FLORIDA KEYS — The subtropical Florida Keys & Key West are resplendent with indigenous species in hidden, tucked-away gardens nestled throughout the 125-mile-long island chain.
Hardy palms, tolerant of salt spray from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, sway in island breezes. Scenically fringing the Keys landscape are other trees with exotically lyrical names including gumbo limbo, sometimes referred to as the "tourist tree" because of its peeling red bark, and lignumvitae with vivid blue or purple flowers and resin that can treat arthritis.
A variety of Keys plants shelter wildlife such as the tiny endangered native Key deer and marsh rabbit. Others such as sea oats, dwarf lantana and blue porterweed that attract butterflies provide colorful contrast to the Keys' lush greenery.
Here are six "Simply Natural" spots where visitors can explore the island chain's environment and discover tree, plant and flower species.
In Key Largo, the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, overlooking Florida Bay and Everglades National Park, are South Florida's only nonprofit botanic gardens nestled on the grounds of a for-profit boutique hotel: the 13-room Kona Kai Resort for guests 16 and older.
The gardens, an American Public Gardens Association and Botanic Gardens Conservation International member, feature over 250 documented tropical species. Kona Kai Resort and Gallery and the Botanic Gardens are located at 97802 Overseas Highway. Call 305-852-7200. Tropical woodlands called hammocks dot the landscape at Marathon's Crane Point Hammock Museum & Nature Center, home to the hardwood species lignumvitae, Jamaica dogwood and native thatch palms found nowhere else in the United States. The Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust preserves the 63.5-acre site — one of the Florida Keys' most sensitive environmental and archaeological attractions.
Crane Point is named for Keys preservationists Frances and Mary Crane, both ardent horticulturists. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, the Cranes planted exotic flowering trees and shrubs. Red, white and black mangroves and marsh pools can also be found on the property. Crane Point is located at 5550 Overseas Highway. Call 305-743-9100.
Grimal Grove, lying just off the Overseas Highway on Big Pine Key, is a 2-acre farm and botanical garden that's the first agricultural venture of its kind in the Keys in the last 50 years. Tropical fruit trees, herbs, greens and ornamentals are grown at the site.
Sustainably grown products include blends of Grimal Grove Honey flavored with seasonal tropical fruit. Visitors can learn about the grove's history of survival. Owner Patrick Garvey brings Grimal products to weekend farmer's markets at several venues on Big Pine Key and in Key West, including the Harry S. Truman Little White House. Grimal Grove is located at 258 Cunningham Lane. Call 305-923-6663.
Visitors can discover three unique gardens around Key West, the 2-by-4-mile southernmost island in the continental United States that's frost-free.
The 15-acre Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, located just outside the entrance to Key West, features two of the Keys' last remaining natural freshwater ponds and is a major migratory stop for South American neotropical birds.
Visitors can take self-guided and cell-phone tours that cover two wetland habitats and two 1.5-acre butterfly habitats with over 38 species. There's also a waterfall, tropical plants, seasonal flowers, a lush palm canopy, picnic pavilion and ADA accessibility.
The garden boasts more than 80 years of conservation history and was first developed during the 1930s by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as a showplace for visitors. Three remaining coral rock walls were built in 1936. Overseen by the Key West Botanical Garden Society Inc., the garden is a member of the American Public Gardens Association, Blue Star Museum, Florida Association of Native Nurseries and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden is located at 5210 College Road on Stock Island. Call 305-296-1504.
The Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower overlooks Higgs Beach, where White Street meets the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can stroll scenic brick pathways through West Martello Tower, a never-used Civil War-era fort marked by vaulted ceilings, gun mounts and a conservatory.
The tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has weathered brick arches that today frame exotic orchids and bromeliads, rare and indigenous palms and plants, a peace garden and a stunning strangler fig tree that has grown over one of the scenic arches.
A pitch apple, known as an "autograph tree" has thick broad leaves that sailors, traveling port to port, used as a natural kind of stationery by scratching messages into the leaves with a sharp point. The Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower, a free visitor attraction that includes a soothing waterfall, is billed as a secluded Eden and one of Key West's most tranquil spots. It is located at 1100 Atlantic Blvd. Call 305-294-3210.
Both a garden setting and a unique natural attraction, the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory features a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed habitat where more than a thousand exotic tropical butterflies, dubbed "flowers of the sky," flutter freely around visitors.
The conservatory's tropical Zenlike paradise provides an aural and visual sensory experience, with vivid flowering plants and trees, nearly 60 butterfly species and more than 25 exotic bird species in the climate-controlled habitat and solarium. Two flamingos, Scarlett and Rhett, and two Mandarin ducks add to the appeal of the gardens, framed by ponds, waterfalls and brilliantly hued flowers.
The associated Wings of Imagination gallery showcases the acclaimed butterfly art of the conservatory's co-founder Sam Trophia. A learning center provides close-up views of caterpillars feeding and developing on host plants. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is located at 1316 Duval St. Call 305-296-2988.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort overlook Florida Bay and Everglades National Park.
Nature trail at Crane Point, which is named for Keys preservationists Frances and Mary Crane, both ardent horticulturists.
Hibiscus are found in nearly any yard and garden. image: Carolan Ivey/Florida Keys Photo Adventure
Native thatch palms are found nowhere else in the United States. Image: Jennifer Murray/Florida Keys Photo Adventure
Tropical fruit trees, herbs, greens and ornamentals are grown at Grimal Grove.