THERE ARE CERTAIN ODD BITS of historical knowledge that any collector of random or obscure trivia must know. Which U.S. president installed a mechanical horse inside his bedroom closet during his tenure at the White House? Easy: Calvin Coolidge. Which is the only state in the U.S. whose name can be typed on one single row of keys? Duh! It’s Alaska. Stevie Wonder’s birth name? Steveland Judkins, of course. What does a phillumenist collect? So obvious: matchboxes. Location of the only frost-free arboretum and botanical garden within the continental United States? That would be the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens, an undeveloped hardwood hammock and tropical paradise that just happens to be located on the same little island that resides at the southern end of the famous Overseas Highway. (If you didn’t get the answer to that one, maybe trivia isn’t a good fit for you. Try bocce instead.)
Unlike some botanical gardens, which lure visitors via promises of manicured lawns and topiaries trimmed to look like rabbits, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens is a passive, natural resource-based, publicly owned space. Translation: expect to wander through lush forested areas and wild-looking gardens via a series of paths that crisscross the property’s 15 acres. In addition to a helpful little visitor’s center where you can watch an introductory video and buy very cold beverages, the garden is home to an impressive canopy of tropical palms and trees, two wetland habitats, an acre’s worth of butterfly gardens, a tropical plant-laden waterfall wall trickling musically into a turtle pond, a rotating fleet of outdoor sculptures, a “nature chapel,” an unexpected exhibition of Cuban “Chug” refugee boats, and two of the last remaining fresh water ponds in the Keys. It’s a popular spot for all sorts of rare and migratory birds, which explains its inclusion on the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail, which connects over 500 of the state’s premiere bird spotting sites — great news if you’re the type of person for whom the words “red-legged honeycreeper” produce paroxysms of joy.
Included within the hardwood hammock reside seven champion or challenger ranked trees, which, for those sad readers unaware of the American Forest-sponsored designation, is a really big deal in the tree world. Getting oneself listed on the National Register of Big Trees is worth a lifetime of arboreal bragging rights, as only the largest recording living specimen of any of the 826 species recognized by the American Forests organization are awarded the title of either champion (highest number of points earned by combining height, trunk circumference, crown spread and physical health) or challenger (silver medal to the champion’s gold). During your trip to Key West, if you happen to overhear an island resident bragging about the size of his Wild Dilly, simply congratulate him on the girth of his trunk — then go visit the garden to get an in-person view of the magnificent specimen itself (scientific name Manikara bahamensis), currently ranked the National Champion of its kind.
The garden was founded in 1936 under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, intended to reinvigorate the island’s flailing economy with a much-needed infusion of new tourism-derived funds. Since then, it has achieved nonprofit status; a nominal entrance fee, which includes parking, remains the primary source of funding for maintenance and programming; a staff of enthusiastic volunteers handles the bulk of the garden’s day-to-day maintenance and operations. After passing through an imposing, much-needed new iron gate and paying the entrance fee at the visitor’s center (take a second to watch the videos on display, they’re short and give a wonderful overview of the property’s greatest assets) the garden becomes as active or lazy as you like. Visitors may choose from a variety of public, self-guided tours, or call ahead to schedule a private one led by one of the property’s friendly docents, who are all too willing to go traipsing through the undergrowth while pointing out interesting specimens of plants and creatures along the way.
Sprinkled throughout the many meandering, occasionally mosquito-plagued trails are markers telling you precisely what type of leafy plant you’re staring at, but the true stars of the garden are its non-permanent residents: stoic-looking white ibises plucking their way through the reeds, 30-some species of butterflies, towering osprey, medicinal plants, rare towering palms, lizards of all sizes, and a series of visiting lecturers who use the so-called “living museum” as an outdoor classroom. At any time of the year, there is guaranteed to be an extraordinary amount of biodiversity on display within the grounds — special attention should be given to Desbiens Pond, an entirely rain-fed pond the color of over-steeped tea, along whose banks resides a really magnificent collection of green buttonwood trees. A few minutes of quiet contemplation can yield a substantial amount of visiting bird life, as the pond serves as one of the southernmost freshwater wetlands in the continental U.S.
To the right of the visitor’s center lies the garden’s permanent Cuban “Chug” boat exhibition, perhaps the only one of its kind. After Fidel Castro’s ascent to power, tens of thousands of Cuban citizens have since risked their lives to travel to the United States in the hope of attaining citizenship; with the Florida Keys only 90 miles away, the islands remain a consistent entry point for refugees who have dared to make the treacherous boat trip. If they are fortunate enough to avoid detection by border patrol, or worse, Cuban You never know what you will discover around the next corner. refugees are granted the chance to avoid deportation from the U.S. and apply for an expedited legal permanent residency status thanks to the country’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which states that those Cubans caught while traveling across the ocean (with “wet feet”) are to be sent home or to a third country, while those who makes it to shore (“dry feet”) can apply to stay in the country.
As the Cuban government closely monitors the ownership and use of marine vessels of any kind, escape via sea travel means Cubans must flee in the dead of night without any of their possessions, with many having to resort to assembling “boats” from all manner of detritus. Called Chugs, these vessels are often barely watertight—some little more than tarps tied down to Styrofoam blocks or tires. Many drown during the voyage, but for those who are able to safely reach dry land, the evidence of their journey lies in the vessels they abandoned on the shore. While most are simply towed as garbage, a careful selection has been installed at the garden, a haunting assembly oflong-abandonedd flotsam set against a backdrop of almost clichéd tropical paradise. Almost nothing is known about the travelers who used these particular ships to attempt the journey to asylum; some may have been caught before reaching land, others drowned or dead from dehydration, leaving their boats to wash ashore, beached and waiting to be discovered by passing boaters or Coast Guard members. To walk amongst the wreckage, taking note of which vessels (even those lacking an engine) were nevertheless painstakingly adorned with tokens of luck, American flags, the names of loved ones and messages of faith — is a truly humbling experience.
It’s a rare thing to stumble upon a space that — amidst the hotel-laden, bar-sodden streets of Key West, where land is at a premium and the streets almost constantly populated — feels untouched. Indeed, many describe entering the garden as the closest one can come to experiencing the true “Old Key West,” before Flagler’s incredible railroad brought with it an endless supply of building materials and bodies. There may, in fact, be no other scenic location on the island where a visitor might spend an entire afternoon with only birds and striped-shell turtles to keep them company. And true, most make the pilgrimage to Key West to partake in non-hermetic activities; you don’t travel here if you’re looking for solitude. But in the event that the bustle and bawdiness of Duval Street feels momentarily tiresome, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden is surely your best bet. ¦