The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Key West poinciana with caterpillar damage

From the Porch | Rain, Royal Poinciana caterpillars and iguanas

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Good Monday morning, my friends. Shall we talk about poincianas? We’ll do iguanas another day.

We got a bit of much-needed rain this morning, although it didn’t do much more than settle the late summer dust. We keep a rain barrel, which collects water from both our gutters and the air conditioner condenser for watering the non-native plants, especially the flowering ones you see in the video.

The trees and shrubs around our home are mostly native to the island or the Florida Keys. Once established they’re drought and salt tolerant so they don’t require irrigation. I know some folks think sable palms, myrtles-of-the-river, Jamaican capers and various stoppers aren’t particularly “beautiful,” but they are hardy in this Zone 11, sub-tropical climate. Good for the environment if not for postcards.


Key West poinciana with caterpillar damage

This Key West poinciana is just down the corner from the porch. You can see the super-lacy damage high in the canopy.

Which brings me to the Royal Poinciana — and the caterpillars.

With the exception of the ubiquitous coconut palm (the one of postcard variety), no tree is more closely identified with Key West than the Royal Poinciana. Mostly because its flame-red crown is spectacularly gorgeous — and because it makes a darn fine vacation photograph for sharing back home. The Key West City Commission at the urging of lame duck Mayor Craig Cates named the Royal Poinciana Key West’s official tree this summer.

These may be the poinciana’s only resume items — “Hey, I’m beautiful, photo worthy and have a title.” The poinciana is native to Madagascar with its dry, hot climate. Its seductive beauty enticed long-ago travelers to spread it around the world where it adapted as best it could to wet, tropical and sub-tropical island weather and soil. The poinciana drips leaves and brittle branches most of the year, just ask anyone with one in their yard.

Its sprawling root system burrows under sidewalks and into roadbeds — and your sewer and water lines. Not to mention through the walls of your swimming pool. It heads 40 feet or more skyward and spreads a canopy of 40-60 feet, with roots to match. And, still there are locals who plant them right next to their houses or in a tiny slice of dirt in an otherwise impervious sidewalk.

Bless its heart, the poinciana is a favorite dish for Key West’s insects-of-terror, the subterranean termites, which munch away at the poinciana’s innards until the tree comes crashing down in high winds. Note: Hurricane Irma in September 2017 did some major pruning of the island’s weakened poincianas.

I love looking at poincianas and I say a grateful prayer that there’s not one in my pocket-size yard. Learned a long time ago: right tree, right location. So, keep those poinciana plantings where they belong: big rights-of-way and the new Truman Waterfront Park.

OK. Back to the current explosion of caterpillars, which has poinciana lovers — and haters — all abuzz. Every decade and a half or so, these nasty things crawl out of the ground, head up the poinciana trunk and chow down on the leaves, red and otherwise. They’ve been around the island since they were first reported in 1942, which is about the time poinciana lovers decided the island needed some really big, colorful trees.

Think of them as the Key West’s version of the gypsy moth, which does in oak trees every few decades up in the temperate climate world. The University of Florida says there’s not much you can do about them, but if you feel the need to “do something,” here’s the link to the best source I’ve found.


Odds and ends

Primary voting is Tuesday, Aug. 28. We’re reaching record turnout for the Florida primary. Early voting ended Saturday and vote-by-mail continues. So, if you’ve not done either, get thyself to a ballot box tomorrow. No vote? No voice. Not sure where to vote, if you’re registered, or who’s running? Check this website from the Lower Keys chapter of the League of Women Voters.  Just enter your address and click away. They’ve got you covered — in a beautifully non-partisan way.

My ride along with the Key West police Saturday night. Policing paradise isn’t for the faint of heart, but there’s a reassuring sense of safety, goodwill and expert competence among those on the force. I’ll share my observations in a later post.

And, with that, it’s time to do some chores. After all, living in paradise doesn’t mean there’s no laundry.

Be well, my friends.



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