Thousands of visitors and locals pass by the wooded plot of land on their way past Robbies Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key.
This week, thanks to a state Department of Transportation environmental mitigation project, passersby can get a look at a rare sight these days: a coastal rock barren.
Many parts of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key once looked like that, said John Palenchar, environmental permitting specialist with FDOTs District 6 office in Miami.
We had contractors removing all the exotics this week and uncovering some rare plants that form a whole ecosystem that has largely disappeared because of development (in the Keys), he said.
Where noxious Florida pepper trees once flourished, crews found Spanish stopper, white indigo berry, blolly along with some gumbo limbo trees that had been hidden from the Overseas Highway.
A portion of the oceanside acreage is a wetland, where green buttonwood and seagrape will do well once the over-story exotics are removed, he said.
The work on Lower Matecumbe is costing $280,400 in the initial phase. And Palenchar said the commitment by DOT is to plant natives to replace the exotics that had to be removed.
Even in its current raw state, he added, its a pretty incredible jewel of a site.
Some of the plants discovered during site surveys are so rare that the Key West Botanical Garden & Forest on Stock Island has asked to partner with DOT on the restoration effort because of the uniqueness of the site, Palenchar said.
Volunteers from the Botanical Garden have already helped with one cleanup on the 6.5-acre site, which was acquired by the state back in the 1970s using federal highway beautification funds.
Early talks about interest from the state park system to acquire the parcel, maybe even build boardwalks and possibly a visitor center fell through decades ago, he said, because the property was acquired under federal guidelines that called for preservation, not development even as a park.
That wound up being a good thing, he added, since the site sat largely forgotten until FDOT was looking for a mitigation site to offset some work already approved on Grassy Key.
As part of a U.S. 1 road widening on Grassy Key, some wetlands plants that had grown into swales are being disturbed. FDOT has committed to mitigate that with new plantings and restoration work on the Lower Matecumbe parcel.
Palenchar said both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, representing the federal governments interests, and the South Florida Water Management District, had to sign off on FDOTs mitigation project.
As of Tuesday, all the exotics found on the site have been removed, he said.
The contractor hired to clear the site brought in a big machine on tracks with a long boom that allowed the operator to reach the top of 40-foot Brazilian pepper trees and mulch them down to the ground, Palenchar said.
Because some of the plants on site are rare natives, crews staked and flagged plants that could not be disturbed. On those areas, he said, we used labor to cut Brazilian pepper by hand and drag the limbs to where the chipper could get at it.
A landscape architect on the District 6 FDOT staff helped oversee the project.
The next stage will be handling the exotics that threaten to resprout before planting of natives to further restore the coastal rock barren.
There are some really amazing plants there (already), Palenchar said, adding the restoration efforts is still a work in progress.
This part of the Upper Keys ecosystem already has a claim to fame with a national champion tree found on Lignumvitae Key.
The 48-foot-tall shortleaf fig (wild banyan) is one of Floridas 130 champion trees listed by American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization which runs the National Big Tree program.
The wild banyan at Lignumvitae State Park has a trunk that measures an impressive 444 feet around and a crown spread of 76 feet.
Mark Torok, a senior forester with the Florida Park Service, calls it the most substantial champion tree in Florida.
And he should know. Hes the state park expert who measures candidates for Floridas entries in the National Big Tree program.
By the way, the tallest tree in South Florida at least as of April this year is a 115-foot tall korina tree at Flamingo Gardens in Davie.
The korina, a native of West Africa, falls into the category of exotics that have found a home and thrived in Floridas subtropics.