The Key West Mystique

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Right tree, right place | No, that live oak won’t like Key West

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.

04/18/2020

If it weren’t for trees, I’d have had no childhood shoes, no education, no job and no home in Key West. My dad, my brothers, my husband, assorted extended family members, all foresters. Trees paid the bills, got me introduced to Ranger Ed in the way back and gave their lives for newsprint. Dad cruised timber on family road trips, pointing out ailing trees with a “wrong tree, wrong place” reminder.

Our island needs a thriving, diversified canopy. We need to cull the weak ones and replace them with strong ones. We need exceptional mid-story and under-story trees, plants and palms. We ought not cut them down for the sake of a swimming pool; and we don’t need arguing that ends with every tree allowed willy-nilly. Right tree. Right place.

Key West has a lot of “wrong tree, wrong place,” because decades of tree lovers have planted baby trees with little thought for what’s going to happen a half century later. Which brings me to the (swear words) scheffleras. Those Australian-native “umbrella trees” love the Key West outdoors. They grow fast — like overnight fast — tall, straight and push out magnificent, shiny green canopies with the occasional glorious red flowers. Their beauty belies the brittle, fragile limbs that split and crash at the thought of a windy day and the trunks that split and splinter and inspire subterranean termites into building condos. I’ll just leave it at this: I’ve got one less today than last week.

God love that teenage mango in my yard; drops enough fruit to feed the neighborhood with leftovers to supply chef Martha Hubbard. But, whoever planted it stuck it in the ground three feet (should have been 30) from the pool. They didn’t understand the roots extend as wide as the canopy and that the cute little tree could grow into a 100-foot pushy adult. Inexorably the roots are lifting the lip on the pool and one of these days the tree is going to win. I’m betting on the mango, but I swear at the people who planted it.

On an island where we live cheek-by-jowl with barely enough room in our yards for a red stopper and some buttonwood, planting the right tree in the right place ought be our mantra. Mostly, though, we plant with our hearts not our heads.

Take those postcard perfect coconut palms. Coconut palms tug our tropical island hearts; they “look” like Key West. I hear you booing and hissing, but we ought to like our sabal palms more than we do. Sabals are native to the Keys (coconut palms are not); they require little more than an occasional rain shower. (OK. So maybe a sip these days what with the months-long drought.)  They don’t need flower and coconut removal annually to ensure they’re not launching missiles at passersby.

Ditto the royal poinciana. I love that magnificent burst of red-orange against the canvas of Key West green. But, really? Planting what will become a gigantic tree with huge canopy and equally wide root structure next to a sidewalk? At the corner of your house? What are you thinking? Poincianas can top 40 feet with a canopy as wide as 60 feet. Unless they are at least 10 feet from your house, the driveway and the sidewalk, the roots will crush anything man-made in their path. Let’s keep those beautiful, though non-native, trees where they belong, in the wide open parks, medians and road sides.

Over the past decade, I’ve replaced ornamental stuff in my yard with native and endangered trees, palms and plants. Some of my friends get sniffy because, well, sabals, not coconuts. But, there are butterflies, honey bees, birds and shade. No watering and maintenance is occasionally trimming back the tropical jungle of coffees, coonties, myrtles of the river, stoppers and Jamaican capers.

ILignum Vitae seedling‘m growing from seedling a lignum vitae. It’s about a foot tall on its way to 40 feet. Lignum vitae grow so slowly most of us never seen one taller than 20 feet. Still, this little one can’t go in my yard. There’s not enough set back, not enough space for the canopy and roots. For now, it’s happy in its pot under the sabals and the buccaneer.

Someday, I’ll find the right place for this right tree.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

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.

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