brink of extinction. The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden welcomes visitors where once there were none and, before that, throngs.

Fighting back against governmental annexation, mismanagement and hurricane devastation, the tall, pristine forest thrives again. Carolann Sharkey, chairwoman of directors, raised the dead here, turning overgrowth into a community learning center and research gold mine. And more growth is on the way.

When new visitors arrive at the garden, receptionists like M.J. Webster offers them a two-minute video explaining the history, layout and relevance of the garden.

Two tall, lean grey obelisks lean outward in a large fenced off area where a large pond will sit, part of an expansion that will double the size of the garden, expected to be completed in about four years. Despite its historical presence in Key West, most of the garden’s funds come from elsewhere, Executive Director Vicki Grant says. Bringing in locals to support the garden is a top priority for organizers, she says.

“In all fairness, the hurricanes in 2005 left just a messed up garden,” Grant says. “And we’ve been under development ever since.”

But renewed vigor guides a return to form for the garden, and much of the canopy grows again. And with the garden rebuilt, Sharkey and company now own a lease from the city for the 6.5 acres needed for the pond and other expansions. Plans include bird and reptile wetland sanctuaries; meeting spaces and stages; research and education centers; children’s areas and more.

But the approximately 13 acres — a hard fought for tract of land — pales in comparison to the once mighty garden, formerly Key West’s finest attraction.

In the Great Depression, a time of sweeping government spending, federal organizations sought to drum up Florida tourism. Officials crafted a 55-acre plot of land for a botanical garden covering most of Stock Island. The garden was dedicated to protecting and showcasing what is now one of the world’s biological hotspots: the northern rim of the Caribbean in 1936.

As the Keys turned from bankrupt and isolated to connected and (once again) thriving, the garden became Florida’s No. 1 attraction, Sharkey says. “Of course this was before the theme parks,” she says. World War II saw the garden fall into neglect and the government took over much of the land for other projects, including a military hospital. It remained mostly locked away behind various buildings and fences.

“It’s our job to bring the garden back to what it used to be,” Sharkey says. She lauds her small staff, but says the donation-only preserve needs ever-more volunteers. Balking at the idea of charging admission, she says seeing is believing in the garden.

“If you get people to come out,” she says trailing off to gesture to the canopy around her. “If they see it, they’re not going to tear it down.”

And with new growth and marketing, she hopes to do just that. The reinvigorated sanctuary is currently on display in Washington, D.C. Sharkey met with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen about federal grants for the garden to further expand research and education programs.

“At the risk of offending some people, it’s more than just a garden club,” Sharkey says. “It’s a place for science and learning more than ever.”

Education With Lower Keys elementary education and tandem high school-Duke University programs in place, garden Director of Education Suzanne Bryant is testing a middle school program for intelligent “at risk” kids who might benefit from the extracurricular learning to encourage them stay in school.

The pilot program features about a dozen children who spend time discovering how diverse biology related to diverse cultures one Friday afternoon after finishing pre-algebra lessons on finding the area of the garden and heights of the trees. The kids, learning about Caribbean diversity, are eager to impart their fledgling knowledge of music and dance from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and others.

Bryant hopes experiences from the hands-on, or “wow,” learning inspires the next generation of biologists and nature enthusiasts among the children.

Nature Sharkey touts the medical benefits and Key West-specific historical aspects of the garden, and says she hopes more locals would visit the garden. Scientists use the garden’s plants for cutting edge research, as some medicinal advantages remain undiscovered, she says.

The garden provides a home to the guaiacum sanctum tree, which Sharkey says has the hardest wood on earth: lignum vitae. Lignum vitae wood is so dense it sinks in water and was used in shipbuilding, and the resin from the local variety of the tree might provide relief to arthritis suffers.

The Caribbean is regularly dubbed a biological hotspot for its diverse floral and fauna. And the Lower Keys, in of the northern rim of that hotspot, make up a piece of one of the world’s most troubled ecological regions. The garden alone is home to 100 threatened or endangered species, Sharkey says. Her passion for her work is obvious. Though the former garden volunteer is quick to point out a lack of biological training, Sharkey hurries through the garden excitedly and takes off each time she sees one of the forest’s hallmark plants. Some of the 35 species of butterfly, she says, might have nowhere else in the area to reproduce if not for specific plants the picky insects require.

She walks briskly, pointing out various notables — coconut palms with aboveground roots that mark the height of previous floodwaters and endangered Florida Silver Palms. Some plants here earn National Champion or Challenger honors – demarcations of oldest or second oldest of their species in the country, respectively. Such trees can provide hundreds or even thousands of dollars in storm water maintenance and remove 20 or more pounds of greenhouse gases from the air annually, according to the National Register of Big Trees.

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