A must-see: Key West Botanical Garden

i-6999100be19191e7995da17c5cf4cee9--greetings-from-quaint-key-west_-florida.jpgAs I mentioned in my intro post to our week in Key West, I was definitely going to make a visit to the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. We took the then-PharmToddler there in November 2003 when this gem was just being relaunched after decades of negligence. According to Georgia Tasker at the Miami Herald:

It was begun in the Great Depression days of 1934 by the City of Key West, and built by the WPA at the same time as the city's aquarium. At one point, the garden contained an aviary, hand-made rock walls, green houses and 7,000 plants. It opened in 1936 and flourished for about a decade. But in World War II, pieces of it were taken back for various government undertakings, until it was left as a neglected 7.5-acre orphan.

Here's some blogging serendipity for you: when looking through my 2003 photos, I found the plaque below indicating that renowned conservationist, Prof Stuart Pimm, had brought Duke University students to the gardens to begin cataloging the treasures there (nice NYT interview with Stuart last month).

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Remembering that friend and blogger at The Intersection, Sheril Kirshenbaum, was now associated with Pimm at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, I asked her if she might query the good professor to set me up with a botanist there for my visit. Sheril responded with, "Well, how 'bout Stuart himself?"

Please advise [Abel] that the class is in key west for the week. We would love!! To have him visit us. Stuart

Yep. I am Forrest Gump. Turns out that Stuart Pimm is indeed here in Key West with his annual class of about 20 Duke grad and undergrad students working at the gardens on various projects from botanical inventory of the garden to video presentations for the guest center. Exemplifying the "see one, do one, teach one, mentality" and reaching out to the community, the Duke students are also mentoring another group of Key West High School students.

Hence how my dropping by became a formal visit with Stuart, the students, head botanist Stephen Hodges, and president and volunteer of the Key West Botanical Garden Society, Carolann Sharkey, and others. Oh yeah, and an impromptu 45 min talk on how searching the plant kingdom for therapeutic agents can support conservation and biodiversity efforts.

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I had no Terra Sigillata swag, so I just wore my DrugMonkey T-shirt.

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Anyway, what a tremendous display of plants native to Florida, Cuba, the Greater Antilles, and other regions of the northern Caribbean - the Key West Botanical Garden is "the only frost-free tropical moist forest & garden in the continental US." Stuart told me that plants and trees grow there that won't even be found 90 miles up the Overseas Highway in Key Largo. Moreover, says Stuart, the gardens provide habitat for more species of butterflies than present in all of the British Isles (nice butterfly slideshow by Michele Wisniewski in the photo gallery). I was woefully unprepared as a scientist (i.e., without notebook or laptop) such that I cannot remember all of the specimens I viewed - I really should have recorded the tour given me by Stephen Hodges (there is an audio cell phone tour and the entire garden is outfitted with free Wi-Fi (unlike the $9.95/day scam at our hotel)).

i-56ab72c1e3f57ca1bcf40fb723cfe362-KWBG Opuntia 225px.jpgAmong all the various palms, mangroves, Lignum Vitae (Guajacum sanctum), and freshwater ponds, I also learned that Florida is home to endangered marine cacti such as the Semaphore prickly pear (Opuntia corallicola - state endangered and federal candidate).

After the talk, we saw these middle school students visiting. Carolann told me that the Key West Botanical Garden hosts over 3,000 students throughout the year - in fact, the garden will be running "Winter Break Extreme Science Exploration Camp" beginning on the 29th for middle-school students in the Lower Keys to experience field oriented hands-on exploration of science.

i-26ca5921db965b64cc0b03c1f2c53a62-KWBG middle school.jpgThe week includes learning about plant biology, soil chemistry, freshwater fish and aquatic turtles in a water garden restoration and design project. Students will also travel to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park to learn the challenges in managing native and invasive species and and will also seine and explore shallow seagrass beds for marine invertebrates and juvenile fishes. What I like about the projects at the Garden is that they emphasize the interrelationship of plants with other species and demonstrate the value of the garden in understanding the unique ecology and natural resources up and down the Keys.

But back to the visit - I was then treated by to a fabulous shrimp lunch at Fishbusterz, a combination dockside seafood market and restaurant. A perfect afternoon to chat with Stuart and guests while watching the shrimping boats on the Stock Island Harbor. Many thanks to Carolann for picking up beer and wine for us to enjoy since the restaurant is in the process of getting its liquor license. (A sharp contrast to neighbor, Hogfish Bar & Grille, where I sat at the bar the other night waiting for takeout - next to two gents who were thrown out, at 7:15 pm, one for plain old drunkenness and another for picking a fight - I had nothing to do with either.).

Since we ended up being on a tight time schedule (yes, there is such a thing in Key West) because of the talk, lunch, and project presentations by the students that they will give Saturday afternoon, I didn't get as many pictures as I'd like but do plan to post them here later. (Here are the 2008 projects, including a page on the long-term relationship between Pimm's Duke annual interns, Key West High School students and the Garden, with projects detailed back to 2002.)

Let it suffice to say that if you are in Key West, you must go to the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Easy to reach as it is just over Cow Key Channel off US1 as you leave the island - make the first left onto College Ave and the gardens will be on your right. Admission if free but a $5 donation is requested of guests ($4 for seniors). And if you enjoy yourself, please become a member. The garden is supported only by grants and donations at this point and a lot of work has yet to be done to bring the collection back to its former grandeur.

Many thanks to all of my hosts yesterday - I'll be back!

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Sounds wonderful, Abel - look forward to seeing the photos. I suspect there are a lot of WPA-built botanical gardens in the US; seems like someone would have compiled a book of some sort on this topic. Would make a nice series of blog posts, too.

No swag?! get crackin' on that.
I think I just added another place to visit on my list.

It was great to have you visit!

The Garden welcomes everyone we're open from 10 to 4 and usually much earlier in the Spring when birdwatchers come to check for unusual birds.

By Stuart Pimm (not verified) on 20 Dec 2008 #permalink

@Barn Owl - great question. The WPA and CCC did tons of such things in the 30s, including the amphitheater at Red Rocks. It'll be interesting to see if Obama's plan will include such public works projects.

@jc - yes, I've gotta get the swag store up on cafepress.

@Stuart - thank you again for such a wonderful day and good luck to the students on today's presentations to the public. Please let is know if they will be accessible later online.

We visited the garden during Spring 1997. It was not maintended compare to Disney World, but many trees have had a plastic stickers with information. We did not miss conrete pathways...

Nice to read that the garden is enlarged and heading to it's glory.

Miroslav, the Czech Republic