In the Garden:
Tropical South
April, 2004
Regional Report

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The individual flowers of bougainvillea are actually small and white, but they are surrounded by three large, petal-like papery bracts that come in a wide range of bright colors.

Visiting the Keys

No matter where you travel in Florida, you'll see some differences from one place to the next in the kinds of plants that thrive there. We still have a few dogwoods in the Tampa area, but our jacarandas don't hold a candle to those just across the bay in St. Pete. We recently took a trip to the Florida Keys, and it brought some surprises.

Not So Different After All
Like people, our various Florida climates are all unique, but more alike than different. We saw pretty much the same plants that grow around Tampa, with a few spectacular additions like the African tulip tree in south Florida, and vegetables were being harvested that we hadn't yet planted.

At the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden at the 4.25 mile marker, we were greeted by Sid Waldman, a volunteer who told us, "We NEVER get frost here. The Gulf Stream is just a few miles away."

Key West dips very close to the true tropics. I expected salt tolerance to be very important. "Not always," said Waldman. "We can grow less tolerant plants and all sorts of fruits a few blocks inland." There were avocados and wild coffee plants in the gardens.

Learning to Recognize New Plants
By afternoon we could pick out the gumbo limbo by its dark red peeling bark. The royal poinciana was easy to spot with its many tiny round leaflets, much like the dwarf poinciana at home. I have seen it blooming in south Florida in summer. It still held huge seedpods over a foot long and 1-1/2 inches wide.

This forest was developed as a showplace for tourists during the depression, and it quickly expanded from 6 acres to 55. During and after WWII, it went into a period of neglect, and portions were taken for a hospital and other county agencies until there were only 11 acres left. It is now being preserved and restored.

Since my Irish genes remember the famine, I always look for edible plants, and there were bananas, seagrape, coconut palms, and papayas on the islands. Coconut palms will grow in the Tampa area, but the fruit develops in the summer there and does not ripen because of the rains. There were once pineapple plantations on the Keys, but land values have made commercial growing of any kind impractical. Most homes have small yards, so people must choose carefully what will give them the most color and satisfaction.

On the way down we hit a terrible traffic jam close to home and my husband said, "Better enjoy this while we're here because I don't know if I'll ever drive down again." Coming back we hated to leave and are already looking forward to our next trip.


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