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A Horticultural Guide To Key West

There’s always something in riotous bloom in Key West, where any temperature below sixty would qualify as “winter,” and frost is something that only happens way up north—say, in Miami. I return year after year to see friends and to plug into the Key’s crackling culture scene. But hour by hour, day after day, I’m here for the horticulture.

The entire Key is just two miles wide and four long, and is so densely settled that cars are a nuisance at best. Plus, you’ll rarely need to venture beyond Old Town, with its block after block of clapboard-period houses displaying varying degrees of fastidious love, kick-back ease, and each-to-his-own dilapidation. Bikes are the way to get around.

Coffee Culture & Local Greenmarkets

Get an early start; it helps that the Cuban coffee culture is as strong as the coffee itself. From 5 AM to 12 midnight, Cuban espresso from Sandy’s—just ten stools fronting a service window that opens onto a narrow sidewalk terrace—is the pick-me-up of choice. Known as buchi, this java makes traditional espresso seem thin and weak.

If it’s Thursday, then head to the big greenmarket in nearby Bayview Park. There are scores of vendors, all politely jazzed about their wares. These folks aren’t pushing someone else’s products; they created them themselves, with their own hands. Follow their guidance for organic as well as conventional produce and fruit, cheeses, preserves, breads, and Indian and Middle East fare. The coconut vendor will machete the top of one for you to sip right there—then split it in two and hand you the flesh to complete your breakfast. In the background, there’s mellow music from a Key West specialty: an ageless drag queen in a hot-pink stretch mini.

The Key West Garden Club

Warm up for some plant-lovers sightseeing by peddling south for a few minutes to the shore. Your destination is not palm-lined Higgs Beach itself but, rather, the immense Martello tower in its midst. Martellos are round two-story forts of stone or brick, built until the late 19th Century, with walls so thick they were cannon-proof. Key West’s pair dates from the Civil War; for over fifty years, the one at Higgs Beach has been home—improbably, gloriously—to the Key West Garden Club. Within its walls is a tropical collection just this side of a jungle, tended by over 300 volunteers. Orchids and ferns crowd the shady recesses of the ground level, while across the upper one, cacti and succulents bask in the sun just feet from surf. Search out the two ghost cacti, a form of crown-of-thorns with thick stems in shades only of cream, not green. Unusual for a succulent, this pale beauty requires part shade.

Leisurely Local Lunch

Time for lunch! Date & Thyme is one of two organic grocery-cafes in Key West. It’s in a repurposed vintage gas station, which is a genre here: others include the Moped Hospital; the Azur, Bien, and China Garden restaurants; and the Eaton Street Seafood Market. Get just-caught, fin and shellfish at the latter, either to take home and cook, or as take-out to eat right there in the shade of the station’s former gas-pump canopy. The conch chowder is the Key’s best.

The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

To stretch your legs as well as your mind, peddle all the way (just three miles) to adjacent Stock Island, to the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Its pondside, woodland, and seasonally-flooding habitats showcase the Keys’ native horticulture and wildlife. Expect solitude and understated beauty—with the spectacular exception of the Cuban palms. Nearly 800 miles long and with terrain of unique-in the-Caribbean diversity and extent, Cuba is home to an extraordinary group of palms, the copernicias. Twenty-two of the twenty-seven species are native only to Cuba and, with the decades of US embargo as well as the palm’s intolerance of any but mild frosts, the trees are rare indeed in mainland North America. Key West is just ninety miles north of Cuba, so its climate is still hot enough year-round to please copernicias.

Perhaps most spectacular is the giant Yarey palm, Copernicia fallaensis, with immense fan-like fronds in silvery blue atop a ramrod-straight trunk. With their canopies still at eye level, the already-massive adolescents at the Key West Tropical Forest are the perfect size for detailed viewing. The fronds of mature specimens can be sixty feet above ground, which is a different thrill entirely, especially when these great trees are scattered like giant sentinels over the flat land they favor. There are thought to be fewer than a one hundred mature giant yareys remaining in Cuba itself, so establishing them in South Florida is insurance that, no matter what changes come to that island nation, this species will endure.

Coffee & Dessert

Peddle back to Old Town—the return trip always seems to take half as long—in time for afternoon coffee and dessert at Blue Heaven. Decades on, this restaurant still manages the impossible: being a favorite of both jaded locals and cruise-shippers. We never miss it; indeed, it’s often the very first stop after we arrive. Tables are scattered in the sandy soil beneath shade trees that surround the buildings of an old bordello. The Key’s fearless feral chickens and roosters stroll by—even underfoot—jonesing for snacks. We split the key lime pie and the flambéed bananas with banana bread topped with local vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. Oh lordy.

Wild Finds

Perhaps the most exciting experience in Key West is, simply, the street scene itself. Explore by foot or bike, letting your feet take you where they will: Old Town is just a square mile, and every block is worth a stroll. Always scope out alleys and lanes, especially the three off Margaret Street as it runs by the cemetery. Barely wider than a car, they are flanked by tiny period cottages on shady postage-stamp lots. Who wouldn’t want to escape to one?

In your rambles, you’ll discover huge kapok trees, Ceiba pentandra. A kids’ playhouse could be hidden between any two of their gigantic, sinuous buttress roots. Flamboyant trees, Delonix regia, are coming into incendiary bloom now, as are African tulip trees, Spathodea campanulata. Bougainvillea and frangipani in every hue are omnipresent.

House & Garden Tours, Bookstores, and More

Combine horticultural fireworks with real estate voyeurism by going on the next house-and-garden tour. As you might imagine, in such a balmy locale there can be one or two such tours a month. The next is March 17 and 18, mounted by the Old Island Restoration Foundation.

Whew! Time to hang out in the shade with one of the books you bought at Key West’s signature indie store, Books & Books. True, “hanging out in the shade” is often a code word for marathon napping, so soon it’s time to return to Sandy’s for another buchi, then roll on over to the four-screen Tropic Cinema for an art flick, or to the Key West Theater for cabaret or a band—we just saw Alan Cumming’s peerless act—or to The Studios of Key West for an art class, lecture, or gallery show. Then, a late dinner at Santiago’s Bodega; reservations are a must at this tapas favorite.

Afterwards, the gentle pedal back home: thanks to well-lit streets with plenty of bike lanes, night-time trips are also safe & enjoyable.

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Louis Raymond designs landscapes throughout New England, and some of his favorites are at LouisRaymond.Design. In LouisThePlantGeek.com, he explores uncommon & astonishing plants at home & around the world.

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